Augh, I suck. I suck a lot, and I apologize for sucking. This chapter should have been done a month ago but real life sucks even more than I do. This is actually kind of impressive on the part of real life, now that I think about it.

Warnings for Naruto's potty mouth and rabid liberty taking with canon! In particular, for making shit up about Sand's political system, and the Kyuubi's seal. I figure I'll get one of three reactions- "Hey, that's kind of cool," "Dude, wtf?" and "Yo, you're a moron." I'm curious as to which reactions people have; if it's the first, awesome; if it's the second two, tell me what was so off putting about my crack theories. Also, warnings for suckiness, since this is kind of just a filler chapter.

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Blindsided: Chapter 4 In which Kankurou really hates the concept of nepotism, Naruto has a conversation with a fox and a toad, and Sasuke discovers a new career.

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Wave country had changed since the last time Sasuke had seen it. It was bigger now, and brighter; the Great Naruto Bridge had done wonders for the economy, and this was reflected in the faces and attitudes of Wave's citizens. The people were prosperous and happy; morale was up.

Naruto seemed to have that effect on a lot of things.

Sasuke squashed that thought before it could go anywhere, and pulled his cloak more snugly around his shoulders. The mid-autumn damp cut through the heavy cloth anyway, and he ducked his head to hide his shivering from the oblivious crowds on the bridge. He couldn't afford to stand out with so many people looking for him; he knew Orochimaru had contacts everywhere. He simply let the tide of the crowd pull him across the bridge.

Someone jostled into him; he bit back a hiss of pain. His wounds needed several days' worth of bed rest or some very intensive chakra work, not another week on the run. At the very least, he needed sleep in something that resembled a bed, not a hole in the ground. Finding accommodations in a place as crowded as Wave Country probably wouldn't be a problem, but he knew better than to get too comfortable. He would have to be on the move again, very soon.

Operating more on instinct than anything else, he found himself wandering across the island, through the market district to the docks. He stopped in front of a merchant ship and watched a large, shirtless man directing the crewmen as they loaded the ship with crates of salted fish.

The ship was named Shikai no Kiryo, and it was heading for some obscure island chain to the southeast. Buying passage on a ship would solve most of his problems; Orochimaru couldn't track him easily at sea, and he wouldn't have to worry about search teams or assassins on a ship crewed by civilians. Sasuke knew nothing about boats, but he knew immediately that he wanted to sail on this one. Great idea. Lets abandon logic for gut instinct- because that always ends well. The curse seal throbbed, mockingly. None of the other ships were sailing until tomorrow morning, and he didn't want to wait that long- really, he couldn't afford to wait that long.

He was useless to Orochimaru as a vessel now, but he wasn't going back there. Not now, while his former master's rage was still hot, not ever, unless it was to see the bastard dead.

He approached the shipmaster. "Hey. Excuse me, are you the captain? How much for passage?"

"This isn't a passenger ship." The man towered over Sasuke and crossed his arms belligerently. Intersecting lines of blue ink crossed over the bulging muscles of his arms and bare chest.

"I can work."

"A shrimp like you? You ever been on a ship, shorty?"

Sasuke frowned at the comment on his height. He wasn't that short, the captain was just a giant. "I'm stronger than I look. And I'm a fast learner." He'd been on a ship once, as a small child, with his family. All he really remembered from that time was the soothing feel of the boat rocking, and the way his mother had laughed when she watched the seagulls wheeling around the masts.

The man narrowed his eyes. "You're serious, huh? Alright, lets see what you can do. C'mere." Sasuke followed the shipmaster on to the deck of his ship and watched the man unwind a length of heavy rope from a winch. "You any good with knots, boy?"

Sasuke shrugged. He knew two hundred and twenty nine different ways to restrain a person using rope, and could rig three dozen different rope based traps in a lightly forested area without the use of any other materials. "I know a few."

"Well, you try this one, and maybe I'll decide you're not as useless as you look." He wound the rope into a quick bowline, then untied it. Sasuke tilted his head forward so his hair would hide the sudden glare of his sharingan while he watched the shipmaster work. "Your turn."

He'd learned to tie nooses differently for setting up traps, but with the sharingan, learning new knots was child's play. He replicated the captain's knot perfectly.

"Hmph. Not bad. Try this one." He took two lengths of rope and looped them together. The end result looked like a demented butterfly, but Sasuke copied that knot as well.

The captain surveyed the knot and nodded decisively. "I don't need any new men; Kiryo gets along just fine with the crew I've got. But you don't look like you take up much space, and anybody can handle a mop. You can sail with us to Zettou Archipelago. After that, we'll see.

"But. Two things." He held up two fingers. "You don't cause trouble for my crew, and you do what you're told- I don't tolerate slackers, and if you give me any trouble, I throw you overboard. Got that?"

Sasuke nodded.

"Good. You get a hammock and two meals a day. We set sail in two hours. If you're here, you're here, if you're not, I won't wait for you." The shipmaster stuck out his hand. "Shima Ashika."

Sasuke took his hand. "Hiiro Shousei." Later, he would see about changing his face as well as his name.

Shima nodded once more and turned back to directing his crew, completely ignoring Sasuke. Good enough. He had passage on a ship, now he just had to pick up a few supplies.

He needed new weapons, preferably ones that wouldn't scream "ninja" to anyone with half a brain. Wave Country was small and had no military, but there were plenty of traveling merchants in the market. He found a vendor with a decent selection of bladed weapons of variable quality. He flipped a throwing knife end over end, testing for balance; it was a little point heavy, but he wasn't looking for hidden village quality. He caught the vendor looking at him and flipped the knife again, awkwardly, and nicked his finger when he caught it. He smiled sheepishly at the vendor.

"Ah, finest Lightning Country steel, that is! You have a good eye, young master! Perhaps you'd be interested in a set of shuriken? Finest grade, my shuriken are, used by shinobi all over the world!" The vendor was a large man with a perpetual sheen of sweat on his round face. His eyes disappeared into the folds of his forehead as he smiled at Sasuke.

Sasuke merely grunted in response, and pretended to examine the throwing stars. If they were from Lightning Country, he was a Hyuuga. He held up the throwing knife. "I'll take the set of these." A quick glance around the stall revealed little else of interest, but a straight, double-edged sword with a simple hilt caught his eye. "And that."

"Hmm, hmm, young master is certain he wants that particular blade? An odd style, it is, from far to the west. Young master would not be interested in a wakizashi, perhaps? From the Hidden Village of Cloud, with the Raikage's very own stamp of approval on it!"

He shook his head, and managed a smile. The wakizashi, like the shuriken, was a poor knock off; its blade was etched with a gaudy scene of dragons in a style that was far more suited to Hidden Mist than Hidden Cloud. Cloud was well known for the quality of its steel; Mist's biggest exports were missing nin and forgeries. "It's for my brother," he said, the lie forming easily on the tip of his tongue. "He's a collector, always looking for weird weapons. " He leaned forward, confiding. "I think he's crazy, but he loves the things, and my sister-in-law never takes her eye off him, you know the type. So whenever I see something unusual when I travel, I bring it back for him. His wife hates them, says they give the children ideas. I think she needs to lay off a little, but it's not like my voice has any weight in that house."

The vendor's smile threatened to split his face in two. "Ah, I do understand! Young master would do well with this blade, very unusual, yes. The only one of its type in my stock, it is. You must give my best to your brother, he'll be very happy with it, I think." The merchant wrapped the weapons in heavy cloth with a deftness that belied the thickness of his fingers and named his price.

Sasuke's smile was a little wooden as he counted out the money. The idea of Itachi being a henpecked eccentric weapons collector was ludicrous enough to make him choke. He thanked the vendor and tucked his purchases under his arm, and tucked his thoughts to the back of his mind, into the same place he kept all of his memories of Konoha. It was pointless to dwell on those thoughts.

He found a tailor next and bought a new cloak and several new sets of clothes. Then he wandered through the market and picked out things as he felt he would need them; a bar of soap, a sewing kit, a few blank scrolls and some ink, and a small sack of tomatoes. He was just being practical; getting ill as a result of poor nutrition at sea would be foolish.

A short time later, he was watching the shore disappear from the deck of Shikai no Kiryo with a mop and a bucket in his hands, and slightly bemused expression on his face. A huge weight was off his shoulders; this was either due to the prospect of being free for the first time in three years, or to the vast quantities of Sound weaponry and his Sound hitai-ate that had been surreptitiously tossed overboard as soon as the ship left the harbor, wrapped up in his cloak and old clothes.

His curse seal twinged, but he ignored it; he was suddenly in a better mood than he had been in a very long time, and not even the prospect of mopping floors for the rest of the voyage could keep the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards every so often.

xxx

A faint breeze slipped into the council chamber, playing with the curtains almost mockingly. Kankurou glared at the window and shifted in his seat, listening to the Councilor of Commerce drone on with half an ear. His first day back on his feet after his last mission, and he'd been trapped in the council room the whole time. He'd spent most of it trying to hide his face in the sleeves of his formal robes while pretending to pay attention. His one consolation was that his seat had a pillow; he felt a little sorry for the other council members, forced to sit on bare stone. On the other hand, all of the men and women in the room seemed to delight in listening to their own voices- and, more importantly, in forcing Kankurou to listen to their voices- so he didn't feel too sorry for them.

"...reporting a steady hike in water prices near Akayama and its surrounding fiefdoms. And now for the last item on the agenda." Kankurou perked up slightly while the councilor straightened a stack of papers with ponderous deliberation. After a moment, the old man cleared his throat and continued. "The Tanaka Corporation sends formal appreciation for Shinobi Team One's efforts against the desert nomads. They've agreed to cut prices on grain by fifteen percent, and are looking forward to continuing business with Hidden Sand."

The whole day suddenly looked exponentially better. We've needed that price cut for years- and to think, all it took was the slaughter of a few hundred people. Kankurou rubbed at his forehead beneath the heavy, itchy material of his ceremonial hitai-ate. "I motion that we send a note of thanks to Tanaka for their generosity, and give the members of Team One a bonus on their next paycheck- the standard one for upper tier A rank missions." He ignored the uncomfortable looks the councilors directed at the table; none of them dared direct their glares at him. "And also to send Gaara the council's official thanks for outstanding work in the field."

"Sir?" That was Baki, representing the Academy, with his arms crossed and a half-smile on his half-face.

He narrowed his eyes at his former teacher and resisted the urge to rub his face; he hated baring this much skin in public. It made him feel naked. "Do you have any concerns to express, Councilor? Otherwise, is this motion seconded?"

"Oh, the Academy seconds your motion. I was just wondering whether or not you were allowed to give yourself a raise."

"I just did, didn't I? Does anyone else have any complaints?" Kankurou hated council sessions with a violent, seething passion- the sort of hatred that turned people into warped little villainous masterminds, or mad scientists in all the good dramas. As a result, he was always little irritable by the end of the day. "No? Good."

He shrugged out of the Kazekage-in-training robes and slung them over his shoulder; he was wearing his usual black attire underneath. "Put it to a vote and adjourn yourselves, councilors. If you have any other issues, you can take them up with Temari at the next session. " He collected his puppet scrolls on his way out the door, and waved goodbye. Freedom! He took the stairs to the ground level three at a time, dodging shinobi on their way up to the mission room.

Baki caught up with him outside the building, still smiling his half-smile. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you enjoyed that."

He snorted, and ducked into the shade of an overhang to reapply his face paint. Once he had a few basic lines on his face, he felt much better. "If you honestly think that, you're going senile. Only idiots and politicians enjoy bureaucracy, and I," he declared, adding another stripe of purple across his forehead, "am neither."

"What does that make Gaara, then?"

"A freak," he replied easily, outlining his eyes. "Which is why he'll make a perfect Kazekage."

"The councilors would disagree with you." Baki looked thoughtful. "Not on the freak part, though."

"Politicians and idiots." Kankurou muttered. "I've heard all of their stupid excuses. 'But we've never had a Kazekage that young before! He looks so much like his father! What would our allies say?' They never ask what our enemies will think when they realize we still haven't chosen a Kazekage," he spat.

Baki shook his head. "You should do that impression of Councilor Iwako in your next session. I'm sure she'd love it. They'll take insubordination from you."

"I'm an actor and an artist, not anybody's fucking leader. They'll take my fist in their faces the next time they insinuate anything about Gaara." The words came out angrier than he intended them; it wasn't Baki's fault their village was full of morons. He sighed. "It's been three years since father died; we should have had a Kazekage over a year ago. Everyone knows Gaara is qualified. And he actually wants the job, the little psychopath."

Kankurou pulled off the ceremonial forehead protector and put on his own, relieved to feel the weight of plain black cotton against his skin. The official forehead plate, with the kanji for "wind" in place of the Sand emblem, was wound up in its heavy blue silk wrappings and shoved into a back pocket. He pulled on his hood. "There's no point in the council putting the three of us through this farce. He needs the position as much as the village needs him-"

"Then stop antagonizing the councilors. You have enough support where it counts from the older clans- you have Red Sand to thank for that, and your father's people. Gaara has recognition from the shinobi; it's the civilians that don't trust him, and what he did to you and your sister on your last mission certainly hasn't helped his image."

"What?" He punched the wall without thinking, chakra crackling along his knuckles. The stone splintered with a crunching sound. "What happens in our family on a mission is none of their business," he snarled.

"Medics talk, you idiot. Didn't I teach you anything?" Baki crossed his arms and scowled at his former student. "Look, I won't keep you here any longer- I just figured I should pass along some information. They held an emergency council session a few days ago; you and Temari were too injured to attend, and no one could find Gaara."

"And? What happened?" He wasn't surprised to hear that Gaara had disappeared; when his little brother didn't want to be bothered by stupid things, he was impossible to find.

"Konoha asked us to provide sanctuary for one of their shinobi, to keep him safe from Orochimaru. The council decided we owed Konoha too much to turn them down."

"Great. Who are we babysitting?"

"Uzumaki Naruto. He'll be here in a few days." Baki clapped him on the shoulder and smiled mockingly. "Have fun telling your brother."

He disappeared with a gust of wind before Kankurou could come up with a proper response. "Damnit!" he shouted at the empty street. He glared at the wall and wished he hadn't punched it already. He couldn't afford to damage his hand.

What the hell. I didn't really want to go home, anyway. It wasn't like he had any reason to go back; Temari would be out, doing whatever it was she did when she was out- Probably beating the crap out of some poor Academy chuunin who doesn't have the rank to say no to a training session, he thought sourly. And Gaara hadn't been home in days, which meant he was probably somewhere in the middle of the desert, meditating. Sulking, that is. They were his siblings, and he loved them, but they were more than a little weird, sometimes.

Kankurou checked his face paint one last time in his hand mirror and picked a street at random, trusting that it would eventually lead to the ruins outside of town. Hidden Sand had been built on top of the remains of a city so old its inhabitants had long since been forgotten. Most of the ruins were either torn down or incorporated into new architecture, but many of the old walls and broken monoliths had been left alone just beyond the edge of town. Some people believed the old ruins were haunted; Kankurou liked them because they were usually empty, aside from the occasional guard on patrol.

The wind whistled mournfully through the stonework, but the ruins were quite otherwise. Kankurou dug a chunk of stone out of the sand and made himself comfortable on top of a lopsided bit of wall. He examined the rock in his hand, searching for shapes in the stone.

He didn't know how Gaara would react, and that was a problem. Naruto was a...delicate subject for his brother. He pulled a small triangular file out of one of his pouches and turned the stone over in his hand again. The council just wants him to lose control again, so they can take him out of the line of succession. He hated politics. They were just so...stupid. In a few months, it won't matter. His file rasped against the stone, and a steady stream of dust fell away from it.

Gaara had been acting strangely lately- stranger than usual, anyway, and his recent loss of control worried everyone. Naruto would either be able to help, or he would make things worse; all Kankurou could do was be ready for anything. He wasn't going to abandon his little brother again.

The lump of sandstone took shape beneath his file, a rough silhouette of a man.

xxx

Naruto's field of vision was filled with teeth. Big teeth. Like, teeth as long as he was tall. Sharp teeth, and lots of them.

He was rather unimpressed, all things considered.

"Ch'. Put your frickin' teeth away, I just wanna talk."

"And I just want to bite your spiky little head off and devour your soul, but we can't always get what we want, can we?" The demon's eyes glowed like hot coals, but they did nothing to illuminate the darkness of the cage. All Naruto could see were those two lamp-like eyes, and the teeth.

"Somebody's in a bad mood today. What's the matter, fleas up your ass?"

The teeth crashed against the bars, sending a rumble through the entire chamber. Dust filtered down from the ceiling, and the paper wards that covered each wall of the octagon-shaped room fluttered wildly. Naruto narrowed his eyes at his demon, but didn't shift from his place in front of the cage.

"Hmph." The fox slid out of the shadows sulkily and curled up on the floor. "You're going to the desert. I have every right to be annoyed."

That wasn't the reply he'd expected. "What's wrong with the desert?"

"It's hot. No trees, no shadows to hide in. And I hate sand."

"Like you'll even be awake to notice, quit whining." Naruto kicked open a trapdoor set in the cracked concrete floor and pulled out a folding ladder. "Nothing's gonna attack us in the desert, not with Gaara around, so you can nap all you want."

"You would place your safety in the hands of the One-Tail's vessel? I know you're stupid, but that's no excuse to put my life at risk." The fox flicked his tails irritably.

He took a bucket and a brush out of the compartment and kicked the door shut. "What's wrong with Gaara? He's a little weird, sure, but he's good with his sand in a fight. And in the desert? Man, you'd have to be an idiot to attack him there." He picked up a few wards from the floor at the base of a wall. "And how many times do I have to tell you to stop knocking these down?"

"When you ask for more of my power than this idiotic cage allows, you have to expect that a few things are going to get broken. You could just leave them down. They'll only hinder you in the long run," Kyuubi crooned. Naruto could feel the demon's eyes boring holes in his back while he repaired the wards on the walls.

"Yeah, I bet you say that to all the girls. The pervert has better pickup lines than that. And he'll kill me if I don't fix things every time you knock stuff down." He stuck the pieces of paper back on the wall and slathered them with glue. The entire room was just an elaborate visualization, a sort of self-perpetuating genjutsu built into the seal to keep it maintained. Jiraiya had gone on at length on the ingenuity of the Fourth's sealing technique; Naruto had been preoccupied with trying out a new jutsu on the local wildlife at the time, but he had to admit the whole setup was pretty cool. The room had changed over the years, reshaping itself as Naruto gained more control over it. He'd have to think up some paint one of these days, and redecorate, just to piss off Kyuubi. "You didn't answer my question about Gaara. I don't want you causing any trouble."

"I do not care even the slightest bit about any of your filthy little human friends." There was a definite sulky note to the fox's growl.

Naruto bit his thumb and drew a line of blood down the center of the ward, reactivating it. He dragged the ladder to the next wall, and another set of fallen seals. "His demon, then. That badger thing."

Kyuubi snapped at the bars and snorted. "Not worth my time. Shukaku of the Sands is a braggart and an idiot with a poor sense of humor and no intuition whatsoever for when a joke has gone stale."

"Huh?" Naruto's brush slipped, spattering him with glue. He cursed and brushed ineffectually at his jacket. Kyuubi chuckled. "Maybe you just don't have any sense of humor, ever think of that? Stupid fox..."

"Oh, no," he purred. "My jokes are always funny."

Naruto shook his head. "Freak."

"Just remember where you'd be without me, small pest."

Sometimes, when his demon grinned like that, Naruto had to remind himself that animals only showed their teeth when frightened- or preparing to attack. He turned back to his glue and ignored the way Kyuubi kept licking his lips.

He finished the repairs on three more walls in silence before the ceiling started rippling. Naruto shot the demon one last glare, and let himself be pulled back to consciousness.

His eyes were closed, and something cold and sticky was poking his face. Naruto snorted and cracked open his eyes. Gamakichi blinked back at him, surrounded by a backdrop of incredibly tall grass. "Gah! Get off my face, you stupid frog!" He grabbed the toad spirit and poked him in the belly. "What's with the poking, huh? How do you like it?"

"Hey! You told me to wake you up! It's time you got back on the road, boss." Gamakichi squirmed in Naruto's grasp, but he held the toad firmly and continued poking. "Come on, boss, quit it! That tickles!"

"Serves you right, poking me in the face when you're all slimy." Naruto made a face at the toad, and let him go. "Thanks for the heads up."

The little toad's throat puffed up importantly. "No prob, boss! You should reach Hidden Sand in another day or so, just don't do anything stupid like getting lost in the desert. I ain't gonna come and bail you out if you get into trouble out there, I'd dry up in a minute flat!"

"Yeah, alright- hey, who're you calling stupid! I have a great sense of direction!" Naruto lunged at Gamakichi, but the spirit hopped away. "Get back here! I'll show you flat, you little jerk!"

"See ya, boss!" He disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Naruto with a grin on his face.

Naruto stretched his arms above his head and felt his spine pop into place. Nothing like an argument to start the day off right! It was closer to early evening now, but Naruto didn't want to travel during the hottest part of the day any more than he had to, even this late in the year. The grasslands on the border of Wind Country were just as bad as the deserts at high noon.

He rummaged through his pack for some breakfast and turned west again, towards Hidden Sand.

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Shikai no Kiryo- Traveler of the seven seas (or, I suck at naming boats.)
Zettou- lonely island

Hey, look! Another chapter in which nothing happens! And not only is it a month late andabout a thousand words too short, it's sloppily edited! Excitement! ...In other news, I hate writing Sasuke. That's really all I have to say about this chapter.

A thousand thanks to everyone who reviewed, and all the other readers who have made it this far; I -heart- you guys to itty bitty pieces. And with any luck, there will be actual content in the next chapter (gasp, shock). Is Sasuke really free from Orochimaru? Will Naruto get horribly lost in the desert? Does Gaara actually show up, or do people just talk about him? Meanwhile, back in Konoha, has Iruka finally snapped and strangled Kakashi? Has Tsunade? And what have the Akatsuki been up to lately? Tune in to chapter five to find the answer to at least one of these questions- and if you're lucky, I may even answer two of them!

Feed my inspiration and dying self esteem with reviews, whut. (Does anybody even read author's notes anymore? I'm curious...) Tell me how badly I butchered Sasuke, or how idiotic and draconic Sand's political system is, or how much you love me (hint, hint). Maybe I'll get the next chapter out before October, wouldn't that be exciting? In the meantime, I'll be working on my costume for Otakon- I will be the shortest Jiraiya there, I think. Feel free to pat me on the head if you see me, I don't bite- I may squeak very loudly, but I promise I won't bite.