Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and, if my master plan fails, I never shall.

Warning: I was reading Douglas Adams while writing this, so it's bound to be odd.

Plea: Please, make this adoxographer happy and leave a review.

Vocab: For those of you who aren't aware, "shinobi" means "ninja", whereas "kunoichi" means "female ninja". "Ninjutsu" means "ninja technique" and refers to the elemental attacks and enhancement techniques used by shinobi. Examples of this would be the rasengan, the Shadow Imitation skill, and Sasuke's fire techniques. "Genjutsu" means "illusionary technique", such as Kurenai's Tree Bind technique. "Taijutsu" means "combat technique", such as those used by Rock Lee.


Chapter 1- The Order

"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

-Audre Lorde

It rained. Of course it rained. Nature itself has a sense of the despondency of things, of true tragedy. Uchiha Sasuke kept his speech short and to the point, lest the others think him anything less than coldly efficient. He had a reputation to maintain. Indeed, to perpetuate.

"I have usurped the Godaime," he said blatantly and obviously. There was no real need to say this other than spite, since most of those listening had been there and watched Tsunade die. "I am now the Rokudaime Hokage. Follow my orders, and you shall be protected with my strength. Disobey me, and you will be eliminated as a cancer from a healthy body. You will conduct business as usual starting tomorrow. That is all."

With the same cold indifference with which he had delivered this inaugural speech, Sasuke turned about and walked calmly into Hokage Tower, trailed by his right hand, Hyuuga Neji. Once out of view of the shinobi on the city streets below, Sasuke collapsed into a chair, holding his chest and breathing heavily in the pain. He hadn't taken that damn medicine that day. Neji hurriedly pulled a small vial, one day's dosage, out of his shuriken pouch and poured the foul liquid into Sasuke's mouth. The Uchiha winced, but the pain soon subsided.

Hearing her beloved's groans, Haruno Sakura ran into the room from her chambers and fell to his side. "Sasuke-sama, are you alright? Do you want the injection?"

"NO!" Sasuke shouted in frustration, slapping the woman across the face. Sakura fell back, a little shocked, but said nothing. Sasuke took a few deep breaths, stood, and walked calmly up to his own chambers some four floors up. The stairs didn't present a challenge with the medicine fresh in his veins. Neji just looked down at Sakura, who was beginning to tear up again.

"You shouldn't aggravate the master like that, Sakura-sama," he said, no emotion detectable in his voice.

"I know, Neji-san," Sakura said submissively, still holding her cheek. Sasuke was behaving normally, she told herself. It was her that had stepped out of line. "I'll try harder next time."

Four Years Later

Tucked behind a row of grassy hills and secure beneath a ceiling of clear stars, a bonfire burned, casting five shadows out into the night. It was not particularly dark or cold that night, but the fire was an immense comfort for those around it. Danger was far off, and having a fire was a recognized sign among the five that they were done with battles for the time being.

A patrolling ANBU spotted the dim blaze from a few miles off and smiled to himself. Shikamaru was correct. They really were there. He approached quietly, knowing they were enemies, and began to rummage around his pack. He had something special for these five.

"Your eyes will shine, your ears will ring,

In the dead of night the birds will sing,

For an ugly girl your heart takes wing,

When you drink the golden ale!"

The gravelly baritone of Inuzuka Kiba's voice reverberated around the clearing in which he and his companions had gathered, following the tune his clawed hands beat onto a hollow log as Rock Lee and Tenten danced madly about the fire. All three were clearly drunk, but that was fine. They hadn't seen any Konoha for a week or so, and they weren't expecting any soon. Besides, it took very little to get Lee drunk, and he was a lot of fun so long as he had a song to which he could dance. Hyuuga Hinata sat quietly, enjoying Kiba's song and sipping at some tea. Aburame Shino sat rather further away from the others, not caring for such merriment but pleased that morale was so high.

As Kiba was belting out the third chorus, a rather thick ANBU landed silently on the outskirts of the firelight. In an instant Kiba had stood and drawn a kunai, making the transition from happy-hour to high-alert seamlessly. The others soon saw what it was that had roused his suspicion and assumed similar stances. The ANBU just stood and held up his hands.

"Well, it seems I really can't sneak up on you, Kiba," he said, pulling up his catlike mask. His pleasant, smiling face caught them all off-guard, and in a moment the five shinobi had put away their weapons and rushed over to greet him.

"Chouji-san! You came to see us!" Hinata chirped happily, embracing the bulky shinobi. Lee did the same, making clear to Chouji how very drunk he actually was. Shino just stood nearby, presumably grinning, while Tenten and Kiba were content to simply pat their old friend on the back.

""I didn't just come to see you guys," Chouji confessed, "though, of course, I would have. Actually, Shikamaru sent you a present." His massive hand dwarfed a scroll as he offered it to Hinata, the only sober one within reach. The kunoichi took the gift and unrolled it, her large eyes growing with delight.

"It's the fire-sealing scroll!" she squealed to Shino. "We don't have to buy explosion tags anymore! We can make them on our own!"

Shino approached and looked at the scroll, confirming its contents to himself. "Thank you, Chouji," he said, quietly but sincerely. "This saves us a lot of time and money. It will be much-appreciated, I'm sure. Be sure to thank Shikamaru as soon as you get back."

"Shino!" Tenten said, irritated at his implied request that their old friend depart. He hadn't been so rude as to come out and say it, but the implication was clear enough even for her to see.

"No, Tenten, he's right. I should be getting back before Sasuke-sama begins to suspect something." Chouji took out a bag of chips before closing up his pack.

"Oh, are you sure, Chouji-san?" Hinata whined, pleased to have their first visitor in months.

"Yeah, Hinata, I'm sure. I'll be back, sometime. Later," Chouji called back with a wave, leaving the clearing with remarkable grace for one his size and landing among the trees, the bag of chips not rattling once. Moments later, he was gone.

"You didn't have to get rid of him so bloody fast," Tenten grunted, returning to the campfire and plopping down on a log. "I get bored with just you four losers."

"Well, the feeling's not exactly one-sided, you know!" Lee said with a frightening air of violence. Lee was dangerous when drunk and not preoccupied with something. Hurriedly, and with more common sense than a man who had ingested as much liquor as he had should command, Kiba rushed to his seat and began to drum a new beat out of his log. He felt bad that he had said nothing since ending his last song, but duty called when it would.

"Where no fantasy denied, where no children ever cried,

Where the sandy beach does glisten more than the jewels that lay beneath her,

Where fire, war and flood never shed a drop of blood,

That's the place I seek to drown my days, or find a wife and live them with her!"

Lee quickly forgot his rage again and took to dancing. Tenten who, though having been in a rather testy mood, saw fit to join him, hoping the song's words would take a bit more root in Lee's mind than she knew they would.

The next morning was foggy, both meteorologically and mentally. Hinata had eventually given in to her whims and had some sake, and though its intoxicating effects were mild her head was splitting with the dawn. Tenten and Lee were clearly no better off, dragging their feet behind them as they worked to clear their temporary campsite of evidence of their existence. Kiba fared better, as he always did, with the alcohol than the others, but his own thick will made his productivity on par with that of his comrades. Only Shino was of a clear mind, but as punishment to the others he simply supervised and approved their work as they went on. When the work was done and the others were preparing for another cold rice-ball breakfast, Shino pulled Kiba aside to speak with him. The previous night's events, though fruitful, were not to his liking.

"Kiba," he said very clearly, lest Kiba get lost in the words as he tended to do in the mornings, "I don't like how you and the others drink at night."

"Shino, it's fine," Kiba said, covering his eyes to the dawn. "We just needed to blow off a little monotony. You understand."

"I don't personally, but I know it's true enough. However, Shikamaru is making his contact with us more and more direct, and I'd prefer he thought of us as rather more organized than we really are. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Kiba confirmed, half-lying.

"So, from now on, no drinking unless we're sure Shikamaru won't be contacting us for some time. Are you okay with that?"

"Yes," Kiba confirmed, lying flat-out.

"Good. Thank you, Kiba. Also, let Tenten know that I want you and her to be able to perform the fire-sealing technique within two days. It doesn't look all that difficult, but you'll probably have to study while we move. Anyway, I'm leaving it to you to tell the others about my decisions. I'm going to scout ahead. We move in five minutes." In a blur, Shino had vanished, though Kiba could smell him clearly as he ran out ahead toward the north. Kiba sauntered back to the former campsite which, by then, was beyond all suspicion. Lee tossed him a rice-ball, which he chewed in a particularly melancholy manner.

"I'm sorry, Kiba-kun," Hinata said kindly, seeing Kiba's mood. "I know you'd prefer to have something you can chew on better than rice, but this is all we have for now. Maybe, next time we stop in Sunagakure, we can pick up some of that jerky you like. How does that sound?"

"It's not that," Kiba moaned, his mouth still full, "though I gotta admit, some nice jerky sounds choice right now. Shino says no more drinking unless he says it's okay."

Lee and Tenten groaned, throwing their heads back in a strangely similar fashion. Lee kicked a nearby rock, which then proceeded to sail clean over the forest canopy and off into oblivion.

Sasuke looked out onto the misty morning, the bitter aftertaste of his medicine still clinging spitefully to the back of his throat. As a reward, the throbbing pain in his left breast was now a dull numbness, the toxins that stewed in his blood lying dormant for the time being.

The Hokage heard Sakura approaching before she said anything. He didn't respond with instant rage simply because she might have some good news for him. He tried his hardest to be kind to her every time she brought him good news. It was all that he had to bet on.

"Um…Sasuke-sama?" she muttered, obviously not happy with herself. Sasuke donned a look of angered disappointment and turned to her. This gaze had an immediate effect on the young woman, who knew as well as he did that she had done poorly in coming here.

"What is it, Sakura?" No comfort escaped his demeanor in his voice.

"I…uh…I finished the next batch of suppressants. You have enough for another month now."

"What progress on a cure?"

Sakura looked away, off to some nearby corner where she could curl up and not say anything else to anger Sasuke. "Well, I did find a serum to disintegrate the toxin, but it also destroyed blood. It would remove the poison, but you'd die if you took it. BUT, I'm working to separate it! Maybe, the two effects came from two different components, and I can get it to just affect the poison!"

"That's it?"


"…Make sure the suppressants are properly stored for next month." Sasuke turned back to his window, overlooking his city.

"Y-yes, Sasuke-sama."

Sakura didn't leave. Sasuke began to grow annoyed. "That will do, Sakura."

"Oh! Yes, Sasuke-sama."

Sakura backed slowly to the door, holding her hands in front of her and watching Sasuke, lest he provide her some simply word of thanks and she be turned the wrong way to receive it. In her slow evacuation of the Hokage's chambers, the kunoichi ran into Neji, who was walking quite quickly into the room. After many unnecessary apologies she left, dejected as she always was.

"Sasuke-sama," Neji said with a respectful bow. Sasuke turned with a more receiving look, much less irritated by Neji's presence than that of most others.

"What is it, Neji?"

"Sir, one of our scrolls is missing. It is one of the scrolls of fire-sealing, the one used to make explosion tags. It was accounted for at last night's inventory, but is now absent."

Sasuke showed little response to this, but was inwardly quite angered at this outcome. He had hoped the string of scroll thefts had ended. Instead, higher-level scrolls seemed to begin to vanish. "Do you have any leads?"

"Sir, Shikamaru-sama was on duty last night, and Chouji-san was sent on wide patrol."

"…What are you implying, Neji?"

"Sir, if there were a more effective way to steal a scroll, I must admit that I fail to see it."

"Are you questioning Shikamaru's loyalty to me?"

"Of course not, Sasuke-sama, but he is quite vulnerable to outside threat, and Chouji-san is very much under his control." Neji had this backup excuse prepared, knowing that Sasuke would bring up such an issue.

"I see. Well, let us address them."

"Yes, sir."

Neji followed Sasuke down several flights of stairs, to the windowless room where Shikamaru sat, poring over countless documents and drawing battle plans on dozens of identical maps. He sat here every day, serving his master Sasuke in his quest to eliminate the problematic rebellion that had cropped up following his ascent to the role of Hokage. Sasuke knocked politely and walked in. Shikamaru bowed from his seat and set his pen and maps aside.

"Sasuke-sama, this is an unexpected surprise. I'm sorry, I don't have our next plan of attack prepared just yet." Shikamaru was always good at acting. He was even able to convince most others that he wasn't afraid of Neji, which he most certainly was. He kept his gaze firmly on Sasuke to prevent eye contact with the Hyuuga, which would almost certainly give away his guilt.

"Oh, no, Shikamaru, I don't expect you to. Neji here informs me that one of our scrolls of fire-sealing went missing last night. Do you know anything about this crime?"

"No, my Hokage. I actually slept in here last night, and only left this morning to get something to eat. The guards can verify that."

"They already have," Neji said, out of line but justifiably so. "They have also verified that Chouji-san entered this room before making his rounds. Now, most ANBU receive their orders through regular scheduling. Was this not the case with Chouji-san last night?"

Shikamaru laughed. If that was all Neji could come up with, he had no reason to be afraid. "Chouji and I are friends, Sasuke-sama," he explained, not even bothering to address Neji, "so he stopped by to say hello. I've been working hard on this plan, and we haven't seen much of each other lately."

"I see," Sasuke stated calmly. "Sorry to have bothered you, Shikamaru."

"Not at all, Hokage-sama. In fact, this adds an interesting new variable into my calculations. This is useful information, provided that we're assuming the rebels have taken the scroll."

"Indeed. Well, carry on. Come, Neji."

Sasuke left the room, Neji staying only a moment longer to shoot Shikamaru a spiteful glance. The young tactician pulled down his lower eyelid at the Hyuuga as he left, knowing full well that he saw the gesture and would be quite angry that he couldn't do anything about it.

After a nice, long effort of making it seem as though he were working, Shikamaru stood, stretched, and went for a stroll around the tower. He gave a familiar wave to the guards near his office as he walked slowly, lazily, to the greenhouse just outside the ground floor entrance.

"Dammit!" a muffled voice choked out from behind the rosemary grown for the cooks. Shikamaru strolled around the plants to spot Ino, hard at work, bent over a metal table and wearing a white gardener's mask. She didn't see him at first, but a careful wave caught her attention. "Oh, hello Shikamaru."

"Hey, Ino. Watcha doin'?"

The girl gave him a sarcastic glare. He could feel the frown from beneath her mask. "Growing daffodils, you jackass. I'm working on Sasuke-sama's cure, like I always am. Like I always will be, if I don't start doing better than this."

Shikamaru wisely chose not to point out the possibility that Sakura would find Sasuke a cure even if Ino did not. Doing so would be suicide in this enclosed space. "Hmm. Progress not going well? You know, Sakura has access to all of Tsunade-baachan's old medical records. They're probably helping her out a lot."

"Yeah…" Ino said, suddenly very depressed. She knew Sakura had the edge, but simply refused to give up on the off-chance.

"You could probably use those records, now, couldn't you?" Shikamaru looked down at his hand, pretending to examine his fingernails so as to appear uninterested. Like a snapping elastic, Ino clued in.

"You know where she hides them?" the kunoichi asked with enthusiasm she hadn't had in months.

"Not all of them, no, but I do happen to know where she's keeping those that pertain to herbal medicine. She has no use for those and keeps them where you aren't likely to find them."

"That bitch! I'm going to go tell Sasuke-sama that she's holding out information that could help my research!"

"Nuh-uh," Shikamaru retorted thoughtlessly, shaking his head. "She's kept them in a very inconspicuous place. If you call her on it, she'll just deny knowledge of their existence. Sasuke won't be angry with her, but he'll be furious with you for raising a racket."

"Then I'll just take them. Where are they?"

Shikamaru smiled. She was too eager. She didn't question his motives even once. "Eighth floor, Tsunade's old quarters. The floor tile in the far-left corner is loose, and there's an empty space between it and the floor below. I'm pretty sure Tsunade-baachan used to keep booze in there, but right now Sakura's hiding her secret things there to keep them secret. You might find some interesting little tidbits other than the records, if you look properly."

"Shikamaru, you're the best! When I make a cure for Sasuke-sama, I'll be sure to let him know how nice you were to me!"

"Yeah, don't bother. It's too much of a hassle having as much responsibility as I have now."

Ino didn't argue. She didn't ask how Shikamaru got this knowledge. She didn't even ask why he was sharing this valuable information with her. She dropped everything she was doing and ran off into Hokage Tower, giggling like the schoolgirl she hadn't been in years. Once she had gone, Shikamaru took out a small vial from beneath his jacket and poured a miniscule amount of clear liquid into each of Ino's vials, swirling the drops until only a trace residue was left in each.

Just in case you actually do come up with something, Ino…

From the far northern regions of Fire Country, two completely inconspicuous figures made their way south. The first was the larger of the two, old and thick. The second, quite young, seemed disproportionately small compared to the other but carried with him a sense of fate, of some immense universal agreement that he was somehow significant. It is a rare air to carry, but impossible to really ignore.

"Hey, Ero-sennin, we're not going in the right direction," Uzumaki Naruto barked from behind. He had developed quite a sense of direction these past eight years, and he knew perfectly well how to get to Konoha from anywhere in the world.

"Trust me, Naruto-kun," Jiraiya said suspiciously. Normally Naruto would suspect some trick or bizarre training method, but there was no hint of amusement in the old pervert's voice. Something was going on.

Naruto was dense, dense enough not to hear the rumors of the "new kage" in the south that had usurped that "old lady". He brushed these off as hearsay or, perhaps, not even referencing to Tsunade, but Jiraiya's behavior began to crop up doubts in the boy's mind. Long ago had he abandoned notions about rescuing Sasuke, and the dispersion of Akatsuki had seemed a favorable chance of fate. Now, though, all the pieces of life that had inexplicably fallen into place seemed to have cracks between them.

"Ero-sennin," Naruto pestered, clinging to his own set of nicknames for his comrades even in serious situations. "Tell me what's going on. Why aren't we going back to Konoha?"

Jiraiya stopped. His student had impeccable timing. He pointed down to a clearing, where four figures danced merrily around a fire while a fifth sat off to the side. "I think it'd be best if you asked them, Naruto."

Away around the fire, Kiba sang out a fierce song about liquor, war, or some other such nonsense as pleased him, dancing loosely with Hinata as Tenten and Lee kicked up their own cloud of dust in the firelight. Shino would have left them to their merriment long ago if he did not feel the immense need to ensure that they did not dip into the company's small stash of alcohol. Amid his dancing Kiba suddenly stopped dead and turned to face the nearby forest. The others had come to know the Inuzuka as the most reliable early-warning system they had at their disposal, and the rebels, still quite sober, turned to face the same spot. Kiba did not, however, draw a kunai or assume battle stance. This intruder had no scent of the village about him whatsoever. It didn't take long for the memory of the scent to resurface in Kiba's mind.

"It's him," he said softly, smiling lightly. He had hoped the lost member of the Genius Generation would return someday, but it was a rather distant dream to anyone other than Shino. Quietly, Kiba began a slow, maniacal laugh, which quickly rose and began to frighten the others. Kiba had always bordered on madness, anyhow.

The worry left the four other shinobi as the firelight reflected a bright orange jumpsuit as it made its way through the darkness of the night. Lee let out a little laugh, much like Kiba's, and Tenten smiled ear to ear. Hinata turned away from the others, afraid to let them see tears. She was affected much more profoundly than they by Naruto's return.

Over the past eight years, the powerful influence of reckless determination had lost its luster for the fragile young Hyuuga, but the object of her former affections still had a great deal of value for her. Over time she had not grown hardened as the others. She had still sought comfort. Kiba had become very dear to her as the only of her comrades to express any sort of compassion for her soft nature, but Naruto…to Hinata, Naruto looked like the old days, back when they didn't have to wear silk and leather from the Sand to stay clothed, back when they need not fear the presence of ANBU, back when the Hokage was a nice old man that bought her dumplings when the carnival came to town. Naruto had that same, shimmering quality of innocence about his eyes that had faded from all other eyes but her own over the past eight years.

Naruto didn't notice Hinata as she sought the comfort of anonymity outside the firelight. Even Kiba, who rarely let the girl leave his sight, was too distracted to take note of her silent actions. Naruto looked at Shino intently, knowing through some luck or instinct that he was the leader, and the feeling of intense anger was very clearly conveyed.

"Shino, what happened? Why are you out here?" A more thorough examination of the shinobi raised further questions. "Why is the symbol on your forehead protector slashed out?"

"Uzumaki Naruto-san, where is Jiraiya-sama?"


Shino sighed. He didn't like to talk, and it was a long story. "Kiba, would you tell Naruto-san what has happened since he abandoned his village?"

"Excuse me?" Naruto growled, baring his teeth. He hadn't been insulted by a stranger for years now without beating them senseless.

"Calm down, Naruto," Kiba said quietly, sitting on one of the logs lining the firelight. "This is a long story, and you'll understand the negative opinions of your actions by the time it's finished."