S p e c u s V u l p e s

(Den of Foxes)

By Temple of Succubi

Genre: AU/Drama/Romance/Mystery

Pairings: NaruSasuNaru

Rating: R (for now)

Authors: Arcane Theorem, and Erisabesu

Summary: Of all the fox-weres in Konoha, Uzumaki Naruto is the strongest, as evidenced by his nine, bushy tails---the most of anyone else in the village. As his mentor, Tsunade likes to point out (even though he's had the job for over a hundred years), that being Hokage isn't always about adventures. But what else would you call it when an unknown cat-were crosses into your territory and stirs up trouble everywhere he goes?

Warnings: Thick plotlines that make you Think, mythical undertones, AU-Fantasy-esque setting, angst, Zoomorphism, mentions of abuse in later chapters, psychological issues, and deep musings.

Disclaimer: We do not own Naruto, nor do we own the sweet piece of ass – also known as Sasuke – along with the rest of the cast in Naruto. Sucks to be us, really.


o00o

Chapter 1: Trespass

Uchiha Sasuke was not going to be taken alive.

He hissed out a breath as he grappled over an upturned log, the sound of scraping flesh muffled against the overgrowth. His tufted ears flattened against his skull as blood started to leak inside the furry appendages. The motions of his feet carrying him further into the forest amplified the blood-flow to his ears and partially dulled his hearing—he disregarded the nearby wildlife hissing at his intrusion with single-minded focus.

The edges of his vision were already blurred and strained against the constant onslaught of brush and biting rain as he made a frantic dash for his freedom. Behind him, the angered growls of the tiger-weres propelled him to stress his body further than he'd anticipated it could go. They had been chasing him ruthlessly for the past three hours and were rapidly gaining on him, if the loud crunch of leaves to his back was any indication of their progress.

Sasuke winced as he barreled through a considerably large and thorny plant---and nearly plowed head-first into the large rock that had been hidden behind it. Using his uninjured leg for leverage, he pushed off the ground in a powerful leap, and landed less-than-gracefully on the other side of the boulder, heart pounding at the near-miss.

He couldn't know how the slight delay might have just cost him his life.

Up ahead, he could blearily hear the churning reverberations of water sloshing against earth, and doubled his efforts towards the sound---knowing instinctually that sovereignty awaited him if he could manage to cross the watery banks and escape out of the tiger-were's domain. Encrusted in mud, and panting in exhaustion, Sasuke managed to reach the edge of the precipice, screeching to a halt when the ground ended and air began.

The rapids below were flooded high and deafening to his sensitive ears; Sasuke winced at the obstacle, but resolved to press forward, regardless, picking out a way to descend the cliff---he was nothing if not nimble, at least when he wasn't hurt so badly. He had to try, it was his only chance.

The sound of a triumphant roar behind him drove his body to turn around with claws extended and fangs bared. The sight that greeted him, however, made his expression falter: one of the larger and more experienced tiger-weres had gained on him from his earlier blunder, and had covered more ground than the rest, coming at him with frightening speed and three times his bulk.

Snarling with rage, Sasuke stood his ground, and barely missed the clawed swipe meant for his throat. In his haste to escape the deadly talons, he had craned his body into a swift ninety-degree turn, the attack nearly severing one of his tufted ears instead of killing him instantly. As quickly as the enemy had come, so Sasuke's footing was lost---the blinding pain of his ear threatened to overwhelm his senses, and he pitched backwards, the tiger-were's form fading from sight.

The last thing Sasuke remembered after hitting the water with enough force to almost knock him unconscious, was the utter panic that filtered through as his fingers searched for something to find purchase on against the surging rapids.


o00o

"Haven't I done enough paperwork for today?"

Uzumaki Naruto kept his nine foxtails from showing how restless he was, holding them still behind him and looking pleadingly up into the eyes of his esteemed predecessor. She'd been quite the slave driver already, and the thought of one more boring report was about as welcome as the idea of never tasting Ramen again. Unfortunately for him, Tsunade had no sympathy since the tables had been turned, and she added another bunch of scrolls to the pile in front of him.

"Being Hokage isn't always about adventures, Naruto," she chastised.

Naruto groaned and slumped on his stool. "But why are there still so many left to go through? Where the hell do they keep coming from?" He stood up from his desk, not bothering to hide his restlessness any further, circling his office to give his stiff muscles a break. He'd been sitting at his desk all day. Or at least it felt that way---his technical office hours weren't quite up.

"Tch," Tsunade watched his progress, lowering her five foxtails out of the way of Naruto's bushier, more temperamental ones. "I believe we've already discussed a solution."

"Don't start that again," Naruto waved it aside, moving to the window and peering out over the village. It was quite beautiful in the afternoon sunlight, the trees' budding growth framed by a cloudless sky. But he wasn't really looking.

"It would solve both your problems…"

Naruto could hear her fold her arms across her chest, the noise causing his right ear to rotate towards her automatically, although he was sick of listening to the same old argument. "You can't tell me Jiraiya seriously helped you with paperwork, Tsunade---I don't buy it."

Tsunade chuckled, joining him at the window. "True. But we're talking about you, Naruto, and it's time for you to take another mate."

Naruto met her eyes, and opened his mouth to comment, when there was an urgent knock on the wooden office door. With a glare aimed towards Tsunade that said End of Discussion, Naruto turned to address the newcomer.

"Enter." The door had been partly-open, but the messenger pushed it open further.

"Rokudaime-sama!" an Omega, Futaba, rushed in and then knelt.

Naruto didn't miss the slight nervous twitching of her single tail or the overly business-like form of her greeting; if he'd been the type to care, he might have felt underdressed in the open, loose fitting Hokage Jinbaori he preferred over full formal robes. He put his hands on his hips, letting the command of his broad shoulders make up for any discernible lack of status.

"What is it?" he asked, the whispering of his instincts telling him he might not like the news.

"Excuse me, but you're wanted immediately in the infirmary."

Naruto glanced at Tsunade, catching the quaver in Futaba's voice that he knew she was trying to conceal. He took several steps towards the girl, her head still lowered in deference to his position in the village. His mouth turned downward as he watched her struggle to remain calm.

"What is it?" Naruto repeated, this time with his own voice, not the voice of the Hokage he'd greeted her with.

Futaba raised her head to look at him, the corners of her eyes pink from controlled tears. "Daichi." The word was barely more than a breath, but it held all the emotion that Naruto knew she and Daichi shared.

"Let's go," Naruto gestured for Tsunade to come along, and Futaba nodded and rose from the ground, leading him to the Hospital, though both Naruto and Tsunade knew the way. Naruto's lips pressed thin on the journey, wondering how Daichi could end up in such a place after being sent on a routine patrol just that morning.

Two of the desk nurses jumped up at the sight of him, each of them saying different words, but both telling him that he was wanted urgently in room #107. He also made out Shizune's name within the jumble, which made him feel better about the situation he'd find; she was good at what she did.

Futaba stayed at the desk, seeking comfort from the sympathetic female nurses, as Naruto moved swiftly down the hall with Tsunade close on his heels. His own comfort came from the fact that the injured Delta wasn't so injured he couldn't either ask for his Alpha, or insist on giving his report personally.

Naruto didn't bother to knock.

Inside the hospital room, he found two medic-nin's along with Shizune, who gave him a ghost of a smile as she pressed a cold compress to Daichi's forehead. Daichi was breathing erratically, taking heaving gasps of air through bloodied teeth; Naruto winced as Shizune moved to his right to unravel the bandages adorning his left arm. Large, deep gashes were running along the skin, and the stark black of the newly-sewn stitches made Naruto's blood turn to ice.

"Hoka-…!" Daichi tried to sit up at the sight of his leader, and choked before he could get that last syllable out. Naruto went to him and clasped his hand, easing him back on the hospital bed with a gentle touch, disregarding the blood that stained the front of the scout's shredded uniform.

"Easy now, Daichi," Naruto soothed, and watched while Daichi coughed up more blood and swallowed it---the action more man than boy even though the scout was young by their standards. Shizune wiped his face and neck while another nurse finished changing the bandages, and soon Daichi was able to try again.

"Hokage-sama, the others…" Daichi squeezed his hand. "We thought it was dead, we didn't expect…!"

"Tell me everything you can," Naruto asked gently, flicking his eyes to Tsunade before giving the Delta his full attention. Tsunade moved silently around the hospital room, picking up Daichi's chart and looking over the notes that Shizune had written, resting a friendly hand on her apprentice's shoulder as she passed.

"We… On patrol, made it to the river…" Daichi wheezed before continuing, "Found a cat-were. Thought it was dead."

"What kind of cat-were?" Naruto's brow furrowed. It had better not be those damned tiger-weres again. They hadn't caused any problems since the fall; it had been nearly half a year since the last attempted raid, which had given everyone the hope that the border skirmishes were over and done with.

Daichi shook his head. "Couldn't tell. Kouji… he rushed in to see. Hibari followed. They… they… God! Its eyes!" Daichi's eyes squeezed shut as he winced at some internal pain, his teeth clenched. "I can still see them… Blood red…"

Naruto watched, concern plain on his face while the Delta shuddered. He exchanged a confused look with Tsunade---what did that mean, red eyes? It had to be Daichi's imagination.

"What happened? Where is the rest of the team?" Naruto asked, trying to coax the full story from the tangled information.

"T-They were k-killed," Daichi said quietly, and Naruto felt his heart skip a beat. Everyone's shocked inhalations took place in that tiny space, Shizune and Tsunade pausing in their administration of a high-dose painkiller. After a few seconds of silence, they snapped back to work with ill-concealed rage. Konoha hadn't seen death in more than a year. Naruto's heart re-started with an angry thud.

"What did you say, Daichi?" Naruto asked, his nine bushy tails prickling behind him. Naruto felt his teeth grind together as Daichi's ears flattened against his head in obvious physical and mental anguish.

The Delta's breathing started to escalate as the Rokudaime glared dauntingly, and Naruto had trouble deciphering his next words due to the inflections Daichi's voice underwent as his emotions dueled for dominance.

"The c-cat w-were. I-It killed t-them---Kouj-ji and H-Hibari! I… I c-couldn't---"

"Where is the cat-were now?" Naruto cut through Daichi's words, and menacingly gripped the katana strapped to his side.

"I couldn't stop it… They didn't know…" Daichi shook his head, the memories prompting him to grip Naruto's hand tighter and tighter. "We thought the thing was dead!"

"Shhh," Shizune wiped his brow, her voice soothing in the background, "Easy now."

"Tell me where you were, Daichi, when the cat-were attacked," Naruto kept his voice calm, although the news that two of his pack members had been killed obviously didn't sit well with him at all.

"The river," Daichi opened his eyes, "Where the southern crossing is. We found it there… it… it had blood…"

"Blood?" Naruto prompted, trying to piece things together. He glanced at Tsunade, who was comparing something on Daichi's chart with one of the machines that was beeping sporadically.

Daichi nodded, "Blood on its clothing, on its back." He swallowed something Naruto assumed to be more of the same. "It was all around it… we thought… Kouji thought… "

"Male or female?" Naruto asked, hoping the distinction would help narrow down the possibilities.

Daichi grimaced, his body slumping, "I … I couldn't tell! It didn't smell right… between the water and blood I couldn't tell… God! It attacked so fast! There wasn't… wasn't time…"

Naruto squeezed his hand. "Anything else you can tell me?" His tails had begun to twitch again, and he reminded them to behave.

The Delta shook his head, "No, Hokage-sama. The river. Cat-were." His voice cracked, "Teammates…" He couldn't finish. Naruto could see the scout was holding himself personally responsible for what had happened, and he softened his angry expression.

"You're safe now, Daichi." Naruto gripped his hand with reassuring strength. "I'll take care of it from here."

Naruto watched the tension melt away, leaving only pain and frustration in Daichi's face. He extracted his hand, and used the back of it to brush the Delta's hair from his face before giving his first order, making sure the injured fox-were could hear his determination and confidence.

"Tsunade, have Futaba assemble Sakura and Sai. I want them in my office ASAP." He'd crossed over to her by this time and looked down into her honey-gold eyes. He lowered his voice, "She needs something to do other than wait out in the lobby."

The woman nodded, pleased at his thoughtfulness, but confused by his decision. "Of course, but… are you sure two is enough to investigate? Neji could be useful to them, considering it's almost sunset." She held the clipboard to her front, and he knew from their long years of association that she wasn't challenging him with the question.

Naruto's blue eyes were serious as he bared his fangs in a rather unfriendly, if also typically excited smile, "I'll be leading this team myself."

Shizune looked up at that, and Naruto didn't bother to explain. So what if the Hokage, the Alpha of Fire Country's fox-weres, usually didn't investigate situations of this nature? He felt a personal obligation to sort this out, since two of his own had died. And a single, possibly wounded, unknown cat-were was nothing he couldn't handle. He'd go by himself if he didn't think the suggestion alone would create a major ruckus.

He went over towards the door, expecting his order to be carried out with Tsunade's sometimes irritating efficiency, when she cleared her throat. "Naruto?"

He paused in the doorway and raised an eyebrow, his tails twitching impatiently. They really didn't have time to lose if they wanted to catch the intruder.

"Wash your hands," she reminded gently, and he looked down to see that he'd gotten them both smeared with the blood from Daichi's uniform.

She had a point; he probably shouldn't go after an intruder with the scent of blood to give him away. He chuckled and nodded, then swiftly made his way to the adjacent men's room. Once that minor detail had been taken care of, he sped back to his office in record time, and made ready to change for the next activity.

He hummed absently, excited to be going on the first mission he'd assigned himself in a while. Things had been so peaceful up to this he'd hardly done more than spar with his various Betas. It made him eye the stack of scrolls on his desk with even further dislike while he unfastened the katana at his hip.

The humming didn't take his mind away from the fact that something serious had happened, and it was with steady hands that he removed his elegant Hokage Jinbaori and hung it in the tall cabinet in his office, next to his formal robes. The katana went into its slot, since it would only encumber him on this type of mission, but he wouldn't be unarmed by any means: everything else inside the cabinet was combat-related and tailor-made.

As the Alpha of Konoha, Naruto was responsible for every pack member, even ones as low-ranking as the Omegas, like Futaba; yet someone had apparently tried to bring harm upon their members, if the length and width of the gashes and the violence behind their jagged edges were any indication. Those types of injuries were meant either to brutally wound or kill the one who was unfortunate enough to stand in the way of such an attack. Violence of that sort was forbidden within Konoha's territory.

Naruto had just zipped his favorite, specialized flak-jacket over his bare chest when Sakura knocked and entered his office. He was glad for the timing; most of the Pack who were pushing him to choose another mate seemed to think the pink haired medic-nin was the obvious choice, and being half-naked in his office with her would only have started more wagging tongues.

It wasn't that he thought she'd be a bad mate, or that being half-naked was so unusual in the warm-climate of the village, or that they hadn't… well, he just didn't- couldn't- think of her that way. And he didn't want to take another mate. Not yet. He turned to her and smiled, seeing she was already in her preferred mission gear, his eyes sweeping quickly over her form. He really did like her… er, boots.

"Sakura-chan!" he greeted in his usual, playful way. He'd made an effort to try and keep things as normal between them as possible, despite all the gossip. He could guess it was just as hard for her, though they'd never discussed it out in the open; some things they didn't talk about, though there were a lot of pleasant conversations between them to balance it out.

"Naruto," she nodded, half-smiling because they'd been friends a long time, half-frowning because of the urgent summons. "What's happened? Futaba looked shaken."

Naruto buckled on his shuriken pouches and loaded them as he answered. "I'm taking you and Sai to investigate a situation at the river. When he arrives, I'll go over all the details." She raised an eyebrow, more curious than critical, but didn't comment. Sai arrived just before the silence between them got palpably awkward.

"Naruto-sama," Sai knelt formally as he appeared in the doorway.

He saw Sai glance at Sakura, and then at him, his pale brow tightening. Naruto was annoyed by the slight disapproval behind the formal expression on Sai's face. Why did he always do that? Naruto was getting more than tired of it, though he kept the irritation from showing on his own face as best he could. Thankfully, the three of them could still be professional and function as a team, no matter what had happened long in the past--- Sakura and Sai were the two Betas he counted on the most.

"Sai, good. I'll make this quick; I want to leave immediately." Naruto forced himself to smile, pushing his train of thought to the side and adding the last of his favorite weapons. Sai stood up, and Naruto faced them, voice commanding as he outlined their mission.

"One of the patrol teams came across a cat-were near the river, on the Southern side of Konoha close to the crossing. Two of the Deltas died, and one, Daichi, made it back to report. He's getting treatment now. You two will accompany me to find and apprehend this cat-were before it can either cause more trouble, or escape our borders with the bodies of those it's killed."

"Is it a tiger-were?" Sakura asked, tilting her head in thought.

"Naruto-sama," Sai took a step forward before he could answer, tails fanned out behind him in a habitual gesture that was almost like his paintbrushes. "With all due respect, why not let me and Sakura handle this; I'm sure we're more than enough to take care of one intruder."

"Sai," Sakura cautioned, her voice low.

"There's no need to risk yourself," Sai held his hands out in defense. "Let us go, or send someone else with us. You should be here, where people need their leader---especially if there have been deaths."

Sakura bit her lip, and Naruto bared his teeth. "Yes, two Deltas have died, Sai, and so I want to see this cat-were's face myself. I'm leading this team, so don't make me replace you."

Naruto left no room for argument, and Sai stepped back, his velvety ears shifting flat against his head from the admonishment. Naruto ran a hand through his blond hair, trying not to be angry at Sai's overprotective nature. He curled his tails around each other to keep them from swishing from the aggravation; they didn't have time for this.

Naruto looked at Sakura, "I don't think it's tiger-weres this time. We all know them on sight, and Daichi couldn't confirm what kind of cat-were we're dealing with, or even if it's male or female. The target may also be wounded. Daichi mentioned blood, but it could have been a ruse to lure the Deltas closer, or confuse its scent. We'll have to be ready for anything." Naruto glanced at Sai, "Which is why I chose you two for the mission."

He moved past them through his office doors. "The rest we can discuss on the way. I want to find that cat-were bastard before the sun sets completely."

The Betas followed him through the Hokage tower passages, and then they were off in a sprint, heading for the Southern river pass.


o00o

"We're getting close," Sakura said, leaping through the trees along Naruto's left.

"Aa," Naruto agreed, scenting the mud of the riverbank on the air. Sai was quiet, moving fluidly through the trees on his right. Naruto's brows met; Sai hadn't said much at all after they'd left the Hokage office.

Before the overhang of leaves became too sparse, they stopped as a unit to listen for anything amiss in the forest's springtime concert. It was the same. Signaling with a tail, Naruto descended closer to ground level and the three of them proceeded the remaining distance in silence.

It was obvious where Daichi had fled the scene; broken branches and crooked shrubs showed them how desperately he'd moved during his escape, though the intruder hadn't followed him all that far before doubling back. Once the foliage could hide them no longer, they fanned out in a practiced formation, each with a kunai at the ready. The team proceeded cautiously forward. It was Sai who first noticed the body. Or rather, bodies.

Naruto used his chakra to scan the area for movement, while Sakura moved in to check on the fallen fox-weres. Sai was her immediate back-up, paralleling her movements lest she be ambushed by their target. Naruto frowned, not sensing anything in the surrounding area that matched what they were expecting to find. Had it already escaped? He moved closer.

"The cat-were is definitely wounded," Sakura glanced up at his approach, having moved from Kouji to Hibari to check for life signs. "There are two different kinds of blood, not just fox-blood here."

Naruto looked at his fallen pack members, his mind replaying the scene based on their wounds. Kouji's entire throat was missing, clawed away in one blow from the looks of it. He'd died instantly, the rest of him with hardly more than a scratch. Naruto gritted his teeth; the cat-were must have been playing dead.

Hibari had had some warning before she'd gotten too close, but the seconds hadn't saved her more than a few, fragile minutes of life. She'd fought enough to have her arm twisted nearly out of its socket, her head lying in the soggy, pebbly dirt at an unnatural angle. Naruto saw deep gouges that resembled the ones he'd seen stitched up in the infirmary; he guessed maybe Daichi had tried to save her, getting himself sliced up before running for help while he still could.

"There's nothing I can do," Sakura was looking up at him from where she knelt. The setting sun blended with the pinks of her hair, turning them faintly orange, like peaches; it didn't fit the gore at her feet. Naruto grimaced at all of it.

She pointed at Hibari's chest, where the flak-jacket was bloodied. "It's strong enough to shift just its arms; there's no evidence it fought in its full cat-form."

"I agree." Sai had been facing the surrounding area, but turned to look at both of them, pointing back towards the water rushing by, "There are no paw prints that I can see. Only signs of upright movement. It looks like it came from the water, someplace close by."

Sakura continued, "A cat-were's claws are longer, more deadly in normal form---it intended to kill. Ours aren't nearly this long, in either form."

Naruto took all this in as he moved around the bodies and closer to the water, scanning along its edge. So where had the intruder run off to? His eyes rested on some driftwood, something fabric caught on its splintered surface. "Sai, contact the Hunter-nin; tell them our location."

"Yes, sir," Sai obediently knelt, taking out his scroll and brush. Naruto's ears turned towards the sounds of bristles gliding against paper while Sai drew out a forest-fox messenger, but his blue eyes glanced at Sakura's rising form.

"Sakura. Can you tell how badly wounded the intruder is? How fast could it be moving?" Naruto asked the questions as he moved along the flowing water to investigate the shred of fabric. It was too far from the bodies to have been torn from one of the scout team, he was sure.

"There's quite a lot of blood," Sakura answered, putting her back to him and watching the trees for possible attack. "Some of it transferred to Hibari when the intruder…" Her voice trailed off; Naruto didn't need her to finish that thought. Hibari was pack---they'd all feel her loss, especially once their mission was complete.

Sakura cleared her throat, "It left this spot in a hurry, but it can't maintain such a pace for long."

"Cat-weres don't like water," Naruto commented, bending close to the fabric and recognizing it as a finely-combed wool. He tugged it free, tucking it into a flak-jacket pocket along his ribs. They'd learned about all there was to learn from the bodies, and the scene. "Sai?"

"I'm on it," Sai answered. Naruto had already heard Sai's first painting vanish into the trees with its message. He watched as Sai finished drawing thirty of his seeker-rats, then took a clean brush and dipped it in the blood that Sakura indicated, painting a crimson splotch on each one of them. He made his seals and activated his jutsu, spilling them out of the scroll in a wriggling swarm.

Naruto and Sakura followed the scurrying further downriver while Sai rolled his scroll back up. They all heard the plop as Sai discarded the bloodied brush into the flowing river behind him before catching up.

The steady crunch of his team's footfalls made Naruto's ears rotate to catch the sound as they descended deeper into the forest. The first batch of rats had scurried off in all directions from the river, and he and his team followed three that seemed to hone in on a particular area of interest. While Naruto had exceptional hearing and an intimidating sense of smell, he knew the seeker-rats were more attuned to vibrations in the ground and air, which made them indispensable on risky situations such as the one he and his team had found themselves immersed in.

Sakura shifted behind him nervously when the rats up ahead squeaked their discovery in unison. He sensed Sai stiffen before gravitating closer to him, his weapon pouch open and ready for close combat as the mice were dispelled in an uncharacteristically loud pop. Naruto's ears lowered a fraction of an inch as he and his team drew closer to where the rats had given their signal, all nine of his tails twitching in anticipation as he passed the first line of dense bushes and the scent of blood hit him in a dizzying wave.

When they moved to the edge of the clearing, they were not prepared for the sight that greeted them. Huddled against a tree, and unmoving, the errant cat-were from Daichi's report was simply, for lack of a better term, shredded.

The black ears that should have been perched atop its head were bloodied and nearly dangling off by a thread, the white spot at the tip visible from the wrong side. Its tail was bent at an unnatural angle and sporting gashes deep enough to have cut through the bone. Naruto couldn't tell if the fur was actually spotted, or if it was just the severity of the wounds and the dirt caked into them that gave the illusion of spots.

Naruto took a deeper breath. Female, he concluded, as his eyes flickered over the form of the maimed cat-were, more delicately boned than any of the fox-weres in his pack, small where she sought refuge against the towering tree trunk. Konoha's fox-weres were known for their looks, and Naruto clenched his teeth at the ruined beauty of the intruder that had trespassed into his territory, despite the crimes that had been committed.

For a moment, none of them moved. The forest was eerily silent, as if it knew there was something lurking that didn't belong. Well aware of the fact that Kouji had been killed by getting too close too fast, Naruto motioned them all forward with the flick of a tail, their formation solid as they entered the clearing.

Whoever she was, Naruto couldn't believe that her injuries had come from Hibari alone. Deltas were skilled; he ensured it. But Hibari had died too quickly to have inflicted everything he was seeing on this woman, not to mention everything he was smelling---it was hard to imagine anyone from Konoha inflicting such violent damage. It wasn't their way. He lifted his foot to take another step forward, but the touch of cool fingers on his elbow made him pause.

Naruto stopped where he was, turning his head enough to see the plea on Sai's face that matched the tiny squeeze of his hand. Sakura drew his attention with a quick hand signal, silently offering to be the first to confirm whether or not the cat-were was still alive, but Naruto shook his head. That was the problem---he'd lost two of the pack already, he wouldn't risk anyone but himself from here on. It was his duty as Alpha. And if he wasn't strong enough, then he didn't deserve the responsibility.

With a careful but firm twist, Naruto removed his elbow from Sai's grip. He trained his blue eyes on the cat-were's form, covered from nearly head to toe in dark garments, the paleness of her face marred with scratches and streaks of blood and grime where it wasn't hidden by long strands of black hair. Naruto edged closer, seeking any sign of life beyond the position of the one visible arm, curving protectively---maybe even in death?---across the bloodiest area of her torso.

Naruto stepped cautiously forward, calm with the knowledge that his Betas were there should he need them. The bark of the tree supporting the intruder showed recent claw marks; she'd obviously tried to climb to higher ground before either passing out, or dying, and he was resolved to find out personally which it was. His tails swishing at the ready behind him, Naruto leaned towards the cat-were, reaching for the pulse point inside her elbow to confirm life or death, when she attacked.

Naruto leapt backward at the sudden charge, his body automatically avoiding the claws that tried to sink into his outstretched arm while an edged weapon came towards his head from the other side. His brain flashed with two thoughts as he bent backwards---red eyes, NOT female---while he twisted instinctively out of the way. A third thought mixed in with the first two as he saw the tips of some of his blond hair falling slowly to the ground, shaved by the cat-were's hidden kunai---Damn, he's fast!

The cat-were's roar was both deafening and dripping with now-obvious masculinity. Naruto had been startled for a split second by the unusual eyecolor, but he could see the intruder's burning emotions within their redness plainly: this man was scared shitless, brutally injured, and determined to survive, though even that description seemed much too empty when compared to the actual sight.

Immediately counterattacking his opponent, Naruto grabbed onto the clawed arm, his left fist on course with the man's face to knock him unconscious when there was sudden movement from the side. One glance showed Sai's arm already in the follow-through from having launched a kunai; the same glance showed Naruto that the kunai's target was the intruder's heart, undoubtedly, and expertly aimed to kill.

Naruto used his skill as Alpha to lower his punching fist enough to make contact with the cat-were's chest instead of his chin, moments before the kunai pierced the back of his hand. His punch knocked the cat-were onto his back, and Naruto used his own weight to pin the man's legs, his right hand forcing the cat-were's arm against his body, squeezing enough to make him cry out and let go of his only weapon. With the intruder subdued for the moment, Naruto looked angrily over at Sai, a steady stream of blood dripping from the back of his left hand where he'd blocked the Beta's attack. He left the kunai sticking out from his flesh.

"I told you I'd handle it!" Naruto barked, his tails bristling with anger. He didn't want to kill this cat-were bastard until they had heard the whole story.

"I… you… he…" Sai stood there, turning pale. He closed his mouth and looked down, though his body remained rigid and tense.

"Sakura," Naruto looked at her for the first time in a whole minute, feeling the cat-were struggling underneath him and hissing through his sharp, white teeth. Sakura swallowed, but came over at his request, her medical background kicking in and forcing her personal emotions out of the way. She reached into the small pack that was slung around her waist and pulled out a roll of bandages.

"Pull this out," Naruto held up his injured hand, "So I can make sure this bastard doesn't get away."

Sakura was eyeing the cat-were with dislike, but was gentle as she eased the kunai from her leader's hand. Naruto flexed his fingers, disregarding the pain and holding the intruder in an even more dominating two-handed grip. He shook his head when Sakura held out the roll of bandages to tend to his wound, focusing instead on the cat-were beneath him.

"Who are you?" Naruto asked, though his voice made it clear he wasn't starting a sociable chat. The man tossed his long, matted black hair a bit further off his face, closing his lips and glaring defiantly. Naruto noticed that his eyes weren't red anymore, but a glossy black—still, the hatred and fear were just as plain as before.

Naruto scowled, adding more pressure to his grip. He demanded, "Why are you here?"

There was a flash of anxiety in those black eyes, and the cat-were glanced away for a brief second before baring his teeth and looking Naruto right in the eye. The intruder redoubled his efforts to break free, and Naruto could feel the panic thrumming in the muscled flesh beneath him. Then the struggles died off, and the black eyes closed---Naruto heard a faint groan as the cat-were went steadily limp---his head lolling to the side as he grimaced from some unseen pains.

"Sakura?" Naruto asked, the urgency of his tone making her crouch down beside them and place her hand on the intruder's brow, disregarding the way he shrank from her touch. Naruto shifted out of her way while still keeping the cat-were pinned, and he watched her methodical investigations of the many wounds. He gritted his teeth.

There's no way he could have gotten all these wounds from two Deltas, or even three; some of the wounds looked days old, reopened and seeping fresh blood into his clothing. And from what Sakura had said about claws, no fox-were should have been able to hurt this man so badly---Naruto would bet Tsunade a week's worth of paperwork that the wounds had been made by something feline.

"He's faking," Sai said from his position ten feet away, arms crossed. His face might have been emotionless, but the sneering words and the rebellious pose shared his feelings even better than his facial features could.

"He's not going anywhere, regardless," Naruto reminded, his tails twitching behind him in a subconscious display of strength. Sai lowered his tails towards the ground, but stayed where he was, choosing to remain as far away from the cat-were as he could without leaving the premises altogether.

"He's got a very high fever, and a possible concussion. Some of the wounds are infected." Sakura commented, moving slightly away now that she'd finished her duty of inspecting the prisoner.

Naruto offered her a nod of thanks, and looked down into the pinched face of the cat-were, defiant and haughty even while struggling to maintain consciousness. He had a striking attractiveness, for a male, and Naruto wondered if he'd still feel the same way if the man were clean and freshly robed, the black hair combed out to fall past his shoulders.

There was something magnetic about him, even in such a barbaric condition, which made him think he'd be attractive no matter the surroundings or situation. It was disconcerting; Naruto brushed the idle thoughts aside.

He sighed. It was going to seriously complicate things, but he couldn't get answers from someone fading in and out of consciousness, not to mention refusing to speak, and he just couldn't execute someone without getting some answers first. He'd have to take him back to the village.

Naruto looked over at his pink-haired teammate, decision made. "Sakura, what does he need so we can transport him? We have to get him to the hospital."

She blinked at him, her mouth opening, but Sai cut her off, "What are you saying?"

Naruto glared, his ears shifting towards the noise the intruder was making as he struggled as best he could underneath him. "He needs a hospital, Sai. We're taking him back."

"He tried to kill you!" Sai pointed at him, moving closer from his outrage. "He's already killed two of the pack, and you're our Alpha!"

Naruto scowled, glancing at Sakura while he responded, "We're taking him back, so I can find out what the hell he's doing in our territory. You can't tell me Hibari or Daichi injured him like this; there's more to it, and I'm going to find out just what it is."

"Of course," Sakura moved back over immediately, her ears flattened from the stress of being caught between her leader and her teammate, and probably halfway disagreeing with both. "I need help binding his abdomen; he's losing a lot of blood. His tail needs to be secured as well."

"Show me," Naruto nodded, taking hold of both of the man's wrists in his good hand so he could reach for a twist of cording from one of his pouches, perfect for binding prisoners. He wrapped the cord around the man's wrists and then secured them to his chest so he couldn't move his arms. Naruto watched his struggles with slight amusement; he was a stubborn bastard, this one.

Keeping his weight on the intruder's legs, he accepted a roll of bandages from Sakura and quickly wound some around his bleeding left hand. He heard Sai moving along the perimeter restlessly. He kept the bandages handy while Sakura withdrew a summoning scroll from her medical bag and efficiently produced a collapsable stretcher they could use to get the cat-were safely to Konoha.

She snapped it together and laid it carefully to the side; Naruto moved down the cat-were's legs to find out how he could help. The intruder yelped in pain when he jostled one of his legs, and Naruto shifted his weight off of the injured limb. Sakura quickly moved to inspect the bloodied area, and Naruto was amazed that she could tell anything at all from the mess of dirt, blood, and ripped garments covering the intruder's body. He'd never bothered to learn much medical-ninjutsu over the years; maybe he just couldn't see what she was doing.

"The left leg is broken, I'll need something to keep it stable, or we can bind it to the other leg temporarily," Sakura informed him after completing her test. On a second look, Naruto could see the leg was swollen, and he glanced at the intruder's face. Had he really run all this way on a broken leg?

"We have to bind both legs anyway," Naruto replied, and he handed her the second bundle of cording he'd brought so she could secure the cat-were properly while he held him steady. This didn't stop their prisoner from snarling and kicking throughout the whole process, but when all was said and done, he didn't have a choice. Naruto was taking him to Konoha whether he wanted to go or not.

While assisting Sakura in making sure the intruder survived long enough to explain his actions, Naruto was aware of Sai pacing around the clearing at a distance as if guarding them. If looks could kill, their prisoner would have been long dead.

"Sai," Naruto addressed the Beta, causing him to pause and regard him with slight obedience. "This man is now a prisoner, and Sakura will need your assistance transporting him. I don't want to make it a direct order."

"Understood," he replied. Naruto ignored the flavor of sarcasm while Sai met his eyes for a long moment before continuing his pacing. Then Naruto looked at Sakura, who smiled weakly as she finished bandaging the worst of the intruder's wounds. The cat-were looked even paler, and had his eyes shut tight against all the handling. He had to be in a lot of pain; he was in pretty bad shape.

"Can he have some water?" Naruto asked, and Sakura glanced up at him. She only hesitated for a brief moment before nodding. Naruto moved to the cat-were's head, unhooking a small canteen from his flak jacket. He met the agitated gaze of the prisoner.

"Will you drink?" Naruto asked, showing him the water, and drinking some himself.

The cat-were tightened his lips, skeptical thoughts playing over his features. Naruto waited indulgently until he nodded an agreement, then supported the back of the prisoner's head and held the canteen to his mouth. The intruder swallowed thirstily, three, four, five times, and then sharply turned his head away from the offering.

Naruto didn't let any water spill from the abrupt rejection, returning the bottle to its spot, and shaking his head at the confusing behavior. He reached out and moved some long strands of hair away from the corner of the intruder's mouth, smoothing it back from his face gently even though he was shrinking from the touch and showing his fangs. Naruto gasped at the extremely hot temperature of the cat-were's forehead.

"Shit! He's burning up!" Naruto startled Sakura with his outburst, and even Sai had turned around in an instinctual reaction. They had to leave, now. She finished tying a knot where she'd been wrapping part of the tail, and then nodded, moving to the intruder's feet.

"We can move him now," she said, and Naruto followed her mark and lifted the prisoner over to the stretcher in a synchronized movement.

"Sai," Naruto motioned for the Beta to take his spot at the cat-were's head. The intruder looked up at him, brow creased, teeth bared. Their eyes met, and then Sai was there, ready to do his part.

Naruto could tell Sai wasn't at all happy, and for that matter neither was Sakura, though she would never challenge anything he said or did, or at least not publicly. He hated to be in conflict with them, but refused to explain himself all the time. He was Hokage, they were submissive to him---it was how their society worked.

Naruto had made it clear that he wasn't changing his mind, and that he expected them to obey his wishes. Neither of them balked at carrying the prisoner the remaining distance to the village, and Naruto was grateful that he hadn't been forced to assert his power. It just wasn't right to kill someone out of hand, even if he was still sick with the deaths of his two Deltas.

He traveled beside them, keeping an eye on the intruder while also watching for danger from the forest---the sun was now only a dim, orange presence low on the horizon, making the dense trees around them nearly as dark as full night. The progress was slow; Naruto hoped they'd make it before the prisoner lost his grip on consciousness and fell into darkness forever.


o00o

As they got closer to the village gates, Naruto could tell right away that something wasn't quite right.

His ears flattened backwards at the sense of a large gathering of people waiting just around the next bend, and he raised a tail to slow his team's progress to a temporary halt. He had an awful suspicion about what he might find, and his guess didn't involve a group of Deltas or Omegas volunteering for extra graveyard-shift gate-duty.

"Er… Sakura?" Naruto asked, glancing in her direction.

"Yes?" She answered, mildly out of breath from the effort of carrying a cat-were easily eight inches taller than her, even with Sai's help. They'd had a good distance to cover.

"Where were you, exactly, when Futaba delivered my summons?" He asked her instead of Sai since she was far more social, and while the two of them got along, they weren't known to spend their leisure time in the same way, or the same place.

She raised a brow, "I was in the lounge getting some tea, talking with Ino and Kurenai. Futaba said she'd already found Sai," Sakura glanced behind her and Sai nodded his agreement, "So I left her there with the girls since she was so distressed. I grabbed my medical stuff and went directly to your office. Why?"

Naruto sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Nevermind." He motioned for them all to continue.

In retrospect, Naruto realized he might have cautioned Futaba and the others to keep quiet about the cat-were situation while awaiting his return, but in his eagerness to restore peace he'd simply assembled his team and gone after the intruder without a single thought of what could happen in his absence. The situation was unusual enough to be a sensational bit of gossip, especially if Futaba's concern over Daichi's condition got blown out of proportion.

The many anxious faces of the fox-weres waiting at the gates for the return of Konoha's Alpha gave him the first inkling that his two Betas might not be the only ones who opposed his decision to bring the intruder further into the heart of the village.

As his team continued their steady approach, prisoner in tow, Naruto could only clench his teeth and prepare for the worst as the sound of his name rang across the darkness in a contagious cheer of relief, followed by a wave of anxious questions. His ears turned this way and that as he picked out the main concerns:

"Are we under attack?"

"Is it tiger-weres again?"

"Did you kill them all?"

"Is that the leader?"

Naruto sighed, more than close enough now to see the distress of his people. The rumors of an intruder must have escalated to rumors of multiple intruders, and his decision to lead the team personally had given credence to the lies. The fact that the Hokage had gone personally to protect the border had communicated that the situation was much more dire than it was.

Obviously, at the very least, the gathered villagers were expecting to see the body of a very dead cat-were. Obviously, the cat-were behind him was anything but dead. Naruto could hear him snarling and cursing even while bound and wounded and subdued as far as they could without the proper painkillers, probably reacting to the noise of the crowd.

At least Tsunade couldn't force him to finish paperwork in the midst of such an adventure. Naruto didn't let himself think about how much more paperwork he'd caused himself by bringing a criminal in for medical treatment.

Naruto squared his shoulders, and smiled in acknowledgement of the crowd's relief that their leader had returned safely and unharmed, at least as far as they could tell. His left hand was throbbing beneath the slapdash bandaging job he'd done, so it was his right hand that he raised to quiet the cheering into low murmurs, mentally preparing a short speech to calm his people down. Before they reached the gates, however, one of the younger men broke free of the crowd.

"Naruto-nii-chan!" Konohamaru bounded over to fall in step, his voice holding all the relief that his face couldn't show. He must have been really concerned about him, and Naruto knew it wasn't because he doubted his Hokage's strength.

"Konohamaru," Naruto nodded, smiling, though he knew his eyes weren't as gentle as his expression. Naruto put his right hand on the Delta's shoulder, "I need you to go on ahead to the hospital. Tell Tsunade and Shizune to have an emergency room ready when we get there, it's very important."

"Right away!" Konohamaru nodded, dashing off to obey the order without question.

Naruto sighed inwardly, musing that a certain Beta could take a good lesson from the three-tailed Delta, even if Konohamaru still needed to work on his basics. He made a mental note to coach the Delta later on his observational skills---he'd been so focused on Naruto he hadn't even checked to see who it was that needed the hospital room.

Behind him, the wounded cat-were was drenched in copious amounts of sweat and blood, panting in-between growls and his frantic struggles to get loose from the white stretcher they'd strapped him down on. Naruto winced as the cat-were's motions caused its flaccid ears to slap against the sterile surface of the stretcher and leave bloody imprints behind. For foxes, their ears were generally a very sensitive area, the cartilage easy to tear when sliced with a sharp object, and horribly painful; Naruto didn't want to imagine how much it hurt the cat-were.

As the crowd parted before them, Naruto took a deep breath to give his brief explanation, glancing back at the prisoner before speaking. His eyes narrowed when Sai purposefully tripped over a pebble on the street---lurching the stretcher forward and prompting a near-silent whimper from the cat-were as the back of his head crashed against the hard plastic surface. Sai looked blankly at Naruto's sharpened gaze as Sakura steadied the wobbling stretcher.

"How convenient," Naruto said when Sai turned his attention back to the path they were traveling on.

Sai shrugged and spread his five tails behind him in an arrogant display. "The pebble tripped me. You saw it."

Naruto's fur bristled at the challenge in his subordinate's posture and issued a low growl of warning. The effect was instantaneous: as soon as the growl was heard, everyone in the area bowed low with tucked-in tails and flattened-back ears, responding to Naruto's anger even though they didn't understand exactly what was going on. Sai relented, slowly, but kept his gaze on his Alpha as he did so.

Displeased that his lower pack member wouldn't fully submit, Naruto's growl escalated in volume and his ears lurched to the front in a pose to attack, should the need arise. Naruto could feel all of his pack members wholly submit to him as they heard the warning in his tone, shuffling closer to the ground in an attempt to please him.

Sai scowled at them in petty disgust, but averted his eyes to the ground. Finally, his ears and tails lowered completely, and Naruto relaxed his stance, but not his voice.

"Make sure it doesn't happen again, Sai. I'm not in the mood to be tested," Naruto snarled. At Sai's barely perceptible nod of obedience, Naruto signaled for them both to continue on towards Konoha Hospital, his nine tails waving in the air in an effort to shoo the curious crowd away from them.

Various members of the pack were gathered around the hospital when Naruto, Sakura, Sai and the unknown cat-were arrived at the entrance. A haze of red foxtails mixed with a combination of colored clothing and warm tones of skin assaulted Naruto's vision as the pack members closed in on his team. Some of them were only curious, sniffing the air; others were visibly disgusted and distraught, whining through their teeth or snarling. Naruto's nine massive tails flicking left-to-right helped distance the majority of them, but some stepped in sinfully close to his team in their interest, and Naruto issued a warning growl at their noncompliance.

On all sides, the pack members faltered in their tracks, and made a hasty retreat to the sidelines; Naruto was momentarily pleased, but the emotion was short-lived when he spotted Kiba and Neji on opposite sides of the hospital entrance. Even though they were both off-duty and bowing low to the ground in submission like the rest of the pack, he could detect a note of disagreement in their assessment of the new arrival. Their scents reeked of disapproval and hostility, and between them and the agitated pack members at all sides, it was all Naruto could do not to snarl at their appearance.

It might not have been so bad to cross the remaining distance, except that the prisoner was drawing a great deal of attention to himself with his struggling and muttering. His eyes shifted in angry, delusional panic over the closest pack members, and he hissed and insulted them indiscriminately. Naruto ignored him, hoping that the lesser fox-weres would follow his example, but the intruder countered all his efforts.

"Filthy mutts!" he'd snarl one minute, then, "Freaks…" he'd mutter the next minute, usually followed by a mention of "…too many tails." He knew Neji and Kiba could hear exactly what the intruder was saying, but they knew better than to comment in such a public setting, especially with Naruto's energy thrumming through the street.

Konohamaru stood at the hospital door behind them, holding it open for his leader's arrival, and Naruto rewarded him with an appreciative nod, calming the part of him that wanted to beat some sense into the rest of his subordinates. Bringing up the rear in his team's procession, Naruto turned and finally addressed the crowd.

"The situation is under control." He made sure his voice was steady and confident, holding his good hand in the air. He kept things minimal to avoid further rumors and misconceptions. "There was only one intruder, and our border is now safe, so rest easy tonight. I've taken the cat-were prisoner and will make the final decision about his fate sometime tomorrow."

Naruto smiled briefly at the anxious faces and then turned to enter the hospital, sighing inwardly at the barrage of shouted questions from behind him as he passed through the doors. It didn't surprise him that Neji and Kiba followed, but with a single glare he told them to stay put in the lobby area. They obeyed, but moved to stand with the other gathered Deltas and Betas, a group Naruto knew he'd have to face before his night was over. Paperwork was actually starting to look really good.

Kakashi, predictably, was leaning casually against the wall by the nurse's station, and Naruto signaled for him as he moved with Sakura and Sai to follow Konohamaru to the prepared room. Since he'd come from the Arctic fox-were tribe, Kakashi didn't have the five tails to back up his Beta-ranking, but Naruto couldn't remember the last time he'd seen anyone challenge the silver fox. His reputation was fierce and solid, even if he did harbor a naughty penchant for adult novels, but it was his intelligence as well as his strength that had earned him the commanding position for Konoha's elite troops.

"I want an ANBU squad here, immediately," Naruto said, and was relieved that Kakashi simply nodded and turned back the way he'd come to carry out the directions. Naruto turned back to look down the hall, and found two white-robed medic-nin in the doorway of the room Konohamaru was indicating. Naruto frowned, reading the number 107.

He increased his pace and passed the prisoner's stretcher, "Tsunade? This is-…" He halted when he saw that the room was empty, the bed clean and the machines with dangling wires and blank screens---no sign of the Delta he'd visited earlier that afternoon. His ears rotated towards the sound of the medic-nin moving to assist Sakura and Sai, but his eyes searched the white coats inside the room until he picked out Tsunade.

"Where's Daichi?" he asked, stepping into the room and meeting Tsunade's eyes.

"He's fine," her brow furrowed at the sight of the prisoner and she came closer. "He was moved to one of the upper floors over an hour ago."

Naruto moved aside so that the medic-nin could get into place, Sakura and Sai standing next to the hospital bed so that they could transfer the man's struggling form onto the clean surface. One of the nurses behind Tsunade was scowling at the intruder's half-understandable mutterings, and Naruto filled the room with his chakra to get everyone's attention.

"This man is a prisoner, and he needs immediate medical attention. If anything happens to him, you'll answer to me, understand?" Naruto looked at all of them, and found no objection to his orders.

Several medical experts looked at the prisoner with a slight distaste that ruined their usual professionalism, but it was something he thought he could live with. After two deaths, he couldn't expect everyone to welcome a killer wholeheartedly, though these people were trained in medicine first, not justice. Naruto clenched his teeth, knowing he might have to kill the intruder anyway, depending on his story.

"This is the cat-were?" Tsunade was already putting on latex gloves and moving closer, her eyes taking in the signs of his multiple injuries.

Sakura moved around the foot of the bed to stand by Tsunade, "He's got a fever, possible concussion." She looked at Naruto, "I'll tell her what I know about him. I can help."

He could tell from her green eyes that she didn't exactly like it, but she'd assist with the procedures nonetheless. Naruto nodded, touching her bare upper arm gently before moving towards the door and glancing at Sai. He took in Sai's pouting stance: the Beta had put himself as far away from the prisoner as he could. In the doorway, Naruto gestured for Sai to precede him out of the room. He could hear the rustle as Sakura started to take off her weapons pouches and the water splashing in the sink as she washed her hands and made ready to aid her mentor, someone opening a cabinet where they kept the white coats.

"I'll leave him with you, Tsunade, Sakura," Naruto nodded towards the prisoner, whose struggles were quieting as a painkiller was administered by Tsunade, the cat-were's face slipping into a more peaceful state than he'd seen so far that night. "I don't want him dying before I can interrogate him."

"I'll take it from here," Tsunade glanced over with a quick half-smirk, her hint of sarcasm essentially telling him to leave the experts to their work. He flashed her some of his teeth with his quick smile.

"Hokage-sama!" Naruto turned his gaze to the hall and took in the squad of four masked fox-weres kneeling and awaiting instructions. Naruto guided Sai out of the room and closed the hospital door behind him.

"Nobody is to access this room other than Tsunade, Sakura, or myself, until I say otherwise. I want that man alive." Naruto acknowledged the ANBU team so they could rise, and on a silent signal two of them opened the door and went to stand inside the room, the other two flanking either side of the doorway out in the clean, empty hallway.

Naruto took a deep breath, reasonably assured that the prisoner would live through the night, unless his internal injuries were too severe even for Tsunade's skills. He'd never seen anything she couldn't heal, but the nagging worry was still there. The prisoner really didn't look so good.

He turned his attention to Sai. Naruto cautioned him while they were still in the hallway. He tried to keep his voice gentle, but it came out rather angry, despite his best attempts.

"I don't want any trouble, Sai. You don't have to like it, but you do have to follow orders. The details of our mission are now classified, until I say otherwise." He didn't have to warn Sakura; she was bound by her profession to keep everything about a patient confidential.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Sai glared briefly at the words and then lowered his gaze submissively, perhaps because he couldn't quite get the rebellion to stop showing. Naruto allowed it---this time---and started to make his way to the front waiting area. Sai followed him.

Naruto frowned, considering how to handle the shinobi waiting for answers out in the lobby. He'd had enough of having to assert his authority with strength, and reminded himself that if two Deltas hadn't died, none of them would be questioning his actions now. He led a peaceful pack, one that worked well together and had collective strengths that other packs or tribes couldn't always achieve.

Part of Konoha's unity came from the honor and loyalty he'd upheld from the teachings of all the previous Hokage. Naruto set his jaw; he'd just have to remind them of his principles, while clearing up the rumors that had set the whole village out for the intruder's blood.

Before he made it to the lobby, Naruto unzipped his flak-jacket and exposed the symbol of his status as Alpha and Hokage of Konoha's fox-weres, a dark black tattoo inked in brush-like flourishes around his navel. It stood out majestically, both from the dark pigment and the raised surface of his skin from the chakra-branding that went with the ritual, and he decided it couldn't hurt to use the sight of it to send a non-verbal message to all his subordinates.

There were a lot of them there waiting when he entered the open area, mostly Deltas, but a good number of Betas as well. Asuma and Genma sat on a lobby sofa, feigning disinterest while their eyes were keen. Kakashi stood casually off to the side, his face partially unreadable beneath the crooked bandana he used to conceal his missing eye. Neji was close by him, rigid and unhappy. Kiba, Shikamaru, Ino and Kurenai were all standing, the rest in varying positions of idle anxiety. He could feel their gazes on his belly, and was relieved it seemed to quell some of the immediate outbursts, reminding them that he was indeed their Alpha.

Naruto was the first to speak, "I know you're all worried, but everything's under control. Once I've had a chance to interrogate the prisoner I'll let everyone know his sentence. In the meantime, let's all get some rest so that we can honor our pack members tomorrow."

"What happened?" Iruka asked, at the exact same time that Kiba demanded, "Why is he still alive?"

Kiba came from a clan of dog-weres that were significantly more loud and reactionary than Konoha's fox-weres tended to be, so Naruto was used to him to be the first to protest anything he didn't understand. The Inuzuka family had migrated to the village several hundred years ago, and usually Naruto was glad of the diversity their skills lent to the pack as a whole. But Kiba could be more than troublesome, and it figured that this would be one of those times.

Naruto glared at Kiba, but answered both questions since he knew the rest of them were wondering the same things. "It's classified until further notice. I'll release the information once I'm sure of the facts." He glanced at Sai, who was smirking, but turned away when he saw Naruto looking.

Naruto put his hands on his hips, fanning his tails out around him as another reminder of his authority. "I'll be happy to discuss this incident with any of you, in my office, once I've heard the prisoner's side of the story. In Konoha, we do what's right and just---so if anyone wants to argue that point with me, we can take care of it right now."

"Tch," Kiba rolled his eyes, and Naruto saw several others shift in agitation. But nobody challenged his statements, and Naruto let the silence stretch on to underline his point.

He crossed his arms with an air of finality. "As I said, the situation is under control, and will not be discussed while the investigation is ongoing. Everyone not related to the patient should go home and get some rest."

"The patient is a fucking cat-were!" Kiba gestured angrily, "How could any of us be related to that trash?"

"Kiba!" Naruto rotated one velvety ear in irritation, "I meant Daichi."

Kiba gaped at him, and then looked chagrined, and Naruto caught the eyes of several others in the room who were tucking their tails down in apology for doubting him. He didn't rub it in, but was glad they understood he hadn't forgotten about his own pack members while tending to the needs of an outsider.

"I'm going up to visit him now," Naruto continued, "And when I get back I expect this room to be cleared. I'll be in my office tomorrow." With that, he turned and went over to the nurse's desk, and found out which room he'd be looking for before leaving the lobby with its agitated fox-weres behind.

Soft steps echoed along his own as Naruto climbed the stairs at a casual pace, and his ears twitched backward in recognition. Only one of his Betas, save for Kakashi, perhaps, could move with such liquid grace.

"Neji." Naruto couldn't even bring himself to be surprised.

"If I might have a word, Hokage-sama. Naruto." Neji requested, keeping far enough away to make the request reasonable when compared to the stiffness of his controlled voice. They turned the corner to the next flight of stairs before Naruto responded.

"It can wait, Neji. I've said all I'm going to say tonight." They proceeded to climb to the third floor where Naruto walked down the hallway towards Daichi's room. The building was nearly empty, only the light at the nurse's station at the opposite end of the hall showed them that they weren't alone.

"I want to hear your reasoning for bringing a murderer to the hospital," Neji said, and Naruto stopped where he was. He turned around, folding his arms across his chest and over the unzipped jacket. He didn't say anything, and Neji took that as a cue to continue.

"He's a cat-were that entered our territory without permission, killed two of our pack, and injured our Alpha---by our laws he should be executed immediately for the third crime alone."

"I'm not injured, Neji," Naruto said.

"Then what's this?" Neji reached for his left hand, and Naruto turned his body out of the way, the gesture telling him to stand down.

"I can see it, Naruto," Neji replied, locking eyes. "You're using your chakra to heal it even as we stand here."

"It isn't that simple, Neji," Naruto didn't move his blue eyes from the strange, pale ones that somehow held a great deal of emotion for all their emptiness. It never ceased to amaze him. "He deserves a chance to defend himself, since he was too injured to do it before now."

"If it were a tiger-were, you'd have killed it on sight," Neji raised an eyebrow.

Naruto clenched his jaw. "That's different. The tiger-weres have declared open hostility on us, and he's not one of them."

"He's not one of us!" Neji shouted, and they both were surprised by it. The night nurse poked her head out of the office behind him, and Naruto gestured to her with a tail that everything was fine, not moving his eyes from the man in front of him.

"No, he's not," Naruto answered after a minute, "Which is why I won't kill him outright until we know more."

Neji sighed, and looked at the generic artwork hanging on the wall next to the stairwell. "I don't see the benefit in keeping him alive, Naruto, after he killed two of our Deltas and wounded another---almost an entire team died at his hand. He's a threat, and an outsider, and I don't like it. Why is he even here?"

It was so rare for Neji to argue at this length, Naruto took a moment to meet his eyes, searching their pale centers before giving his answer, knowing he wouldn't like it. It also didn't answer the question Neji was really asking, but the days when he could offer Neji preferential treatment by sharing information had ended close to fifty years ago.

"When he wakes up, I'll ask him."

Naruto didn't back down from the Hyuuga's icy glare, and Neji eventually turned and walked away, his posture still arrogant despite his confusion and frustration at not getting the answers he'd wanted. The Hokage sighed, and turned back to his original goal, coming to a stop outside Daichi's room. He peeked through the door's small window.

Daichi was asleep; his bandages visible where the sheet had slipped down the front of his body in his slumber. It didn't surprise him that the Delta didn't have on a hospital gown; he was one of the fox-weres that preferred to only wear the smallest amount of clothes he could get away with while still being decent. In the hot climate of Fire Country, he wasn't the only one. Naruto had been the same way himself when he was younger, before he'd moved from Omega to Delta and gotten his first, real flak-jacket.

Futaba was there with him---she'd pulled over the visitor's chair and lay curled up partly in its seat, and partly on the extra space next to Daichi, his arm tucked in close to her body. Her single tail was twined with one of her boyfriend's three that dangled peacefully off the side of the bed, and Naruto sighed again, mostly with relief. Mostly.

His left ear swiveled towards the sound of more footsteps, but he didn't look at the man he knew he'd find. The man greeted him first.

"Oi, Naruto," he chuckled, coming closer and peering into the window as well. Naruto inclined his head out of the way of the mass of white hair that he knew Jiraiya was putting in his face on purpose, his way of lightening the mood. Naruto turned up his lip in a wry smile and waited for Jiraiya to give up from the disappointment of not getting a bigger reaction.

Eventually, Jiraiya moved back a ways and grinned, "Sake?" He held up a large jug, and Naruto couldn't help but chuckle.

"Not every Hokage can be plied with Sake, Jiraiya," he admonished, reaching for the jug and contradicting his statement with two large swallows. He wiped his mouth with the back of his good hand.

"Ah well," Jiraiya took back the jug, taking a swig of his own. "More for me." Naruto smiled his thanks, and then turned back to the small window, reassuring himself that Daichi, at least, would be okay. After a minute or two of silence, Jiraiya clapped his big arm around Naruto's shoulders.

"Come on," he guided his Alpha away from the door and back towards the steps. "I know enough about Hokage to know when they need to go to bed."

"Thanks, Jiraiya," Naruto gave a coy smirk. "But you're just not pretty enough for me."

The older man laughed so hard that the scandalized night nurse at the end of the hall shushed them as loudly as she could, and Naruto grinned uninhibitedly. He took the Sake jug back and drank another swallow.

"Of course," Naruto waggled his eyebrows while they went down the stairs, Jiraiya releasing his friendly hold so they didn't trip each other. "I could be convinced if you finished up all my paperwork for me!"

"Hell no," Jiraiya laughed. "Not even Tsunade could get me to do that, boy."

"I knew it," Naruto gave a dramatic sigh and stepped down to the ground level. The lobby was empty, just like he'd ordered, and the humor drained from his face as he reflected on the day's events.

Jiraiya paused, waiting to see if Naruto was going with him or not, and Naruto ran a hand through his hair, scratching behind his right ear. "You go on, Jiraiya. I'm going to check in on the prisoner, and then I promise I'll go home."

"Okay," Jiraiya nodded, not questioning or contradicting Naruto's decision, even though he'd once outranked him as Tsunade's Alpha-mate. He turned and left, his single foxtail swishing happily behind him, just a few shades lighter than Kakashi's even though they were both cousins from the Arctic tribe. Naruto watched him go, and then turned once again down the hall with the double row of emergency rooms.

The ANBU watched him carefully, ready to move aside for him to enter, but Naruto waved them off. He crossed his arms and looked in through the tiny window, trying to see what was happening with the cat-were. He watched for several minutes, but couldn't actually tell---the prisoner's form was hidden behind a wall of medic-nin lab coats, each doctor or nurse busy with their portion of the man's treatment.

Naruto stayed for several more minutes, and then decided he really should go home. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day, and he'd need all the rest he could get before handling the next challenges.

He zipped his flak-jacket against the slight chill of the March evening, and prayed that he'd done the right thing by saving the life of a cat-were whose first actions after trespassing into their territory were enough to warrant immediate execution.

o00o


To be continued...