Hey…Hey, you…Yeah, you. How're you today? Good? That's unfortunate…I was hoping you were having a terrible day, so this could cheer you up. So it could touch your very soul and fill you with joy. Come on; don't tell me there isn't SOMETHING getting you down? Yes, don't be shy, let the chapter touch you. Let it fill you with joy in places you didn't even know you had. Let it take you on a journey you will never, ever, forget.

Black Flames is love, Black Flames is life…

Are you uncomfortable yet? So am I! Let's forget that ever happened!

I know you guys(and gals)are eager to get to reading, so I'll be brief. Don't have much to say right now as it is.

After much deliberation and asking of second opinions, I've decided to split what would've been one big chapter into a two-parter. It's six months and I felt like I needed to give you all something, if only so you don't forget about me. I know, pushing back the Exams again, BUT! There's a silver lining to all this. Putting this out takes a bit of weight off my shoulders and allows me to relax, which makes the writing process so much smoother. Plus, I've already got a good bit of part two written out, so that one should be a much quicker update. SHOULD be; no guarantees.

My plan is to update again in two weeks. Part two should be done in the next couple days; the rest of that time will be spent working on the next full chapter, which will lead right into the Exam Arc. I'm trying something new and attempting to stay ahead of the curve. Wish me luck. Also, I plan on writing smaller chapters for the Exam Arc. Like, under ten-thousand words. This is mostly because there will be a lot going on and I don't want to pile it on you in giant heaps; quicker updates will be a bonus. Maybe.

Now, in regards to this chapter and the two following it, be prepared for a much darker tone. There'll be some pretty heavy shit going down, with very little in the way of humor to break it up(though there will be a little; I can't help it, it just comes naturally and I go with it).

Oh, and let me remind you all that this is NOT FILLER. While that may have been the intent starting out, I've put way too much time and effort into this mini-arc for it to be some trivial throwaway thing. These are major events in the story and will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences even for those not directly involved. So to all those groaning about "Bah, another filler chapter!", no. Stop it. Bad. Go sit in the corner until you've learned your lesson.

Well, that's about it, so let's get this show on the road!

XXXX

(Safe house, 3:56pm)

Sasuke and Sakura found themselves in a short hallway before the entrance of the cabin proper. Both suspected the walls were lined with unseen traps, but, thankfully, they weren't going off. Perhaps they didn't activate if someone got in by deactivating the barrier, like a member of the guard team, instead of breaking through it? Nevertheless, the Genin proceeded with caution.

Taking a glance behind him, Sasuke frowned slightly when he saw Sakura looking over her own shoulder at the door they'd come through. When she turned her head back around, their eyes met for a split second and Sasuke sighed.

"You know there's nothing we can do out there, Sakura."

"I know, but...It's like we're abandoning him, or something. It's two-on-one!" Sakura said, making sure to keep her voice low.

"If Kakashi says he can handle it, then he can handle it. And if he can't, Naruto is still out there." Sasuke said.

He wasn't expecting Naruto to come to the rescue for Kakashi's sake, oh no. Though they seemed to be on better terms now, that past animosity wasn't going to disappear overnight. No, Sasuke suspected it would be more along the lines of Naruto sensing the two stragglers and coming for them after he dealt with the rest. If he happened to show up in time to help their sensei, it would just be a coincidence.

"Yeah, you're right." Sakura nodded to herself. Oddly enough, she had a bit more faith in Naruto. Well, his sense of professionalism, at least. She believed he would come to Kakashi's aid if only because it was his duty as a fellow shinobi of Konohagakure no Sato.

With his teammate's doubts assuaged, Sasuke returned his attention to the business at hand. "Sakura, can you sense anyone inside?"

"I'm not picking up anything. At all. Even if that girl's a civilian, I should still be able to get something." Sakura replied.

"So, what, do you think she's dead?"

"If they didn't get in, I don't see how. This is a safe house, so I'm sure there's a built-in 'panic room' somewhere. And if she's in there, trying to feel her out is useless."

"A panic room...That'll be fun." Sasuke grumbled. Panic rooms were usually very well hidden, in addition to being nigh impregnable. "You sure you don't sense anything?"

"Nothing. Why?"

"Because, that woman who came with us said there were three ninjas left up here, another Medic and two ANBU. There are only two bodies outside; that second ANBU is still unaccounted for. If he's in there," Sasuke nodded towards the door in front of them, "I don't want him attacking us, thinking we're the enemy."

"Then there's no point in being stealthy like this. If there is an ANBU in there, then I'd say he knew we were here the moment we opened the door. Sneaking around just makes us look suspicious." Sakura pointed out.

Sasuke resisted the urge to apply his palm to his face. Here he was, worried about possibly startling an ANBU, while overlooking the fact that it was a freaking ANBU! Of course he already knew they were in the house! So if they didn't want to end up getting KIA'd by a fellow Leaf-nin, they would have to announce themselves.

After motioning for Sakura to hang back, Sasuke slid the door open and stepped through.

"Hello? Is anyone here?" he called, scanning the large common room with his Sharingan. "My name is Uchiha Sasuke, zero-one-two-six-zero-six, Genin. I'm with Team Seven, led by Hatake Kakashi; we're here to extract you."

The Uchiha was met with silence, which meant that either the ANBU didn't believe him, or there was no one around to answer him. Sasuke was leaning towards the latter, seeing as how he was still alive and intact.

'Or, he's keeping himself hidden because Sakura's still standing back there as an unknown element.' the thought came through with a voice that sounded suspiciously like Genma's.

At Sasuke's prompting, Sakura tentatively emerged from the hall to stand beside him.

"Haruno Sakura, zero-one-two-six-zero-one, Genin, also with Team Seven." Sakura said a bit louder than was necessary, as her eyes darted around, searching for any sign of a threat.

When another ten seconds passed without a response, both Genin released breaths they didn't know they'd been holding. While the ANBU's absence likely meant another Leaf-nin killed in action, at least they didn't have to worry about a panicked ninja in a "stab first, ask questions later" frame of mind.

"I guess no one's home." Sakura muttered as she looked around.

The common room was huge, with more square footage than most apartments, she'd wager. And very well-appointed, too. Handmade red oak furniture, a large bearskin rug, a suede sofa that begged to be napped on, a large flat screen TV, an ornate deer-antler chandelier, and even a bar in the far corner under the staircase to the second floor. All in all, it was obviously made for high-profile targets who were accustomed to living a certain way.

It actually reminded Sakura of the hunting lodge owned by one of her uncles, on her father's side, near a small village just South of Konoha. It was a place where wealthy civilian hunters and thrill-seekers, or "high-rollers" as her uncle called them, paid ridiculous amounts of money to have a safe haven to return to when they went out hunting creatures that strayed from the Forest of Death.

"Any ideas as to where we should start looking?" Sasuke asked, not looking forward to searching every inch of the house, which he swore was a lot bigger than it looked from the outside.

"Well, the panic room would have to be in a place that can quickly and easily be reached from anywhere in the house." Sakura said, brow furrowing as her brain went to work. "Somewhere near the center, an equal distance away from most everywhere someone could be in the event of an attack. In fact, under the floor in this room would probably be a good bet."

Sasuke nodded and moved over to the bearskin rug.

"But," Sakura continued, "that would be way too obvious. Under the floorboards would be the first place any ninja would look, and that rug would be a dead giveaway."

Sasuke let go of the rug.

"Okay, so maybe in the walls?" Sakura ventured. "A panic room is armored by definition, but whatever it was hidden behind would surely be heavily reinforced as well."

Sasuke set about tapping on the common room walls, listening for any changes in the sound to indicate different materials and densities.

"But," Sakura huffed in annoyance as she poked another hole in her own logic, "this is a safe house; it was built from the ground up to be like a fortress. The walls, the ceilings, the floors, everything would be reinforced anyway, so you'd never be able to tell by knocking or anything."

Sasuke stuffed his hands in his pockets and trudged back towards the center of the room.

"I think we'll have to do this the old fashioned way, but we can at least narrow down the search. We start here, right in the center of the house. Then, if we don't find anything, we move on to…I don't know." Sakura's shoulders slumped.

"The master bedroom." Sasuke said, a proverbial light bulb clicking on over his head.

"But that's even more obvious than putting it under the floor."

"Maybe, people spend more time in their bedrooms than any other part of their homes, and I don't see why it would be any different here. Most attacks would take place at night, anyway, and the target would be asleep in their room. Yeah, it may be one of the first places anyone would look, but there's a reason people usually put panic rooms in there; it works." Sasuke explained. "We should probably check the kitchen, too."

"Alright, let's get started." Sakura said, putting on her "game face".

(Meanwhile, Outside)

Kakashi was almost casual as he leaned back and away from the tantō aiming for his neck, not even blinking as the blade passed just inches from his Adam's apple. In truth, it was just a façade, as it was taking quite a bit of effort on Kakashi's part to stay a step ahead of his opponent. Jinki had definitely improved since the last time they'd met. But the act was doing its intended job, which was to make Jinki angry. Not to make his fighting style sloppier, but simply to change the man's focus.

As it was, Jinki's style was an example of a near perfect balance in attack and defense. His blows were powerful, but he didn't commit himself to them, meaning he was able to change directions or halt completely mid-attack if something didn't look or feel right. And no matter how he attacked, he either guarded or positioned himself in such a way that his opponent couldn't slip through and hit anything vital. Kakashi recognized it as an older version of the Taijutsu style taught in the Academy, arguably as close to ideal as anything out there.

If he wanted to end this quickly, Kakashi knew he'd have to make Jinki drop his guard and go full-bore. Make him so hell bent on killing that he stopped thinking about protecting himself. And once there were openings to exploit, it would be over.

At least, that's how it was supposed to work out.

"Jinki." Unkai called. He'd been standing on the sidelines from the beginning, and seemed to have no intentions of entering the fray. One would think he was merely observing a sparring match if they saw him.

The Kurama clan's favorite son immediately disengaged upon hearing his name, though he never took his eyes off of Kakashi.

"Sir?"

"You talked about making him lose his cool, but you don't seem to realize that he's making you lose yours." Unkai chastised. "You are letting him get inside your head. Don't."

Jinki nodded and took a deep, calming breath, relaxing his muscles and loosening his stance. "Almost had me, Hatake. You won't get that close again."

Sending a silent curse the Kurama Clan Head's way, Kakashi ran through dozens of different strategies in his head. He needed to change tack and find another way to end things as quickly as possible. Unkai would most certainly intervene if it looked like Jinki was about to be killed, so what Kakashi needed was something so sudden that the "third wheel" of the fight wouldn't be able to react fast enough. The problem was that even with his huge repertoire of techniques, he didn't have much to work with for the situation at hand. Most of his techniques were either too slow, took too much chakra or lacked the raw power to instantly kill a fresh opponent of Jinki's caliber.

'Looks like I'll have to do this the old fashioned way.' Kakashi thought. He had a plan, but it required his opponent to be distracted. Fortunately, the Copy-nin was quite adept at the art of getting in peoples' heads.

Jinki's hands formed a familiar cross-shaped seal and two large clouds of smoke erupted from either side of him. Out of these clouds charged two Shadow Clones each, rushing Kakashi head-on.

The Sharingan-wielder took a deep breath and blew downward across the ground, kicking up a large cloud of dust and dirt with his Grand Gale technique. The clones didn't even break stride as they lost sight of Kakashi, but their creator stopped in his tracks. Something told him that making a move now would be a bad idea, so instead he held his position and took up a defensive stance.

Tiny wisps of white smoke mingled with the brown dust were the only warnings Jinki received before Kakashi exploded out of the cloud. It was pure combat instinct that allowed him to get his blade up in time to block the elongated kunai that would've severed his windpipe otherwise. However, the power behind the blow knocked him off balance.

Before Jinki could recover, Kakashi suddenly stepped forward and to the left, hooked his right leg behind Jinki's left and kicked backwards while pushing forward with his upper body. An unorthodox takedown that had the Kurama sprawled out on his back before the sequence of events even registered in his brain. Kakashi wasted no time in following up, bringing his kunai down dead center into his opponent's chest. He was only mildly surprised when said opponent went "poof" and burst into smoke.

Once again, instinct saved the Kurama's life, making him unconsciously switch places with a fifth Shadow Clone hidden in a tree as a nasty surprise for Kakashi. But the move granted only the briefest reprieve, as Jinki was quickly forced to vacate his new perch when a large fireball set it alight. Several more fireballs, much smaller and faster than the first, were launched at him in rapid succession, each one coming closer than the last. By the time the barrage ended, Jinki's clothing was singed in several places, and he was fairly certain his left eyebrow was gone. But he had no time to dwell on it; Kakashi was still on the offensive, bearing down on him with a kunai in each hand.

What the hell was going on here?! This wasn't how Kakashi fought! Being one of the main shinobi whose presence could prove disastrous to the clan's plot, Jinki had done extensive research on the man, even using what pull the Kurama still had to gain access to not-so-public information. Everything he read, plus his own admittedly limited experience working with the masked man on missions, said that Kakashi favored a style of combat focused heavily on hit-and-run tactics and counters. He peppered opponents with lightning-quick attacks, meant more to disorient and annoy than to do real harm, then backed off, goading them into exerting more energy by chasing him. He made opponents play by his rules, manipulating them into constant offense while he ducked, dodged and weaved around them, sneaking in more stinging blows whenever he could. Sometimes he'd even go after tendons and pressure points to disable body parts. And when the enemy was sufficiently tuckered out and/or loopy from a few dozen punches to the head, he'd finish them off quickly and efficiently by swiping a blade across the throat or slipping it between the ribs.

This relentless, up-front assault was something that no one had ever seen before, according to the records. Trying to overwhelm an opponent with sheer power and ferocity was the exact opposite of his usual M.O. That said, he was frighteningly good at it, packing a lot more strength than anyone would think by looking at his lean build.

It didn't take Jinki long to realize that the confusion and unease he was feeling now was the whole point of the radical change in fighting styles. Kakashi must have known that the clan would do their homework on him, and now he was rendering everything they had learned useless.

'Think you're clever, do you?' Jinki growled mentally. He was tired of playing defense, it was time to fight fire with fire and throw Kakashi for a loop.

The silver-haired man came at him again, but instead of putting up his guard and bracing himself, Jinki charged as well, running headlong into Kakashi with a fierce battle cry.

However, instead of shock or even mild surprise, Kakashi's expression remained calm and collected. In fact, that expression had yet to change since Jinki laid eyes on him. Even as he was raining down blows like a man possessed, his eyes remained half-lidded and lazy. Like he was bored out of his skull and wanted to get the fight over with so he could take a nap.

Jinki swung his tantō in a wide, horizontal arc. His blade clashed with Kakashi's and was redirected upwards as the man ducked under it and put himself into Jinki's personal space. Before the Kurama Jōnin could react, a knee was buried into his gut, nearly forcing his breakfast up from his stomach. As he doubled over, Jinki's brain screamed at him to move. No particular direction and in no particular way, just move, and move now. Throwing himself to his right, the Kurama rolled away just as Kakashi's kunai came down.

He didn't get out unscathed, but a slash along the side of the abdomen was better than a punctured lung.

Fully expecting Kakashi to press the attack, Jinki quickly got to his feet and raised his weapon, only to furrow his brow in confusion when he saw the man just standing there.

"You've gotten better since the last time I saw you in action, Jinki. I can see why your clan thought you would be their ace in the hole." Kakashi remarked casually, as if he wasn't in the middle of a life-or-death battle.

"Patronizing me now?" Jinki scowled.

"Not at all." Kakashi shook his head. "I'm simply pointing out that you would've had a bright future in Konoha."

"And I will still have a bright future, but in a place where my clan will get the respect it deserves."

At this, Kakashi chuckled humorlessly then, out of the blue, moved on to a different subject. "Tell me, Jinki, have you ever had a Genin team?"

"What? No, I had better things to do with my time." Jinki had done enough babysitting in his own Genin days, so there was no way in hell he'd volunteer for it as a Jōnin.

"Heh, you know, there was a time when I had that exact same mindset." Kakashi said. "And then I met my current team. They were supposed to fail, just like all the others before them. And by all rights they should have failed. Their teamwork was nonexistent and they were more likely to kill each other out in the field than an enemy. Combustible elements all around, myself included. I shouldn't have passed them, but I did, all because one of them challenged me and my pride wouldn't let me back down."

"As riveting as this story is, how about we-" Jinki started, only to be interrupted as Kakashi continued.

"My team was easily one of the worst to ever enter circulation, and it only went downhill from there. All because of me. But then I was forced to re-evaluate my life, my decisions and where they landed me. I didn't like the conclusion it led me to. I looked into a mirror without my rose-tinted glasses and I found something horrible staring back. I hit rock bottom and it almost killed me, several times over in fact. But things have been looking up ever since. I've never felt better and my cute little students are improving by leaps and bounds every day. We're an actual team now!" Kakashi flashed his signature eye-smile.

"…And I'm supposed to care?" Jinki grumbled, having half a mind to rush Kakashi while his eyes were closed, but thinking better of it in the end. It had to have been a ploy to sucker him in.

"Yes, actually. It's a pity you never got to meet my students. Legends in the making, all of them. They're a quirky bunch, no doubt, but they're nice kids…Well, at least two of them are. You should count yourself lucky you won't be meeting the third."

Jinki snorted. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"If you've done your research on me, surely you know about Team Seven and its members…Or maybe you didn't bother looking into them? Afterall, they're just Genin, right? Minor annoyances at best. I almost feel sorry for you. I guarantee you that Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura could have taken any Genin in your clan, some of the Chūnin, too. But Namikaze Naruto is on an entirely different level. One that I've found myself unable to match as of yet. There is no one in your clan who can stand up to him. Not you, not Unkai, no one." were it not for the mask, Jinki would've seen a smug smirk on Kakashi's face that didn't at all suit him.

"'Namika…The Jinchūriki?"

"That's right, Konoha's own 'Demon Child'." the moniker left a bad taste in Kakashi's mouth, but it was all for effect. "I'm sure you've heard the rumors, about him single-handedly beating Zabuza, the Demon of the Bloody Mist? Well, if Zabuza being right here in Konoha isn't proof enough, I'm here to tell you that they aren't just rumors. I saw him do it with my own eyes. Twice. That boy is a monster, and do you know where he is right now? About half a mile to the Northwest, making you eligible for the Clan Restoration Act."

"The hell are you rambling about now?" Jinki groused.

"Can't you feel it? The chakra signatures of your family members dropping like flies? I sure can. You know that chakra spike you felt earlier? That wasn't a call for help; it was to make you all come to him so he wouldn't have to waste time hunting you down one by one."

"…That's it? You're supposed to be infamous for your methods of throwing opponents off their game, and that bullshit was the best you could come up with?" Jinki laughed mockingly.

"You don't have to take my word for it." Kakashi shrugged. "Why don't you feel around for their chakra, see how many nieces and nephews you have left?"

Another bout of laughter was cut short when Jinki took his fellow Jōnin's advice. "No…" he breathed, eyes wide in horror as he felt three familiar chakra signatures suddenly vanish in rapid succession. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. Six…Seven…

A sharp pain in his chest halted Jinki's count. He found himself staring blankly into Kakashi's eyes, still sporting that unfocused, lackadaisical look. When did he get so close? Turning his gaze downward, the Kurama's eyes widened when he saw the man's kunai embedded dead center into his chest, nearly up to the handle.

Kakashi simply watched as Jinki dropped his weapon and stumbled back, allowing all eight inches of the kunai blade to slip out, and fell to his knees. Sparing a glance at his surroundings, Kakashi's expression finally changed when he realized Unkai Kurama was nowhere to be found.

"Shit!" he hissed. The safe house barrier was still intact, but that just meant that Unkai could be anywhere. Lurking in the trees, waiting for an opportunity to strike, turning back to help his clan, or making a run for it by himself.

Whatever, Unkai could wait. Regardless of how important a target he was, for Kakashi his students came first.

As he moved towards the safe house, he was stopped by a ragged, wheezing voice.

"Where…Where the fuck do you think you're going?" Jinki snarled, glaring at Kakashi with every ounce of rage and hatred he had as he stood on shaky legs.

Kakashi's expression changed again, this time settling on a look of pity.

"…Die." he said, his voice barely above a whisper as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "Please, for your own sake, just give up and die." in the past, Kakashi had been of the mindset that death was too good for traitors and that they deserved something worse. But now that he had experienced that "worse" firsthand, he couldn't bring himself to wish it on another.

"I will…But not before I kill you!" Jinki brought his hands up for a sluggish and clumsy set of seals. He would never finish them.

"I warned you. Don't ever say that I didn't warn you." and with that, Kakashi turned his back on the dead man standing and marched toward the safe house door.

"Come back here, you bastard!" Jinki yelled, pushing himself to take a step forward through sheer determination. He went to yell again, but his breath caught in his throat when a shadow suddenly loomed over him.

Against his will, Jinki's body moved, slowly turning to face whatever was behind him. The first thing he saw was black, like someone had stuck one of those cardboard silhouettes there. It wasn't until he made out the slightly glossy buttons that he realized he was looking at a suit. A very large suit. On a very large man. A man with spindly arms that reached down to his knees. Knees that were part of legs nearly as long by themselves as Jinki was tall.

Once more Jinki's body moved on its own, his head tilting back to look up at the thing that stood before him. All he saw was more black, until the color scheme was broken by the white dress shirt under the suit, as well as the crimson necktie. When his eyes finally landed on the "man's" face, that was when all color drained from his own. And he screamed.

Kakashi did his best to block out the sounds. The wailing. The whimpering. The laughing. The ripping. He'd heard it all before, dozens of times over back in that place. And dozens more when he tried to sleep. But it always got to him. It pierced through the experienced ninja, trained killer and unflinching pragmatist in him, right down to his very core. Where the decent, and vulnerable, human being resided. Kakashi prided himself on his ability to mess with his enemies' heads, but the Watcher defined the term "old pro" when it came to mind games.

With one final, sickening "crunch", the noise ceased. But Kakashi didn't dare look. It wasn't until he heard something collide with the safe house's outer wall, and felt something warm and wet spray onto his face, that he even opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was a huge blood spatter to the left of the door, then what was left of Jinki's body on the ground below it. Mangled and twisted, organs removed and face forever frozen in a mask of unfathomable terror.

Kakashi knew the Watcher was still there, but keeping its distance. Whether it was because it was wary of Kakashi himself, or because of Ren's "Repulsion" charms, he didn't know.

(Flashback, 5:00am)

While it wasn't at all abnormal for Kakashi to be up before the sun, it was strange for him to be fully dressed in his standard uniform at such an hour. Normally he took the opportunity to simply lounge about and enjoy the peace and quiet of his condo. But that was before a grotesque creature appearing out of thin air or crashing through a window to mutilate him became a very real possibility. He had to be on guard at all times, ready to fight for his life, and his soul, at a moment's notice.

He briefly wondered if this was what it was like to be Genma, though that man was paranoid by choice.

A sudden and rather obnoxious knock at his door nearly made Kakashi jump out of his skin.

"Hey, Cyclopes, open up! It's Ren!" came an accented voice, followed by another round of knocks, even louder than before.

Even as a feeling of relief flooded his system, Kakashi had to roll his eyes. It was like Ren made a conscious effort to be a dick at all times. He had half a mind to take his time answering the door and make the insufferable smartass wait, but he knew Ren would only get louder and louder. Eventually, he'd wake up the whole damn building, if he hadn't already.

Grumbling under his breath, Kakashi looked through the peephole in the door and froze. He leaned away and blinked a few times while shaking his head, then looked again. Nope, he wasn't seeing things.

As he opened the door, Kakashi couldn't suppress a chuckle. The "civilian" before him stood at five-foot-five, with black, greasy, jaw-length hair and eyes hidden behind thick glasses. He was decked out in a dark green t-shirt that was at least one size too small and covered in sweat and food stains, and khaki shorts that had definitely seen better days. But what really got Kakashi was the fact that the man had to weigh a good three-hundred and fifty pounds.

"Don't even start, Chuckles. I just got here and Tons o' Fun was the best I could find on short notice." Ren groused. The fat slob was the only person he could find who was still asleep and ripe for possession after twenty minutes of searching. Apparently, even the non-ninjas woke up at ungodly hours around these parts.

"Whatever you say, but you'll understand if I'm a little hesitant to let you in. You could've taken a shower before you came here." Kakashi said, scrunching up his nose for emphasis.

"Wouldn't have made a difference." Ren replied with a shrug. "I ran the whole way here, about two miles or so. I'll have to drop him off at the hospital when I'm done, since I'm sure the fat fuck'll have a heart attack the moment I let him go.

"I see…Probably a dumb question, but is he still, you know, awake in there? As in, can he see and hear us talking, and will he remember any of it?"

"You're right, that was a dumb question." Ren snorted. "As far as this guy knows, he's still asleep. And having some very fucked up dreams, I might add. I should probably just dump him in an alley and let his heart explode, add to the good karma I've been building up lately."

"…"

"Right, off track. I don't care if you let me in or not, since I'm not the one who's gonna have to deal with the questions and accusatory stares when people hear what I've got to tell you."

"…Fine." Kakashi sighed and opened the door fully, allowing Ren to step into the condo.

"Well, let's get right down to it. I don't wanna be here any longer than I have to, especially not when I'm carrying this shit around." Ren grimaced as he pulled two small pouches out of his pockets, one dark green and the other orange. "At first, I was gonna give you a Veil Charm; something that hides your presence from Spirit Beasts. But that would've been pointless, since I'm guessing this 'Watcher' already knows where you live, and would probably enjoy the extra challenge of trying to find you without being able to sense you."

Kakashi nearly flinched at that. Something that would make it even more fun for the Watcher to torment him? No thanks.

"So I settled on these two Repulsion Charms. This," Ren tossed the orange pouch to Kakashi, "is an Active one. Think of it like a spiritual flash-bang grenade; you set it off and whatever's bothering you should fuck off back to the hole it crawled out of. It uses your Spiritual energy to work and the effect is directly proportional to how much you put into it. At higher levels, that thing can kill even some of the tougher Spirit Beasts, though don't expect it to do much more than burn the 'Watcher'. You told me it doesn't know how to deal with pain, so even a minor injury should be enough to make it leave you alone for a while. Don't go around spamming it, though. It isn't sentient and doesn't know when to stop taking your Spiritual energy, and if it sucks it all out, that's it, no more soul for you."

Kakashi nodded in understanding and opened the pouch. Inside was a small, unassuming, black marble. He was about to voice his skepticism, but upon closer inspection he found that the marble gave off a faint purple glow, which intensified when he touched it.

"And the other one?"

Ren hesitated, but handed the green pouch over. "This is a Passive Repulsion Charm. Do NOT open that thing! Not while I'm still here!" he warned when he saw Kakashi pulling on the sides of the pouch.

"Huh?"

"It's called 'Passive' for a reason. It doesn't actually do anything to repel Spirit Beasts, it just makes them not want to come near you. In human terms, when that thing is on your person, you might as well be walking around in a coat made of dead skunks, dipped in cat piss, with animal shit and fermented fish crammed into every pocket. A single whiff can knock any lesser Spirit Beasts out cold, and anything else won't come within a mile of you. Regular humans and animals can't smell it, but we sure as fuck can. That pouch was the only reason I was able to carry it with me, so please, for the love of everything that's good in the world, don't open it."

"Okay…How do I use them?" Kakashi asked, tucking the green pouch away into a vest pocket.

"With the Active one, all you have to do is keep it charged with energy. It'll stay dormant until a Spirit Beast is nearby, then you can consider it 'armed'. That means it also acts like an early warning system, so make sure you pay attention to it. From there, it reacts to you and your emotions. The moment you fear for your life in the presence of a Spirit Beast, it'll go off. Simple, yeah? The Passive one is always on and sustains itself, so just keep it in your pocket or whatever."

"Got it...Thank you, Ren. To be honest, I didn't really expect you to come through, though I hoped you would. Nothing against you, it's just that, as a ninja, I've been trained to always assume the worst." Kakashi bowed deeply to Ren in a display of gratitude.

"Don't mention it. You scratched my back, this is me scratching yours. But it's good to know you appreciate it, especially since I went through the effort of getting you something extra." reaching into one of his back pockets, Ren produced a single slip of blue paper with all manner of strange markings written all over it in dark red ink.

"That…looks like something I don't want to mess with." Kakashi said, eyeing the tag warily. It was obviously some kind of seal, and manmade seals could be freaky and dangerous enough on their own; the Yondaime and Jiraiya were proof enough of that. But a seal coming from an otherworldly being, hailing from a parallel dimension where the rules and laws of the universe may or may not apply in the same ways? Who knew what that thing was capable of.

"Smart man. Luckily, you don't have to mess with it; just stick it on a wall and it'll do the rest on its own. You know those spirit tags priests use for exorcisms and that kind of shit? Well, this is the original. Arcane shit from waaay before my time, written in a language that only the oldest Spirit Beasts would know, using the blood of one of the Judges of the Dead…At least, that's what the books say. Like I said, it's all way before my time. This thing had been around for over four-thousand years before I was even a dirty thought in my dad's head." Ren explained.

"…And you're giving it to me?"

"What, you think it's the only one? Please, there are thousands more where this came from."

"Okay…So, what does it do?" Kakashi questioned, staring dumbly at the seal in his hands, unable to make heads or tails of anything he was seeing.

"Keeps shit out, to be concise about it. Put that bad boy up, and nothing of spiritual origin can enter this building. That means no ghosts, no Spirit Beasts, no minions from Limbo; this shit's so powerful that not even the 'Watcher' should be able to ignore it…Keyword there: 'Should'. At full power, it probably could still waltz in here whenever it wanted. But I've got a theory that it sacrifices a good chunk of its power just to get through the dimensional barriers between the worlds, and has a limited amount to spare while it's here, since it would still need enough to get back to Limbo. So, at the very least, that tag might make it more trouble getting to you than it's worth. Better than nothing, right?"

Kakashi's stare turned to one of reverence as he nodded in agreement. He wanted to put the tag up immediately, but a thought crossed his mind that stopped him.

"If this seal will is made to keep things out, what will it do to something that's already inside?" the last thing he wanted was to kill the being who'd helped him so much.

"Beats me, and I damn sure ain't waitin' around to find out. Later."

(Flashback End)

For the briefest moment, Kakashi considered taunting the creature. But then he remembered what happened the last time he made it angry and wisely thought better of it. Instead he opted to ignore it, or pretend to anyway, and go about his business. For the Watcher, it was all about the thrill of the hunt. Wearing his victims down mentally and physically until they were too weak to keep resisting. So it stood to reason that the Watcher would move on to some other prey if Kakashi made himself a very boring target.

However such a strategy also ran the risk of angering the pseudo-God. Or worse, making him decide to up the ante to provoke the desired response. But it was the only thing even vaguely resembling a gameplan that Kakashi had, so he went with it and began the sequence of handseals needed to bring down the safe house's barrier.

He hoped his students would forgive him for working so slowly, but it was the only way he could ensure that his trembling hands wouldn't cause him to mess up.

For a few seconds, nothing happened, though Kakashi knew He was still there, earning the title bestowed upon him by his victims. Then things got weird. Well, weirder. Kakashi froze mid-seal as the environment around him started to drain of color. The vibrant blue of the sky and the deep greens of the leaves and grass turned dull, while the browns of the dirt and tree trunks became lifeless shades of grey.

Kakashi's first response was sheer panic, figuring that it was a new trick the Watcher had pulled out of his long sleeves. But he soon remembered something Ren had told him during their first meeting. Since his soul had been in contact with a Spirit Beast, and survived, he was now "Touched", which afforded him certain gifts. One of them was something Ren had dubbed "Ghost Vision", and what Kakashi was seeing now was exactly what the foul-mouthed bird had described.

Quickly pulling a small mirror out of a vest pocket, Kakashi checked his reflection for the telltale sign. Sure enough, two milky-white eyes stared back at him, like a zombie out of a movie.

A blue flash to his left caught his attention. When he looked, his jaw dropped at what he saw. Rising from Jinki's mutilated corpse was a shining, blue orb. Jinki's soul, or at least part of it, as more vapor-like energy was still flowing out of the body. But instead of going into the orb, it gathered around it until it formed a vaguely humanoid shape.

At any other time, it would've been a beautiful thing to behold. But Kakashi had only seconds to gawk at it before a massive hand snatched the orb out of the air. He swore he could hear it screaming. Who could blame it? Kakashi would've been screaming as well, if he'd been able to breathe.

The last time the Watcher had been this close, Kakashi had been a microsecond away from…whatever the hell happened when a soul "died" in Limbo. Fortunately, the Pseudo-God wasn't paying any attention to him, as he had a new toy to play with.

So He was caught completely off guard by the sudden blinding flash, and the searing pain that came with it. With an otherworldly shriek, composed of countless voices all wailing in unison, the Watcher vanished into thin air, Jinki's soul in tow.

Free of the all-consuming terror that had locked his body in place, Kakashi collapsed to his knees, quickly pulled down his mask and purged the contents of his stomach. When there was nothing left to expel, the Jōnin rocked back into the safe house door and sat there, silently thanking Ren, though at this point it could've been considered praying. Afterall, the bird had done more for him in two days than Kami ever had in a lifetime.

Kakashi sat there like that for over a minute before the sound of rustling foliage drew him from his reverie. He lifted his head just in time to see Naruto step out of a row of tall shrubs.

"Mission accomplished, Hatake-san." the masked boy chuckled, brushing a leaf from his shoulder. As he stepped out into the open, the first thing he noticed was the huge impact spatter on the cabin's outer wall. "Looks like I'm not the only one who had some fun around here." Naruto wasted no time in inspecting the body, nodding appreciatively as he looked it over. "Hmm…I'd give it a solid 'eight'…But I have to bust you down to a 'six' for vomiting." he gestured disdainfully at the puddle of sick near the corpse.

"…" Kakashi opened his mouth to say something, but ended up responding with a mere shake of the head.

"Only one?" Naruto asked, still looking at the body, but this time with a furrowed brow hidden behind his mask. Mangled though it was, the body was still mostly in one piece. Mostly. The heart, lungs, liver and kidneys had been removed, leaving the chest cavity virtually empty.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that this wasn't Kakashi's kill, but Naruto opted to keep his thoughts to himself for the time being.

"No. Unkai was here before, but I've got no idea where he went."

"What, you lost track of him in the middle of a fight?"

"He wasn't fighting."

"Hiding?"

"No, just standing there, letting Jinki do all the work."

"…So because he didn't attack you, you decided not to attack him?" by now, the urge to stab was rapidly welling up within Naruto.

"No, I barely paid attention…to…him…Goddammit." Kakashi couldn't believe it. Even with his Sharingan uncovered, Unkai had managed to hit him with a Genjutsu and sneak by him.

When most people thought of "Genjutsu", they thought of techniques that made the target hallucinate; made them see things that weren't really there. And while those were the archetypical types of illusions, they represented only one end of the spectrum. At the other end were techniques that could subvert the senses and render the caster undetectable to the target. Sight, sound, smell, none of it would register and the victim would go about their business as if the caster didn't exist.

Fortunately, these types of Genjutsu required chakra control on a ridiculous level, so they were as rare as they were dangerous. But it looked like Unkai Kurama was one of the few who possessed that kind of control. Not entirely surprising, all things considered, but it wasn't what Unkai did that concerned Kakashi. It's what he didn't do that set the Jōnin on edge. Instead of helping his nephew and slipping a blade between Kakashi's ribs, Unkai left what was possibly his last living family member to die.

"You should be dead." Naruto commented, thinking out loud more than anything.

"That seems to be the case an awful lot these days." Kakashi grumbled as he stood up. He wanted to think he was still alive because someone up above liked him. But at this point he couldn't shake the feeling that it was simply because that "someone" wasn't done fucking with him yet.

"Welcome to the club. The others are already inside, right?" Naruto gestured to the cabin.

"Yeah. I'll check up on them, see if they've got the girl. I take it you'll be going after Unkai?"

"Mm-hm. I've got some more hunting to do, anyway. There are supposed to be thirty-seven nuke-nin out here, and I've only got twenty-nine confirmed kills. I'll be looking for Anko, too, see if she's found Team Eight yet."

Then, just as Naruto was about to create a hunting party of clones, a scream rang out from inside the safe house. A shriek of pure terror, so loud that it made both Naruto and Kakashi flinch and cup their sensitive ears. A second later, they shared a look. There weren't many people either of them knew who had a set of lungs like that, and only one of them was out here right now.

All thoughts of escaping Kuramas were immediately put on the back burner as Kakashi flew through the seals to deactivate the barrier.

(Forest, 4:00pm)

After Naruto had left her to her own devices, Anko had quickly homed in on the source of the blood. What she found wasn't as bad as she had feared, but still had some terrible implications. It wasn't human blood, though there was a small bit of it, too, but there wasn't much good news after that. It was canine blood, and though there wasn't that much, one had to consider the size of the dog it had to have come from. She had seen Tsume's son's puppy before and it was a tiny little thing, so even that relatively minor amount of blood loss could've been lethal. Especially if the kids couldn't stop the flow after the fact.

The only real high point was that Team Eight had managed to escape from whatever conflict they'd gotten into, though Anko had some difficulty discerning where they had escaped to. Frustrating though it was, she couldn't help but be proud. Even with a sensei like Kurenai, who knew fuck all about tracking, the trio had managed to cover their tracks well enough to give a pro like Anko trouble.

It took longer than she would've liked, but the Tokubetsu Jōnin eventually found a halfway decent trail to follow. One that led her to a "warm spot"; a higher concentration of scent molecules, indicating that the group had stopped for a bit. This allowed her to get a good whiff of deodorant, most likely used by the Inuzuka, which led her to five more hiding places. Along the way, she even found evidence that the team wasn't just running and hiding, in the form the bodies of two Kuramas, stabbed through the head and looted of all valuables, stuffed under a rotting log.

That had brought a smile to Anko's face…And then she ran into a problem. A problem that was currently unconscious and slung over her left shoulder: Kiba Inuzuka.

To be more accurate, he had run into her, bursting through a tall bush in a dead sprint and nearly getting his head taken off by a startled Anko. Luckily, she'd recognized him as a friendly and stayed her hand. He was covered in his ninken's blood and looked about ready to piss himself, paying more attention to whatever was chasing him than what was in front of him.

Expecting enemy contact, Anko took out a kunai and readied herself, only to nearly kill the boy for a second time when he suddenly looked at her and shrieked. Tripping over his own feet, Kiba fell, then quickly began crawling backwards, screaming at Anko to get away from him all the while.

She had tried calm him down, but ended up having to wrangle him to the ground when he tried to run. When he tried to bite her hand, that was the last straw and Anko was forced to knock him out. Experience told her that he was likely caught in an illusion, which meant he had met up with a Kurama. With that in mind, Anko had picked him up and used her tongue to retrace his steps through the forest. There was no way the team would split up at a time like this, so if something had happened to the Inuzuka, it stood to reason the others were probably in trouble as well.

"Fuck, how many turns did you take?" Anko grumbled as she made a sharp right and jumped over some low foliage. That was the seventh such turn she had made while following the boy's trail. He'd done his damnedest to lose whoever or whatever he thought was after him.

But she eventually reached the end of the trail, marked by a dead body lying in the middle of a small game trail. A woman, maybe a bit younger than Anko herself, in standard Chūnin/Jōnin garb. Carefully setting the Inuzuka heir down, Anko went to inspect the body.

"No signs of a struggle, she didn't even unsheathe her weapon. Must've been an ambush." Anko thought aloud, then brushed the corpse's long, blood-caked hair away from her neck to expose the vicious wound that caused her demise. "Heh, kid tore her throat out." she smirked.

It was then that she noticed the position of the Kurama's right hand. Index and pinky fingers extended, middle and ring fingers curled into the palm; an Ox half-seal. That didn't bode well at all. The caster was dead, but the illusion was still active, which meant it was a self-sustaining Genjutsu. Which also meant that knocking the boy out didn't help anything; he'd still be under its effects when he woke up, if it wasn't wreaking havoc in his dreams already.

"I have to get him back to Hatake, see if that eye of his can break…" Anko trailed off when something small and white in her peripheral vision caught her attention. "…Oh, fuck…"

It was the puppy, Akamaru, pinned to the ground with the handle of a kunai sticking out of his back. It looked like he had come out from under the bushes at the wrong time and paid dearly for it.(1)

But…There was no sign of another assailant having been in the area, and the only traces of canine blood on the fallen Kurama were on her back.

'So then how…' Anko's heart clenched at the only conclusion she could come to. Whatever Genjutsu the boy was trapped in, it was obviously the kind that made him hallucinate. Based on his reaction to her, it likely made him see existing things as something else. When he looked at Akamaru, he must have seen something that frightened him enough to make him attack.

That was a special kind of messed up.

"Anko…" questioned a groggy voice.

The purple-haired woman barely managed to school her expression when Kurenai stepped/stumbled out into the open, gingerly holding the back of her head.

"Well, someone got their ass kicked." Anko quipped.

Ignoring the jab, or perhaps not even registering it, Kurenai made her way over to a tree she could lean on. Or she would've, if she hadn't tripped over something and nearly fallen flat on her face.

When she saw what she tripped over, it was like a few dozen explosive tags had gone off in her head, blasting away the cobwebs and putting everything into crystal clear focus. She heard a scream, which she soon realized was her own, as her eyes darted around the area.

Akamaru, the playful pup with seemingly infinite energy, viciously impaled.

Kiba, Team Eight's resident loudmouth, braggart and gold-hearted heavy-hitter, bloodied and unmoving on the ground.

A young woman Kurenai didn't recognize, eyes open but unseeing, blood flowing from a ragged hole in her neck and soaking into the earth.

And in the midst of it all, no worse for wear, Anko Mitarashi.

Said woman didn't bother hiding her scowl when her former "friend" stared at her with equal parts shock and accusation.

"Bodies laying everywhere and 'Psycho Bitch' Anko is the only one around, so she must have done it! Nevermind that one of them is a fellow loyal Leaf-nin, as well as one of her student's best friends, she totally did it." Anko mocked. "Fuck you."

"I'm sorry, I didn't me-"

"Shut up. Just shut up and fix your former student." Anko interrupted, gesturing to the Inuzuka.

"What do you mean 'fix' him? He needs a medic!"

"Maybe, but right now what he needs is someone who can break an advanced Genjutsu." Anko tilted her head towards the dead Kurama. "She hit him with something before she died."

"Oh, God!" Kurenai was at Kiba's side in a blink. Gently taking his head into her hands, she closed her eyes and concentrated.

Self-sustaining Genjutsu were like viruses, not content to stay within a single "host" and taking any opportunity provided to spread. Many a Field Medic could attest to this, having been "infected" while trying to heal someone who was afflicted. Using this phenomenon to their advantage, the Kuramas had developed a method for detecting and breaking such illusions quickly and with minimal risk to the victim. By pushing small amounts of their own chakra into the subject, similar to healing techniques, the user created a bridge between them. A bridge the Genjutsu would be quick to cross once the uncorrupted chakra source was detected. And once the bait was taken, the user could break the illusion as if it were cast on them in the first place, which would free the victim. Fine and dandy for said victim, but the procedure carried significant risk to the user, as he/she would become a victim themselves if they ended up biting off more than they could chew and couldn't break the illusion.

Fortunately, Kurenai was one of the best in the field. Unfortunately, even her experience and knowledge couldn't prepare her for what attempted to cross the bridge she created.

Anko instinctively took a step back when Kurenai suddenly recoiled away from the Inuzuka.

"Holy shit…" the red-eyed woman breathed.

Anko's eyebrows shot up when she heard that; Kurenai Yūhi didn't curse, as least not beyond "ass" and the occasional "bitch". In fact, she regularly reprimanded the Inuzuka for his frequent use of profanity, and once read Hinata the riot act when something vulgar slipped out in a rare moment of anger. To hear the woman herself say something like that…

"What's wrong?" Anko asked, already dreading the answer.

"This Genjutsu…I've never seen anything like it before. I've heard of them, but I've never actually SEEN one this powerful at work. It's…It's incredible. I only felt it for a second, but I-" Kurenai's rambling was cut short by a sharp whistle from her fellow femme fatale.

"Hey, focus." Anko ordered sternly. "You can drool over it later, right now he needs you to have your head in the game." and with that, she turned to leave.

"Wait! Where are you going?"

"To find the other two." Anko replied.

"What?!" Kurenai all but shrieked. "Why the hell are they out here?!" horrified though she was, Kurenai felt a bit of pride swell deep inside. Her former students had saved her from Jinki. No small feat, considering how thoroughly the man had crushed her.

"Why do you think, Yūhi?" Anko answered without breaking stride, not even entertaining the notion of telling Kurenai exactly why the kids had come. It was bad enough having to talk to the bitch at all; she would NOT let Yūhi have the moral high ground.

(Meanwhile, Safe house)

"Sakura, a little help here?!" Sasuke yelled as he let loose with a high roundhouse kick. A loud "crack" and the sound of a body hitting the floor signaled another felled enemy, but it hardly mattered. He might as well have been fighting a Hydra; for every one that he killed, two more took its place.

While his current opponents weren't even close to a challenge for him by themselves, the numbers game was catching up. With no idea what kind of countermeasures were in place within the structure, Sasuke didn't dare use any Ninjutsu techniques, so he was limited to Taijutsu. This meant he had to take them on one at a time, which wasn't working in his favor. The Uchiha had been fighting them off for barely a minute and he was already losing ground. He needed another pair of fists and feet, but the only ones available were limp and trembling behind him on the other side of the common room.

Their owner was going through a meltdown as she wracked her brain for answers as to how what she was seeing could possibly be happening. Zombies weren't real. They were confined to the realm of fantasy. Nevermind the plethora of so-called "mythical" creatures that had turned out to be real throughout human history; for the sake of Sakura's sanity, zombies COULD NOT exist…But then what were the rotting, groaning, shuffling, maggot-infested, humanoid things that were giving her teammate such a hard time?

No, they couldn't be zombies. Because if they were, Sakura wouldn't be able to fight them. Not with her kinemortophobia.(2)

It had taken hold when she was seven and stayed up well passed her bedtime to watch TV in the living room of her home. Her dad had fallen asleep and her mother was having some kind of "girls' night out" with her friends, so Sakura could do whatever she wanted. However, her dad had fallen asleep on top of the TV remote and, being a small child who really should've been in bed, Sakura had no interest in changing the channel manually. So she sat and watched whatever happened to be on. Unfortunately, what happened to be on was "Dawn of the Dead".(3) What followed was two straight hours of pure, unadulterated terror that had Sakura sleeping with a nightlight for three years.

Sakura thought she had gotten over it, but then she went to Wave Country. After witnessing the violent deaths of three-hundred men at the hands of Naruto and Zabuza, those old fears had come rushing back as soon as she went to sleep. While one would think her nightmares would've consisted of Naruto hunting her down and ripping her to pieces with his bare hands, in actuality it was the image of those three-hundred corpses getting back up in the dead of night and coming for her flesh that had her waking up in a cold sweat.

But this wasn't a nightmare; the hand-shaped bruise on her right forearm from where one of them grabbed her was proof enough of that.

"Goddammit..." Sakura whimpered through clenched teeth as tears flowed down her cheeks.

This mission was supposed to be her opportunity to prove her worth to everyone. Her teammates, her sensei, her parents and, most of all, herself. She had envisioned pats on the back and nods of approval; acknowledgement that did, indeed, belong on Team Seven.

But here she was, cowering in a corner, too scared to even move, let alone fight. After all the training, all the progress she thought she'd made, she was still useless.

Useless. There was a word that brought back memories. But one in particular, from just days ago, stood out in her mind.

(Flashback)

Sakura couldn't breathe. Her throat constricted, her lungs burned, her knees buckled and her heart raced. The world around her blurred and distorted, confusing her already-addled mind even further. She thought she heard someone call her name, but the sound was quickly lost in a droning buzz that was steadily becoming louder.

'Help me…Someone, please…help me…' the girl tried to speak, but only a strangled squeak came out. Her heart nearly stopped when two black boots appeared seemingly out of thin air on the ground in front of her. 'Help me…Sasuke…Kakashi…Mirano…Someone, please!' her entire body quivered violently as the sound of a sword being unsheathed pierced through the droning noise clear as a bell. "HE-!" finally she managed to scream, but it was abruptly cut off by a long, black blade piercing through her body from above.

Sakura's world went dark as she momentarily lost consciousness. As her brain rebooted, the first sense to return as her hearing.

"Sakura!" it was Sasuke. The genuine concern in his voice would've made her heart flutter under any other circumstance.

"Worry about yourself, Uchiha." another voice, this one further away. Deeper than Sasuke's and smooth to the point of near monotone. Obviously Naruto, a realization that made the pinkette's entire body shudder.

"But-GAH!" Sasuke's protest morphed into a startled yelp, followed instantly by the solid "thump" of a blow landing.

Apparently he was still getting smacked around by Naruto's clone, but at least he wasn't still stuck on stage one of Naruto's training regimen: Killing Intent Resistance. Which Sakura had just failed spectacularly. For the fifth time.

There was an exasperated sigh. "Twenty-seven seconds...You're actually getting worse."

It was true; last time she had gone thirty-one seconds before passing out.

Sakura finally stirred as the rest of her faculties returned. "Ugh..." she grimaced at the taste of bile and reached for her canteen. She didn't even notice she had thrown up again.

"Well at least you're recovering quicker."

Sakura waited for the second half of the backhanded compliment, but it never came.

"Dumb question, but would it kill you to go a bit easier on me?" Sakura almost cringed as the words left her mouth. Knowing Naruto, he'd turn it up a notch just to spite her now.

"I am going easy on you. You aren't a gibbering wreck, you haven't tried to kill yourself, and you haven't had a heart attack."

"...Point taken." Sakura replied nervously and stood up, wobbling a little. "Okay...I think I'm ready."

"...Do you know what fear is, Haruno?" Naruto asked, throwing the girl off.

"Um...Is...Is that a trick question?" she ventured.

"Fear is a tool. One of the most powerful in the arsenal of any ninja, and one that has been key to mankind's survival." Naruto said, beginning to slowly circle Sakura. "Fear can freeze you in place, make you second-guess your every move, it can even kill you outright. But also makes you cautious, makes you recognize your limits and think before you act. There is nothing wrong with being afraid; what's wrong is letting it control you. No matter how powerful and skilled you become, if you can't get a handle on your fears, you're useless."

(Flashback End)

Useless.

That word was the bane of Sakura's existence. It summed up what she used to be, and what she never wanted to be again. She had made a promise to herself that she would get stronger, be better, so there would never be any slack that her teammates would have to pick up. But she was breaking that promise now, leaving Sasuke to fight all on his own.

He was calling for her. He needed her help, the zombies were pushing him back more and more by the second. Sasuke, the last Uchiha, the prodigy, the one destined for greatness, needed her. This was it! This was the chance she'd been waiting for, and she was letting it slip through her fingers!

Almost subconsciously Sakura rose to her feet, fists clenched and eyes narrowed. Fuck fear. She had to deal with Naruto on a daily basis, and compared to him even the most horrifying undead creature might as well have been a kid in a Halloween costume.

Cracking her knuckles menacingly, Sakura rushed into the fray just as Sasuke was about to have a chunk taken out of him. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, she yanked him backward while pulling herself forward at the same time. The zombie that would've bitten down on Sasuke's hand instead got a vicious right cross that obliterated its skull. And as if that display of strength wasn't enough, before the body fell Sakura kicked it in the chest, sending it sailing back and knocking over at least ten of the shamblers.

Sasuke looked on in awe as his teammate tore through the creatures with a ferocity he had never known her to have. Even when she was pissed off, she never fought like this. It was downright scary and...inexplicably alluring. The snarl on her face, the fire in her eyes, the way her muscles rippled under her supple skin, the effortlessness with which she dispatched the undead, the way those shorts clung so tightly to her shapely rear...

"Oh, God!" Sasuke sputtered as he averted his eyes, but it was too late. With his Sharingan still active, he had just literally memorized every detail of Sakura's ass.

At least what he was able to see. No matter how tight they were, they were still an obstruction and he wasn't a Hyūga. Though he did notice a distinct lack of a panty line...

'Goddammit, Shiranui!' Sasuke raged mentally. This was his fault. Somehow, someway, Genma's shamelessness had infected the Uchiha's mind.

How else could it be explained? Here he was, in a life-or-death situation, and instead of jumping back into the fight he was perving on his teammate while she did all the work. Unacceptable.

However, before he re-entered the fray, Sasuke time and took a moment to slide his right arm warmer back over his wrist, revealing a watch integrated into the armored bracer underneath. A custom job Sasuke had commissioned last week, at Genma's insistence/demand. Sasuke hadn't argued, much. He didn't have that freaky "internal clock" that his brother had, and telling time by the position of the sun was a skill with limited usability. Plus, who knew when one of the plethora of features built into the watch would come in handy?

4:10pm. The Uchiha didn't know why he felt the urge to check the time, since it really didn't matter in a situation like this…But if that was the case, why did he feel like he was on the clock?

Whatever. Now wasn't the time for such strange thoughts; he had a teammate to help and a job to do. But just as Sasuke prepared to move in, he was struck with a headache that made his vision blur and his body collapse. In his training he had broken bones, torn muscles, dislocated joints, sliced tendons and suffered third-degree burns as well as concussions. But this was easily one of the most painful things he'd ever experienced.

Then, just as quickly as it started, it was gone. No lingering effects, no aftershocks; like nothing had happened at all.

It immediately set off warning bells in Sasuke's head, but before he could do anything, and all too familiar voice called out from above.

"Well, well, it looks like the little brother is growing up. Finally appreciating what the fairer sex has to offer."

Sasuke looked up with wide eyes, pupils dilated as adrenaline flooded his system. There, on the second floor looking down at him from over the railing, was Itachi.

"Hello, otōto." Itachi greeted in his typical monotone, staring down with those same fully-matured Sharingan eyes.

While Sasuke's first reaction was a mix of panic and rage, it didn't take long for his training to kick in. With flashbacks of the worst night of his life running through his head, Sasuke used them to compare with what he was seeing now.

Nothing had changed. Itachi hadn't aged a day and was still decked out in his ANBU gear. Even the blood spatter on his face and clothes was exactly how Sasuke remembered it. It was an illusion, it had to be. Something that used a person's worst fears against them. The sudden, crippling headache must have been the sign of the Genjutsu taking hold, rooting through the victim's mind what it needed. Sakura had suffered one as well just before she and Sasuke had entered the kitchen, which was where the zombies came spilling out just a few seconds later.

"You're not real." Sasuke said with conviction.

"Itachi" simply cocked his head slightly to the side, briefly reminding Sasuke of Naruto, then vanished. The younger Uchiha barely had time to so much as widen his eyes before an elbow strike to the side of the head sent him skidding across the floor.

"I am real enough, otōto."

Rolling to his feet, Sasuke bit out a Genma-esque string of curses. This was all kinds of bad. "Real enough" pretty much summed it all up. It didn't matter that they were stuck in an illusion, and it didn't matter if they knew it was an illusion. Regardless of whether or not what they were experiencing was actually happening, it was still real enough to hurt them. Real enough to kill them.

But maybe, just maybe, they still had a chance. A theory was forming in Sasuke's head, but he'd need to fight the Itachi replica head-on to test it.

'Screw it, not like there's an alternative.' with a quick set of handseals Sasuke summoned two Fire Clones and sent them to engage the fraud, while he himself brought up the rear.

"Itachi" seemed completely unfazed as he took on both clones at once, ducking and weaving between their attacks. But when Sasuke joined the fray, "Itachi" found himself hard-pressed to deal with the seemingly random, yet somehow perfectly coordinated three-pronged attack.

He went on the offensive, quickly destroying the clones so he could focus on the greatest threat. For a moment, the two matched each other blow for blow, neither scoring nor taking a hit. But eventually "Itachi's" speed advantage won out and Sasuke was forced to back off after being stunned by a aerial cartwheel kick.

In that moment, Sasuke had never been happier to get kicked in the face, or to have such an enigmatic sibling. His theory had been proven! Whatever Genjutsu they were stuck in relied totally on the victim's knowledge of the subject of their fear. And if that knowledge wasn't sufficient, it had to compensate with something else.

As brothers, Itachi and Sasuke had been fairly close, but not nearly to the extent that the latter had wanted back then. When he really thought about it, he knew next to nothing about his older brother. Not even his favorite color, let alone anything about his fighting style. All he knew was that Itachi was orders of magnitude stronger and faster, but that wasn't enough, so the illusion had compensated by making "Itachi" use Sasuke's own moves.

He may not have known too much about his brother, but one thing Sasuke did know was that Itachi was the ultimate pragmatist. He would see Sasuke's acrobatics as little more than wasted motion, a needless expenditure of energy that could be better used elsewhere. But the imposter had no problems leaving his feet for either evading or attacking. This meant that, for all intents and purposes, Sasuke was fighting a stronger, faster version of himself. Still not at all a good thing, but nowhere near as bad as having to fight the real Itachi.

That also meant that this fake didn't have the experience advantage the real deal would've. Not only was Itachi not one to "talk shop" at home, but as an ANBU he almost certainly wasn't allowed to discuss even the most minor of details about his missions with anyone other than the Hokage himself. No doubt Itachi had seen some shit in his time, but Sasuke had no idea what said shit was, and therefore neither did the fake.

'I still have to deal with an opponent who knows all my moves, but things could be a whole lot worse.' Sasuke thought.

"I think I may have to take back what I said about you growing up, otōto." "Itachi" said, arms folded and stance relaxed; not at all concerned with any possible attack from Sasuke. "You're just as much of a disappointment as ever. I wonder…what would mother and father think about your lack of progress? Let's ask them, shall we?"

Before he could respond, Sasuke caught movement out of the corner of his right eye. By the time he turned, he had less than a second to brace himself as Sakura barreled into him, sending them both to the floor.

"Sakura?! Are you alright?!" Sasuke asked frantically, fearing the worst.

"That…That was new." Sakura murmured as she rubbed her right forearm gingerly. She had gotten used to the slow, relatively weak zombies and had been totally unprepared when one show up that knew how to fight. She'd managed to block the kick, but the force behind it was something else.

It was a man, around six feet tall, with long, dark, blood-caked hair and dressed in a dark brown yukata. Unlike the other rotting sacks of meat, this one was relatively intact, fresh, only missing its bottom jaw. That said, the exposed tongue flopping and twitching around creeped Sakura out more than most of the other abominations she'd killed in the last two minutes or so.

While Sakura's eyes were trained on the man, Sasuke was locked onto the woman by its side. The left side of her face was gone, eaten off, and the eye socket spilled over with maggots and carrion beetles. More could be seen going to work on her organs through a huge, ragged hole in her abdomen, just under her right breast. Her right foot was bent at an odd angle, causing her to limp as she walked, and even from a distance the sound of the shattered bones of her ankle grinding together could be heard. Overall, not as bad as some of the others, but still horrifying in her own right.

But to Sasuke, she was something straight out of a nightmare. Because even with her wounds and deformities, he still recognized her.

"…Mom…?"

"I supposed it's unfair to compare you to me." "Itachi" said with a shrug. "At least, that's how you feel, right? You always hated playing second fiddle, having all of your 'accomplishments' compared to mine and found lacking. You always hated it when father would point out that I had done the same things at an even younger age. You always hated mother's patronizing attempts to comfort you, telling you that everything was alright, but never quite saying that father was wrong. I'm sorry you never got to air your grievances, but here's your second chance. Go ahead, give our dear parents a…piece of your mind."(4)

XXXX

And there you have it!

Not much to say in regards to the chapter, so…

(1): No animals were harmed in the making of this chapter. Except Akamaru. He is very, very dead. Come at me, PETA.

(2): Fear of zombies, obviously. Apparently, this is a real thing and there are enough cases where a word was created for it.

(3): Not "Dawn of the Dead" as we know it, either the original or the remake. Remember, Black Flames takes place thousands of years in the future of our world, and every now and then people stumble upon things that have survived from the past. When things like movies and tv shows are found, often times they are remade for the modern audience. So when I mentioned Jurassic Park in one of the earlier chapters, it was a remake of the original, with no guns, no cars, no helicopters, etc. Not particularly important, just a bit of trivia about the world.

(4): YEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!...Yeah, I know, the early 2000s called, they said: "Fuck you, that's still funny".

You guys know the drill. Until next time!

Jason Out!