Underdog Hollow

Author: Kraken's Ghost

Contact: Email is on my profile or just go to my homepage and leave a comment.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. Kishimoto does. Let's all cry ourselves to sleep now.


Grab, squeeze, stab, drag, drop.

Move, quiet, grab, squeeze, stab, drag, drop.

Flip, dodge, hide, distract, throw, catch, drag, drop.

You ever wonder if your life is getting…repetitive?

Block, ouch, bleed, yank, bleed, dodge, stab, bleed, heal, drag, drop.

Repetitive or not, this is all you've got.

Kill, hide the body, kill again.

When did you sign up for this?

Duck, spin, split, eww, grab, drag, drop, wipe, wipe, pick, flick, eww, move.

Eight years… Eight years since you got an engraved piece of metal giving you permission to kill.

Even three years ago just the idea of killing another human being would have made you queasy.

Two years ago you were using your fingers and toes to count your monthly kills

Ow, block, ow, punch, dodge, grab, snap, drag, drop, hide.

Nowadays you need to use your entire skeleton to count all the corpses you leave in your wake.

Stab, ulna. Slash, tibia. Crack, scapula. Crush, metacarpal.

You haven't had to add organs and teeth to your barbaric abacus yet, but you figure it's only a matter of time.


Ducked under the older man's slash and slammed chakra coated fingers into and through his sternum.


Silently dropped down from behind and twisted the shinobi's head 160 degrees to the right.


Let the kunoichi's rock-coated fist slam into and shatter the left elbow, so she'd be wide open for the katana's hilt shard to spill her innards onto the dusty floor.

You still care every time. You love fighting more than anything else. Almost anything else.

Except her.

But you hate killing.

You care about your enemies even as you cut them down. Never could hide that part of you, no matter how much you tried as a kid. Your empathy stains through the confidence you've bound it in.

Why are you fighting me? Why don't you just run away?

I will end you and still you waste yourselves trying to kill me.

Go home.

People love you.

Go home and stay alive.

You have a family.

Go home to them.

Don't wage war on us.

Just leave us be.

Stop seeding so much strife.

Give up and go home.

Why would you kill them?

Get lost.

Why kill helpless civilians?

Just get out of here.

You wouldn't give up.

Stop it already.

You just had to keep coming.

Leave our lands.

Just had to keep pushing.

There's no point to this.

Harder and harder, becoming more and more terrible, a bigger and bigger nuisance.

Go away.

Till you finally caught their attention.

Why couldn't you have just gone home?

And they're angry.

Run and never look back.

So they sent me to stop you.

Stab, drag, drop.

What's the name of the big toe bone?

You know, you used to look forward to missions. Desperately you wanted harder ones so you would grow stronger.

It's called a hallux, you think. You should ask her if that's the right word when you get back.

And now you loathe the very thought of leaving the village, because the only time you are sent out is to kill someone, but still you can't help but wait every day and see if they have a new task for you.

You can't help but kill again and again, if it's in their defense.

Even if every time you kill, another part of you dies along with your victim.

Grab, ow, grab, wince, grab, wheeze, flex, flex, break, gasp, drag, gasp, drop, pant, pant, move, pant, move.

Go home.

You want to go home. But home for you means being alone in the silence and in the dark with nothing to distract yourself from the agony haloing the cold void where your dreams used to be.

Demons don't dream. Monsters are nothing but intent.

They don't have a conscience to keep them up late at night.

Damn, grab, yank, yank, remove, collapse, wheeze, heal, heal, dodge, wince, roll, wheeze, ow, damn, burn, dodge, burn, ow, BURN, channel-grab-rip-tear-shred-maul-burn-rend-burn-gut-behead-BURN-kill-kill-kill-kill-burn-kill-burn-kill-burn-kill-burn-kill-collapse, wheeze, heal, pant, pant, heal, pant, stand, pant, move.

You're not a demon, but you haven't had a single nightmare in over a year.

It still hurts, and you still care in a distant way, but you don't think about it as much anymore.

When did you turn into such a proper killer?

You're not a demon, but that doesn't mean you haven't become a monster.


Haruno Sakura smiled at Shizune as she took the mission scroll. The younger medic quickly opened the bamboo tube and skimmed over the contents with a practiced eye. She allowed herself a brief, smug smile at the sight of the emblazed 'A' at the top of the paper.

"It's just an item retrieval, right? No expected resistance?" She asked her second mentor.

Shizune nodded as she straightened out some of the loose papers scattered across her part of the mission desk. Damn that Tsunade. She could make a mess just by looking at paperwork.

"Yes, we already cleared the opposition out for Team 7. You and Kakashi-san should be able to break the seals guarding the object fairly easily and return without any troubles. And even if our first sweep missed a few hostiles, well, between the three of you, you should be able to handle it." The soft spoken medic said as she rummaged around the drawers for something. After a moment, Shizune made an 'ah' sound and dragged a small, beaten mission statement out.

"What's that for, Shizune-sensei?" Sakura curiously asked as she was handed the wrinkled paper. It looked like it had seen better days months ago, but the date was only two weeks old.

"I know you don't speak to…well, him all that often anymore, but could you give that to him for me? We're swamped in here today and with Tsunade off Kami knows where, I can't afford to leave my post." Shizune answered with a grumbling sigh.

Sakura glanced down at the mission statement for a moment. Her eye traced the smudged 'C' on the upper left quadrant of the page. It was a mission to go and act as a bodyguard for the Fire Daimyo while he went on a week long stint around central Fire Country campaigning to boost his flagging popularity.

She would've been furious to be specifically assigned this mission even as a Chuunin. If it had been her this mission was assigned to.

Instead, she gave a sad smile and bowed low to her second instructor.

"Of course, Shizune-sensei. Will you tell Tsunade-sama I said hello?" At the older medic's nod, Sakura walked out of the room and made her way through the Hokage's Tower.

She felt bad. She truly did. Nobody she knew deserved to be relegated to such pitiful duties as this. Him least of all. Had he ever done anything to deserve this? That is, aside from turning out to be human after all? For being just as prone to mistakes and just as vulnerable as everyone else?

Sakura frowned slightly as she walked through the streets of Konohagakure. The overcast sky seemed to reflect the melancholy part of her mood, but that thought quickly faded in the face of the familiar excitement she felt as she saw her sensei and teammate waiting for her near their new meeting spot. She waved and ran towards them with all the energy of a twelve year old.

No, he didn't deserve it. Not really. But that didn't mean some part of her didn't feel a powerful sense of primal satisfaction at the thought of surpassing the seemingly invulnerable. Of beating the seemingly unbeatable. Of seeing a fighting god, a reborn prodigy, falling into ruin.

Really, was it her fault his strength and endurance had turned out to be an illusion? Was it her fault that the powers and skills he'd gained turned out to be a mask hiding a pathetic little boy who hadn't grown beyond the trauma of his past?

Sakura made some quick excuses to her teammates, her family, her life, after she passed on the mission statement to them.

"You're meeting us at the gate, right?" Her teammate said. She blushed a little. Years ago she would've blushed at anything a crush of hers said, but now it was the look in his eyes that made her cheeks warm.

"Of course!" She said cheerfully. "I just have to make a quick stop first. I'll see you guys there!"

Sakura waved happily as the other two members of Team 7 moved off through the crowds. She herself started to walk off, but hesitated as she didn't know where her target was likely to be lurking. Okay, not so much lurking, at least not anymore, but certainly not doing much of anything.

The bridge, where the old team used to meet. He sometimes sat on a bench near there, staring at nothing in particular.

Sakura frowned a little as she moved off, but her good mood refused to leave her entirely even when marred by thoughts of her disgraced comrade.

But Kami, even death would be a better fate than his.

The crowds of the market sector gave way to the narrower alleys of the dining sector which opened back out into the gardens that lay sprinkled in between the western training grounds. Sakura reached the bridge the team used to meet at and looked about the tranquil scene. At first she frowned in annoyance and some guilty relief, thinking that he'd disappeared off to someplace else.

Then out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a dark blur of color that didn't fit it with the light tones of the garden.

…Oh…He is here.

Sakura stared for a long time at the back of the man who used to be her teammate. A Chuunin level ninja or higher would have sensed her presence with ease, but he…

He didn't.

The medic-nin found herself standing behind his bench without even realizing she'd moved. To her vision, he slowly rotated as she quietly stepped around till she could rest one hand on the black iron arm of the bench. Her pale lips twisted in a frown as she stared down at him as though she wanted to memorize the fiber-weave of his navy colored shirt.

His messy, dull hair.

His pale, almost sickly skin.

His thin, almost withered limbs.

His emotionless, almost dead face.

He was staring at the small pond in front of them. There was little agitation in the waters, making them appear pure enough to drink untreated. A small bit of the sun's rays had broken through the gray skies and highlighted this little garden with a golden halo that reflected off the shimmering clear waters and alabaster water lilies into his eyes. The bright sheen of sky blues, ethereal golds, and wispy whites failed to bring life to his dull eyes.

How cruel the world works. To give him such a powerful chance at his dreams, his goal, and then to snatch it away in just a handful of moments.

His hands were resting on his knees. Milky white against jet black. It was rather cool out, but the dark pants he wore were threadbare to the point that a gentle breeze could cut through them. His way of subtly defying Fate by the only means he had left.

He had to be aware of her presence by now, as her shadow had hung over his still form for well over two minutes, but he gave no acknowledgment of her.

If it weren't for the vein she could see twitching through the translucent skin of his neck, she could have mistaken him for a corpse.

"You have a mission."

It tore through the air and setting with the grace of a jagged blade ripping through frozen meat. The hole in the clouds collapsed and took their little patch of sunshine with it, as though some cosmic being was snatching away a beautiful offering from a child found unworthy. The false sheen disappeared from his eyes.

She could almost feel an accusation hanging in the air.

How could you? The air around us is choked and swollen with old tensions and unsaid words and you burst it with the subtlety of lancing an overfull boil with a splintered stick.

And you call yourself a medic.

"Hokage-sama…She….Um, she got a request from the Daimyo."

No response.

"He needs a bodyguard for…He's going campaigning and he needs someone to watch over him."

No twitching in the fingertips.

"It…I know it's not that…high level, but it's C Rank. It'll look…good, on your record."

No sudden intake of air.

"The pay is high. Almost as much as a B Rank. Politicians…Like to….well…give incentive."

No jump in his pulse rate.

"There's not going to be much…um, there's not expected to be any problems, but just in case…You know."

No dilation of the eyes.

"It's not bad. The Daimyo was told you can't…about your con…about you. But it doesn't matter, ne? Tsunade-sensei trusts you enough to pull this off. You won't let her down, right?"


Sakura let out a sigh, but it didn't relieve any of her tension. It wasn't like she was facing down Orochimaru; this man was her friend.

Was her friend.

"Here." She said as she held out the dirty mission paper to him. She didn't dare hold it in front of him. Just far enough out that it was in his field of vision.

The wind moved the paper in her clenched fingers, as well as some of his hair, but it didn't make a sound.

"It's…It's the only mission…The war makes lots of missions, but not many for a Genin that can't…Not many that you can do." She said in quiet voice.

He didn't move a millimeter.

"Please just take it. You might not get another one." Sakura said in little more than a hoarse whisper.

Five long heartbeats, then his left hand slowly rose in the air. It moved with mechanical precision and closed white fingers around the wrinkled edge of the paper.

Sakura tensed, but his fingers came nowhere near touching hers as he pulled the paper from her grasp.

She still shivered as a bit of cold air displaced by his fingers touched the back of her hand.

The paper laid on his left thigh, with its mocking C staring up at him as though daring him to look at it.

Slowly, painfully so, he tilted his head down to stare at the print.

For one long minute, he stared at the page. Minute flicks of his eyes were the only indication he was reading it at all. Then he looked back up at the pond.

Sakura shifted her weight from the ball of one foot to the heel of the other.

"I know you might not like it, and I know you don't want to be stuck babysitting a politician, but it could do you some good to get out of Konohagakure for a little while. Get out and meet some new people. You've hardly left the village since…since then. Who knows? You could make some new friends or maybe even meet a gir-"


Sakura closed her eyes and pressed her lips together at the sound of his voice.

A brief rushing of dead leaves through a graveyard.

"I… Good, that's good." She nodded, less talking to him and more to try to fill the horrible silence between them.

And suddenly she had to leave, had to get away from this shell of the warrior god she'd fought beside, the burning prodigy she'd admired for so long, the man in boy's skin that she'd lo-

…She had to get away.

"I…The old team has some duties to do. A couple boring missions to take care of. None of us… Well, it's really quite dull and all, but I still need to go meet up with them and I'll see you lat- …I'll see you around sometime."

His silence didn't speak volumes; it screamed torrents. He raged and screamed and cursed the pitiless Fate that had left him to this half-life all with a single, slight twitch of his left hand.

The message was clear as the waters of the pond.

Don't add insult to injury, Haruno. Just go while we both have some dignity.

Sakura left.

She left the tranquil, empty place and returned to the bustling streets of Konoha. She left the cold, empty man to the calm, warmth of her teammate and Jounin-sensei. She left the ashes of a failed life behind to the future in her companion's eyes.

She tried to smile, and succeeded mostly, but she couldn't hide much from her boyfriend's sharp eyes.

"You saw him, didn't you." He stated, not asked.

"Yeah, I did." Sakura replied. She took the offered pack and shouldered it to her back.

"And?" The lack of emotion from him seemed out of place, but she knew it was just because of how close the two had been at one time. He'd taken it hard to lose his comrade and brother in arms.

"He's the same. Same as the last time and every other time before that." Sakura managed to say without hitching her voice.

It got easier every time.

"I see." He said as he turned away. Kakashi was already waiting for them past the gates and they hurried to catch up.

"Don't take it so hard. It wasn't…It wasn't all your fault." Sakura said as she brushed her fingers along the cool skin of his hand.

"I know. Believe me, I know. But still… It's my only regret, you know." He quietly said.

Sakura smiled a little in reassurance. But with his back to her, he didn't see her smile.

And she didn't see his smirk.

But it was gone in an instant and soon Team 7 was on its way onto yet another adventure, leaving the Leaf and its inhabitants behind.

And back at the empty garden, on his forgotten post, the shell of a man opened his eyes and stared at the paper on his lap again. He let out a soundless breath of air from his lungs and allowed his faded eyes to stare off into the darkening skies.


A glimmering black knight slid three squares forward and one right, displacing a rust red rook that vanished into a wisp of crimson vapor.

A red pawn slid forward a single space to block a bishop's path.

An obsidian queen slid a long, relentless march down the emptied path and dispelled a corroded knight.



The surviving knight maneuvered around a black bishop into position.


The queen of obsidian retreated a few squares.

"Nothing to say?"


A red rook moved across the board.

A black bishop moved forward.

The scarlet queen claimed it for her own.

And a black pawn completed the noose around the rust king's neck.

"Checkmate. Fifth game in the row. Usually you've won at least one by now."


"What's this? When did you become so silent?"


All the pieces vanished into a marbled cloud of crimson and jet which reformed into four rows of chess pieces.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather play a game of Go? You do fairly well at that one. Foreign games don't agree with you very well."


"If I knew you were going to turn out so dull, I would have thought twice when you first came skulking here, divining for secrets of power."

"…Apologies, Sensei."

With a muttered sound of disgust, the board exploded into a glowing mass that vanished in an instant.

"My first command was for you to obey me, not feed me drivel. When did you become so polite?"

"One of the older medics gave me some lessons when I first started dating. And being polite cuts down how many excuses the Hokage has for hitting me."

The larger, long haired figure made a derisive sound.

"Well, unless you're trying to woo me, lose the ass kissing. I didn't teach you for half a decade just to have you go soft on me."

"Yes, Sensei."

"And don't be so polite. It doesn't suit you. It's like watching a pervert pretend to be a monk."

"Yes, Sensei."

The larger figure gave the smaller one a pointed glare.

The smaller figure stared back blankly.

"Sure thing, you smug son of a bitch."

The larger figure made a sound that could have been a sigh, then said, "Forget it. You can't lie to me. I know you too well."

"What do you think I'm lying about, Sensei?"

The larger figure's patience seemed to have ended. He fixed his apprentice with a slit-eyed stare that could give half the Bijuu pause.

"Why the hell are you here wasting our time?"

"…What're you talking about, Sensei?"

The other's eyes gleamed in the dark, before he muttered, "Wonder, wonder, little ninja."


He made a disgusted sound, then turned and disappeared into the shadowy twilight.

"Don't come back here again. Not until you've regrown your spine."

The shadows closed in, but he almost didn't notice.


The doors flew open as the Godaime Hokage strode purposely into the room. He stood at rigid attention, facing the oft abused desk of his leader.

Tsunade turned and stopped behind her desk in a sharp motion that sent her honey-blonde hair flying and caused her large breasts to jiggle in a very eye catching manner.

He gave no reaction to the sight and stared his commander in the eye as she glared at him.

"You read the mission report. You know all the details. Questions?"

"No, Hokage-sama."

He almost made his back more rigid, out of habit from when he was younger. Tsunade wouldn't appreciate the gesture though, thinking it was a not-so-subtle jab at her temper which often led to a not-so-subtle jab to his face.

The Hokage was pulling a rolled up tube of paper out of a drawer. She casually knocked several stacks of paperwork to the floor as she spread it out on the desk, revealing a highly detailed map for his eyes.

"You'll head to this village here-" A jab of a deceptively soft finger. "-And rendezvous with a small Chuunin squad. One of them will have a picture. He'll be in one of the nearby villages for 36 hours. You'll have to find him before then. He won't acknowledge who he is publicly. And it has to be someone with a Leaf headband that approaches him. After that, it's up to you."

Tsunade gave him a stare with her sharp reddish-brown eyes.

"Anything to say?"

"No, Hokage-sama."

What kind of incompetent did she take him for?

She kept staring at him, as though trying to peal back his skull and expose his strands of thought. Her pink lips turned into a frowning pout.

"Do you feel you're capable of this mission? The danger threat isn't the highest, but if you were to encounter heavy combat in your condition, you could-"

"Respectfully, Hokage-sama, I am perfectly capable of performing this mission. And even if there are complications, you are committing one Jounin level medic-nin to trail me to the rendezvous for a reason, is that not correct?"

Her face hardened again.

"I know you're quite capable, all things considered, and medical service will be close by, but that doesn't mean you won't get killed if you're mobbed by a dozen assassins. Or even worse, if it happens again."

He almost smiled at her tone. Abrasive, angry, and flat out dangerous it may be, but he'd learned long ago it was anger for him, not against him.

He almost smiled, but he didn't, because the only reward he'd get for the effort it would take would be a deformed face.

"Hokage-sama, I can handle this mission. As you said sir, it's not that difficult."

Her eyes flashed and for a moment he almost thought Dou-jutsu, oddly.

"I said the danger isn't as high as it could be. I never said it wouldn't be a difficult mission." Tsunade snapped. She scowled fiercely at him and he was glad her youth technique could either undo or hide wrinkles.

"Hokage-sama, I understand the risks. I will complete this mission as you specified. I will not cause you to feel your trust has been misplaced."

He now allowed himself to stand even more at attention, with his back as rigid as it could go and his eyes staring straight into his commander's without wavering.

Tsunade stared back at him for a long stretch of moments. Her deceptively beautiful face looked like nothing more than a mask covering a grief-hardened, battle-sharpened soul, reminding him once again that this woman had been fighting in wars well over two decades before he was ever born.

Then the warrior disappeared and the tired old healer with a penchant for gambling was left behind.

"I see. There's nothing more to say then, shinobi." Tsunade said as her skin returned to its former perfection. "Dismissed."

He bowed, not mockingly low at the waist, but a respectful movement of the shoulders and head. He'd learned long ago that this woman above all others was worthy of his respect and allegiance.

For her he would die.

For her he would kill.

He strode to the door, only to pause as his sharp ears picked up the movement of air flowing across the near formless lines of her pink lips as she inhaled.

"One last thing, shinobi. You're to come back alive."

He stood with his back towards her for a long moment.

"This mission is exceptionally important, but your life has more value. The rest is expendable if the situation escalates beyond your control."

He remained still.


Steel laced her honey-husky voice.

He turned his head ninety degrees to the left. In one short, but unhurried movement, he nodded. Then he turned and strode past the splintered doors.

For her and the ideals she represents, he would live.

If he could.

He was, if nothing else, a true patriot.


The worn, but well cared for door made a ding-a-ling sound as he opened it. It was only the back door of a shop, but ninja were paranoid with good reason.

A ninja with well-oiled doors and windows didn't often stay a ninja for long. Nor did they stay alive.

He ignored the bell jingling and walked across the damp concrete floor, over rusty drain covers, past plastic tubs with black silt in their basins, around vibrantly green shrubs and ferns, underneath the carefully maintained sprinkler system, and stopped in front of a yellowed window.

He didn't bother to knock as he opened the door. The rattle the beaten door made was comforting in a way.

An economic version of a proximity alarm.

He stepped into the muggy greenhouse and barely hid the wince at the powerful smells slamming into his senses. They no longer made him sick and claustrophobic as they had in his mid-teens when he'd first started coming here, but the scents of so many different flowers and chemical agents was both overwhelming to the point of nausea and shockingly comforting in its familiarity, at the same time.

He was welcome here. He was welcome where she was.


He usually found her in here. Even more often than in the front shop or in the training grounds her team inhabited from time to time.

As his eyes dilated at the rows of colorful flora in front of him, his nose caught the faintest hint of chemical sweet and pheromones.


Underneath the faintly buzzing halogen light, he could see the movement of a dark purple top, skin stretched tight across toned, slim shoulders. She must have been working here for some time already, judging from the powerful splash of blue light reflecting off her sweaty, tan skin.

Not too sweaty, I hope.

He quietly walked along a row of orange and gold plants to his left magnolias till he reach the end of it and moved two more over to his left and walked between a row of purple-pink things orchids, silly and a row that contained a shrub it's a fern, not a shrub, baka and a few cut stalks of some tube-like plant.

You have got to be kidding me. You don't know what bamboo is?

He stopped right behind her. She was kneeling in front of a few deep rectangular trays filled with dark, rich potting soil. Her strong, tough hands worked efficiently as they carefully lifted small tree seedlings from the trays and transplanted them into nearby pots.

Not for the first time, he watched the muscles play in her upper arms and mostly exposed shoulders. Her shirt was different since the last time he'd seen her. She'd forgone the fishnet fashion and was wearing a new top made of some thin leather-like material that had been dyed a dark purple. The sides had been cut away into the two mirrored half-circles, exposing the skin of her back all the way inside to the tips of her shoulder blades.

Her right shoulder flexed and he could see the movement of taunt muscles underneath her golden skin. The shift dislodged a bead of sweat that ran down and circumvented the rounded point of her scapula, then continued on till it disappeared into the damp and dark material of her shirt.

You need to get laid.

"You ruined me for other women." He smoothly answered. His fingers twitched as another bead of sweat ran down her back. He wondered what the bumps of her spine looked like.

You saw them awhile back. It's only been four years or so.

"You were soaked in blood at the time. That's not a strong fetish for me." He replied. He dragged his eyes away as she flexed slightly harder to dislodge a stubborn infant tree.

Really? I find that surprising, considering that dark seal on you. I would've thought there'd be other more insidious effects aside from the obvious.

"It's true a genius designed the seal, but he also imbued it was his rather infamous lack of subtlety." He quietly said as he stared at the notes and calendars on a corkboard hanging on the wall under the halogen light. Some of the dates scribbled down were rather old, predating the early days of Team 7.

Of course, I just thought he might've thrown in some bells and whistles to get his jollies off. And I didn't say you had to look away.

He didn't give her satisfaction of instantly snapping his eyes back to her skin, but he didn't take his time about it either.

"The add-ons were all related to power. How to seal it and how to extract it. Beyond that, I know no more than you."


He let out a silent exhale that could have been a sigh.

"…Yeah. Sorry."

Don't worry about it. It's kind of sweet, in your awkward way.

He remained silent as he watched her work and soaked in the details of her appearance. Her lemon hair was tied back into a high, messy bun, except for a few loose tendrils stuck to her moist skin that had darkened to a deep honey color. With her hair pulled away, he could see the razor thin scar that ran from her right ear, down her neck, and diagonally across her shoul-why are you here today? I wasn't expecting you till early next week.

He refused to allow her to divert his attention.

"Your scars make you more beautiful than any geisha, yes I know. You've said it before."

Her words coming out of his mouth. He firmly, but gently pushed her out of him.

"You're beautiful."

Prove it.

"My pants haven't been this tight in months."

I knew I should have never let you pick your own cup protector.

He raised an eyebrow.

"Clear a spot off that bench and we'll see if I'm exaggerating on either account."

To his surprise, she slowly rose up to her feet, making the simple movement sinuous and exotic. She slowly turned around to face him and in spite of the streaks of dirt and fertilizer across her arms or that her face was flushed with unsightly pinkish-red splotches from the heat of the greenhouse, he'd never wanted a woman this badly in his life.

"Tempting offer, but you didn't come to my sanctuary just to get it on the natural way." She spoke aloud for the first time. He'd always loved watching her talk. The muscle movements in her smooth face pulled her soft, dark pink lips apart to expose perfectly even, nearly porcelain white teeth.

He was the only person in the world aside from her parents and Shizune that knew her upper left canine and the two teeth on either side of it were prosthetic implants. Her parents only knew because they had to pay for the reconstruction and Shizune only knew because she'd performed it. She tolerated them knowing only because she had to.

A tendril of warmth moved through him, followed by a frosty cold sensation, as he remembered that he was the only person she'd voluntarily told about the procedure.

He was the only person in the world allowed to know that part of her body was fake.

"Don't go getting a swollen head. There are bigger, better models than you out there and I just might go for one of them sometime." She calmly stated with a gently sharp lilt to her voice.

"Trust me, only one head is getting swollen around here and it's not the one with my ego." He replied in an almost, but not quite sarcastic tone.

She smirked and rolled her eyes, but his sharp senses didn't miss the slight skip in her pulse.

"That's a matter of opinion."

She turned and walked over towards the wall where an array of gardening tools hung on the wall. She picked up an old, but mostly clean rag and started wiping off her hands and face. As she cleaned herself, she turned and rested her perfectly sculpted backside against a workbench so that she was facing him. He felt a bit of disappointment as the sheen of sweat on her upper arms and clavicle was removed.

She didn't laugh, but he could feel her amusement almost as easily as she could feel his hormonal urges. He didn't care. He had gotten used to not hiding most of his thoughts and feelings from her.

"Oh, please. Your mind is such a mess, just like a typical male. Like it'd kill you to have a woman's touch in there." She said in that sharp tone of hers, while eyeing him with one raised eyebrow.

"Knowing you, it probably would." He dryly replied, with little inflection in his voice.

She snorted, a tomboyish sound that was out of place coming from such a blatantly feminine body, and swiped the ragged cotton in her hand across the upper slopes of her breasts. He really liked that top. Its low cut exposed her in such a flattering way.

Not that she needed artificial support to flatter her body. It was just a nice little sprinkling of powdered sugar on the icing of a cake.

"Quit trying to butter me up, you wannabe lecher." She growled with no real venom in her words. She tossed the rag aside and crossed her arms over her chest in a way that sent a spike of heat through him, just under his diaphragm.

She looked him thoroughly up and down. As her eyes completed a circuit, they met his. A question lurked behind those cloud-like, gray-blue orbs.

"I've got a mission." He said to explain his current appearance.

She would have snorted, he was sure, if she weren't so shocked. As it was, she made some sort of choked off giggling sound. He felt more than a little pride at having finally shocked his perceptive friend for the first time in almost a year.

"Yeah, yeah." She waved her hand at him, though he could tell the red on her cheeks was embarrassment at being caught off guard.

He couldn't really smile, but his inner amusement was as blatant as a neon sign in a red light district.

"Okay, okay! You got your laughs." She grumbled out. Her gray eyes flashed as she demanded, "Is this mission what I think it is?"

They stared at each other, he in amusement at withholding information from her naturally inquisitive mind and her from not being able to pry the information out of his skull on her own.

Just as she was about to get threatening, he nodded once, shortly.

She stared at his eyes for what felt like, and probably was, several minutes. He found his mind wandering, more interested in the intense blue light that illuminated the right side of her face, while leaving the left side dark.

For a moment, the words Yin-Yang and Janus appeared in his mind.

"So that explains the…?" She trailed off and nodded towards him.

"Yeah." He quietly replied. Then to fill the silence, he shrugged and added, "Been practicing it lately."

"Working on it however you can, huh? Surprised you pulled it off at all. You must be better than I thought." She said through a faint half-smirk that rose the right corner of her mouth a little. He was pleased to note that despite her rough lifestyle, the motion didn't form lines of any sort on her cheeks.

He couldn't find anything to say. There was too much inside him wanting to rush out, but nothing would form on his lips. He'd never been able to talk to girls or deal with them right. It was pretty awful that he still hadn't figured it out after all these years, especially considering how much time he'd spent with her. He seemed confident and forward around her, but there's a difference between confidence and having nothing to lose.

If she was listening in, she gave know sign of it. Her eyes had closed and she seemed to be thinking something over.

Then they opened and once again he felt like everything that made him up was laid bare before those gray-blue irises and pupils.

Smoke was too caustic a word to describe her eyes and fog too…sterile, he supposed. A veil. A veil of mist and uniform vapors, hanging over an old loch hidden within the deeps of an old blue pine forest growing on young mountains that remained as beautiful as they are dangerous. Beware, unwary wanderers.

It wasn't a perfect analogy, but it felt right.

She blushed and smirked a little, but he could practically feel her genuine flattery. He punctuated his thoughts with a mild surge of the arousal that had yet to totally dissipate. She rolled her eyes at his odd form of humor, then turned her back on him to grab another potted plant.

"When you get back, come over for dinner. Dad's been asking about you. He said, and I quote, 'Hime-chan, when's that lover-boy of yours coming over again? I need some male support if I'm ever going to get any meat served at my own table.'" She said as she started breaking up some soil. She greatly distorted the voice of her father into a caustic male growl, when he knew for a fact the elder shinobi spoke in a very proper, almost eloquent manner.

"…Your mother doesn't care for me very much." He pointed out after a few moments of watching her work.

"My mother isn't inviting you. I am." She casually remarked. She paused and gave him a look.

Do I have to say it again, pretty-boy? You're always welcome wherever I am. Have you forgotten already?

He closed his eyes, drew up tight into himself, hissing quietly as her silent words gently touched him, as light as the caress of an owl feather over a long open wound.

And just as intense in the hybrid sensations of pain and pleasure, mirrored by the joy and agony he felt.

"No…No, I haven't forgotten." He got out of nearly a nearly choked up throat after several moments. He didn't break down, but it was no great feat of willpower that held him up. It was simply a matter of a lack of anything to break down with.

It isn't possible to topple an already razed tower, after all.

"You'd better get going then. If this mission has as much political importance as I think it does, then you don't want to be late." She dismissed him, having already turned back to her assorted plants. He watched her callused hand gently run down the surface of a green fern. He wondered which would be softer to touch, then thought what a silly comparison that was.

He turned and made his way back through the rows of plants to where he'd entered the greenhouse. He pulled open the noisy door, and paused.

He looked back at her.

She wasn't looking at him, but he could almost feel her expectation.

He didn't ever disappoint anyone who mattered. Never had, where it truly counted.

"I'll be over for dinner when I get back."

Then he was gone, the door shut, with only the vibration of a yellowed plastic window and a small smile on Ino's pink lips to mark that he'd ever existed.


The sun was out for the first time in weeks, but the storm clouds of Lightning Country's spring weather wouldn't be beaten so easily. The broken up clouds remained dark except for their luminescent halos. The wind remained a subtle, but powerful force that drove the heavy cumulus across the sky with unusual rapidness.

Even as he walked across the dusty town square of an out of the way village two hours into Lightning, the sun came and went with practically every other step.

Step, step.

The dirty path shined with the intense noon light.

Step, step.

The man who cut him off turned dark to the point of being nearly colorless.


The shadows made his characteristic glare all the more imposing.


The man's brown eye shown extra bright with fear as he held up his hands and backed away from him, an obviously annoyed shinobi.


He turned to the fountain at the center of the square just in time to catch the last sparkle of sunlight through it.

Step, step.

He stared down into the shadowy recesses of the pool before the sun emerged behind his head, making his hair shine gold for an instant.

He glanced up and the statue with water erupting from it. Pathetic sculpting, really. Probably quite nice by the standards of the Shinobi Continent, but utter crap compared to the old lands on the other side of the world.

The bright light on the statue merely served to annoy him as it illuminated all the flaws. When the shadows engulfed it again, he nearly sighed in relief as the eyesore was hidden for the moment. The carving was perfect, with not a single scratch from a skipped chisel, but he still saw all the flaws.

In his eyes, flaws in the inspiration of the artist tainted even the most technically perfect works.

He slowly rotated in place till he was looking at the shining rooftop of the inn, facing back the way he'd just come. He paused there, counting off fifteen heartbeats, then continued his turn till he was staring at the shaded statue again.

Ten heartbeats this time and he sat down on the edge of the fountain facing northeast.

Twenty heartbeats and his ears detected nothing.

Thirty heartbeats and he heard a newspaper being scraped across the table of an outdoor café directly behind him.

Forty heartbeats and out of the corner of his peripheral vision he saw a man wearing a dull yellow sash walk across the market with a paper object rolled under his arm.

Forty-five heartbeats and the man paused at a garbage bin.

Forty-seven heartbeats and he hesitated.

Fifty heartbeats and he threw his paper in.

Fifty-six heartbeats and the man walked off out of sight, choosing to duck into the alley at the southern side of the inn.

Fifty-six…How slow.

He waited until he had counted into the low four hundreds, then slowly got up and dusted his dark shorts off.

Then he walked off in a direction almost totally opposite of the man in the yellow sash, into a part of town that held the brothels and restaurants. He picked one, at random, and walked around to the back entrance.

Clouds of steam blasted his face as he walked quickly through the kitchens. A chef yelled at a cowering busboy as he passed. He ignored both as he pulled off his headband and casually pulled an outer kimono off a hook as he passed through a coat room. He smoothly took a pair of slim glasses from a table in the bar as the occupants roared in drunken laughter. His sensitive eyes protested the man's prescription, but he ignored it as he slipped them on with one hand while the other cupped itself and scooped up a handful of water from a decorative wall fountain in the hallway. He swiped his hand through his stubborn hair and smoothed it back along his skull to flatten the mess down.

As he stepped out the main entrance while tying up his kimono completely and wearing another man's sandals, he looked like what he was: a twenty-something year old kid wearing a hastily made disguise.

He still walked right past the two enemy plants he'd spotted earlier without anyone being the wiser.

Stupid ninjas. Always expecting something fancy.

Minutes later and he was in the nearby residential area and walking down a stairwell into the basement of a not so modest house. The surprised look on the man's face as he entered almost made him want to smile. Almost.

"I…You…How'd…I…" His words flopped like a fish on a hot deck. His cheeks jiggled just a bit, implying a hint of fat. Not heavily overweight, but not underfed and certainly no fighter. His robe held a pattern of a golden dragon on a dark blue sky. The cloudy haze of blue smoke hanging above his dimly lit table was jostled by his errant hand movements. His salt and pepper hair was close cut and carefully groomed. His black eyes were intelligent, but not the sharpest he'd ever faced. His thick, but not fat lips jumbled up and down and sweat practically poured down his face.

Sensing the man was about to call for his guards, he took two steps into the light.

The man froze, his face a mask of terror, then his eyes squinted and he hesitated.

"You're…I know you." The well-dressed man said in dawning realization.

He pulled the glasses off and shrugged off the kimono as the other man pointed at him with a very slowly dawning expression of joy.

The look finally arrived, as he retied his forehead protector on and messed his damp hair up into a semblance of its normal-abnormal style, but when the man's thoughts finally clicked into place he had long since grown bored with him.

He held up his hands as the man jumped to his feet, practically gibbering with glee.

"Don't get up. I was just about to sit down." He said in his business voice.

"Yes, yes, of course. My apologies, my manners slipped in my excitement. Here, sit here." The man said as he held out his hand in a broad gesture to the floor cushion directly across the table from his spot.

He eyed it for a moment, then sat cross-legged with his back stiff and his head held up high. As he studied the other man, he realized he was the shorter by a few inches.

The man stared at him for a long moment, his dark eyes shining in the light of the overhead bulb. He could practically feel the excitement building.

"…My, my…I must say. We had hoped…But we feared…The thought that a powerful shinobi such as yourself would answer our call...My, my…Let's just say it's both an extreme pleasure and honor."

He gave the man his usual glare.

"Stop buttering me up. Are we going to get started or not?"

The man's smile faltered but then returned full force when he realized the shinobi wasn't retracting the offer implied by his presence.


"Apologies. I know your time is valuable and you're taking a great risk coming here. After all, it was not that long ago you were a veritable pariah and no doubt some still hold a grudge." The man said, quickly covering his nervousness.

"None that are in a position to do anything about it." He said through a smug smirk. He dropped the expression before the man felt obligated to reply with a grin of his own.

He narrowed his dark eyes and said, "What do I call you?"

The man gave him a smug look and tapped the dragon on his outfit.

"Ryu. You can call me Ryu."

He didn't bother to hold back a derisive grunt.

"If you're a dragon, then I'm Kami-sama incarnate."

'Ryu' smiled knowingly and answered, "Ah, but there are many types of power and greatness, are there not? I may be but a small lizard in one regard, but in the political arena of the Five Great Countries, I'm a beast that towers over all."

He gave him a look. The message was as clear as it was silent.

Except the Kages. Or the Councils. Or the Daimyos. Or any number of higher level figures. Quit while you're still credible.

"Your self-image is far too grand for an untrained bureaucrat living in a land where Assassin is the career of choice, but I will admit you have a point. Ryu it is."

Let him have his delusions if he wants them so badly. Kami knows he's not the only one in this world suffering dreams of grandeur.

"Why thank you. It's not often I get a chance to use my favored codename." Ryu said. His grin became amused as he asked, "And what should I call you, good sir?"

"Shinobi." He replied without hesitation.

The older man paused, almost surprised, then smiled indulgently.

"Of course." Ryu said. He smirked a little and commented in a faux innocent voice, "But Shinobi-san, I think a different name suits you better."

"Oh?" He dryly intoned.

"Why yes, you have such a nice birth name, I wonder why you don't use it." The man said with smug look.

Here it comes. The greasy pig-dragon was actually going to say it out loud.

Ryu smiled and said, "I'm so glad you're interested in joining the Hidden Cloud, Uchiha Sasuke."


"Get out of the way, Sakura!"

No. Move faster.

"The Leaf is full of weak fools and I'll prove it."

Stay away from her, you filthy snake. Haven't you taken enough from us?


Slow. She's always been slow. All the strength training in the world means jack if you can't move fast enough.

"Dammit, you bas-uck!"

A horrible, cold pain lancing right through the midsection.

"Ku ku ku. What a fool. He took the blow for meant you."

A long katana with a snake embossed hilt. How cliché, in an ego masturbating kind of way.

"Kami-sama…You killed him!"

Not yet, he hasn't.

"Ku ku ku, what will you do now youwwuruyeheAAAHAAHHH!!"

This fool just got your eye, you pasty-faced bag of shit.

"Catch him, catch him!"

"I'm trying!"

"Dammit, don't let him hit the ground. Catch him already!"

The ground would hurt less than you clumsy fools.

"Damn, he's a mess. Can you treat him? Sakura?…Hey! Snap out of it! Can you heal that wound or not!?"


"I-I…No, I can't! I can't even begin to count his injuries, let alone treat them! And that sword wound…"

One broken femur, three shattered vertebrae, six demolished ribs, a deflated lung, a head fracture, and a chakra magnified stab wound through the abdomen, which tore both intestinal tracts and punctured the left kidney…Want me to go on?

"I…The bleeding won't stop!"

So make it stop, already. Stupid girl.

"Move over, dammit!"

"Hey, what're- Wait! Don't!"

Smells like burning flesh. Fresh.

"Alright, it's done. Stabilize him as best you can and get ready to move. The snake will be back any minute."

Too late, you twits. The snake has been here the whole time.

"Sasuke-kun! Sasuke-kun!"

Damn fools.


He moved not with an explosion, but as a fluidic blur. The man calling himself Ryu saw nothing but a haze of dark movement before he was pinned up against the wall. The pig grunted in protest even as the impact shook a couple objects from the shelves and knocked a scroll painting down. The man wasn't winded though. He made sure of that.

Ryu started to drag in a breath, whether to yell for help or to berate him for manhandling him in this way.

He leaned in close, very close, and made sure he had the man's full attention. Wide brown eyes met narrowed obsidian which flickered blood red for an instant.

"In the lands of shinobi, the walls always have ears. Do not use that name again, Ryu-san."

He needed no killing intent nor any stark inflection in his tone to get his point across.

He commanded. The pig-dragon would obey.

Ryu, thinking he needed an acknowledgement, nodded vigorously for several moments. He slowly leaned back and relaxed his arm. He quietly and calmly moved back a few feet to eye the man.

He watched Ryu shift uncomfortably for several moments, which became more pronounced when the man slowly realized that he'd been supporting his entire weight with one arm and no real grip on his body. The casual prowess of a professional.

"I…I apologize, Uch-…Shinobi-san." Ryu said as he slowly sat down. The man's body was tense and jittery and his dark eyes couldn't quite stay focused on him. "Why the secr-…the reaction?"

"As I said, the walls have ears and the air has memory, Ryu-san. Something I suggest you remember." He calmly told the shaken man. "And it is simply rude to blatantly assume a guise while not returning the favor to someone you're supposed to be negotiating with."

"Negotiating?" Ryu asked in disbelief. His tone became much more delighted as he stuttered out, "Y-you mean? Our offer…? You're consideri-?"

"Negotiating a change in allegiance, yes. However-" Ryu's joyous expression suddenly faltered. "-I'm having doubts already, Ryu-san.. The quality of you as a representative on the Hidden Cloud's behalf directly implies what they think of my worth. From what I've seen so far, I've never been handed a more revolting insult in my entire life."

Ryu's expression turned to panic.

"No, no! Please, Uchi- Shinobi-san!"

He continued on.

"There are other countries interested in having the presence of my Bloodline in their ranks, Ryu-san. The Hidden Cloud may have the best offer so far, but it's far from the only one."

"But, I promise, the Cloud has far greater-"

"The Stone, for instance, would hand me a noble's title and estate just to snub Konoha if I were to defect to them. I expect I would have a top position in their government within three years."

Ryu's cheeks were quivering as he begged, "But they cannot give you the trai-"

"Suna may be allies with the Leaf right now, but they have so few Bloodlines they would likely hand me the deed to one of their highest quality mines just to get me to move there, let alone resurrect my clan in their village. I would even probably be handed the Kazekage's sister as a breeder for my offspring. She's both gorgeous and powerful, not to mention lacking a Bloodline of her own to interfere with mine. Those traits combined with her influential connections mean I could practically run the Hidden Sand within five years."

Ryu's eyes were watering as he pleaded, "But Lightning Country has an entire sub-populace devoted to interbreeding and preserving Bloodli-"

"And even the Mist has expressed an interest in me. It appears my sensei's defeat of one of their Deadly Swordsmen speaks enough volumes about the Sharingan that they will make an exception to their racial bias when it comes to me, the scion of my clan. I'll admit, their offer is rather poor right now, but it is still there and likely to rise as their intelligence teams catch on to the fact that I've received offers from all the Great Nations."

Ryu was blubbering in a most unflattering manner at this point as he exclaimed, "But surely you recognize that the Mist is the poorest of the Great Nations and couldn't possibly-"

He froze the man with an icy stare and demanded, "Now I ask you, Ryu-san, with all these other offers on the table, what can you, a representative of the Hidden Cloud, guarantee me if I choose to accept your village's offer?"

Ryu was pale and sweaty. His composure was almost totally gone by this point as he claimed, "Much more than any other, that much I can say!"

"Empty platitudes. This encounter has done nothing but cement the idea of the Cloud as vultures preying on the foolish and unwary for their own personal gains. I should have expected as such from a nation willing to kidnap and dissect children in their hunt for Bloodlines." He stated with a derisive sneer.

"No, we do not make false promises, Shinobi!" Ryu yelled as his cheeks flushed in anger.

"Prove it." His voiced snapped like a whip. He didn't need to raise his volume in the slightest to get the message across.

"Very well then. You've made your point quite well. Please, return to your seat and I'll lay out our offers in detail." Ryu said after taking a calming breath. The man gestured towards the vacated pillow before taking his own seat again.

He eyed the Cloud representative and slowly moved back to his vacated spot. He stared across the low table until the other man began speaking.

"First of all, you'll be granted a probationary Chuunin position immediately. If after a year we have observed no signs of disloyalty, you will be promoted without testing to Jounin. Elite Jounin will have to be earned on your own, business as usual. You will initially be provided with one tutor for training, but you won't have unrestricted access to our jutsu libraries and other tutors until the promotion." Ryu started off.

"That's not good enough. I require power, as quickly as possible. If your village cannot provide what I need, then I will move on to another." He flatly stated with narrowed eyes.

"I know you are impatient regarding the matter of your brother, but understand that this is necessary." Ryu said with an open, placating gesture. At his continued glare, the man grew a backbone for the first time during the whole meeting and said in a sharp voice, "You'll find the same response, if not worse from every other country you negotiate with, Shinobi-san. As you yourself said, this is a world of ninja. In this world, our offer is both extremely generous and risky for our position. I won't lie to you and say that we aren't rabidly eager to add your Bloodline to our ranks, but I'll be blunt when I say that while the Sharingan is valuable, but it isn't that valuable. Our other terms are negotiable. This one isn't."

"I would think a jutsu obsessed country such as yours would pay any price and accept any risk to have a Bloodline that can bring enormous volumes of enemy jutsu back to your village." He commented with flinty eyes.

"Would you actually return enemy jutsu to us or would you merely take our jutsu and leave, like you did with Orochimaru?" Ryu asked in a challenging voice.

He said nothing. He merely stared.

Ryu nodded once as though he'd answered. He said, "I believe you see my point. Your eyes are a prize, but we didn't become the greatest of the Five Nations by being stupid."

He restrained a snort, not bothering to correct the man. Fire Country was and, after the early rough years, always had been the strongest nation in the land, both in economic power and the strength of their armed forces. The Cloud talked big and showed off plenty in front of the other nations, but the cold hard truth was that they hadn't won a single war since the Hidden Leaf had been founded.

"Now then, you will be monetarily compensated, of course, and it will be more than adequate. We offer two and a half times your current average A-Ranked mission salary. In addition, all of our medical resources are open to you. And if our hospitals can't handle any injuries you incur, we will setup S-Rank missions to acquire the necessary resources or personnel that can. If you blow off a limb during training, we'll find someone in the world that can replace it." Ryu said with a dry grin.

"Money doesn't matter to me. Only jutsu and training." He coldly stated.

"Come now, don't be petulant. Money can be used to purchase favors and additional jutsu scrolls, you know." Ryu dryly replied.

Once again, rather than conceding a point, he said nothing.

"Also, as I mentioned earlier, due to our focus on Bloodlines, a large percentage of our population is arranged from birth to be part of an interbreeding program. Their lineage and genetics are carefully kept track of so we can choose mates for Bloodline bearers that will compliment their abilities, rather than stunt them. You will have upwards to half a dozen breeders in the prime of their lives immediately to jumpstart the rebuilding of your clan. And you will be provided with no less than three breeding partners per year for the rest of your reproductive life." Ryu methodically explained.

The diplomat paused, then said with a cheerful twinkle in eyes, "Don't worry, by the time you're fit for retirement, there will be enough Sharingan wielders in the world to found their own Hidden Village. The Cloud takes pride in being the premier authority on Advanced Bloodlines."

He said nothing. His cold, obsidian eyes did all the speaking for him.

Ryu's grin turned more than a trifle smug. A victorious glint entered his eyes.

"I take it you accept our proposition then, Shinobi-san?" He dryly asked.

His face was expressionless as he seemed to ponder for several minutes. Ryu, sensing he had won, was content to wait.

"I want at least ten breeders waiting when I arrive. Five breeders every year afterwards. A district as large as my clan's holdings in Konohagakure, in my name and to be inherited by an heir I choose. Three times pay. Three tutors: a specialist in gen-jutsu, nin-jutsu, and tai-jutsu." He coldly stated as he met Ryu's eyes with an unyielding stare.

Ryu smiled confidently and said, "Acceptable terms. Now then, Sasuke-kun, you should be going."

He let the name slipup slide with a mild scowl as he stood. The politician did the same.

"We'll contact you soon regarding the final details of your defection." Ryu said with a formal bow.

"Hn." He grunted and turned to go.

"Oh, and Sasuke-kun, there is a little detail my superiors wanted me to pass on to you." Ryu said.

He turned around and glared through the dank, smoky gloom at the older man.

"They want to know if you would be willing to perform a small favor for us prior to your change in allegiance." Ryu offered with a small, smile.

"…And that would be?" He asked with a hint of sarcasm.

"Seventeen years ago, our village was handed an embarrassing insult. We were humiliated in front of all the nations in the continent." Ryu started. His voice had become low and angry.

He turned around, sensing the man was about to go on a tirade.

"A Kumo-nin was killed during an attempt to acquire a valuable asset for our village. We were offered compensation, which we foolishly accepted. It turned out to be an enormous slap in the face!" Ryu snarled and waved a hand through the air. Had he been sitting, he no doubt would slam his fist into the nearest table to theatrically announce his anger for the world.

"This has what to do with me?" He asked in a toneless voice.

"Nothing." Ryu answered in a much calmer tone. His voice was saccharine as he continued, "But Raikage-sama is in a bad position. You see, we publicly agreed to the terms of the settlement, so we can't make any overt attempt to rectify our mistake. And Konoha is considerably more paranoid as of late, so our more subtle agents have all met with failure."

Ryu grimaced a little as he continued, "Not to mention, your Godaime doesn't fold under threats of war like Sarutobi did."

He waited for the diplomat to make his point.

"But, if a man who was already on the inside of Konohagakure and was a well known and legal Leaf-nin…well, he could go places and do things our agents most assuredly can't." Ryu coyly suggested with an annoying lilt to his voice.

The husky negotiator pretended to be examining his fingernails as he continued, "And the man kind enough to do these things for us that we can't do directly…Let's just say, the Raikage appreciates favors done for him."

"How much does he appreciate it?" He demanded, cutting to the chase.

"The year probation will be dropped to six months and your tutors would be the top experts in the entire village. The Raikage himself would be willing to spend some sessions with you, as well." Ryu said as his demeanor changed to that of a professional diplomat once more.

"That's it?" He incredulously asked.

"I will also add that there will be no complaints about your additional demands if you successfully complete this task. Unofficially speaking, you will be quite popular and the gratitude will no doubt lead to many under the table offers of training and jutsu." Ryu calmly added in the face of the other man's ire. He smugly went on to add, "Besides, our request is far from beyond your talents. In fact, it should be rather easy for the great Uchiha Sasuke."

He scowled at that, but still asked, "And what is this vaunted task?"

Ryu eyes suddenly turned hard as ice and his smile became a mimicry of Orochimaru's.

"To finish what we started, of course. Abduct Hyuuga Hinata and return her to Kumogakure." The man stated bluntly.

He stared back for several long moments, then did the thing Ryu least expected.

He laughed.

Ryu frowned as he asked, "Sasuke-kun? Are you alright?"

He kept laughing, as though he was in on some private joke. His entire cold countenance disappeared as his whole body seemed to relax.

"Sasuke-kun? Is the mission too much for you?"

His cold obsidian eyes.

"Hinata is well-protected in her clan's estate, but surely you could handle her team when they're out on a mission."

His half-tamed mane of black hair.

"Their team leader is a gen-jutsu specialist; laughable in the face of your Sharingan."

His pale, unblemished skin.

"The Aburame will fold before your clan's legendary Fire techniques."

His pouting lips spread wide over gleaming white teeth.

"The Hyuuga herself will be easily overwhelmed."

His thin, effeminate bone structure.

"The Inuzuka isn't even worth mentioning."

His white and red fan emblazed on his dark shirt.

Ryu's face was starting to pale and sweat again as the other man continued to laugh hysterically.

It was all too, too easy.

"Sasuke-kun, this is hardly a difficult task. If Hinata is too difficult, then there is always her sister Hanabi. Our intelligence indicates that neither have been moved to the Branch House yet. The return of either one would be considered a successful completion of the mission. What say you? Do you accept?" Ryu asked, rather nervously.

Abruptly, the laughter stopped and he stood upright. His face was almost, but not quite expressionless.

The small, amused smile forced a worm of fear through Ryu's guts.

Stupid ninjas.

"Why do you keep calling me that?" He asked in a small whisper. He seemed genuinely curious and mildly puzzled as he leaned forward.

"W-What?" All the blood drained out of Ryu's face. He took a step back.

"Why do you keep calling me Sasuke?" His smile grew a little more as he stepped closer.

"B-Because…that's…y-your name?" Ryu answered, not realizing he was stuttering.

"Ah." He replied with a nod. He seemed to think something over, then smiled jauntily as if reaching an internal decision.

"S-Sasuke-kun?" Ryu nearly whimpered as he stared into the shinobi's eyes with an almost pleading expression.

An electric crackle and flare of chakra heralded a blaze of lighting manifesting in his right hand. A distinct chi-chi-chi sound echoed throughout the room.

"Raikiri." He quietly said with an almost gentle smile an instant before his fingers sank into Ryu's face and emerged from the back of his head.

Before the dead pig-dragon's body could even hit the floor, the door to the inner house burst open and two Hidden Cloud shinobi rushed into the room. Their hands were already flashing through seals to form jutsu that would no doubt be incredibly painful should they land.

He didn't hesitate as he touched a finger to a small tattoo on his inner arm. With a puff of smoke, a distinctive sword appeared in his hands and he blurred in motion. Seconds later, two headless bodies joined Ryu's on the floor.

He looked around at the bloody mess on the floor, then quickly headed out the door and back up into the street.

Three more Cloud-nins were waiting for him as he emerged. They kept pace with him easily as he raced down the empty residential streets and into the more crowded markets.

He ducked under a lightning bolt that blew apart a fruit stand, then whirled in the air to send a wave of fire from his sword back at his pursuers, before landing facing forward. A scream of pain let him know it had connected and he sped up, ducking and weaving through the midday crowds.

A shout let him predict the jutsu coming his way better than even the Sharingan could. He had already dodged before it had even been formed in his attackers hands.

Stupid ninjas.

Very soon, he'd made his way to the edges of the city and could feel the cool air flowing from the forest beyond. He dodged yet another electrical jutsu and a handful of shuriken as he jumped over a short wall at the edge of town and ran for the tree line.

As he entered the forest, he noticed his attackers had fallen about a dozen paces behind. That gave him enough time for a quick stunt.

He ducked around a thick tree just in time to keep a kunai from perforating the back of his head. Out of view, he spun in place with his sword flashing. The blade parted the tree trunk as easily as it parted air.

Before the tree could begin to topple, he stabbed his blade forward into the tree trunk and fired a huge burst of pure lightning down the folded steel. At the same time, he released a compressed ball of wind in his off hand.

The lightning instantly converted the water within the tree into steam, causing most of the trunk to explode into huge wooden shards that were then blasted forward at lethal speeds by the compressed Fuuton.

One Kumo-nin dodged. The other tried to block. He didn't wait around to see if either were hit, but as he continued his flight, he sensed only one of them renewing pursuit.

He headed southwest at a dead run. Then he quickly demonstrated why the Leaf had always been the masters inside the forest, as he took to the treetops and sped through the branches as quickly as if he'd been in an open field. The tenacious Cloud-nin was forced to follow into the higher branches or risk losing him entirely.

He had to give the man credit; he came close. He almost caught him. The guy was probably a Jounin or ex-Anbu.

But almost catching up with him and actually doing it were two totally different things.

The Kumo-nin probably had enough time for one good, long look at the fan on his back before he smirked. He suddenly put on a burst of speed, leaving nothing but a whirlwind of leaves and a gaping ninja in his wake.

The dark greens and browns of the canopy blurred into a dizzying tunnel on all sides of him as he motored his way through the treetops. He would probably be little more than a dark streak had he been out in the open. At this speed, even his enhanced vision couldn't keep up, so he simply closed his eyes and guided his movements by feeling distortions in the bubble of chakra-laced wind surrounding him.

He kept up his ridiculous pace for one hour, two hours, three…

Then suddenly he was out of the forest and shooting through open air over the grassy plains that lay in the mostly uninhabited and neutral territory of Amanattou no Kuni, the Land of Red Beans. His momentum was so great he soared through the air for almost ten seconds before his feet again made contact with ground.

He shot off across rolling grasslands, heading not in the direction of Fire Country to the southwest, but rather towards the late afternoon sun.

A direct line for Otogakure.

His pace never once slowed or faltered. If anything, it picked up as he now no longer had any obstacles to dodge.

The plains flew past him. His now open eyes took in the seemingly endless river of golden grass that seemed to flow into his legs and waist. The warm air whipped through his hair and buffeted against his face. It was almost refreshing after the chill of the northern forests.

He ran for over half an hour before he sighted the dark gloomy wood that he knew extended unbroken from western Red Bean Country all the way into Earth Country. Somewhere in the middle of that mess lay Orochimaru's main base of operations.

He closed his eyes again as he entered the forest, using heightened senses to feed him information his eyes couldn't. Running like that, effectively blind for hours on end, would have easily broken the will of a weaker shinobi.

He maintained the pace for almost an hour. Almost half a dozen times he passed within spitting distance of a Sound-nin patrol, though at the speeds he was moving they would see only a blur or feel a gust of wind, if they detected anything at all.

About three miles from Otogakure itself, he made a hand seal and a single Kage Bunshin formed right next to him while keeping pace. He immediately veered off and vanished entirely through the trees.

The clone continued on, reaching the walls of the Hidden Sound in less than a minute. It ran right up the wall, passed right between two oblivious guards, then vanished in a silent plume of smoke with no one having detected anything at all.


Three hours later, a dark-haired, pale skinned man wearing the typical outfit of an Uchiha clansman landed soundlessly in a clearing deep within the heart of Fire Country.

His breath was heavy, but he was far from winded as he slowly stood upright. The deep sigh he let out had nothing to do with any sort of physical exhaustion.

Cold obsidian eyes slowly surveyed his surroundings. The forest held a comfortable background noise of bugs buzzing and the occasional bird call, but his eyes detected no human activity. His other body and chakra senses uncovered nothing out of the norm either. Seemingly satisfied that no nosy Leaf patrols or Sound interlopers were in the vicinity, he reached up and parted the wild black spikes of hair on the back of his head.

A single fiery shaft of light coming from the setting sun somehow made its way through a gap in the trees and illuminated the back of his head as his fingers sank into the skin of his neck.

Thick rivulets of blood ran down his back as he pulled apart the flesh of his head with a sound similar to wet, loose rubber being torn. The split ran through his dark hair, stopping only as the man tore his own face off.

He paused in his motions to look down into Uchiha Sasuke's bloody face cradled in his hands. Had the face been able to see, it would have looked up into skin almost as pale as its own and hair lit up like fire in the dying sun.

But Sasuke's face couldn't see a thing, even as the tall man let it drop to the leafy forest floor.

More sounds of wet rubbery skin being torn were followed by splats of red blood and strips of torn cloth. As if he were an insect, he shed his sticky chrysalis and emerged like a sweaty, blood smeared butterfly.

With a muted thump, he dropped the last of his shed skins in a pile. He withdrew a rag and soaked it with an agent designed to remove the scent of blood. Quickly, he swiped it up and down himself in efficient motions that removed the traces of blood from his damp skin and clothes. When he finished, he dropped the rag in with the rest of the discarded pile.

A gesture and swirl of chakra ignited the pile and illuminated the slowly dimming clearing.

Staring into the flames was a face with hollow cheeks and black eyes that were slowly paling into a much lighter color.

He stared a minute longer, then caused the fire to vanish with another gesture. A slight pulse of chakra and the earth swallowed up every trace of the charred embers.

He stared at the patch of ground for a minute longer, then blurred off through the trees once again.

Not ten minutes later, he stepped out of the woods onto a dusty road that held a small convoy of politicians and samurai bodyguards. A man identical to himself marched alongside a litter that held the seated Fire Daimyo and was being carried by four servants.

He effortlessly moved through the ranks like a ghost, before stepping up and into his double, which silently vanished into vapor that quickly dispersed on the wind.

None noticed his sudden arrival. He kept his eyes forward and focused on their plodding march.

"Hey, cripple!"

He remained silent.

"Hey, I'm talking to you, freak! Answer me! When we stop in town for the night, I want you to go out and buy us some sake an-"

The Daimyo trailed off as eyes glacial in color and temperature turned to stare into his.

"The name-" He said as he held the other man's suddenly nervous gaze. "-is Uzumaki."

The man's jaw flapped soundlessly for a several moments before he disappeared behind the curtain of his litter without another word.

His eyes turned back to the road. Several of the samurai had turned to look back at the blonde man, but quickly about faced as he focused his hollow stare onto them.

He reminded himself to be patient. Three days and he would be back in the village, reporting to the Hokage. Three days of putting up with fat politicians and lazy wannabe warriors. Three days till he had to deal with stupid ninjas again.

Think of it as a vacation you don't need.

He marched, patiently, while counting off under his breath.

One, femur. Two, lumbar vertebrae. Three, sacrum. Four, phalanx. Five, radius.

Mission accomplished.


Author's Notes:

First chapter of this fic is finally done. Those that keep track of my blog know I started this around the same time as Deus Ex Machina. In fact, I think this fic is actually a few months older than DEM. That was about two years ago now. Anyways, it's here now. I don't have any idea when I'll get chapter two finished, but I am rather psyched about it. Let's hope it won't be another two years.

And yes, the man is Naruto. Hopefully I managed to make that clear. Eventually, haha.

Next up will either be the first chapter of BoW, Geor's gift fic, or the completed Ramen Fiends.

All credit for me getting off my butt and finishing this chapter goes to Kaara, as discussions with her helped me get the motivation I needed.

As always, let me know what you think. If you want to discuss it at all or any of my other fics, drop by my homepage and leave a comment.