Chapter 19- Starry Eyes Will Never Make Us Even

She walked into a disorientating mass of swirling black formlessness – dizzying, yet peaceful; cold, yet comfortable. Her mind was a frigid, black, empty place…

Spinning around, she watched formless darkness erode away like chipped paint until a new image presented itself. In its place a small, cozy room with black and white tiles, a blazing hearth towards the end of the room, and black curtains draping the walls. Where the curtains parted stood a vase on cast-iron stands, each holding black flowers with dangling black berries.

The room smelt strangely, a mixture of metal and the sickening sweet scent of decay.

Glancing downward as something wet caressed her bare feet, Shizuka Komoriuta immediately knew the source of the strange smell. Enveloping her feet in a vast puddle, blood so great in quantity, a river of crimson gently lapped against her feet, washing out a closed door and disappearing just under its gap.

Swallowing down bile, Shizuka forced her eyes upward, only to observe a picture before her even more ghastly and terrifying than the one at her feet: a gothic-themed tea party. A small table sat in the center of the room and on it sat a porcelain teapot, two teacups filled with a thick red liquid, a basket of ivory-white apples, and a small tray holding four pastries, two of which were garnished with… reflective-silver Ping-Pong balls? The other two were also decorated with Ping-Pong balls, only these ones had grey rings.

Upon closer inspection, however, Shizuka discerned shattered irises on the first set and pupils on the other.

But most disconcerting were the chairs – four high-back, black velvet chairs, seated around the table. One sat to the side, empty. Clearly it was waiting for her. Another had its back towards her, and the third had its view obstructed by the second chair. Upon the forth seated and facing Shizuka was…herself.

"Hello!" the doppelgänger whimsically greeted with a pleasant smile, her eyes crinkling with amusement. "How nice of you to join us!"

Golden, pearlescent, and serpentine eyes sharply outlined with eyeliner glimmered from the light of the fireplace.

It took every measure of self-control for Shizuka to not flinch or reveal the anxiety rapidly building within. "What the hell is this?"

"Please, sit! We've all been waiting for you." Her copy gestured towards the other chairs.

Before she could analyze what exactly was happening, Shizuka found herself slowly, cautiously moving toward the empty chair, barely managing not to cringe under her shadow's piercing stare. With every step taken, the stench of death strengthened overwhelmingly so.

"Come now! I thought you were afraid of nothing," the fake mocked, an amused grin twisting her lips, but Shizuka ignored it in favor of tentatively observing the two other chairs' occupants.

"Who's in those chairs?" Komoriuta questioned, stopping in her tracks as her chest twisted. A wisp of blonde hair poked out from the one of the chairs.

The doppelgänger amusedly quirked an eyebrow. "Why don't you come and find out?"

Closing her eyes with a sigh, the redhead demurely took her seat as the guest of honor. Despite the chairs being comfortable (as if fastened for her), Shizuka anxiously shifted against the black velvet.

"Don't close your eyes," the shade playfully chastised. "You'll miss the party."

Reluctantly, she did as told, staring down at the white table cover. The seconds it took to raise her gaze felt like a measurement of infinity. However, she barely withheld snapping her eyes shut at the sight that greeted her.

Two corpses dressed in tattered tuxedos sat in the high-back chairs at her sides. Both were unrecognizable behind the evisceration carved into them, their throats nothing more than ribbons of dripping flesh, their faces torn completely apart, and their cores stabbed uncountable times. From their wounds dripped the ocean of blood at her feet.

The one on her right she didn't recognize, bearing tousled black hair matted by coagulating blood. The other, no matter how torn apart, Shizuka would recognize anywhere: Uzumaki Naruto.

"Shizuka," a voice, so soft and smooth—her own—broke the sickening silence.

Wide eyed and terrified, Komoriuta turned to face her twisted reflection as the being picked up an apple, biting into it. Crimson juice sluiced from the sides her mouth onto her white nightgown.

The coy smile Shizuka received, outlined with vermillion liquid, was downright nightmarish. "We have much to talk about."

"We have nothing to talk about," the fiery redhead snapped. Her countenance looked unaffected, but a pit of fear was rapidly being dug into her soul.

The false Shizuka pouted coyly. "What? Aren't the decorations correct? Isn't this what you wanted?"

"Not like this…" she whispered, a shiver of fear crawling up and down her spine.

"Oh," the doppelgänger's smile turned vicious. "You mean them?" She gestured towards the corpses in the other chairs with a sweeping arm. "No, this is what you want! For our enemies to perish. But don't worry. Soon, we'll be strong enough to vanquish all of those obstacles."

"But—" She was cut-off by her copy.

"Come now, relax and enjoy the party. Here…" An amused, twisted smirk pulled the shadow's lips as it plucked one of the white fruits from the basket, holding it out to the real Shizuka Komoriuta. "Have an apple."

Shizuka didn't immediately move, locking eyes on the seemingly innocuous fruit. The ivory apple was beautiful, enough so that she was half-way tempted to taste it. But… just looking at it felt so wrong.

"Take it," hissed her counterpart, sounding disconcertingly like a certain snake. "Take it, and make all of your sorrows and fears disappear. Make your dreams come true."

Against her will, a shaking hand reached out. Every one of Shizuka's senses screamed to stop—that this was a mistake that couldn't be undone—but her body numbly ignored everything. She tenderly pulled the apple away from her shadow's grasp, slowly bringing it to her lips and then breaking its delicate, ashen skin with her teeth.

It tasted like blood.

Shizuka awoke to the sensation of heaving. Though, with nothing in her stomach to eject, her body settled for hoarsely coughing. Even as consciousness scattered the remains of slumber, the phantom flavor of coppery tang of the ivory, blood-filled apple continued to assault her taste buds.

Never again would she eat anything apple related.

Overwhelming light flooded Shizuka's eyesight, overriding the bitter taste on her tongue and replacing it with pain arcing through her skull. She weakly turned her head away, only for a hand to roughly move it back into place. She opened her mouth to curse the individual, only for a hoarse cough to escape instead.

"How unusual…" Such a familiar, oily voice… Orochimaru. Good god, she wanted to murder him!

"Indeed." She didn't know who this fool was, but she'd kill him too! "Who would've thought your juinjutsu would affect the Genzōme in such a fashion?" The bastard had the gall to chuckle

Then his words sunk in, followed by overwhelming panic. What was this about her kekkei genkai!? Did they ruin her prized ability!?

Unbridled raged bubbled over, a snarl escaping her lips.

Unconsciously, Shizuka pulled on her chakra. And the world itself altered for but the briefest of seconds before her miniscule reserves failed her, the effect suddenly dying before it could even begin. However, it'd been enough to force the fallen Sannin and his minion to leap away in surprise.

The lackey laughed. "Wonderful! Her kekkei genkai is a truly dangerous thing."

"Indeed, Shizuka-chan has great capabilities," Orochimaru agreed, a note of humor escaping.

"I-I'm…going…going…" Shizuka gritted out between gulps of air. "…to kill you."

"Kabuto-kun, please put Shizuka-chan back under," the man-snake ordered. "I have use for her, but certain precautions must be taken."

Before Komoriuta could protest, a stinging sensation struck her neck. Immediately, she could feel the edges of her vision darkening. Sedative, and a strong one.

Within seconds, she entered dreamless sleep.

Team Seven had split with Team Ten a while back, leaving Sasuke, Naruto, and a clone giving an unconscious Sakura a piggyback to rush through the canopy.

Their stay within Training Area 44 was absolute hell from the get-go. They'd been quickly separated, with Naruto fighting off Shizuka Komoriuta while Sasuke and Sakura suffered a one-sided defeat at the hands of Orochimaru. Then everything went from horrible to worse when two of Team Seven were left incapacitated, leaving Naruto (sans Kyōkagan). Finally, there was the follow-up with Orochimaru's servant, Kaguya Kimimaro. When all was said and done, Kabuto handed them an Earth Scroll, but only after a dire threat.

Even as they ran the home stretch towards the tower within the center of the Forest of Death, they felt no relief. It was unspoken, but Naruto and Sasuke knew it: They were running from one pit of hell to another.

Not long after the Ino-Shika-Cho trio departed, Naruto shared the truth of how he obtained the scroll they needed with Sasuke, sans sensitive information involving Bijū or kekkei genkai.

Sasuke's scowl bared his teeth. "Lovely. We're being stalked."

"Couldn't have called it better," Naruto, for once, agreed with the Uchiha.

The clone chipped in. "A creepy guy with a fetish for young teens no less!"

"Naruto," Sasuke deadpanned. "If your clone wasn't carrying Sakura, I would've killed it for making that observation."

"Stand in line. I want a piece of him first," the Uzumaki found himself, yet again, agreeing with his teammate—there was something really wrong with that.

Though they shared words, it did little to slow their speed. They were making excellent time as it was. Though evening fell upon the forest, they would reach the center of the forest before nightfall. As a matter of fact, both were expecting the compound to enter their sights soon.

"Why is that freak so fascinated with us?" Sasuke asked aloud, ignoring the blur of trees.

"Not a clue," Naruto lied. Oh, he knew exactly what the snake-freak was after.

"Sakura and I got bit, but why didn't you?"

"If I knew the answer, I'd tell you." The Uzumaki wondered about that too. If Orochimaru-teme was so fascinated with him, why didn't he get one of those funky seals? Food for thought later when they were safe…

They went silent, the only sound resonating being the air whipping past their ears.

"I just had a bad thought," Sasuke announced.

Naruto groaned. "Come on, prick! What else could you add to our already impressive shit list?"

"The third day is coming to a close, which means the exam is more than halfway finished."


The Uchiha grimaced. "Because everyone is running out of time, there's going to be a scramble for scrolls. We happen to have both scrolls and we're a teammate short. If we meet anyone on the way to the tower, we're going to be considered easy targets."

"Craaaaap," Naruto moaned out, realizing just how much danger they were still in. "Even if we can probably beat their asses, everyone will come after us."

"Listen, loser," Sasuke began, earning a glare from Naruto. "We're down a teammate, my chakra is acting funny because of the damn seal, and you're the only one capable of heavy fighting—even then, I'm being generous. Seriously, if we get into a fight, we run. We don't stop, we don't antagonize anyone. We just run."

"Chill out, bastard," the Uzumaki countered. "After these past couple days, and with Sakura still out, I'll avoid—" The blond suddenly looked ahead, a particular scent greeting his nose. "Oi, heads up! The tower is ahead of us!"

Despite both heaving a sigh of relief, they didn't relax. Even as they ran past the tree line, their guard remained raised. If they were going to get attacked, now would be the moment. Though, as they drew near the compound's doors they felt the weight of the test slowly come off their shoulders.

It was only when the doors closed behind them that Naruto and Sasuke relaxed, both collapsing against a wall. The clone, running out of chakra, gently propped Sakura against a wall across from them before it popped out of existence.

"Without heaven…" Naruto muttered, noting the message written on the wall. "What the hell? Hey, use your pink-eye and see if there are any hidden messages or something."

"Don't insult my Sharingan," Sasuke growled back.

"It's not that awesome." The Uzumaki was proud to say that he could make such a claim. Though Sasuke didn't know it, the blond was versed in the pinwheel eye's usage. "Besides, it only works on what you can see. It's not like the Byakugan which lets you see even through the back of your head."

"When the hell did you become an expert in kekkei genkai?"

'Oh, it would be because of this kekkei genkai that allows me to copy other kekkei genkai, which I'm having trouble trying to use again.' Of course, the jinchūriki didn't say that aloud.

Nonetheless, Sasuke complied—if only to make his teammate shut up. The Sharingan lit up his eyes as he stood to take in their environment, but before he scanned the room his shoulder erupted in pain. The raven-haired boy was forced to take a knee as his hand instinctively reached to the offending tattoo.

Naruto could only face-palm in frustration. "Let me guess, it's disrupting your chakra."

"A-At least you can use your brain once in a while," Sasuke shakily snapped, slowly standing back up.

"…Open… the scrolls…" it was the faintest of chimes, but to both boys it was as blaring as a speaker.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed.

They rushed to her side, Naruto crouching down next to Haruno while Sasuke took a knee.

Sakura looked as if she was on the Shinigami's doorstep. Dark rings surrounded her eyes and her complexion bordered ghostly. Still, she was awake, and both boys couldn't ask for more. Not after the hell they experienced.

"You okay?" Sasuke asked.

"…I'm not sure," she whispered, her glassy eyes barely focusing on Sasuke. "…My chakra feels weird… And that spot hurts…"

"Where that snake-freak bit you," Naruto clarified, pointedly eyeing the strange curved marks on her neck.

"…I'm tired…" she breathed out, her eyes closing seconds later.

"Sakura, stay with us!" Sasuke ordered, shaking her. "Don't go to sleep! Don't sleep!"

When she didn't stir, the Uchiha nearly panicked, pressing a finger against her neck to confirm she was still alive. His heart slowed as he felt a weak but steady pulse.

"Hey, help me with these," Naruto ordered as he moved away from his teammates to his pack, pulling out the two scrolls. "The faster we get out of here, the faster Sakura gets help. And maybe we can figure out what that freak did to you and Sakura."

Sasuke wordlessly joined the blond, grabbing the Heaven Scroll. With a deep breath, both boys unfurled their scrolls. Suddenly, the paper started smoking.

The Uchiha instantly identified what was happening. "Throw them away! They're summoning scrolls!"

Both tossed away the volatile objects, which exploded into smoke upon contacting the ground.

"What's happening?!" Naruto asked, his hands entering into the hand seal for Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.

Sasuke, Sharingan active despite the pain in his shoulder, followed his teammate's example. "Who knows? But we've come too far to back—"

Iruka's voice suddenly broke past the smoke shrouding his figure, startling both boys. "You've got to be kidding me…"


In Konoha, evening peacefully drew to a close. Children prepped for bed, lamps and lights came alive, and shops darkened as their owners readied to rejoin their families. It was the perfect scene of peace.

…Until it was broken by a scream that resounded throughout the village, terrifying nearby birds and animals, making babies cry, and scaring the hell out of Morino Ibiki in his underground interrogation office.

"FUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKK YOOOUUUU, NARUTO!" Anko Mitarashi earth-shatteringly screamed.

Jiraiya laughed so hard from the sight he fell out of his tree and into the garbage dumpster below.

The moment Kakashi watched the sight of his haggard students entering the facility via the cameras, he rushed to meet them. Jizenka chose to follow, but he wouldn't tell her to leave—Naruto was the last person to come into contact with her niece after all.

They looked like they went through hell. Their clothes were so torn and dirty they looked like beggars off the streets. With the bruises he was sporting, Sasuke looked like he came out of several bar fights. Naruto, on the other hand, didn't have so much as a scratch marring his skin, though his clothes (borderline rags) told another story. Sakura seemed to be in the most pristine condition, but even she looked like she went through a gauntlet, and unlike the boys she wasn't active—that really scared Kakashi, especially after the incident in which she got Kinton.

After jogging through several halls, both adults stopped as they met Naruto and Sasuke (carrying Sakura) just entering into compound.

Strangely, both wore haunted looks, as if they were made to suffer a thousand years of eldritch horrors.

"Are your students alright?" Jizenka questioned, raising a brow. "The look like they had another run-in with that Ibiki fellow."

"Naruto, Sasuke, what's wrong?" Kakashi questioned, his eyebrows furrowing.

"…I felt a part of myself die that I'll never get back," Naruto numbly whispered, wide-eyed and looking ready to vomit.

Sasuke's left eye erratically twitched. "…I had my Sharingan on. Now, it's forever burned into my mind."

"Uh, what are you guys talking about?" Kakashi asked worriedly.

Wait… Why was Naruto missing his jacket? Didn't he walk into the compound wearing it?

The strange question was answered when Iruka walked around the corner, hair down and without clothing. Using said jacket to protect his modesty.

Jizenka blushed and kindly turned her back towards him. Kakashi tried holding it in, but when he identified the scent of sex wafting off Iruka, all control went out the window. The scarecrow was laughing so hard he doubled over.

Kakashi stood straight to try and maintain a modicum of professionalism, but was failing miserably. "Ah, f-forgot you were on scroll duty, d-didn't you?"


Hatake doubled over again. "T-That's absolutely horrible. But damn if isn't funny."

The ozone in the air was quite telling. "…If the situation wasn't so desperate, I'd melt your face off."

"Naruto, where are your goggles?" Kakashi asked, from his seat on a bed. "For that matter, what happened to the Kyōkagan? And if I remember correctly, aren't your eyes supposed to be blue?"

After sending off Sasuke to deliver Sakura to the medical ward, the three older ninja pulled Naruto aside so he could regal them about their time in Hell—all three were eager to hear it for various reasons. Commandeering an empty room, they locked it and let the questions fly.

Said blond nervously looked at Jizenka, who kindly smiled back from her seat next to a desk. "Uh, why did you just say that in front of her?"

"Long story, but the short of it is: she knows about the Kyōkagan," the scarecrow answered, noting a freshly clothed Iruka's raised eyebrow. The Hatake gave the teacher a roll of eyes, a signal for later explanation. "Anyways, back to the question…"

"I wouldn't be surprised if everyone and their dogs knew at this point…" the blond murmured in frustration.

Nonetheless, Naruto pulled out his destroyed goggles, displaying them to everyone.

"They broke during my fight with this girl, Shizuka," the Uzumaki explained. "She's this crazy bitch who's tried to kill me twice already."

Jizenka flinched. "Twice? Really?" 'Thanks, Shizuka... Nice of you to leave your aunty nothing but messes to clean up…'

"Oh, yeah. She was spying on me before the Chunin Exams, and then when she found out about the Kyōkagan she tried to kill me so that my team couldn't get into the second part. First time, she almost did until this old guy named Jiraiya saved me. Second time, even though I knew how to fight her, she almost won. If I hadn't activated this weird ability with the Kyōkagan, I would've died."

Jizenka face-palmed. She knew about the death-match in the forest, but she missed the pre-exam attempted murder. Lovely…

Iruka furrowed his brows. "Weird ability?"

"Yeah. It was…" Naruto took several seconds to grasp adequate words, a thoughtful frown marring his face—though, he wondered if it was possible to even describe everything. "I don't remember what happened the first time during my fight with Shizuka. Second time, though, I used it against Orochimaru. I remember the feeling from then. It felt like… something snapped. I couldn't think clearly; my thoughts were all over the place. And the longer the battle went, the fuzzier it becomes.

"But, then the chakra stopped because a certain bitch-that-shall-not-be-named used her chakra to stop everything." Kakashi and Iruka immediately knew who—or more accurately, what—he was talking about. Jizenka, on the other hand, was hoping Naruto wasn't talking about her niece again. "Screwed up my coils for a little while, but they're starting to feel better. It's why my eyes are red."

Iruka was quick to put the pieces together. "So, the reason you can't use the Kyōkagan is because that other chakra is suppressing it."


Kakashi rubbed his face tiredly. "That explains several things. What does this weird ability do?"

"Uh… well…" the genin tried to explain. "I'm not sure. I mean, the part before everything went fuzzy… I'd say it's like using a lot of the other chakra."

The former ANBU sighed, accepting that this was all they'd get. "Alright, what about Orochimaru?"

Naruto frowned, vividly remembering the snake-freak. "While I was fighting Shizuka, he kicked Sakura and Sasuke's asses. And then when he beat them, he put on this weird mark on them—"

"Ah, shit," it was one of the very rare moments Iruka cursed, running a hand across his face. "As if things couldn't get worse…"

"What's wrong?" Kakashi anxiously asked.

"They got marked by a cursed seal," Iruka announced. Kakashi's single eye hardened as he recognized the term. "Tomorrow, we'll need to get Jiraiya-sama over here. Otherwise, those seals are going to mess with Sasuke and Sakura."

"Excuse me," Jizenka interjected. "What's bad about these curse seals?"

"They're seals that can give a surge of chakra in certain situations, even going so far as to give the user exotic abilities." Iruka explained—Anko was kind enough to regale him with the details her ex-sensei's betrayal. "But it's dangerous for the body. Worse yet, the seals can influence a person's behavior in a negative manner. No doubt Orochimaru wants to corrupt those two for whatever reason."

"That's what that snake-freak did?!" Naruto barked.

"Don't worry about it," Kakashi said, turning his lone eye to his student. "We're going to get ahold of Jiriaya-sama—the man that saved you from Shizuka the first time—and ask him for a way to isolate those seals' corruptive influence. I'd do it myself, but I'm afraid that whatever I come up with would be shoddy at best."

"…Sama?" the genin asked.

Iruka sighed. "If you hadn't slept through that lecture, you'd know that Jiraiya-sama and Orochimaru, alongside Tsunade-sama—whom you haven't met—were all former teammates and are a group known famously as the Sannin. They're some of the strongest ninja Konoha has produced."

"Oh, so that Jiraiya guy is freakishly strong? He didn't look it."

"It's not really known how strong he is," Kakashi explained. "But I'd say he can beat either Iruka or me. Possibly even both of us—though, I don't know how much of an exaggeration that might be."

Naruto's eyes were wide with awe. "Dude, I should find this guy again and have him teach me some awesome jutsu or something."

"Another time. For now, we have other things to worry about," Iruka said, steering the conversation back to the original topic. "What else happened in the forest?"

"After Sasuke and Sakura got bit, they got sick," the Uzumaki explained. "For a couple days, I basically just watched over them, hoping they'd either get better or I got help. I also took some time to get control of that other chakra, especially since my control started to suck again."

"Anything else?" Jizenka pushed.

"Yeah, then this freaky guy with a kekkei genkai named Kimimaro attacked me. He wanted me to copy his kekkei genkai called Shikyotsumatsu for the snake-bastard."

"But you couldn't because of the Kyōkagan being suppressed," Iruka clarified, simultaneously filing away the name of the newly mentioned kekkei genkai.

For some reason, it sounded familiar…

Naruto grimaced. "Yeah, he almost killed me too. At least until the other chakra got out of control again."

Jizenka's eyes nearly popped out of her skull. "Wait, you're a jinchūriki too?"

Kakashi face-palmed while Iruka sighed in frustration.

The Uzumaki threw up his arms in exasperation. "Great! Can't I have a secret that's actually a secret?"

"So, your Bijū's chakra is suppressing the Kyōkagan…" Jizenka observed, eyeing Naruto like he was specimen under a microscope. "Fascinating…"

"Please stop looking at me like you're going to dissect me," the blond begged. "I got enough of that from Kabuto-teme…" He snapped his fingers in remembrance. "That reminds me. Yakushi Kabuto is a spy. He works for snake-bastard too."

Ozone instantly flooded the room. "Thank you, Naruto. I needed that information."

"Yeah, he threatened me too. Told me that if anyone from Team Seven dropped out there'd be "consequences"," Naruto said, making air quotes. "But he also handed us an Earth Scroll—which is what we needed to pass."

"It confirms our observation," Jizenka noted, pointedly looking at Kakashi.

"Indeed." Iruka optically demanded an explanation from the copy-cat, which the Hatake obliged. "Jizenka-san and I guessed that Orochimaru would want a place to better observe the Kyōkagan. Since there were so many passing teams this year, there was the likelihood of a preliminary round. It's the perfect place for anyone to observe the genin."

"We should let Hokaga-sama know," Iruka said. "We might be able to set a trap."

"It's what we thought too," Hatake said. "I'm hoping to get Tenzo in on this as well."

"Okay, let me get this straight," the teacher announced, beginning to pace. "You guys got separated, resulting in you fighting Shizuka-san and Sakura and Sasuke fighting Orochimaru. After that, you confronted Orochimaru yourself. For three days you watched Sasuke and Sakura, and then fought Kimimaro. When did Yakushi get in on this?"

"Right after my fight with Kimimaro," Naruto clarified. "Oh, and Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji helped me out with that guy." He then visibly gulped. "…And Ino saw me using the other chakra."

"Another problem added to the pile…" Kakashi ran a hand across his face exasperation. "Now we need to run damage control too at the other end of the spectrum."

"Are you guys trying to keep his status as a jinchūriki as a secret?" Jizenka questioned.

Kakashi really wanted the woman to stay out of their business, but he'd be obliging since the cat was out of the bag. And it would prevent her from getting any ideas—like conjuring more blackmail material. "The younger residents of Konoha aren't aware of Naruto's status, and we're trying to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the villagers found a way around it, and passed on their hatred to their children. Admittedly, it was a rather poor attempt to allow Naruto a chance to grow up normally in the company of his peers."

Said jinchūriki was trying to ignore the subject at hand, but was failing miserably. His countenance darkened with every syllable.

Jizenka pursed her lips, sadly eying the preteen. "I see."

"Why is everybody afraid of me?!"

She shook her head in vain attempt to dislodge the memory. 'Now's not the time for that.'

"Still, what are we going to do about Ino?" Iruka asked, looking to his senior for answers.

Naruto surprised everyone with his answer. "I was going to talk to her about it."

Umino's features softened towards his former student. "Are you sure?"

The youth shrugged nonchalantly, trying to hide how nervous he was with the impending conversation. "I don't know what else to do. "

"Alright," the teacher agreed. "But if it comes to the worse, Kakashi or I will just tell Ino to abide by the law. It's not preferable, but it'll keep her mouth shut. Speaking of which, who's going to alert the Hokage?"

"It might be preferable that you do it," Kakashi suggested. "I would like Jizenka-san and I to watch the perimeter. Combined, the both of us should be able to identify Orochimaru or Yakushi Kabuto should they make an appearance."

"That'll do, I guess," Iruka agreed. "If that's it, let's get things set. Naruto, get some rest. After everything you've been through, I'm sure you need a break."

The blond wept anime tears. "I forgot what it's like to sleep in an actual bed!"

Sasuke sighed, hands in pockets as he stared down at Sakura's sleeping form. Cleaned and dressed in fresh clothing, one would've never guessed she went through the Forest of Death. And how peaceful she looked...

The Uchiha wished he could feel such serenity.

Sasuke felt relieved that the adults chose Naruto to explain everything. Without the constant high of adrenaline or the endless threat of death hanging of his head, his emotions were running rampant. So many cycled through his soul, Sasuke barely identified any of them. Tiredness, relief, defeat, depression, anger, bitterness… so many more. When had he ever felt like this?

Every moment since becoming a genin ran through his mind like an overplayed movie. The triumphs, the failures, his interactions with his teammates… everything. There were times he felt like he was on top of the world; and others, barely scraping by.

Reexamining his life, he could only ask one question: "Why?"

The low-lighted room provided no answer. Only the beeping of machines attached to Sakura broke the silence.

That single word carried with it every question he felt in his mind. Why did he suddenly care about what happened to his teammates? Some days, why did it feel like the entire world was out to get his team? How little did he know of his teammates? Why were Sakura and Naruto getting so strong while he stagnated? Why did such a chasm of power exist between Itachi and him?

His teeth visibly ground as his thoughts drifted towards his traitorous brother. 'Itachi, don't think I've forgotten about you.'

Though, the bitter thought caught Sasuke off guard. When was the last time he actually thought about his brother? Days? Months maybe? He couldn't remember. Sure, there was a stray thought regarding the elder Uchiha, but nothing beyond. During times, thoughts of his murderous sibling were instead put to the backburner in favor of his interactions with his teammates.

When did he become so distracted from his goals? Wasn't he an avenger? Wouldn't he only find peace when he turned his brother into a worm feast?

However, upon laying eyes on Sakura's still form, all negativity drained away from Sasuke's visage.

In Nami no Kuni, he vividly relived the battle with Zabuza, Naruto's subsequent brilliance, and the training they undertook to get stronger. Not long after, they fought a dramatic battle against the missing-nin and his lackey. And then Sasuke did the unthinkable by sacrificing his life for Naruto.

Afterwards when all was calm, he distinctly remembered how Sakura and he failed to uncover Naruto's secrets, and instead became victims of someone else's schemes. Then came there spar-turned-death-match against their blond teammate—Sasuke was positive he would've won had Kakashi not intervened. Sakura then got sick, bringing out emotions Sasuke hadn't felt in a long time—hadn't he bought her flowers for her stay in the hospital too? Before the exam, he remembered watching Sakura practice kenjutsu, and failing spectacularly at it too; he pitied his female teammate as he watched her go through several atrocious stances, leading him to offer some pointers. Then he bought her a katana on whim.

So many memories. And not an ounce of hatred to be found.

Sasuke bitterly laughed, tears stinging the edges of his eyes.

When he thought of everything Team Seven weathered, the burdens of the past seemed so much lighter. The sorrow gave way to laughter and smiles, and Itachi's crimson gaze became a half-forgotten nightmare.

"What are you and Naruto doing to me?" the Uchiha asked.

Still no answer.

He was an avenger. Nothing more, nothing less… Right?

Jizenka sat on the edge of the compound, resting her head against her hands.

The conversation with Kakashi's student gave her much to think about. Among which, were issues she thought done with.

When raising her niece, Jizenka held great hope and pride that Shizuka would become the daughter her sister and brother-in-law would've envisioned. Although her personality was her father's—with all that personal pride and such—Shizuka's appearance was all her mother's. Jizenka had done her best to iron out her niece's character flaws, but she also tried to keep a somewhat gentle hand to not break Shizuka's spirit. For all the good that did her…

"Why is everybody afraid of me?!"

It was a horrible echo, a reminder that at some point she failed Shizuka.

That said, Uzumaki Naruto had every right to hate Shizuka. Her niece was letting a personal vendetta with no grounding cloud her judgment, creating openings for rash decisions and failures. Naturally, the consequences were pricey.

It was ironic, though. Shizuka was trying to kill the one person that could emphasize with her more than anybody else.

Still, nobody deserved suffering at the hands of Orochimaru. Even her wannabe-avenger niece. And Jizenka prayed to whatever entity might listen that her sister's daughter came back unharmed.

"Stupid little, pain-in-the-ass—" the retired Iwa jonin muttered, only to be interrupted by Kakashi.

"Referring to your student?" The amusement in his words wasn't hidden.

She sighed again. "You mean my cute, homicidal niece? Yep."

"Sounds like a ball of fun," he sarcastically observed.

"I'm surprised she made it past her eighth birthday with how often I wanted to ring her neck," Jizenka said. "She's always been a rebellious child… And then she pulls crap like this."

Kakashi chuckled. "Sounds like my own little avenger, Sasuke. Thankfully, it seems like he's been mellowing out."

"Lucky you…" Jizenka sarcastically deadpanned.

"Anyways…" the copy-cat adopted a business tone. "Things set up?"

"My mantises are all over the place," Jizenka said. "If they see any of our targets, we'll know. How 'bout your end?"

"My ninken are all over the place," Kakashi said. "If Orochimaru or the traitor Yakushi Kabuto shows up, they'll immediately start causing a ruckus."

On Jizenka raised a brow. "Dogs…? Well, whatever works I guess…"

The copy-cat only smiled. "Oh, just wait…"

Being the lighter of the two sleepers, Sasuke was the first to wake to a rather annoying knocking. Blinking away the dust in his eyes, he turned towards Naruto in the other bed, only to see the idiot still sleeping peacefully. 'How can the idiot…'

Sasuke's eyes narrowed as another round of knocking resounded. "This had better be good…" he groused, swinging the blankets over to leave the warmth of his bed.

With an angry grimace he stomped towards the door, swinging it open just as the intruder readied to knock again.

Under normal circumstances, Ino would've squeed at the sight of Sasuke answering the door. This wasn't one of those moments. Eyes bloodshot, hair an absolute mess, rings around his eyes, and glaring down at her, all the Yanamaka could do was nervously laugh at the sight. Wow, he looked ready to murder somebody…

"Uh, hi Sasuke-kun!" she greeted.

The door slammed in her face.

With a sigh, Ino went on. "Look, I need to talk to Naruto. It's really important."

Silence for a minute, and then Sasuke yelling. Another moment of silence, and then a loud bang resounded followed closely by Naruto's voice. "Holy hell, asshole! Did you really need to a throw a chair!? Hey, wait-! Don't you dare go back to bed! I'm not done with—O-Okay, just put the hands down! N-No need for fire jutsu!"

Naruto chuckled nervously as he quietly closed the door from behind. Once away from the Uchiha's range, he grumbled under his breath while rubbing the developing knot on his head.

However, once his eyes fell upon Ino, he sighed. Gods, how he'd been dreading this…

"Uh… Can I get dressed real fast?" he asked, doing so to delay the conversation with every second possible.

The Yanamaka rolled her eyes. "I know what you're doing." Naruto gulped. "But, yeah, go ahead. Just hurry it up."

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed. The sunny blond almost teleported back into his room.

Ino examined her nails as she waited. Man, they were dirty. Definitely a manicure once—

Her thoughts were interrupted by shouting. "Oi, Teme, chill the hell out! I'm just trying to get dressed!" Silence. "Boo-hoo. I was the one watching Sakura-chan and you while you were—" BAM! "Ha! Missed! Poor alarm clock had no—" Something shattered; then more silence.

Yamanaka heard footsteps, then a turning door handle. Naruto appeared in the doorway, wearing a set of fresh clothes that looked recently bought. He wore a black shirt, a blue combat vest with spirals on the shoulders, and a pair of black cargo pants with blue decals and trimmings.

There was also a vague shape of a lamp's base imprinted on his forehead. If she looked a little harder, Ino might've even sworn that she could see the maker's name on there too.

"Right," Naruto began, sounding pained. "Let's hurry before Sasuke decides to throw the microwave at me too."

"What's with the bitch in the barrel?" Tayuya questioned.

Her and the rest of the Sound Four sat surrounding the barrel inscribed with seals, waiting for the latest recipient of Orochimaru's curse seal to awaken. Observing the procedure was Kabuto and their master, both of which excitedly eyed the barrel.

Normally, neither the Sannin nor his right-hand man bothered with what was a standard practice, but Komoriuta Shizuka wasn't normal. Once awake, there was no predicting what happened next. Though the Sound Four were dangerous altogether, they couldn't match the Genzōme. Not after what the Cursed Void Seal did to it.

"She has interesting qualities we're going to use," Kabuto curtly explained.

"Well, wasn't that fucking descriptive…" the redhead complained.

"She looked pretty worthless," Sakon tacked on.

"Her kekkei genkai suggests otherwise," Orochimaru said, prompting the team to pay attention. "Shizuka-chan's dōjutsu is so powerful she wears specific eyewear to insure she maintains control of it. Do not underestimate her."

"She can't be—" Kidomaru began, only to be interrupted by Kabuto.

"Yes, she is powerful, enough so to give Kimimaro-kun a challenge," Kabuto countered before the spider-like ninja could get a note in. "Especially after the cursed seal was applied."

Their conversation was interrupted as the barrel exploded, scattering debris and clouding the room in smoke. The Sound Four jumped into readied stances, though Kabuto and Orochimaru remained calm.

Then Shizuka charged out of the fog towards the four-eyed medic. Just as she reached her target, Jirobo appeared at her side and punched her away, only for the illusion to shatter like glass and then dissipate into snowflakes of chakra.

Light trailing her iridescent eyes, Shizuka emerged from the darkness behind Sakon, knife poised to drive into his skull. Kidomaru, however, covered his ally's, throwing an array of golden kunai at Komoriuta only for them to phase through the apparition.

"Genjutsu specialist!" the spider-like ninja announced.

The Sound Four went back-to-back, suspiciously eyeing the surrounding darkness for any sign of the Genzōme.

However, they weren't her target. Shizuka appeared from Orochimaru's shadow like a swimmer breaking the water's surface, her balisong poised to stab at the base of the Sannin's skull. Only to drop to the ground, writhing in pain and biting her lip to stop from screaming.

"Ah, Shizuka-chan, it was nice try. I'll give you that much," the snake-man complimented as he turned to her, watching as she shakily rose. "It was even beautifully executed. You put my guards on the defense so they wouldn't react in time to stop your attack. However, you overlooked one very important fact: I'm the most dangerous person here."

"What did you do to me this time?!" Shizuka demanded, her angry, green eyes boring into his skull with an eerie glow.

"You're predictable," Orochimaru began, slowly circling and eyeing the Komoriuta, as if appraising her worth like an art dealer would a sculpture. "You're dangerous, an attack dog with a grudge. The moment you're off your leash, you'll bite any hand within reach. But, that's alright. I have use for such a dog.

"For that reason, while you were unconscious from the application process of my cursed seal, I decided to take precautions. I placed several of my snakes inside of your body. And according my whims…"

He raised a hand. Shizuka dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes as her body ignited in agony. Just as quickly as the sensation assaulted her, though, it fled. Shakily, she pressed a hand against the ground, slowly rising, all the while glaring daggers at the snake-like menace.

"…You can suffer greatly. Even die," the fallen Sannin continued. "But again, I have use of your talents."

"I hate you so much," Shizuka growled out past clenched teeth, leaning against a wall for support.

The snake-man chuckled. "An understandable notion. Nonetheless, I'm going to lay out some rules. Disobey them, and the snakes within your body will see fit to punish you. Depending on the offense, it might even be… dramatic, and maybe even messy—it'd be sad if you're aunt had to retrieve your remains off a wall using a sponge, wouldn't it?"

"Fine," Shizuka bitingly agreed, feeling the tail of a snake writhe just under the skin of her arm, as if in warning—it was such a disgusting sensation. "What are the rules, Hebi-teme?"

"First, you will not attack Kabuto-kun and I," Orochimaru outlined, ignoring the insult—though, his subordinates looked ready to jump down her throat. "Neither will you disobey our orders, nor reveal any sensitive information. Simple, right?"

Shizuka spitefully spat at him, but the Sannin lazily dodged. The wet projectile instead hit Sakon in the eye, earning laughter from his comrades.

"It appears she's not eager to serve us, Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto humorously observed, walking up beside his master. "I can see why you took such precautions."

"For your first mission," the snake summoner went on, "you will capture Team Seven. All three of them."

"How 'bout not no, but hell no'?" Shizuka's face once again met the ground in pain as the writhing snakes inside her body suggested otherwise.

The traitor chuckled. "Do I have to go over the rules again?"

With a snap of his fingers, the Sound Four stood at attention by their master's side, awaiting orders.

"Bind and silence her," Orochimaru ordered. "Tomorrow morning, I want her back in Training Area 44. She has her orders. And I'm positive she'll obey."

"Yes, master!" they chorused, immediately setting to work.

His reptilian eyes pointedly stared at the girl curled up on the ground, breathing hard from the pain her wracking body.

Komoriuta Shizuka's uses were immense. By herself, her strength was greater than the pathetic Sound Four, an asset Orochimaru intended to milk for all its worth. The Genzōme alone had enormous potential for subterfuge, distractions, and mind-control. And in a worse-case scenario, she'd make an excellent container. This was made better by the inclusion of the Genzōme's unexpected… reaction to the Kū no Juin—who could've known his cursed seals would affect a kekkei genkai in such a way?

The last thought elicited a chuckle from the Sannin.

Shizuka's primary purpose in his plans overall, though, were far simpler than that: She was merely a test, a hurdle for his future container to overcome. Retrieving Sasuke, Sakura, or Naruto was merely icing on the cake.

"Kabuto-kun," Orochimaru began, watching the Sound Four's backs as they bound their irate cargo. "Would you kindly observe Shizuka-chan? I'm sure she's feeling frustrated with the current events and will likely seek an outlet for it. It'd be a perfect opportunity to observe her kekkei genkai."

His most loyal servant chuckled. "Of course, Orochimaru-sama."

'Man, these clothes are nice,' Naruto observed, trying—but failing—to distract himself from his current conundrum. 'Iruka-sensei and Anko-nee really went all out on these. But, why do they feel so heavy?'

(Strangely, every time he thought of his sister figure, Naruto felt like he was walking over his grave.)

The jinchūriki was drawn from his thoughts by someone clearing his throat. Groaning, he remembered his situation.

Naruto and Ino had retreated to just outside the compound, making sure to remain within its boundaries lest they get accidentally targeted by another team. Though both would've preferred to have the conversation inside, there was no telling if someone might accidentally walk in on it. Due to the scale of the secret and how personal it was to Naruto, he didn't want to take chances.

Ino sat on a large rock, watching as Naruto paced back and forth like a pendulum. Her chin sat comfortably on her interwoven fingers, carefully measuring Naruto's every movement and emotional display.

Being rooted in psychology since she was little, the Yamanaka found it fascinating watching her fellow blond cycle through so many feelings. Despite the Uzumaki being an idiot back in the academy, Ino had to remind herself that everyone's personality was multifaceted, and that Naruto was no exception. Back then, all she saw was stupid happiness from him and nothing more; though, if she wasn't paying attention to Sasuke so much, she might've been able to pick up more. So, to see Naruto displaying emotions like apprehension and fear—just to name a few—was almost alien.

Naruto stopped, taking several calming breaths before he turned to his fellow blonde. "So, uh, what you do want to know?" Maybe if he played his cards right, Ino would never have to know the truth.

"What was that?" Ino asked, leaning forward in anticipation. "I mean, we couldn't touch that bone guy, but when you used that freaky chakra, you beat the crap out of him."

One could hope… "Well, uh…" the Uzumaki had to take another breath. "I'm not entirely sure myself."

"What do mean 'I'm not entirely sure'!?" Ino looked frustrated. Why couldn't the stupid idiot just give her a straight answer?

"Well, it was the first time I used that," he answered. That wasn't a lie. Not at all… "I didn't know I could do hat red, blobby… thing."

The platinum blonde pursed her lips. "You know what caused it." It wasn't a question.

"Well, I have an idea…" Okay, that didn't work. Time for a different tactic.

'Someone's trying to worm themselves out of a situation~' sing-songed a certain vixen in the back of his mind.

'Shut up,' Naruto mistakenly let his frustration show on his face. 'You're not helping.'

Ino misconstrued his look's meaning. "So you know exactly what it is. Stop lying—you suck at it."

Uzumaki face-palmed all the while trying to ignore the Kyūbi's impish chuckles coming from his mind.

"Okay, fine!" he declared, exasperatingly throwing his hands into the air. "I have the Kyūbi sealed inside of me."

Silence. Then Ino heatedly glared. "Dammit, Naruto that wasn't funny! If you don't stop making fun of me, I'll use my Shintenshin—"

Said jinchūriki exasperatedly shook his head. "I wasn't joking that time."

Ino furrowed her brows. "Fine, I'll play your stupid game. Then how the hell would you fit a mountain-sized demon inside of—"

She abruptly stopped when Naruto pulled up his shirt and channeled chakra, revealing a spiral, sun-like tattoo. Ino's eyebrows flew into her hairline.

"The same way you put a kunai into a piece of paper," Naruto answered matter-of-factly. "With a seal." The design disappeared as he lowered his shirt. His outlook became solemn. "Did you know that I was born on October tenth? What happened that day?"

"The K-Kyūbi attack," Ino answered, wide-eyed and visibly shaken.

Uzumaki nodded. "So, when the Yondaime couldn't kill the Kyūbi, he had to figure out another way to save everyone—"

"…So he put it inside of someone," Ino breathed, her eyes reflecting every ounce of her shock.

A pregnant silence developed between the two, one waiting on glass for a reaction while the other digested everything with stunned disbelief.

Finally, the Yanamaka broke the silence. "That explains so much… Why the adults don't like you… and why… we… were always told to stay away from you." She looked ashamed for the admittance, pulling her knees to her chest and resting her forehead on them.

"Yeah," Naruto confirmed, nervously rubbing the back of his neck. "I… don't fully understand why, though. Some people were angry with the Kyūbi and just took their sorrows out on me by proxy. Others… thought I was the Kyubi." Mizuki came to mind. Before the traitor died an agonizing death.

She looked up in shock. "Why?! How could they do that?!" The jinchūriki just shrugged. It astonished Ino that Naruto could be so nonchalant about the village's hatred towards him. What kind of mental fortitude did it take to withstand so much hatred without breaking? It was mind boggling! "But, you're not the Kyūbi!"

Ino remembered many of Naruto's smiles during the academy. Looking back, they looked… so fake, forced. As if he was trying to lie to himself. How could she have missed it? Didn't she teethe on psychology scrolls as a baby?

But, the smile she received now… So sincere, so warm. Naruto's true smile. Ino basked in the presence of the face behind the mask, memorizing the real Naruto.

"I wish more people thought like that," were those tears prickling at the edges of his eyes?

Yet again, Ino wondered why she hadn't paid closer attention while in the academy. Since the beginning of the exam, she felt her shortcomings, especially compared to the monsters. But now… now she really felt them. To miss something hidden like the real Naruto, to miss something she was trained to pick out… Just another thing to add to her laundry list of failures and incompetency.

Somehow, someway she'd make it up to him. Though, a journey needed a step to begin…

She smirked mischievously. "Nah, you can't be the Kyūbi. You're too much of a knucklehead."

"Oi! That's not nice!"

'She's right you know,' interjected the fox herself. 'You brain lacks… Well, everything.'

'Quit killing the moment, dammit!'

'Stop choosing the Kyōkagan over me. Then maybe I'll be a bit more… friendlier.' Naruto shook his head, hoping to dislodge her voice from his mind.

Another silence befell. Unlike the last, though, there was a certain comfort between the two.

However, when Ino spoke up she sounded shyly curious. "So, uh, what does it look like?"

"What look like what?"

"The Kyūbi."

"Oh," Naruto pressed a finger to his chin in thought. "Well, she's a redhead. Ruby eyes. Maybe a little taller than me. I'd say…" He bobbed his head in thought, "…a D-cup."

Ino launched a pebble at Naruto, the object painfully bouncing off his cheek. "That wasn't funny either!"

The sunny-blond rubbed at his slighted skin. "Hey, I'm telling the truth! The Kyūbi is—!"

The only warning Ino had was Naruto's eyes widening.

Before she could ask anything, Naruto threw her over his shoulder and leapt backwards. Just as a crater formed from an impact of sand.

After sliding to a stop, Uzumaki wiped away the tell-tale grit unnaturally clinging to him with his free hand, inwardly cursing his luck.

"Can't I get a break from someone trying to kill me for more than day?" Naruto lamented, weeping anime tears.

"Naruto, what the hell is going on?!" Ino demanded, thrashing about on said boy's shoulder like a fish trying get loose. "Let go of me, you pervert!"

"Stop squirming!" the other blond ordered.

"Uzumaki Naruto," a new voiced coldly noted. "I see you've passed the second exam."

"Sup' Gaara," Uzumaki greeted, turning towards the red ghoul stalking from the tree line.

Behind their little brother, Temari and Kankuro stood a distance away, as if trying to sidestep their sibling's wrath. Both looked shaken, a fact Naruto didn't miss nor like.

Kyūbi, of all moments, manifested herself, appearing from behind his back. "Uh, Naruto-kun, I should warn you—"

Gaara suddenly grinned maniacally, his eyes suddenly shifting into a golden color with a star-shaped pupil. Immense killing intent flooded the immediate area, drowning anyone with a weak constitution through its unmerciful torrent. Temari and Kankuro panicked and dashed towards the relative safety of the forest.

"Uh, I don't like that smile…" the Uzumaki decided, only partially paying an ear to his prisoner.

"Yes, about that smile…" the Kyūbi continued, a minute trace of anxiety staining her voice—she was far from afraid of the insane tanuki, but Naruto wasn't exactly invincible. "You see, Shukaku—the Ichibi—doesn't really like me. The demon sealed in Gaara. You do remember that, right?"

Naruto nervously eyed that sand hungrily spiraling in the air. "It's kinda hard to forget something like that. Gettothepoint."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Ino snapped, unable to see the happenings. "Dammit, Naruto, what's going on?!"

The Kyūbi and Naruto ignored her, with the faux human continuing. "The Bijū can sense each other. Normally, this isn't a great issue. However, Shukaku—who senses me through you—is quite insane and homicidal, with a deep hatred for his brethren and, by proxy, their containers. And if I were you, I'd start running."


Naruto stopped mid-curse as a tsunami of sand rose up and charged at Ino and he. The sun-kissed preteen spun the other way, drawing on a fair chunk of the Kyūbi's chakra to launch towards safety as the wave engulfed the ground.

"What the…" Ino watched as tendrils of sand rocketed towards them, her eyes widening to the size of dinner plates at the sight of an insane Gaara. "Runfasterrunfasterrunfaster!You'renotrunningfasten ough!"

Naruto leapt with his all his might, dodging the tendrils as they speared the ground and meeting the walls of the compound with his soles. Channeling all chakra he could to his muscles, Naruto scurried up and away from the insane jinchūriki below.

"Left!" the Yamanaka suddenly ordered. Her would-be rescuer followed the command, barely dodging a fountain of sound. "Right!" she shouted. As before, he barely slid past another explosion of grit. "Three incoming; rush three o'clock to dodge!" Naruto was surprised at the accuracy of her prediction, but he wasn't complaining; they were going to get out of this alive.

Grinning in victory, Naruto made it to an open window. Only to be jerked back as everything metallic on Ino and him suddenly jerked the other direction. Naruto drew on every ounce of strength in his muscles to ensure he didn't accidently drop Ino, who yelped at the sudden sensation.

"I… forgot…" Naruto growled out past clenched teeth, clinging to the walls with such force that the concrete beneath his feet cracked. "Bastard… has… kekkei genkai."

Ino squealed as she was pulled from his shoulder. Before she could slip away, Naruto snatched her wrist, quickly reinforcing his grip with his other hand. A grunt of exertion escaped the Uzumaki's lips as he held tightly, almost to the point of cracking Ino's bones.

"P-Please, don't drop me!" Ino begged, looking up at his ruby, slit eyes.

Despite his newfound fearsome look, she wasn't afraid of him. Rather, she was comforted that Naruto was willing to throw out all the stops to save her. She was far more concerned about the sand below—which was strangely silent, she noted offhandedly.

"Won't…happen," Naruto grunted out.

Below them, Gaara was frustrated. He hadn't wanted to resort to Jiton, but his quarry had almost escaped. It was far more chakra extensive than controlling his sand, but for the sake of feeling alive, his fellow jinchūriki couldn't leave this grave.

'That's right!' Shukaku cackled in his mind. 'Feed him to our sand! Kill him, kill him, killhimkillhimkillhim…!"

"You won't get away, Uzumaki," the redhead growled out.

"Idea…" said genin gritted to Ino. "Drop…all…metal…weaponry."

"A-Alright," she agreed.

Using her free hand, she opened all of her kunai pouches and hidden pockets filled with weaponry, and then dumped it all.

Which launched at high speeds towards Gaara.

The psychotic jinchūriki couldn't react fast enough. He was peppered so hard it sent him launching into the forest behind him with enough force to smash through several trees.

Bereft of the force pulling them towards the ground, Naruto and Ino launched into the air above like a rubber band launching from a finger, both squealing from the sudden momentum. They arced in the air, both getting dumped on the roof of the compound.

Besides gasping for air like goldfish outside the bowl, both remained silent for what felt like an eternity.

"F# & (gasp) my (gasp) life (gasp)," Naruto finally breathed out, lying spread-eagle on the roof.

"How many murder attempts is that now?" Ino asked, still high on adrenaline.

"Lost (gasp) count." The Uzumaki took several deep breaths so he could talk normally. "Okay, how much metal do we have on ourselves? 'Cause there's no way we were pulled that hard by our kunai and shuriken."

The Yamanaka blushed, though Naruto couldn't see it. "Sorry. Chainmail. I've got it all over my body. I started wearing it after you beat me."

"Well, that explains you…" Frowning, the jinchūriki pulled a frayed sleeve to his eyes, immediately identifying his problem. "Ah, so that's why these clothes were so heavy… Anko-nee and Iruka-sensei bought me clothes with metal weaving. It was supposed to be for extra protection. How ironic. It almost got me killed a couple seconds ago."

"Can we please get the hell outta here before he comes back?" Ino groaned out, the pain coming in waves as the adrenaline buzz faded away. "I think you broke my wrist…"

"Sonuvabitch…" Kankuro breathed, staring at the trail of destruction Gaara's launch created.

Temari felt her eyes go wide as she jogged up to her brother. "Good god… Did they really just survive that?"

"No shit…" her brother agreed.

"Honestly, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about the plan," the eldest confessed. "If those are genin, then what the hell are the rest of Konoha's forces like?"

"At least now we know who Gaara wants to kill," Kankuro observed.

Temari personally felt impressed. The pair of Konoha genin had survived a round with Gaara, even when he busted out Jiton. Not many claimed that score. Especially if they had that much metal on their persons.

A conversation with this Naruto guy would be very interesting…

Their youngest sibling blankly stared at the sky from the trench his body carved out, relatively unharmed despite the number of kunai and shuriken sticking out from his sand armor. Though it was last second, Shukaku had reinforced his Suna no Yoroi to an extreme level with chakra, enough so that his skin hadn't broke.

For a minute—just a single minute—Gaara thought he had died. The attack was sudden and faster than he could've regularly countered. But he was alive.

Yes, alive

The thought put a manic grin on his face, causing his siblings to back away. Then it turned into a chuckle that escalated into psychotic laughter.

Never before had he felt so… so alive! On the cusp of death, to taste the fear of dying, and then to come out of alive… What would it be like when he finally fed his chosen adversary to his sand?

Gaara's laughter calmed. "Yes, Uzumaki Naruto, you'll truly make me feel alive."

The Sound Four, with Sakon taking point, maneuvered through the canopy of Training Area Forty-Four, having bypassed the ANBU patrolling the perimeter. Orochimaru's elite guard made no sound as they moved to accomplish their mission: to release Shizuka back into the Forest of Death to fulfill Orochimaru's goals. It wasn't a desirable mission by any means (as Tayuya was kind enough to point out with her constantly foul mouth), but who were they to question their leader?

Shizuka, slung over Jirobo's shoulders while bound, gagged, and blindfolded, remained quiet and docile. But, she intended to change that very quickly. Once the dolts stupidly released her, Shizuka intended to relieve some of her ever mounting frustration.

Unbeknownst to the four, Yakushi Kabuto was following just out of range of their sensing ability. Orochimaru and he were curious about Shizuka's full capabilities. Having gained the curse seal and her kekkei genkai taking to it strangely, the four-eyed ninja was sent to observe how she performed.

'I wonder if they understand just how dangerous their cargo really is…' He mused humorously.

"This'll do," Sakon announced as he stopped, prompting his fellows to follow suit.

When her feet touched the ground, Shizuka inwardly grinned. The moment Orochimaru's stooges undid her bindings and pulled the blindfold off, the fiery redhead began her assault. Her butterfly knife flipped into position instantly, followed with a spin that sliced into Tayuya's, Jirobo's, and Kidomaru's arms—only Sakon got away unscathed. It was nothing detrimental to their performance, but it forced the bodyguards back.

"I thought we were on the same side!" Jirobo barked, hands already reaching for the earth.

"Hey, fat-ass!" Tayuya said. "Does the little bitch look like she's on our side?"

Shizuka lightly chuckled. "Same side? Yeah, right… Let me outline the rules given to me: I cannot disobey the snake-bastard or his butt-monkey, I can't attack them, and I have to keep the fact that I'm working for them a secret. So, where's the part that says I can't kill you four for a little revenge?"

Sakon laughed. "You really think you can defeat us? That's rich! We're the Sound Four, Orochimaru's elite guards!"

"Oh, good. That means you won't die on me immediately," she countered derisively. "I needed a chew toy—or a few—to work out my frustrations on."

"Motherfucking bitch!" Tayuya snarled, pulling out her flute. "I'm going to stick your remains in a jar of formaldehyde, and then piss in it!"

Komoriuta dangerously smirked as she closed her eyes, slowly pulling off her welder's goggles. The Sound Four tensed, aware of the powerful dōjutsu below the eyewear.

They'd been warned about Shizuka Komoriuta's dangerous potential. According to Kabuto, the redhead could theoretically hold her own against Kimimaro and they knew how strong the last Kaguya was. They couldn't take chances, not in this fight.

"Didn't Orochimaru tell you?" she wistfully asked them, opening her arms wide as if to beckon them.

"Tell us what?!" Kidomaru spat.

The spider-like shinobi blinked. Just blinked. And there she was, gripping the sides of his head, as if directing him to make eye contact.

"Didn't he tell you how weak you really are?" Shizuka answered.

All Hell broke loose.

Kill Joy no Jutsu (A.K.A. Author's Note): God, getting this chapter out was a real chore. At certain points it felt like I had to force it out harder than constipation; I know you can't do that as a writer, but the only way to get over writer's block is to write. A catch-22 if I've ever heard one. However, I did go over it to ensure it was smoothed out, insure the symbolism was appropriate, and create proper foreshadowing.

However, I'm absolutely relieved that we're coming out of the Forest of Death and into the prelims. I've been looking forward to these. I think we'll zoom through the prelims in just a couple chapters; or at least I hope so.

There's a bit more Shizuka than the last several chapters have displayed. I was so dissatisfied with her dream scene I rewrote it three times. But, I got her symbol. Naruto's is a silver flower; hers is a white apple, a reflection of her ability to make illusions and fantasies reality. I've also wanted to give her a human outline, to make my readers emphasize with her a bit more. As to the Sound Four, did she bit off more than she could chew (as she's been known to do) or will she actually curb stomp them? We'll see more… hopefully.

And yes, that was a reference to Snow White. I'm saying it now because it's going to pop up on somebody's review.

That said… I've been experiencing chronic depression. If all of you readers wonder why updates don't occur often, well, that's why. It doesn't sound horrible, but when I'm experiencing them I develop two types of attitude: I-don't-give-a-rat's-ass and I-don't-wanna-do-anything. You'd think moving to Northern Nevada would spark my creativity because I'd have nothing else to do, but nope, the social isolation just screwed me over mentally. Either way, I intend to deal with it one way the other.

Okay, now that I'm done making excuses (pathetic, I know), I've got great news. People have been asking for it for God-knows-how-long. Now, the dream is a reality. Jinchūriki Nine will be coming back. I don't intend to post it for a while, but several chapters are on their way to being finished. I know, I have several fictions to worry 'bout, but with me discontinuing Memories of the Nevermore, I'll have an open slot for it.

Can anybody guess where the chapter title comes from?

I don't have any techniques for the Forbidden Scroll, but when Shizuka uses her cursed seal for the first time, I'll explain it there. As well as the technique Orochimaru is using to subjugate her.

And if you read all that, congratulations. You must really like my stories, if that's the case.