Disclaimer: Don't own, wish I did.






It was an unusual debriefing for Tsunade… considering that the agents sent on the mission weren't explaining anything… It seemed every other ninja in Konoha had decided to take that responsibility into his or her own hands.

Indeed, reports flooded in that Team 7 had retrieved the wayward teachers. Others stated that Iruka-sensei and Kakashi-sensei had returned to Konoha alone. No one seemed sure about where to find them ("the medical center?" Tsunade asked. She was told that the healers couldn't be bothered for a statement). Then there were more reports, ANBU stating that Team 7 had just returned, dragging a severely injured swordsman.

A few hours of ninja filing in and out of her office passed, papers and anecdotes flying everywhere, the mission room downstairs was in chaos, too; Tsunade felt a migraine coming on, and wanted to slam her fists in her desk and shout, "For the gods' sakes, find them!" and then, finally, word came directly from Kakashi and Iruka: their mission report.

She wasn't sure who handed it to her, or how she knew what it was the second it landed in her hands. She stared at it, frozen, and slowly, her office stilled. The confused shinobi all looked at their Hokage expectantly. She stared back, her expression solemn. Shizune knew the look, and she shooed everyone out.

Then it was just she and the mighty Sannin. Shizune did her best to stay unobtrusive, but her curiosity was fierce, and found herself unconsciously leaning towards the lady's desk.

"Oh, brat…" Tsunade whispered after flipping through the badly crinkled report. Shizune arched an eyebrow at her, and inched forward. Tsunade continued to stare forlornly at the report. Then she took a heavy drink from her coffee mug (a bright orange disaster from Jiraiya that proclaimed 'Icha Icha Evenings' in a frou-frou font), the contents of which Shizune suspected could only be called coffee if a poodle could be called a bulldog. Then she stared some more, having yet to even read a page.

"Surely," Shizune said, finally stalking over to the Hokage's desk, curious and frightened at the same time, "it can't be that bad."

"It is." Tsunade handed her the report and leaned back far enough in her chair so she could view the snowy window behind her upside down. Her youthful face creased in concern.

Shizune scanned the report. The words wavered between the lines, crashing into each other in places; some of the letters so shaky they were unreadable. The sentences were incomplete and garbled. Small pictures had been drawn of the foreign camp in place of a written description, including a portrait of a handsome young man with wild hair that Shizune did not recognize. She flipped to the final, signature page. Both Kakashi and Iruka had marked their names to certify the report.

Which could only be called a report if Tsunade's coffee could be called coffee.

"Whatever this is, it is not a report," Tsunade said quietly. Her upside-down eyes gazed out at the snow drifting down outside the tower.

"What could have driven them to compose this?"

"The better question is, are they incapable of explaining the events, or do they just not want to explain? Get Team 7 in here. I know they were involved in retrieving them. Perhaps they can offer some insight as to what our next actions should be." Tsunade didn't feel the need to add that she had told Naruto et al to stay put, that it was too dangerous for them (and though she was grateful the two ninjas had returned, clearly she had been right). "Moreover, if there is an injured swordsman out there, I want him in intensive care ASAP. I want extra sentinels watching the gates, and I want an ANBU squad prepped for scouting. I want to hear that our perimeter is clear of unidentifiables before dawn."

"As you command." Shizune turned.

Tsunade righted herself and held out her hand. "No one sees this. It does not exist." She took the report, and opened it to the page with the sketch of the young man. He looked familiar to her… She would figure this character out, but not now.

"Is there anything else, Tsunade-sama?"

"Yes. Please locate Hatake Kakashi and Umino Iruka…" Tsunade closed her brown orbs. "And inform them that they are on suspended duty until further notice."

Shizune paused. Then she reached over Tsunade's desk, her arm passing in front of the woman's face, claimed the mug, and drained it. She coughed immediately after, turning red, and Tsunade patted her on the back and took the mug from her hand. The young jounin staggered out of the office.

After Shizune left, Tsunade turned the mug over and over in her hands, wishing it were full once more. Now I see why you didn't want this job, Jiraiya, she thought, feeling an odd combination of pity and bitterness. Who it was for, she wasn't entirely sure.

"Hm?" An envelope, tucked deep within the report, fluttered to the floor. Tsunade retrieved it and examined it by the light of provided by the ceramic dish, once again burning cheerfully on her desk. Warm, oddly familiar handwriting addressed the envelope to the Hokage, and it was adorned with a simple black square…

Opening it carefully, she pulled out a single sheet of paper, flattened it on her desk, and began to read the warm, familiar script contained therein.

It began,

Tsunade-sama, Fifth Hokage of Konoha,

If you are reading this letter, my lady, then your servants have returned to you in what I can only hope is a healthy condition.

Unfortunately, I fear their strife is far from over…


Xx. To Be Continued... .xX


A/N's: -lets out a deep breath!-

I'm so happy that I actually finished this! Although obviously I now must continue it. The story has snowballed beyond what I expected! It never would have happened without you, dear readers. I really loved the sense of community I felt when I read your reviews (I'm working on replying, honest). Seeing how many of you are seasoned Naruto writers yourselves, it means a lot. Sorry if I'm babbling. First big story and all!

Ok. Now, done with the fluffy stuff. Let's get to the grit and the plugs!

Clarification: Team 7 suspicious of their senseis? Not exactly… There's just such a huge change in their appearances and personalities, and Team 7 has no idea what happened to them out there. They're just... for lack of a better description… completely weirded out.

Shameless plugging: Please keep on with the story! Look for the sequel, "Where the Wounds Are," soon (I might do some funny stuff first)! Thank you for your support, as always. -bows-