Not far from Sodegaura, Lord Itakura's capital…

"Shinobi reinforcements for the 442nd," a weary looking young shinobi intoned for the second time. The soldier replied by pointing towards the center of the column. "Thanks," she replied with a tired smile. The distance her squad of a dozen Konoha chuunin had traveled to rendezvous with the 442nd was short in kilometers, but long in weariness considering they'd traveled under 'forced march' conditions, which for shinobi was very quickly indeed. The conclusion of their hasty journey was to report to the regimental commander, who led his army from the middle when they marched.

The whole squad looked forward to serving under him, a sign of the colonel's fame. There was generally resentment or at least feelings of superiority when shinobi worked directly alongside the conventional military – in Hi no Kuni such joint missions hadn't happened in years aside from training exercises– but Kawaguchi Kiyotake was to the conventional military as Hatake Kakashi was to shinobi. The Konoha chuunin could already see signs of it before even meeting the man: his five thousand men moved with a discipline, speed, and relative quiet rarely seen in a military expedition of this size. Not shinobi level of course, but for men who couldn't use chakra it was impressive nonetheless. Readiness too was high; even in their home country the 442nd prudently deployed many outriders and scouts all around the column.

News traveled faster than the men who told it. A Konoha jounin, kitted out for any circumstance, appeared and beckoned them onward. He was polite enough to unmask his presence before he actually appeared, so as not to jitter the squad's nerves. "I'm part of the Colonel's bodyguard," he introduced himself after conveying the standard subtle authentication signs and receiving them in turn from the squad. Not a gregarious fellow, he didn't introduce himself by name and they didn't ask. "Right this way," he ordered and they followed gratefully. Anticipation warred with exhaustion the closer they got, which they measured by the rank of those around them. There was no litter, no wagon to mark the Colonel's presence. For such a high-value target, that sort of luxury would be suicidal. There was only a dust-covered gray-haired man astride an equally dusty but excellent horse.

"Colonel, Chuunin Squad 391 as ordered," the senior chuunin reported respectfully without a salute. Salutes got men like the Colonel killed sometimes.

"Good to see you. Colonel Kawaguchi Kiyotake," he introduced needlessly. His voice was strong with the potential for battlefield commands. "You twelve made excellent time," he said with a complimentary nod. His jounin bodyguard faded into the background then disappeared with an ease that seemed casual but wasn't. "So before we get down to business, what news of Konoha?" he asked with a glint in his eye. A man who was always hungry for information, even the Colonel didn't often get the chance to hear news from Konohagakure directly from its citizens.

"I'm sorry Colonel, I'm afraid there's not a lot we can tell you. We just wrapped up a scout-sentry tour in the KSZ, and we hadn't even all moved back into the home barracks before we got called to Tsunade-sama's office for this assignment. You probably know the news better than we do," the chuunin replied. The young shinobi was grateful for his ignorance now, since it stopped him from having to prevaricate to one of Fire Country's heroes. It would've been unpleasant, but generally no shinobi likes giving out information on his home, not even to loyal comrades.

"Ahh, that's unfortunate," the commander replied. He didn't appear surprised. "Well, to business then. Our orders take us to Sodegaura on the border, and as you know we're nearly there. This is no place for a full briefing, so it'll have to wait. For now you'll coordinate with my bodyguards who also command my recon troops. This evening we'll get you briefed in as far as we can. One note before you get started, though: you're on a war footing now. The 442nd is always on a war footing, no matter the time or place. That's how we've stayed alive so long. I'm sure as shinobi you'll be accustomed to that level of discipline and," he smiled sardonically, "paranoia. Dismissed."

This time a different jounin appeared from a different patch of nowhere and issued assignments to the squad leader before dispersing into the ether (or so it seemed) once more. Out on assignment, you didn't find jounin, jounin found you. "Right, you heard the man, let's get moving," the leader ordered his comrades. "Standard deployment to all points, standard comm protocols. Let's show the 442nd that Squad 319 is worth its salt!"

"Yes, sir!" they replied proudly. It was something of a cheesy pep-talk, but Konoha shinobi loved that stuff…and stepping into the martial legend that was the 442nd put them deeper in the mood. Just being around the Colonel with his gravitas and his complete command of the situation put an extra spring in their step and steel in their spines. After a tedious tour in the KSZ, the 319th squad was eager to place themselves between the Fire Country and its enemies.

One young woman in the squad, after a strangely personal and unexpected meeting with her Hokage, had an extra reason for anticipation. It hadn't been long, but Sakaki Maaya already looked forward to seeing Naruto again.

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While the shinobi of Iwagakure were unrivalled masters of underground combat, there were advantages all shinobi enjoyed when beneath the earth. Little light created heavy shadow and favored many infiltration techniques, especially if dealing with civilians or conventional forces. In addition it was easier to remain downwind in a mine than on the surface, where the wind might shift at a moment's notice; underground airflow was easily tracked and predicted. At first that made things difficult for Naruto, since no matter how silently he stalked those deeper within the mine would be able to smell him if they had the noses for it. But for whatever reason, security was nowhere near tight enough to trouble a competent shinobi. Even genin could infiltrate these mines without difficulty, which was fortunate since he didn't quite dare to use chakra-intensive techniques until he knew the surroundings.

But he wasn't here for the poorly defended upper mines; his self-assigned mission was in the newest digs where the richest strikes were to be found. There too he would find the worst safety precautions and the least tested tunnels. According to Oka, the most disobedient laborers were sent to work along with the smallest adults and children.

Oka tried to point out without success that the small adults and children weren't sent there for punishment, but expedience. It was a mistake he didn't regret for long. Deeper excavations meant narrower tunnels and more delicate working conditions, which called for smaller hands and bodies. Another meaty red tidbit gleaned from Oka was that the further one got, the tighter security grew. The powers that be in Sodegaura had nothing to hide near the surface, where the workers were just underpaid victims of pressgangs and convicts. Coal was mined there by the ton.

But long ago, millions of years in fact, what would become Sodegaura was the caldera of a volcano. The consequences of such a geological history included, far beneath the surface, an immense and fabulously rich trove of diamonds. But, as any skilled investigator could tell you, for every shiny facet of a precious stone there was often a bit of villainy large or small to match. Such was the case for Sodegaura. Discovered by sheer random luck, Lord Itakura knew that if word should reach Hi no Kuni's daimyo, law and custom would demand a rich outflow of tribute, and an influx of increased daimyo influence in the presence of guards, bureaucrats, and merchants such a discovery would bring. Even though the difference in profit would be negligible when all was said and done, for of course the daimyo prudently wouldn't demand an unreasonable amount of tribute, Lord Itakura didn't care. His power would rise right alongside the daimyo's in the region, but all he could foresee was the daimyo's greater status and resent it in advance.

Then one day not long after the discovery, a man with an ugly heart came to him and said, "Why should Lord Itakura pay the Lord of Fire for diamonds placed by the gods on his ancestral lands and mined by his subjects?" How this man even knew of the discovery was a question Lord Itakura didn't think to ask. Within days of that meeting, Lord Itakura gained a new minister and confidante. The first counsel from the new minister was: "Don't ask questions." The lord took this advice and prospered by it. Sodegaura, now home to a powerful new criminal organization, was not so fortunate. Riches which should have led to a booming economy instead were kept off the books, while slums slowly grew courtesy of criminals and the economy meandered along. With slums grew desperation which brought one of its oldest bedfellows, depravity.

Naruto knew only a little of that story from Oka, and wouldn't learn the rest until it was time to 'interview' the big movers and shakers of the conspiracy. It was a prospect he found both gripping and urgent…maybe even more urgent than rescuing kidnapped children. While he moved deeper into the mines, his heart briefly rebelled against that sort of moral triage, but his mind reassured him that getting to the top was the best way of dealing with the problem. It was justified, not justification…right? And yet, somewhere in his head, in a place he hadn't been in years…efficiency wasn't what he had in mind when he imagined dealing with the powers that be. What he imagined was something wetter, redder, and louder. It had been years since his mind was so bloodthirsty, but then he recalled also that it had been years since he'd been so angry, and perhaps never since he'd had such good cause.

'And what's wrong with that? These…people…see what they've done! How many families ruined, how many lives ended, how many lives destroyed by what they've seen? Not to mention endured!'

Yes, that's right. He didn't look forward to inflicting horror for its own sake, it would simply be necessary. It was just…helpful that they deserved it. And if it must be done, and if they deserved it…why not enjoy it?

'Why not indeed?'

Strangely reassured – for Naruto did not often have to think so much about what was right and wrong – he continued into the deeper darkness, calm in his heart and head.

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"Move it you dust-sucking scum!" the guard growled, adding emphasis with a truncheon to his cruel words. The miners, slaves in fact at this depth, cowered and hurried along the claustrophobic corridor. The design this far below the surface lent itself to easy tyranny; there was literally no room for any of the lazy slaves to try and stop to rest, and at the other end another count would be taken, and gods help any laggards. The guard was completely apathetic to the sniffling and tears, though to be fair there really wasn't very much of either. Such things had been beaten and terrorized out of the slaves early on in the business of collecting diamonds by guards who didn't want to be bothered with a lot of annoying crying.

"So what's the word on those Leaf-loving kids topside, eh?" his comrade asked once the slaves were shuffled further down to another day of dangerous and backbreaking toil.

"Pretty Boy's keepin' `em all turned around is what I hear. Got `em mired down in meetings and all that kinda shit. Political stuff, I dunno," the first guard answered with a shrug. Wiping a bit of blood off his cudgel on this trousers, he buckled it back onto his belt. It was still at least half an hour before their superior showed up for inspection. Plenty of time to shoot the shit, and what else was there to do? The whiny women and children were hardly going to be a problem, after all.

"That's a relief," his companion replied. "Let me tell you, whatever their reputation is if even one of them found out about what's going on under their feet, we'd all be sporting some red smiles if you know what I mean." The guard shuddered, but his tone was almost that of a man enjoying a scary story. Both guards were comfortable in their status, knowing they were protected by big men with big interests and deep pockets, for didn't they provide a valuable service?

"Ha! Look, I ain't gonna say I could take one of those grown-up ninja. Those guys are just fuckin' crazy as hell, can kill ya with a twitch of a finger. But these little kiddy ninja? Big deal! C'mon, you ever met a teenager you couldn't put in the ground no problem? So they can climb a tree with no hands. Burn the tree down!" The first guard nodded, patting his truncheon with one hand and his short sword with another. The former had seen much more use than the latter, which hadn't been used at all, really. "But forget that, did you see that new slut what got sent down last shift? Gods! I think I'll take a taste before the dust settles into the skin, if you know what I mean!" One of the perks of their job was basically being able to do whatever they wanted to any of the slaves, no questions asked, so long as the work wasn't interrupted.

"I have eyes, don't I?" his comrade asked with a leer. "Of course I saw her! But look, I don't want any sloppy seconds, alright? Did you forget, you got first shot at the last pretty thing that came down here!" This hopeless complaint was delivered with a distinct whine.

"What is this, a fuckin' restaurant? You don't make reservations, you idiot, it's first served, first come!" This witticism was delivered with a guffaw, shared by his comrade. Some jokes never got old in some minds.

"Maybe I can offer a compromise to settle this argument," said a cheerful voice coming out of nowhere. But suddenly nowhere became somewhere, and the last thing the second guard saw was his comrade's laughter evaporating into stunned surprise. He slumped, dead in an instant, to be collected by someone behind him. He didn't even have time to wonder, 'Who?!'

"There we go! My compromise worked!" exclaimed a blurry figure that suddenly appeared right in front of the first guard, who only then remembered to reach for his sword with what he fancied was blazing quickness. It wasn't. A crushing blow smashed into his wrist, and one hand was rendered useless, possibly forever without proper medical treatment. "Oh, geeze, I'm sorry! How will you brutalize your quota of victims with only one hand? You'll have to work a double shift for sure!" the figure stepped forward and then the guard remembered to scream.

"HEEEEEEEEEELP! ALARM!" he shrieked in desperation which transformed into horror at the way his voice echoed weirdly, but more at the smirk the figure-a young man, he could see now-wore at the sound. It was a young man, long, lean, and undeniably mean with some sort of weird ink work on his face. The fact that the guard could see these characteristics beneath a chiseled headband of Konohagakure was what fueled his scream more than anything. Everything he'd ever heard about shinobi, the worries his companion had been voicing just – was it really just a minute ago? – flooded into his mind. He could never be allowed to live through this having as an enemy seen the face of a Konoha shinobi in these circumstances. Cops, well he hadn't prepared for cops, but they were at least a part of his life already. They were to be expected to an extent. But this? 'There's not even any blood!' he realized, though of course the young murderer in front of him should've been covered in the stuff, right?

"The gratitude of those I help is really the only reward I ever need!" purred the young man. A predatory, satisfied smile crossed his face before twisting into a pout. "Oi, oi! But really my job's only half done, right? I mean, you didn't want sloppy seconds, but then again nobody does, neh? So really the only solution is to make sure nobody gets sloppy seconds, and there's only one way to do that, right?" With a flourish the man's hand suddenly wielded a matte black blade of some kind, nothing he had ever seen before. Just a slender pyramid of metal…honed to a razor's edge, he noticed with a tremble. He had no trouble seeing that, since his gaze was riveted on the thing.

"That leaves us with a question, though, doesn't it?" the man asked in a casual tone. "Who gets to help make sure there's no sloppy seconds, and who gets to reap the rewards?" A deceptively lazy flick of the blade and his belt parted like butter, sending bloodstained trousers down his legs. He pissed his drawers a bit, but was fortunate that he'd relieved himself before coming on shift-less embarrassment that way, for whatever it was worth. "Yes, it's a real dilemma. Like I said, the job's only half done, and I hate half-assed jobs. It seems to me that there's a few ways I could solve the problem. I wonder who'll get on my good side? That other guy, he looked pretty stupid. Definitely the silent type, I can tell," he cocked his head back…but the corpse had already disappeared, the guard noted with a shudder.

"You, though, you're downright chatty, ain'tcha?" the young man asked gleefully. "I'm sure you can tell me all sorts of juicy gossip to make my decision easier, right? Right?" he asked casting a thoughtful glance down to the guard's soiled underwear. It was unnecessary, but the murderer seemed to enjoy it just the same.

"Right, right, of course right, anything you wanna know! Everything you wanna know, just not me, please please please not me!" he wailed, the last of any hints of defiance gone with the hopeful look the shinobi gave him. It was an expression the guard should have recognized, but didn't, never having watched himself in a mirror before. The look of a man anticipating torment and humiliation on another human being. It was a look that had reduced many victims to quivering submission just like it did him, but the guard was too stupid, too selfish, and too narrow-minded to realize the irony that was so amusing to his captor.

"Start talking. Open up with this guy coming to make inspection in about twenty minutes, eh?" the man commanded in a cold voice. Gone was the jocular sadism, the smirking promise of cruelty. The promise was still there, but the humor was not.

There was nothing for the guard to seize on to make an effort at resistance or even prevarication. Even if he weren't already terrified of his strange captor – 'and probably murderer' a gibbering, knee-shaking part of his mind moaned – the man's weird conversation just added another layer of bafflement. Within moments anything useful exited his mind by way of his mouth, but strangely his captor looked even more excited and vicious than before. Had the guard not been soiling himself in fear, that might've been cause for concern.

"Good boy. That'll help out a lot in butchering your coworkers." He looked mildly disappointed when the guard didn't react to that; either he just didn't give a damn about the other guards, or he was too frightened, or probably a bit of both. "Now, unfortunately I really don't have time to finish our business properly, but there's something I've been meaning to try. I'm really glad you could help me out with this, too." The prisoner didn't get a chance to wonder at the meaning of these words, because a terrible blow drove through his right chest and thrust him up against the rocky wall. His face twisted in shock, and then fell slack of any expression at all.

Naruto stared down with clear blue eyes at the guard, studying with interest his forearm disappearing into the man's right lung. Once the blow was struck, he could feel the man's ribs scraping against his skin. Actually, cutting into his skin, which would be a pretty serious health risk – gods only knew what this scum was infected with – but he didn't have to worry about that kind of thing. The tension on his arm grew substantially after just a brief moment, dragging it down, so he looked at the guard's face. 'Damn, he's dead already. Doesn't even look like he felt a thing! Guess there are advantages to being a pussy. When it was me, this hurt like hell.' Withdrawing a seal from a pouch, he slapped it onto the guard's skin careful to disentangle his arm from the man's innards before doing so. The mutilated corpse vanished in a puff of smoke, the only trace of him a thick coating of blood on Naruto's arm and some puddles on the floor.

The stink of fear was still heavy in the air, joined now by the metallic tang of blood. Naruto flared his nostrils and inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma and committing it to memory. 'Beautiful.' Was there anything better than putting terror in the heart of someone who really, truly deserved it? But there was still work to be done, so he got back to it. First thing was to handle the evidence. Fortunately there was plenty of dirt and gravel on the floor, which when kicked and scuffed over the liquids cut the scent down nicely. Not completely, but luckily not many people had noses as sharp as his and even if they did, fear and blood were not uncommon scents down here anyway.

Handling the impending inspection – which Naruto hoped to turn into a perfect ambush – would be tricky, but he could explain the scent away by claiming to have administered some discipline to a prisoner. Gods knew it happened enough down here, from what he could tell. But the trick would have to be better than what he'd pulled so far down here, since by the guard's description the 'superior' he referred to was a shinobi, or at least had some training. There might not be time to interrogate one of those, and depending on the enemy's rank Naruto didn't have the skill for that anyway. But to ambush and kill silently? Oh, that he could mange, he thought with bloodthirsty eagerness as he cloned himself. The two clones looked…different somehow, which was a pretty strange thing to think since they were him after all, but he didn't have time to dwell on it. Vanishing into the rocky wall the original Naruto waited in total silence while the two clones transformed into the guards and began a continuation of the previous lewd, sadistic banter. Maybe he'd capture, maybe he'd kill…either way, fine by Uzumaki Naruto.

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"We have a serious problem, guys."

"What? I don't understand, Sakura-san, what's the problem?" Hinata inquired with a worried glance around. Team 8 minus Akamaru (again on guard duty at the door) along with Sakura and Naruto were just finishing lunch. They'd had word through what Naruto termed the 'United Slug Postal Service' that reinforcements had already arrived near Sodegaura and they expected to be contacted any moment now. With their usual diplomatic efficiency Team 8 had manufactured a break from discussions for 'consultations' amongst themselves, though the prevarication would only last until their rivals learned who was knocking at their front door.

But perhaps Sakura had discovered an eavesdropper or something of the like. A reflexive manipulation of chakra and her Byakugan was engaged. An instant later Hinata knew exactly what Sakura meant. "Naruto-kun! Or rather, not Naruto-kun!" she blurted in amazement, staring at what was to her incredible eyesight clearly a shadow clone and not the original.

"What? C'mon, that's nuts, he ain't a clone! I can smell'm and everything!" Kiba barked in amazement. He drew back his fist to strike Naruto and prove he was right, but a warning head shake from Hinata stopped him. Intrigued, he leaned closer to Naruto and took another deep whiff. "Yup, that's classic Uzumaki stink alright," he nodded reassurance, but stared intently at Naruto. The nose may know, but it hardly ever pays to bet against Byakugan eyes.

"Sakura-chan, what're you talking about?! I ain't a clone, just like Kiba says! I mean, he can smell me, right?" Naruto exclaimed in surprise, eyes wide and waving his hands frantically.

"I cannot say whether he is a clone or not," Shino said calmly, serving as the usual detached rational counterpoint to Kiba and Hinata. "Naruto has proven quite adept at discarding or avoiding my insects lately. One of my queens informed me he had gone underground briefly, but then returned. She informs me this is definitely Naruto," he informed his teammates quietly.

"So sorry Kiba-kun, but your nose is mistaken," Hinata replied with a shake of her head. "Shino-kun, now that I study him…it…I can see one of your insects. Perhaps because they feed on chakra, and this clone is formed of his chakra, it doesn't notice a difference?"

"That is possible," Shino nodded after a moment's consideration. "I had not considered the details involved in tracing shadow clones. The deception would only prove effective with a shadow clone, though. My comrades would note a body formed of earth or water, for example." What he didn't say, but was obvious to everyone, was that since shadow clones were literally made of nothing except chakra, there would be no other information for the insects to report.

Kiba's argument was cut short when he realized, along with everyone else, that 'Naruto' had abandoned his defense. The clone – even Kiba acknowledged it now, the evidence was just too compelling no matter what scent tickled his nostrils – sat nervously, waiting. Eyeballing his teammate with special wariness.

"Well, that's a relief," Sakura finally said after a long pause. She was clearly mastering her temper, since her usual method of dealing with Naruto-related outrages like this – blunt force trauma – was obviously contraindicated in this case. "So this is a shadow clone, made by Naruto of himself then?" she asked, wanting to be perfectly clear.

"Oh, yes," Hinata replied. "The chakra is undeniably his. It's…distinct," she said with an unreadable glance at the object of discussion, which shifted awkwardly. "It could be possible for someone to impersonate him so well, or to create a shadow clone to do so, I suppose. But to do that, and use his chakra, and have his scent, which I gather is another twist Naruto puts on his clones and transformations? Impossible." Bright admiration flitted across her face for a moment before wilting as she realized just what that meant. Naruto was…somewhere, and didn't want his comrades to know about it. She couldn't imagine any good reason for that.

Sakura studied Hinata keenly for a moment when the heiress noted Naruto's unique chakra. 'Does she know?' No way to tell…but she was Hyuuga, and Sakura knew better than most how 'distinct' her teammate's chakra was. "Yeah, sorry Kiba. Something else Naruto picked up on his training journey with Jiraiya-sama. His clones smell like him, and his transformations don't smell like him. He was going to keep that for a surprise next time you two sparred, but…fuck him," she spat furiously at the clone. 'How can he do this to us?! We're on a goddamned mission! What in hell is he doing?!' Unfortunately for Naruto, that wasn't 'Inner-Sakura' screaming inside, either.

To his credit, the clone had the good grace to look ashamed of himself. It was a bit of weirdness, had Sakura the detachment to consider it: how much blame should this clone get for what its maker did? As for the clone, it desperately wanted to dispel and send its information along to its creator – and thus avoid Sakura-chan and Shino's scary glares – but it didn't quite dare. "I can explain," it offered meekly…

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Had he felt even the slightest doubt that his late, unlamented acquaintance was being truthful, Naruto would've felt relief when the superior came right on schedule, making the rounds. This grizzled, ugly man was clearly a more serious customer than the two guards he'd slaughtered more or less effortlessly. Scarred, which hinted he'd be less prone to a prey-like shock reaction. Muscular, suggesting he didn't get his job by being someone's brother or son. And aware, yes indeed quite a bit more aware than his late subordinates. Three sets of eyes noted his nose twitching, catching the scent of blood and just a whiff of urine in the air. That, that was a part of the shinobi skill set.

But not aware enough. "What, had some trouble with one of the slaves?" he asked in surprise. If a man melted into rock could sigh in relief, Naruto surely would have. This man didn't know the scent of his mens' blood.

"Yeah, she'll be a real treat breakin' in after her shift," one of the Naruto-guards smirked, leering at the other two. "Not sure how she got this far down without understandin' the situation, but she'll get a helluva education tonight! Got her a starter course already in fact," he patted his truncheon fondly.

"Ahh, lucky boys. The wife'd cut my throat, or worse my balls, in my sleep I ever tried anything like that," the senior man shuddered. "She knows who's boss but I swear she's just crazy on some things. Insatiable though so it all works out," he leered back at them in turn. The two clones guffawed heartily at that – this man fancied himself quite the humorist – and chatted for a few minutes on the varied attractions of their fairer sex. The conversation shifted naturally enough to the ongoing influx of immigrants to Sodegaura , a trickle of which found its way down into the mines either as labor or, after a brief probationary period, paid labor.

Thanks to a blend of Naruto's incongruous skill at infiltration and the man's supreme lack of wariness, there was no difficulty in discovering that, as far as the guard knew, there had been no changes lately in the mines. There would be no unexpected foreman or warden strolling up to cause trouble. Taking greater care this time – there was the background that sense of smell implied to worry about, after all – three figures struck simultaneously. One delivered an brutal and stunning blow to the solar plexus, sufficient thanks to surprise and power penetrate the shield of muscle; the other, also disguised as a guard, struck decisively at the guard's Achilles tendon, and thus even if he weren't stunned he wouldn't be going anywhere quickly. The third figure, flowing out of the stone wall, reprised earlier techniques and everything within a meter radius was rendered opaque to five senses, and unremarkable to the sixth sense, the shinobi skill which detected chakra.

The faces of the guards went from crude, misogynistic humor to a frightening blend of mercilessness and detachment, then stood guard outside the radius of the techniques. Out of nowhere a fourth figure appeared, made a careful study of the prisoner, then changed shape to mimic and stepped outside the circle as well. The third figure, towering now over the guard who had fallen to the ground clutching his savaged leg weakly while still gasping for breath, studied him intently. The stare was mostly for effect, though; Naruto was quite confident he had this man's measure already from his covert observation, and it took no time at all to note that whatever hidden depths the guard had, Naruto had penetrated deeper with his surprise attack. For instance, it was easy to see the man was shocked at his doppelganger; the pause then greater expression of fear exposed his awareness that the clone could be expected to fool anyone he knew.

"K-k-kasi-no, no, you're not him, who are you?" he wheezed helplessly. To his credit, at least, he didn't soil himself. Naruto nodded appreciation and tossed the man a bandage so he could staunch his wound. The beginnings of a promise to reward information, without speaking a word.

"Me? I'm the man who's gonna help solve your problems with that shrew wife of yours!" Naruto grinned toothily, then began to reprise his conversation with the guard he now impersonated to forge the second link in an informative chain. It would be difficult, demanding work once the man recovered from his initial surprise and might even, depending on how good he was, prove fruitless in spite of Naruto's preparations. He wasn't an interrogation specialist, no matter how frightening he seemed right now. 'But I shouldn't complain. On-the-job training, right?' he nodded to himself with an edged smile.

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Story Statistics:

Released: 1-15-2009 (yikes!)

Word Count: Approx. 5600

Reviews: 211, up from 164. Not that I can blame folks for not reviewing since the last chapter, heh.

Hits: 64540, up from 34217. 6235 on last chapter. Whew! Well even if I haven't been updating people are still reading, that's nice to know

Story Favs: 229

C2s: 54. Man, that's a MAJOR increase! I believe I owe part of that to a forum a bud of mine plugged my story on, 'TFF' I want to say? I'm sure I'm misremembering the acronym…I'll correct it later.

Story Alerts: 281

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Author's Notes:

OK folks, I'm back officially on the horse. Lemme `splain why it's been so long. See, at first I was just irritated with canon. That's normal, it happens, right? Time passed. Then work and family cropped up in big ways to take over more of my free time. That happens too. More time passed. Periodically I would come back to this chapter and work on it, but the more time passed the harder it got. Suddenly it's a new semester, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas. Anyway, long story short, a variety of factors made procrastination much easier and more enduring than it should've been. I'm sorry about that. To those five or six of you ;) that have enjoyed my story, if you're anything like me that's very frustrating as a reader, but I haven't heard any of the tedious bitching and whining that I sometimes see. So, thanks for that.

Hopefully this chapter was enjoyable to y'all. The main focus here is that Naruto is slipping even deeper into a slightly Kyuubi-induced evil, though I hasten to add that it's evil with justification, and he is completely unaware of it. No slit eyes, no broader whiskers, no reddening chakra, if Hyuuga Neji were to stare at Naruto straight-on with Byakugan eyes, he wouldn't see a hint of demon. That's the kind of problem that's cumulative, and if Kyuubi gets away with it here, next time will be easier. Another focus is that things are beginning (finally!) to come to a head for Sodegaura. The military of the Fire Country is in the front yard, Naruto is in its rotten underbelly, and Team 8 and Sakura are within and stoutly resisting any attempts to deal with them quietly. Also, Naruto is beginning to see signs of more serious shinobi involvement in the mines, and he's only just getting started. On the romantic front, Maaya has returned. I enjoyed writing her and it seems a good number of people enjoyed reading her, so I look forward to seeing more of her

These are all things I'm going to be building on in the next chapter, where the proportions will be reversed: more everyone else than Naruto this time around. My very next step is to begin an outline of what will happen next chapter, followed by another chapter update within two weeks. That's by or before 1-29-2009. So, we'll see if I'm a man of my word or a wimpy procrastinator. Heh, I'm even more curious to see what'll happen on that score than y'all are!;)

As to reviews, I want (for my own satisfaction) and need (for my own education) them more on this chapter than I probably ever have for any other. I mean, it's been so long, right? So, anything informative y'all could drop on me with that little button at the bottom of the screen would be even more appreciated than usual. And, for what it's worth, I enjoy talking about stories and good ideas find their way into it.

So, to everyone who I haven't alienated by so many months of non-updating, thanks very much for reading, and I hope you enjoy!:)