FanFic dot Net decided to be mean and delete my pagebreaks. I'll try to get them back up, but for now, please bear with me.

Chapter 18

This was supposed to be the second to last chapter! Why? Why won't it cooperate? Why does it resist me?

"Did you hear?.."

"Can you believe what those miscreants did?"

"They sure have spunk, that's for sure… never thought an Uchi…"

"Found a thong with Hyuuga Hiashi's name on it and you know the Hyuuga sign everything…"

"…it must be his…"

"Trapped the council in goo…ANBU furious…"

"Inuzuka out for blood…Akimichi found it funny though…"

"…hen aren't the Inuzuka out for blood?...heard about them in the war. Fought with the…zuka head before he was shaved from the neck up by the…"

"An Uchiha? Really? Never thought those uptight bas…had it in them…"

"…tachi, can you believe it?"

"Uchiha Itachi? Working with Uzumaki? Well I'll be…"

"…Can't really blame the kid…clan like that even I'd be… needs a mother's han…"

Naruto listened to the whispers, the gossip, and the tales. He watched the faces when Itachi wasn't looking. He saw the back slaps, the noogies, the "helpful advice." He saw progress.

Itachi didn't. "Why are they always staring at me?"

"People always stare at you, Itachi."

"Yeah," Itachi snorted. "But not like they want to swoop in and maul me."

Naruto cleared his throat. "Well… we did… sort of… set her store on fire."

"It was an accident! And I paid her back."

"Correction – I paid her back. You just helped her build the shop again."

Itachi huffed and jutted out his lip. "Fine. Tam-san I understand. But what about them." He jabbed his finger towards a gaggle of preteen girls who glanced his way and giggled.

"Oh." Naruto said.

Itachi glanced at his mentor in alarm. "Oh? Oh what? Are they dangerous? Will they mangle me to death? Shisui always gets weird when he goes off with girls, and he always has red marks on his cheek when he comes back. And he can't concentrate afterwards." Itachi froze. "Do they steal your concentration? Do they use a jutsu to hinder your abilities? I don't want to end up like Shisui, Naoki!" Naoki glanced at Itachi from the corner of his eye. "What?"

"Itachi, what exactly do you know about girls?"

Itachi pondered. He rubbed his chin with his pointer finger and thumb in a gesture he could only have learned from his dad and struck a pompous, proud tone as he recited his so-carefully-gathered information. "Girls are the source of many of the evils in the world. They are the carriers of what is commonly called cooties. Unreliable in Ninja Wars, girls prefer to play with over priced and over endowed miniatures that demonstrate an idealistic model of the female form. Once they reach the age where cooties has been temporarily cured – though boys have been as yet unable to discover the cure for this mysterious disease to heal them earlier – the female begins to settle down into a logical pattern of thinking. However, since their younger years have been squandered by their futile study of tactics with their overpriced dolls, they quickly succumb to the masculine experience of their teammates. Their logic is overthrown and they begin squealing, fighting and causing general chaos. After the age of 15, the girls who have managed to withstand the second stage of cooties become terrifying and psychotic, preferring to why are you laughing?"

Naruto swallowed his bout of sniggers and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, Itachi." Man, if he was the one who taught Sasuke about girls, no wonder he always behaved like they were a disease. "Actually, the girls over there just think you're cute."

Itachi looked horrified. "Kotetsu-san told me about that. Does that mean they're going to try and rip me in half in a bizarre mating ritual?"

Naruto stared at him. Itachi stared back completely serious.

"Pffft…" Naruto collapsed into giggles.

Uchiha Mikoto was a former jounin. In a clan where the accomplishments of women were often disregarded, this was unusual and unrewarded except for her marriage to Fugaku. It hadn't been her dream or her desire to wed the distant but genius heir. In fact, Mikoto felt sicker on her wedding day than on her first suicide mission. The irony that that particular mission had landed her the jounin promotion that caught the eyes of the clan elders was not lost on her. The fact of the matter was, the next generation of heirs must be strong, must bear the title – the cage, the prison, the chains – of genius. And how better to secure that strength than to marry – chain, cage, condemn - the clan's most promising kunoichi to their pride and joy and light of their dulling eyes, Uchiha Fugaku.

Mikoto's family had been thrilled, pleased with the prospects and quickly agreed. Mikoto watched - silent and forgotten, her knees aching from the tight grip that would leave bruises for her to find later – as she was sold for the good of the clan, condemned - chained, imprisoned, shackled – to stay inside the walls of Konoha.

What did it matter if her sharingan surpassed her fiancé's? That it was more battle ready than that of half the militia in the clan? It's only worth was as a gift to be passed on to her son. What did they care that the Sandaime himself had declared her one of his greatest assets. So what if she was mentioned with many, many warnings in several captured bingo books? She was going to give birth to the next Clan Head. That was her worth.

Mikoto had briefly entertained the idea of defecting, abandoning the clan to live with Kushina – warm, bright, exuberant, naïve Kushina – but disregarded her salvation when she learned of the elder's second choice. Uchiha Haru was young, bright, and madly in love with a talentless ninja of a lesser family. She was Mikoto's best friend.

Mikoto married her cage – her chain, her trap, her prison guard – and her colorless life began. The walls of the clan house closed in around her. What little hopes she had for a warm marriage were destroyed early on by the coolness of her husband. As expected of her, Itachi was born less than a year after the exchange of vows. As expected of her, she allowed the clan to take and mold the boy. She didn't care. He was their weapon, their tool, their heir. She'd done her duty.

But she wasn't free.

And then the Caravan arrived, bringing a man – a smile, a hug, a hand to ruffle hair – who was to Itachi what Kushina had tried to be for her – hope, warmth, light. And suddenly the clan's pride, their heir, the little monster she bore for them wasn't so perfect. He was broken, ruined, too "human" for them. The elders came clamoring to Fugaku for another little monster. They reminded her of her duty and Mikoto hated them. She hated the clan as she watched the light flare in her son's eyes, watched with a secret smile and mother's pride. She despised them when they tried to kill that light with punishments, with laws, with rules, with cane and rod and genjutsu. She planned their bloody, torturous deaths for trying to kill her son in the way that mattered.

But the clan would win. They always won. So why fight? Why not give them Itachi, her son who was quickly growing warm, too warm for shattered, broken, trapped Mikoto. She'd give them Itachi, but the next one would be hers.

She blinked and watched her son stomp up the porch, his lower lip jutting out in a petulant pout. "Itachi-chan," Mikoto observed her son. "What is wrong?"

"Naoki laughed at me!" Itachi whined. He actually stomped his foot. "I gave him my report and he laughed!"

Mikoto studied her son, observing the flush of his cheek, the indignation and hurt pride in his eyes. He was ripe for the picking. Right for the molding. If she stretched out her hand right now she could weave the trap that would choke him, lock him into the hell she'd suffered for eight years. But did she really want to? Was it really worth it? Was she really ready to betray her village – Kushina, Hokage-sama, her old friends?- for the good of the clan? Mikoto shook her head. If Naoki was making Itachi give reports about the village, it was her duty to learn about it. She wasn't necessarily giving in to Fugaku and the council. It might lead to that but right now it was her duty, right? "What was the report you gave, Itachi-chan?

Itachi glanced at her warily. What is he searching for? Mikoto lowered herself to the ground, her belly not big enough to really notice, much less hinder her. She concentrated on making her face open and accessible, on hiding any traces of suspicion and deceit. Mikoto squashed the sense of guilt that said this was her son, not an enemy, not a foreigner, not a mission. She placed her hand on her belly and reminded herself that this one would be different. Itachi was for the clan. Sasuke would be for her.

Apparently satisfied with what he'd seen, Itachi launched into a long explanation of how the girls had been looking at him, how Naoki had asked for a report on the female kind, and how Itachi had been trying to educate him, because Naoki hung out with way too many girls to be sane and informed. When he reached the part where all adult female ninja were driven to bloodthirsty insanity by the resurgence of the mysterious mind disease called cooties, Mikoto laughed. Her laugh, broken and worn, stretched its wings from the cold cage that had held it for too long. It felt good.

No. No, she would not give Itachi to the clan. Not this son. Not any of her sons.

Itachi's face slowly dissolved from his frown when he realized that his mother – not the Inuzuka's mom, not the Akimichi's mom, not even Kotetsu's mom – His mom was laughing. He stared in wonder as the woman who had so rarely held him, so rarely lowered her mask of serenity, lost it. Her giggles quieted and she held out her hand for Itachi to take. "Come on, Itachi. It looks like you need to get out more." Itachi stared in wonder at the dark blue grey eyes that were finally smiling at him, finally seeing him, and took her hand. His mother grinned at him, "Hanashi is never going to believe this."

By noon, Uchiha Itachi's report of female conduct was as widespread as the rumors of Uzumaki Kushina's fake pregnancy. The fruit lady had heard it from the baker's wife, who heard it from the fisherman's wife, who heard it from the flower girl, who heard it from Hyuuga Hanashi's maid, who had heard it from the cook, who heard it from the serving girl, who heard it when she'd been…ahem… weeding the garden under the window.

By the end of the day people were smiling at the Uchiha clan, both ninja and civilians alike, and wondering if the Uchiha were so stiff because they never learned basic human interactions.

By the end of the night Itachi swore to never tell his mother anything ever again, because when girls grew up to be moms they couldn't keep a secret.

And, most importantly, Naoki noted as he eavesdropped on two gossiping women, a wolfish grin threatening to split his face, the ties between the Hyuuga Clan and the Uchiha Clan strengthened as two estranged friends renewed their relationship.

Jiraiya would live, but Tsunade found it hard not to wonder if maybe she shouldn't have stopped Orochimaru and then come back for the idiot. Her teeth ground together – for an entire month she had pestered the girl. She'd hunted her, interrogated her, and studied her because Haruko had the key. Haruko had the secrets that Tsunade desperately needed, desperately wanted. The secrets that could have kept Dan alive. Secrets that could have saved Nawaki…. But it was useless! The girl was dead. Gone. Beyond reach.

Tsunade cussed, the quick staccato of her fingers beating a rhythm into the desk, the deepening dents an indication of her rising ire. She should have let the fool die. With a snarl she snatched up the picture of her team – the one where Jiraiya's hand was just a little too far down her hip, the only one where Orochimaru was actually laughing, the one where she was held between them, her eyes bright and shinning home, before the war, before Orochimaru had gone on that damned mission that made him weird and twisted, before Jiraiya's students from that small insignificant country had taken him away, leaving her to deal with Orochimaru as he got scarier and scarier, before Jiraiya's student's deaths made him hide behind perverted comments and cleverly designed mirrors that made her too angry to see beneath lower levels of the underneath, before everything had gone so wrong – and shattered it against the far wall. A stray piece of glass cut a ragged gash through Jiraiya's smile and though her neck. Orochimaru was unscathed. She stomped to her feat and extricated the photo from the glass. It caught on something and ripped Orochimaru away from the rest of the team.

Tsunade whined, clutching the picture to her chest. How true. She and Jiraiya would carry the scars the open wounds, but she bet the son of… Orochimaru would leave unscathed. Tsunade pressed her forehead to her knees. Orochimaru wouldn't look back. He'd already cut them out of his heart. So she would cut him out of hers.

She would not consider Orochimaru her brother anymore.

He was a traitor, and that was what he'd remain.


Tsunade bit her lip and scowled at the droplets of water hitting the paper. The ceiling was leaking again.

Obito leaned against the wall beside Tsunade's office and squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't like hearing girls cry. It always reminded him of his mom after the chuunin brought his dad's body back. Obito leaned to peek through the crack of the door. Tsunade was bent over her knees, her forehead touching the ground. It was pitiful. She really reminded him of his mom. Obito hung his head, fought back the coward inside of himself, and pulled open the door and walked in. He never thought he'd be able to sneak up on a Sannin. He would have been proud except that he was actually trying to make noise. He had no desire to be in a hospital bed again.

But Obito had always been the compassionate one of his family and he swallowed his fear and hugged the woman. Tsunade hugged him back so tightly he winced. "I am not crying."

"Okay…" Obito answered. "You're not crying, and this never happened, m'kay?"

Minato ducked. The egg sailed over his head and splattered against the wall where the yoke slowly slid down through a pool of clear fluid.

"You're cleaning that up!" Kushina yelled from where she stirred her new monstrosity.

"Me?" Minato yelled back, pulling up from where he'd "duck and covered". "You're the one who threw it."

"You're the one who dodged." Kushina shook her spoon at him and a drop of cake batter fell to the floor. She eyes the toxic blob, "…and now you made me splatter on the floor."

"What was I supposed do, let it hit me?" Kushina shot him a look that said, Well, duh, idiot. "And wait! The cake batter is totally your fault!" Kushina's eyes narrowed and her hand drifted a liiitle too close to the kitchen knives. Minato swallowed hard. "I… I mean, of course I'll clean it up, dear." Kushina reached up as if she could pat him on the head from across the room.

"Good boyfriend."

"Hey watch it! I'm going to be Hokage, remember? I could have you locked up for threatening me." He wrapped his arms around her stomach and pressed his cheek to hers, smiling.

Kushina snorted. "Well, Mr. Future Hokage, you could help me round up some of the rogue eggs. It seems one had an unfortunate end."

"Mhmmm…" Minato answered, distracted. He kissed her neck and smiled against her skin as she giggled. " You know," kiss, "We could," he spun her around to kiss her on the mouth. "Move this to…" this kiss took longer. "a more private place." He was breathless.

Kushina grinned and wrapped an arm firmly around his neck, pulling his head down closer. "It's our apartment. How much more private do you need?" One kiss led to another, and he was rediscovering the skin under Kushina's collarbone when the doorbell rang.

Minato's head fell against Kushina's neck as she laughed. "I guess you'd better go get that, Hokage-sama." She let her legs fall from where they'd wrapped around him and whispered against his mouth, "You can follow up on that thought later."

Minato swatted her rear as he walked away and laughed at her protests. He was still smiling when he opened the door to see Uchiha Mikoto standing sedately on his doorstep, her hands folded in front of her. Oh sh—. Minato straightened to his considerable height and pretended he wasn't intimidated by the woman two and half feet shorter. "Can I help you?"

His voice was a little too rough, his words a little too clipped to be polite, and the low level of killing intent he sent out was not politically correct in any way, shape, or form, but Mikoto was a touchy subject for Kushina from the day she'd sold herself to the clan. Kushina got a tight around her mouth and eyes every time they saw the deceptively demure lady, and one of the four times he'd found his girl crying was a direct result of an interaction with the Uchiha Clan Headmistress.

He heard Kushina still and knew she'd been alerted that something was off. He prayed she'd think before launching a barrage of kunai and opened the door wide enough to step through. He closed it behind him. Kushina was in too happy a mood for him to let anyone, especially Mikoto, ruin it.

Mikoto watched him watching her, and her eyebrow lifted elegantly in the expression of Uchiha superiority that was pounded into them from Day One. But Minato had practically raised Kakashi, he had the Uchiha goofball and the Hatake outcast on the same team, and when Mikoto and Kushina had still been in that stage before everything had gone wrong – oh so wrong, and hang the clan and their stupid rules - the Uchiha's unacknowledged genius had taken time to ensure her friend/rival could intimidate anyone with stone cold silence and the tilt of the eyes. Kushina didn't use it very often, but she used it enough for him to build a defense. He folded his arms across his chest and let his eyes cool, his jaw firm, and filtered enough charka to his eyes that they hinted of a glow.

He heard, or felt, really, Kushina move behind the door and made sure to lower his voice. Mikoto's eye flickered to the door but she didn't feign ignorance and conceded to lower her voice. She didn't meet his eyes. "I want to talk to Kushina."

Minato only watched her, unsurprised. She certainly hadn't come to see him. "Why now? Why after all this time? I don't want to have a crying girlfriend, Mikoto, and you lost the right to call her friend when you…" Mikoto's pained look stopped him, not because he was surprised she was hurt. No, anyone who broke off friendship with someone as bright and friendly as Kushina would be hurt. He was surprised because the ice queen was showing it. "You're here to… apologize? Reconcile maybe?" It wasn't really a question. Everything he knew of politics rang the warning bells loud and clear, and Minato's eyes flashed. "Don't think that because she's dating the next Hokage the Uchiha Clan will get a foot in the door."

"If I were here for that we would have already thought to but Obito on the future council register. I…I just want to talk to Uzumaki."

Mikoto's neck stretched as she lifted her chin defiantly, but the flash of pain in her eyes could have been real. Could have been. He'd seen far too much backstabbing in the Hokage Tower to trust it. But it wouldn't be good to show all his cards, for her to realize that the young Namikaze wasn't as naïve as he'd led the council members to think. If she was lying, Kushina would be crushed, bruised like a trampled leaf. On the other hand, it was an opportunity that he wouldn't get again, to get someone on the inside, someone whose insight would be invaluable. Someone he could use. Was it worth risking Kushina?

The choice was taken from him when Kushina opened the door and held it wide. "Mikoto, come in. I'll be right with you." When Mikoto disappeared behind the closing door, and he was beginning to think that they were overestimating the soundproofing properties of wood, Kushina lifted herself to her bare tiptoes and whispered into his ear, "You're the Hokage now, Minato. You're going to have to use everyone." Then she kissed his cheek and drew back, smiling. "But thank you for not leaping at the opportunity."

Minato didn't do her the discourtesy of pretending ignorance, but nodded his head and turned away. "Be careful."


And she smiled.

"You know, this kind of reminds me of when that one Uchiha girl ran around with the Uzumaki kid."

"Really? I don't think I've heard that one." Laugh.

"No – it's not a joke! I remember her! A few years ago, there was this Uchiha girl who used to come around here with Uzumaki – Kami-sama! I forgot how they used to tear around here like chickens with their heads severed off! I wonder what happened to her."

"Maybe the clan got to her. You know how they are."

Lee peeked around the corner and tried to be inconspicuous. It was a challenge since Gai-sensei had never valued the importance of sneakiness. Well… not discrete information gathering sneakiness, at least.

But Lee was on a mission. It was a simple mission but an important one, and it was a mission. Naruto had gotten fed up with the politicians, and with his father's upcoming appointment to the Hokage position, Naruto figured there'd be no better time. He figured Minato could handle the inevitable suspicion, and if Minato couldn't Lee figured Namikaze didn't deserve the honor of the Hokage Hat anyway. But he wasn't worried. Gai didn't give true esteem lightly, but he had talked gravely about the Yondaime's skill in the political arena, the battlefield Gai-sensei had made a point of warning Lee about while training Neji to sidestep the unseen traps within the traps around the traps that concealed the triggers to conspiracy.

Nevertheless, Lee had picked up quite a bit when listening behind the bushes. Looking back he realized that both Gai-sensei and Neji had allowed him to eavesdrop, but at the time he'd been so proud with his successes.

Lee looked around and discretely thumbed up. Even though he couldn't see Neji, his friend being five hundred feet away, on the other side of the buildings, he knew Neji had an eye on him at all times.

He stopped in front of Councilor's apartment and "dropped" the stack of "very important scrolls." As he scrambled to pick them up, drawing the eyes of the invisible guards, Neji crept into position. Lee fumbled with the last scroll, and yelling about the joyous recovery of youth, darted away.

He didn't look behind to see Neji wander into an alley, walk up a wall, and get a helping hand from Shikamaru to translocate himself into the house, not even leaving a chakra trail behind.

Entering a Ninja's home was both easier and more difficult than a civilian's, whether it be a king of pauper. On one hand, it was expected that all important messenger, visitors, guests and such and such would enter from the window six times out of ten. No ninja ever thought of setting traps on every window, because did they really expect their guests to walk up four, five, six sets of crowded steps down hallways where there were no easy exit? While leaving a barred window was certainly a security breach it was such an integrated part of culture, that when the Mizukage demanded that every single door, window, and hole in his home be barricaded and pasted with every exploding note and razor wire his considerable salary could buy, it was considered the greatest scandal of the year. He was still regarded as the most paranoid of Kages, and therefore, the weakest.

On the other hand, this hint of vulnerability in the powerful was often cleverly weaved into a powerful defense mechanism.

Less than a mile away, Ino leaned further over the desk, head thrown back with laughter. The guard was so enamored the poor fool had already forgotten his training. No wonder he guarded such a inconsequential desk. She missed Sakura so fiercly, right now. It was so hard to act casual without her disapproving presence at her shoulder, urging Ino to finish up, and therefore smoothing away suspicion. The eyes of the room were on her, exasperated, suspicious, calculating. This tactic was so familiar, taught to the kunoichi early in their elementary years, long before the girls actually knew what crossing their arms tightly across their ribcage actually did.

These men, no, boys, must have skipped the male shinobi's version of the lecture, like how to detect the kunoichi through the other distracting women.

The men around them, though, clearly hadn't.

But they weren't looking at their monitors, too focused on the danger in front of them to worry about what could be happening at the dear councilor's home. One man started to turn, and Ino casually reached over to adjust a piece of paper on the desk, as if she were shifting for information, while fluttering her eyes up at the boy – geez, was he even legal? Attention snapped back to her so quickly the hairs on the back of her neck rose.

Office ninja were so easy to predict it wasn't even fun.

Back at the ostentatious apartment, Neji stood still, moving only when necessarily, and only an inch at a time. He touched nothing, simply let his eyes roam through the desks, the hidden walls, the seals that were weaved into the tapestries and painting and ceiling, searching for the incriminating evidence he knew was here. Politics were always so convoluted in wartimes and everyone kept secrets. I didn't kill this Iwa-nin because he's actually my half-brother, did I mention that the reason I'm alive is because the woman I'm dating was in the hunting party, my son was in that village and the reason I was out of position was because I was getting him out before the bombardment…

Peacetimes wreaked havoc for wars.

Neji smiled. A-ha… there you are.

This would be perfect, especially since the good councilor had it surrounded by incendiary seals. And below that… I'm sure the Hokage would be very interested to know his tactician is having a tryst with the Tsuchikage's niece and feeding her information to keep her away from battles. I'm sure his wife won't be happy either.

Neji retraced his steps, erased his chakra signature, and slunk out the window, depending on his friends to cover his retreat.

Things are finally coming together!

As he slid down a drainpipe, he couldn't help but think that things would have been so much easier with Shino around.

Kushina poured the tea, her hand as steady as if she was pouring poison. Mikoto hadn't said a word since Minato had left and the silence was driving Kushina mad. But she wasn't going to speak first, not by the Shodaime's black hair. Mikoto came all this way, Mikoto could start off.

Mikoto picked up her small tea cup and sipped. Slowly. Set it down. Adjusted the placemat. Picked up her teacup. Sipped. Slowly. Set it down. Repeat. The third time Kushina refilled her cup she was quivering with barely restrained resentment. How could she have forgotten that Mikoto always did this? She always let someone else make the first move so that she could use their efforts to her own advantage. Kushina resisted the urge to hiss, and set down the tea pot so hard it cracked a long spidery line up the side. "Fine. What is it?"

Mikoto raised an eyebrow and gently set her teacup down. "You are as subtle as always, Kushina."

Kushina's eyes narrowed. "No games, Mikoto, or I throw you out on your perfectly dolled up face." Mikoto's eyes flickered up, skeptical. Kushina scowled, "Don't think I can't do it. You've been off active duty for eight years. I'm still sharp."

"Very well," Mikoto folded her hands in her lap and clutched them until her knuckles turned white. "This is harder than I thought it'd be." Mikoto took a deep breath and slid to the side of the table. She lowered her forehead to the mat. "Uzumaki Kushina, please save my son." She stayed bowed as Kushina's chakra blazed with shock.

The stunned silence that followed was charged with emotion; disbelief and suspicion from Kushina, fear, trepidation, and humiliation from Mikoto. The darker woman's back became tenser as the seconds turned into a minute. Finally, Kushina gasped a ragged laugh, pushing away from the table. "Is this a joke?" Kushina stared at her former friend.

Mikoto's head shot up. "Have I ever humiliated myself, Kushina? Ever?"

"It's not a joke." Kushina's breath rushed out as she pushed a clawed hand through the hair on the crown of her head. "You're serious. Shodaime's blue painted brother. You're serious." She collapsed on an exhale. "Get up. It's weird to see you… that way." Kushina shook her head. "All the times I dreamed about getting you to bow your stiff neck, I never imagined it like this."

Mikoto straightened with the pained dignity of the proud. The women studied each other, years of rivalry, hate and love, and bitter disappointment and betrayal lingering in the air. "I need your help, 'Shina-chan." Mikoto said quietly. "There are things… things happening in the clan that… they want to take my son from me, and I just found him. I can't let him go back to being…" Mikoto's mouth clicked shut.

"Why don't you start from the beginning," Kushina suggested. "And we'll go from there."

Mikoto laughed. "Where is the beginning? Everything's so convoluted I can't even tell anymore. It's a mess." She breathed deeply. "Who am I to betray, my clan or my village?" Kushina had never known Mikoto to be melodramatic, so the knot that formed from her intestines was only secondary to the bile that climbed up her throat. "I guess it starts six years ago, when Councilor Uzzai proposed the orders that resulting in the Uchiha moving to the compound…"

Ino was escorted around town for the next few hours. Her tail followed her to the market, to the caravan, even to lunch. He was good, she gave him that, but then she wasn't really trying to lose him. Neji had to get away. Therefore, Ino had to be followed.

Shikamaru crossed paths with her once, a small nod and twitch of the mouth relieving her of the boulder in her stomach, and her tail split to follow him. Shikamaru would notice. He was too observant, especially since he'd failed to predict…

Ino flinched and pretended she had a stone in her shoe. No doubt her follower would think it some mysterious code. Interests rates on gold are low, perhaps? There'd been nothing of import on the poor chunnin's desk, so they'd probably give up in a day or so.

A few women stopped to ask about the new pottery from Sand. Ino chatted and haggled, and left with the promise of a few more coins.

She imagined she could have gotten a lot more if Sakura had been beside her, scowling in fake disapproval and hiking the value of the items up in the eyes of the buyers.

Naruto worried his lip, bit the nails on his right hand to the nubs, and resisted the urge to rush down the street screaming for Neji. He was fine. Shikamaru said he got out fine. So he was fine. Hinata was playing with Shinsei, but the slight slowness of her movements told him her eyes were gazing far away. She was keeping an eye on him, and Hinata would not be shy about letting Naruto know if Neji was in trouble. Therefore, Neji had to be fine. It should have helped, but it didn't.

4 seconds from the councilor's house to the alley.

7 seconds from the alley to the opposite street.

Five minutes from the street to the Weapons District 5.

Fifteen minutes to Food District 1.

12-20 minutes from Food District 1 to home, depending on the traffic.

He was thirty minutes late.

Caught? Sidetracked (unlikely). Detour? Naruto started on his left hand and decided he couldn't wait any longer. "Shinsei! Would you look for Neji for me? I need him for… something." Hinata glared at him, but Naruto ignored her. It was taking him too long

Shinsei looked relieved, so Naruto guessed he was anxious too. When he disappeared into the crowed, Hinata glided over, her voice politely questioning. "I had my eyes on him. He's fine."

"I know." Naruto grinned at her. "He's always fine." Hinata's frown was hidden by her blindfold, but Naruto felt it all the same. For a moment, he felt the urge to tell her that he was the leader, so she should just mind her own business, but he squashed the impulse as soon as it arose. "Even the Byakagun can be blind, Hina-chan. No one can see everything."

And they had to be able to see everything. The political situation in Konoha had worsened. The council was not stupid no matter how shortsighted and corrupt its members could be. They were grateful for the Caravan's help in subduing what would have been one of their worst defectors, but they were also aware of how powerful Orochimaru really was. That the caravan had dealt with him with just one loss had opened the eyes of those who'd still been clueless about the Caravan's real training. It didn't help that they'd lost some of the favor of the current Hokage. Hiruzen was a good man, a smart man, but he was still emotionally invested in his students. The fact that they'd killed Orochimaru when Sarutobi had let Orochimaru go… stung. The Caravan presented a security risk for more reasons than one, especially since no one missed Uchiha Itachi's involvement with Caravan affairs.

Uchiha Fugaku hated Naoki's guts and wanted nothing more than to expel him from the village if not kill him outright. Council had never really forgiven Naoki for his behavior in the business meeting way back when the Caravan had first negotiated their contract. Ukitake Koharu and Mitokado Himura followed Sarutobi's lead and trusted their old teammate's judgment. The newer blood, however, like Councilors Uzzai and Omi were power hungry and corrupt. Uzzai had never even been a shinobi, but was rather part of the civilian liaison group but this made him doubly dangerous. The underdog always fought dirty after all.

The slightest slip, the slightest lapse of judgment and the council would be raining down fire and brimstone on their thinly protected heads. What they needed was leverage. Leverage and information that Neji was trying to get to them, leverage that – if Neji was caught with – would have them running from the hounds of hell.

Hinata shook her head, but brushed her fingers across the back of his hand, understanding. Sakura's death lingered over every paranoid decision now. "I'll tell Chouji to start heating the food. They'll all be back soon." She paused. "And it looks like we'll have guests. Shinsei ran into Kakashi and Obito." She turned to walk away and stopped, surprised. "Oh."

"Oh what?"

"Ka…Katashi's coming."

Naruto's shoulders tensed, then relaxed, "That's a relief."

Kakashi – the older, more jaded Kakashi – had taken to disappearing especially at times when the whole group was gathered. Kiba of all people had shed some light on this. "It's like in a pack. When it's just two dogs of a pack, you don't notice one dog is missing. When it's the whole pack… it's hard not to look for the one that's not there."

Naruto had his own theories too. Theories like guilt, and a memorial stone that was devoid of many, many names, of failure, and the suppression of sorrow.

"It'll be good to have the group together again." Naruto said quietly.

He didn't think Hinata would hear him, but when lunch was served there was one steaming plate at an empty seat.

Minato opened the door as quietly as possible. The house was dark and it was late enough for even Kushina to be in bed. He'd meant to be home earlier, but Councilor Omi had called him up to discuss some new regulations in regards to Shinobi-Civilian crimes that would have waited till tomorrow, but since he was here anyway, and then one of the paperwork ninja had hauled him off to finish writing some orders and signing some documents, and then Hiruzen had hefted the construction paperwork on him – and when had he started calling the Sandaime by his first name? Probably sometime between the seventh and eighth transfer of responsibility. The Ino-Shika-Cho trio had stumbled across him when he was making his way home and he'd been too brain dead to manufacture an excuse not to go drinking. And really, after the day he had – who knew every building had to be checked every three years, and that you needed to sign eight pieces of paper for every check up of every floor? – he didn't really want to find an excuse anyway.

He liked the trio. They were a lot more lighthearted and a lot less crazy than most of the jounin he ran across.

But one drink had let to another, and before he knew it, he was stumbling home at one thirty in the morning. He felt guilty about it too, but he knew Kushina wouldn't mind. If something had happened with Mikoto, he knew he was guaranteed a visit no matter where he was, no matter what meeting he was in. He walked through the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. It was a mess. The cake batter was still splattered across the counter, the rest sitting unfinished in Kushina's usually gleaming mixing bowl. The flour was still out.

Frowning now, he walked into the living room and snapped on the lights. Kushina was sitting on the couch, staring at her hands. She was rubbing her fingers together. Minato felt very, very sober. "Kushina?" She didn't answer, didn't even blink. Minato walked over to crouch in front of her. "Kushina," he repeated, quieter this time. Only when he grabbed her hands did she look up.

"Minato?" she blinked. "Why are you back so soon?"

"It a quarter to two."

"In the afternoon?"

"In the morning."

Kushina twisted to look out the window. "Really? Already?"

Minato's frown deepened and he pulled his bemused girlfriend to her feet. "Okay, time for bed."


"Bed. Now."

"But I have to talk to you—"

"Talk in the morning." Minato pushed her into the room and only released her to pull back the covers. He guided her to sit down then squatted to undo her sandals. The fact that Kushina let him was more worrisome than her absent minded state. He was going to kill Mikoto in the morning, clan immunity be fed to the Mizukage's pet shark.

Kushina slapped his hand away from where he was changing her into a nightshirt and finished dressing herself. He tucked her in and snorted at the irony. When he'd walked home, he'd cringed at the thought of Kushina helping him. He certainly wasn't cringing now.

His girlfriend started. "Wait, what? How…Minato, we have to talk."

"Talk later."

"No, we have to talk now." Kushina sat up and pushed the heavy blankets off her to free her feet. "Listen to me." Minato sighed. Of course she would be stubborn. Kushina, correctly interpreting his silence as acquiescence, pulled him down beside her. "Mikoto came to… to beg me to save Itachi—"


"From the Uchiha clan—"


"That's planning a coup."


Minato sat back and tried to catch his breath. Kushina continued ruthlessly. "The main points of their attacks are going to be the council members, the ANBU, and the Hokage. They were going to have Itachi enter ANBU. They wanted him to gain the confidence and influence, and then when he had enough trust, he'd help them in their revolt. They'd kill the heads of the clan with the council, then move on to the clans themselves. They'd start with the Hyuuga and work down to the Inuzuka. Minato, they have poison gas specifically engineered for the dogs. Oh, and have I mentioned this is all the result of Councilors Uzzai, Eigo – you know, the son of a pig councilor who wouldn't let me get an apartment 'cause I was from Whirlpool? And Chief Tactitian Haifu, to name a few." She giggled. "Haifu and few! It rhymes! Anyway, they started it all with their narrow minded, shortsighted bigotry and prejudice. Almost serves them right! Oh and by the way, what promoted Mikoto's big "revelation" was Itachi's explanation of why all girls are crazy. Smart kid, yeah? …even if his mother is insane."

Minato got up and headed for the bathroom

"Minato?" Kushina called. "What are you doing?"

Minato didn't answer and ducked into the shower; he turned the cold water on full blast. He had a feeling he had to be a lot more sober for this.

Morning arrived too soon and not early enough. Itachi bounced out of bed as soon as the first streaks of dawn crossed his windowpane. He hit the ground running.

Out the door, down the hall, out the window to avoid Dad, up the drainpipe, across the roof. Down the roof, into the courtyard. Hide behind the fern from Aunt Aoi. Duck around the corner, leap to the ceiling to avoid cousins numbers 18, 29, 3, and 42. Dash across the rafters, leap to the roof, and jump over the wall. Home free.

He waved at the startled chuunin on gate duty as he dashed away.

The village was just wakening, the air still cool and the grass still soaked with dew. By the time he'd made it half across the park that served as one of his shortcuts, his sandals were soaked and his pants were wet to the knees. Occasionally, he'd wander across some drunk ninja or a civilian stumbling home from a night painting the town. Chu Bakery was just rolling up its iron grates when he dashed past, the chubby baker's wife waving a cheerful hello. He waved back. He ducked and covered when he passed the Tam Odds'n'Ends corner shop, but Tam-san wasn't up yet. Her husband just winked. Itachi figured he was glad to get rid of the florescent pink tiles, the watermelon green walls, and the polka dot striped door.

He dashed through the playground, practicing his balance on the swing frame, and skidded to a halt right at Team Minato's training grounds. Kakashi and Shinsei were already there. Kakashi leaned over to look around Itachi. "You didn't bring Obito."

"Was I supposed to?" Itachi deadpanned.

"If you want to leave before high noon." Kakashi sighed and flopped down Indian style. "Might as well go back to bed."

Shinsei scowled. "Are you kidding me? You know how hard it is to sneak out of the wagon? Tsuki-hime may be blind, but she sees everything. Not to mention, Katashi's decided to stop his disappearing acts." Kakashi stiffened, but the other boys didn't notice. Itachi tilted his head, curious.

"Really? Where's he been going?"

"I dunno. He's been weird since Haruko…" Shinsei trailed off. "Naoki hasn't said anything though, so I guess it's alright."

Itachi's mind clicked. "Wait. You snuck out without telling Tsuki! Kakashi, look! Kakashi, the world's ending!" Shinsei hissed and tackled Itachi. Itachi let himself fall and rolled over to pin his friend instead. Shinsei kicked up and returned to the top. Itachi let his eyes spin. The swirling sharingan froze Shinsei long enough for Itachi to wrap his legs around his neck. Shinsei hissed again, thrashing and swearing. He reached up and pinched Itachi. The Uchiha thunked his head in response, but Shinsei had earned his former rank. He bent his back and threw his legs up. The kick hit Itachi in the jaw and stunned him long enough for Shinsei to break free only for Itachi to throw a fireball at him.

Oh, it was so on now. He wasn't supposed to use jutsu in Konoha, or any village in fact. It was Forbidden, with a capital 'F', italics, and bold underlining. Sure, Kakashi knew, and Obito knew, and Itachi… Itachi was…something to Naoki, but it was still Grounding Worthy. Time for some intervention. He swung to plea to the "responsible" one of the group. And paused. When the sight finally registered, Shinsei burst out laughing. Kakashi was three yards away, up a tree, doing an admirable imitation of a cat with its back up. He was even sniffing the wind. "What are you doing?"

"No way Shinsei snuck out without that… that… him knowing." Kakashi studied the undergrowth. "He's waiting for us to let our guard down, and when we do…" the silver haired boy shuddered. "He'll catch us. Torture us. And he won't be done until our minds are broken. He'll…" Kakashi shuddered. "Try to read us something out of that horrible book!" Itachi joined Shinsei in his attempt to bust a rib. "Laugh!" Kakashi snarled. "All you want! But when he catches you, you'll be sorry!"

"Whaaaaat?" Obito walked into the clearing still rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Who's going to catch us? Is Kakashi up a tree?"

All three boys stared at their friend. The shock made Kakashi slip an inch or two. "Why are you on time?" Obito blinked. "You're never on time!" Kakashi croaked twisting around to hide behind the tree trunk, only his head and an arm showing. He shook a kunai at the sleepy Uchiha. "You're really the devil in disguise, aren't you! Well, I'm smarter than that, you brute! You won't catch me this time!"

"Kakashi is up a tree." Obito shook his head. "Why is Kakashi up a tree? I'm still asleep, aren't I?"

Itachi and Shinsei just stared.

…Weren't they supposed to be the insane ones?

Naruto was counting. Months, weeks, days. Then he counted again. Then again.

Finally, Kiba couldn't take it anymore. "What?"

"It was last night." Naruto answered partially hopeful, partially amazed, mostly disgusted.

Kiba rolled over. "What was?"

Naruto swallowed. "If everything went right, I was supposed to be conceived this week."

Silence in the wagon.

"Now that's just nasty." Kiba buried his head under his pillow. "Who thinks about that kind of stuff?"

"But," Naruto sat up. "Just imagine Kiba, if anything went wrong, if there was some council meeting, some random mission, some sleepover with friends, anything, then nine months from now, I'm not gonna be here!"

Kiba's head popped up again, face pale. "You're right. That's deep."

That was when Ino threw a pillow at them, Neji politely asked for them to be much quieter at "Five in the Kami-cursed morning," Kiba yelled a few insults back and woke the rest of the wagon, and Hinata noticed Shinsei and Katashi were missing. The discussion was dropped in the ensuing chaos of daybreak.

Kushina curled around Minato, finally asleep. He wasn't so fortunate. His mind was spinning, turning and twisting as he figured out logistics, strategies, and ideas. The proverbial gold mine had just dropped in his lap, but it came gift wrapped in charged exploding notes. He could use this – would use this – but he had to use a light touch. The Uchiha clan was ready to explode and take the whole village with them. He had no illusions about the success of the Uchiha Coup. Despite the strength of their clan, they were no match for the fire of Konoha burning together. But the fractures that would result from the attempted revolt would bring Konoha to its knees in weeks. A Hidden Village survived by preying on the weak. Not even their allies would rise up to help them.

But if Minato used this right he could end up being the least harassed Hokage in Konoha History. That was very tempting. Kushina shifted against him, her forehead resting against his collar bone. He reached up and gently ran his fingers through the long strands. When she nuzzled her face closer to his side, he let a small smile break through. A ninja learned early on to never let their guard down. They only truly slept around the people they trusted, which might include their genin team and family. That Kushina was neither but didn't wake when he moved showed Minato more about her feelings than anything. That she trusted him enough to let him sleep next to her, to tell him about the Uchiha plan…

Minato paused.

Now that he thought about it, there was one other person who an Uchiha would have gone to. Uchiha Itachi was very close to Naoki, and Naoki had been doing a lot of crazy, gossip inducing stunts with Itachi. And, from what Mikoto said the Clan wasn't happy about Naoki and Itachi's friendship even before Naoki decided to turn the clan heir into a prank master. Minato sat up. But Itachi continued on the association, despite the fact that the clan taught ultimate obedience before even the basic ninjutsu.

Therefore, Naoki knew and was trying to do something about it.

Minato sank back onto his pillow and resisted the urge to groan. This was going to be a disaster!

The boys picked their ways through the training ground, Obito and Itachi's sharingan activated to detect any traps or genjutsu. Finally, Kakashi drew to a halt. "I think this is far enough." He and Shinsei stood back to back, seals flying quickly. . The chakra barrier fell like water on glass and pooled around their feet. Shinsei let out a breath and allowed himself to tip over, confident that Obito wouldn't let him fall. It had been a long time since the former chuunin needed to use so much chakra.

"Okay, Kakashi," Obito stood with his hands on his hips. "Let's see the new Jutus and then let the battle begin. I am so gonna kick all your pretty little girl faces into next year. Hah! By the time you'll come around, you'll be too old and decrepit to even think about revenge!" Obito threw his head back and laughed.

Kakashi's eyes narrowed. "The day you beat me, dead last crybaby loser, is the day I agree to marry Maito Gai."

Obito paused. "Promise? Oh man, if it takes me until I'm thirty I'm going to see that happen."

"Baka, you won't live to be thirty. Only a jounin's that good."

Obito glared at Shinsei. "Oh yeah? I've met a few chuunin who've made it past thirty."

"Really? Are they in active duty?" Itachi asked, curious. The only shinobi over thirty that he knew were either Clan heads or working desk jutsu.

Obito paused to think. He brightened. "Kushina! Kushina's over thirty!"

"Better not let her hear that," Kakashi muttered, moving away from the trio. "According to her, she's still in her prime."

"Besides," Shinsei added. "According to Ino and Shika, the only reason Kushina's not on the Konoha Jounin register is because she's still listed as a Whirlpool Chuunin. By all rights she should have been promoted ages ago, and she does the work of a jounin, be she has no one to recommend her."

Obito and Itachi stared at the white haired boy and Kakashi turned in interest. "How would they know that?"

"How do they know everything that happens in every village we go to?" Shinsei shrugged. "I swear they knew the Kazekage's wife was pregnant before she did!"

Kakashi tucked that information into the back of his mind and returned to the matter at hand. "I assume Obito blabbed about Chidori at sometime or other?" Itachi and Shinsei nodded. Kakashi ignored Obito's embarrassed, "Hey!" and reached up to pull his father's White Fang from his back. "Minato-sensei instructed me never to use it in battle since my reaction time is exponentially lower than it needs to be to use it. After what happened with Obito and Rin two years ago I started working on another design using my father's knife. Minato took a look at it, but said I should try it out on some allies first."

"So we're your lab rats." Obito was already bored. "Let's just get this over with so we can get to the actual fighting."

"This is the actual fighting," Itachi intoned. His voice had already become the monotone drawl he was accustomed to using when facing battle. "If Kakashi is to test his creation accurately, the situation must be the same when it is equipped. In a battle."

"Which means, we'll have to make sure you go all out," a grin threatened to split Obito's face, "which means we don't have to hold back." Obito's expression was purely predatory. "Don't run home crying to sensei when we feed you your own exploding tags."

Kakashi snarled. "As if you could, dead last. I bet you won't even get close enough to breathe on me until my final blow."

Itachi appeared at Kakashi's back. "Maybe he will, maybe he won't. But you won't just be worrying about him. I've wanted to try out a few of my new tricks for a while now."

The entire clearing stilled, then at some unheard signal the boys disappeared. Two figures reappeared high in the trees, Itachi's kunai and Kakashi's short sword showering the earth below with sparks. The boys reappeared down below, Itachi attacking from the front, Shinsei from the back. Kakashi fended them off, his sword redirecting Itachi's kunai, then fluidly cutting through the air to block Shinsei's knife from burrowing in his back. Kakashi spun through the air and landed a kick on Shinsei's chin, then used the opening provided to dart up into the canopy.

"Hey, hey!" Obito yelled charging downwards. "You won't figure anything out if you keep running away!"

Kakashi's eyes narrowed and his grip tightened on the hilt of his knife. Obito blinked and Kakashi was beside him, a stream of white from White Fang's blade his only trail. Obito ducked and swerved, somersaulting over Kakashi and spraying fireballs as he went. He rolled into the fading white line and yelped. Obito latched onto a tree and clutched his twitching arm. "Lighting trail?" Itachi flash stepped in Kakashi's path, and Obito's eyes widened. "'Tachi watch out! Its lightning charged!"

Itachi swerved, but Kakashi already had the short sword at his ribcage. Itachi's expression didn't change as he prepared himself for the hit. Kakashi's knife sliced through skin like a chainsaw through rubber, burning the flesh as it went. For a moment, Kakashi and Itachi's eyes met and Itachi dissolved into a flock of ravens. Kakashi felt relief for a brief moment and spun around to deflect a combined attack from Shinsei and Obito. Shinsei was holding back, whispering to Obito as they charged up the tree trunk and leapt at Kakashi from above and below. Shinsei was wearing what looked to be stone armor. Kakashi wondered if the boy had ever been taught that all elements had a weakness and stone's ran directly to lighting.

They met with a shower of light and stone.

Shinsei was propelled back, the blade of steel and lighting cutting through his defenses like… well, lighting through rock. No one had ever accused Kakashi of being a poet. Kakashi followed Shinsei in his freefall. Then Itachi was behind him. "Fuinrai!"

Kakashi dodged straight onto Obito's kunai. The cousins surrounded him, with Shinsei limping up from below. Kakashi let his eyes smile. Itachi's eyes widened and he backpedaled, motioning at Obito and Shinsei to back off. The boys didn't see and jumped straight into Kakashi's trap. He tapped his sword against a wire. The boys found themselves in a wire mesh, lighting skirting down and through the web. They yelled at the shock. Then they were Kakashi's at their back, kunai across their necks. "You're dead." The Kakashi's chorused. "Sit out."

Obito and Shinsei exchanged peeved glances and remained swaying from the treetops.

It was Itachi vs. Kakashi. Kakashi would be lying if he said he wasn't excited. Itachi was a rare child. At seven, he was better than most fifteen year olds. His sharingan was the pride of his clan, and since the only Uchiha Kakashi had ever fought against was Obito, who, needless to say was not a paragon of the all-consuming might of the Clan. The Hatake clan was a great clan who'd been overshadowed as the low birthrate and very high death rates took their toll. Meanwhile, the Uchiha clan, who spawned instinctively, grew in respect as they overcame the animosity that remained from the civil wars.

As a result, Kakashi had grown up with the desire to reclaim the title of Greatest from his nemisis, the Uchiha. So far, he had failed, purely because he did not count a battle with Obito as a valid measure of Uchiha strength.

He was very much looking forward to this, which was why his disappointment was so great when Minato appeared, shoved his sword away from Itachi's neck, pushed Kakashi out of the way of Itachi's falling tree, grabbed both Itachi and Obito and darted away with a quick apology. Kakashi glanced at the still hanging Shinsei and threw a kunai in frustration.

Then Minato was back again, a thoughtful look on his face. "Actually, I think you should here this too, Kakashi. Shinsei…I'm sure you'll hear the details from Naoki, so you might as well stay. Itachi, Obito. We have to talk." Minato looked upwards. "Katashi-san, I assume you'll be listening in? If you want to join us on the ground…"

The older man dropped down out of the trees. Kakashi blanched white to match his hair and darted behind Obito who tried to share an amused look with Itachi, but his cousin stared at the ground, pale and stoic. Katashi walked up and crouched down in front of the boy. He squatted there until Itachi finally raised his eyes. Itachi's pupils were blown and his eyes flickered back and forth and he was swallowing spastically. Katashi sighed. "Minato-san, I am quite certain I know where this conversation is going to go. I know, as an outsider, I have to no right to interfere with Konoha law –" Itachi and Obito both became much whiter. "But please allow me to remain. I would prefer for Naoki to be here, but I realize you don't have long."

Minato nodded and sad down on the stump from Itachi's tree trap, though he paused to remove the trip wires and exploding tags.

"Alright. Let's talk."


For those who guessed that Naruto would seal Kyuubi back into himself… Where were you when I was writing my outline? That would have been… fantastic! And it wouldn't have even been weird considering Manga chapter 503. What I have planned seems so… Anti-climatic now. Sheesh. Maybe I'll change it up.

Who's been keeping up with the latest Manga Chapters? All I have to say is Naruto's parents are more Awesome than I could have depicted them. And Tear Jerking. Good grief, I nearly cried so many times in the last chapter.

I think I mentioned earlier, but I lost my outline (my two page, fine printed, webbed outline that took me FOREVER to draw T.T) that had pretty much everything important so I'd remember it when descending down the bunny trails to Wonderland. I remember what I wanted to DO but I don't remember how I got from points A to F to Z, if that makes sense. So, this story is probably going to end with a few unanswered plot holes, simply because I can't remember which string goes WHERE and how I was going to knot it all together, and I am quickly running out of time. I had a lot of things I was going to do – like develop New Kakashi's techniques since he no longer has the Sharingan, and develop Gaara's Arc… Anyway we're on the home stretch! I should have just three more chapters and an epilogue.

Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed! I read every single one, even if I didn't have time to write answers to most of you. Thank you so much.