Breaking the Boundaries


Many apologies but sometimes things just do not work out the way we expect or planned. For those that gave helpful comments and support, it is greatly appreciated and I thank you.

Once again, I make a call for beta readers to assist me. I apologise if for whatever reason I haven't been responding to messages, please make the effort again to get in touch via PM or review.

Dialogue normal/external speech
Dialogue inner thoughts
Dialogue Kyuubi speaking aloud
Dialogue Kyuubi thinking/musing

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or Bleach. They still remain the intellectual property of their owners. Which is not me.

Chapter started: 11Jun09
Chapter completed: 12Aug11

Previously on Breaking the Boundaries

"How about Sabaku no Gaara?"

"He made it through the exam. It wouldn't really do for the Kazekage's sons and daughter to suddenly die in the Forest. We are allies with them, after all. But you can add another thing to the dossier."

"What is that?" Jiraiya asked absentmindedly, his attention focused upon Naruto.

"He's a cannibal."

"That's nice... what?"

Yamato looked deadly serious as he handed him another report by the operative conducting surveillance on the Sound Trio, "His abilities with sand is amazing, almost the same as his ancestor with that bloodline. But he has the propensity to eat people as well. There was an altercation with Naruto as well, but our operator didn't get a close enough look before Uzumaki ran away."

Jiraiya shook his head with disbelief before rubbing his temples, "I have no idea how my network missed that bit out, but that's just messed up. Some shinobi have odd diets but this..."

He shelfed that away for further analysis as the doctor tending to Naruto made some notations on his medical file and moved away from the boy. The Sannin walked purposefully towards the man and stopped him in his tracks.

"What's wrong with him?" he asked

"Besides the massive blunt force trauma to nearly every part of his body and severe cuts and wounding, there is also the cursed seal upon his neck. And you know the survival rates for them. He's even worse off than the Uchiha who's at deaths gate right now."

"Dammit!" he growled out in anger, slamming his fist into a nearby wall.

"What else can go wrong?"

Jiraiya should have known better than to tempt fate.

Chapter Twenty

Convergence the Third

'Ne' Headquarters

"Let me guess, did the tailor forget to cut the scythe high on your shirt again 'Mi'? Was it really extreme enough to bring him over here like that?"

The assassin scowled at the other operator's cheeky questions before flipping him off with his spare hand. Kabuto's supine form was trussed over his shoulder as 'Hebi' dumped the spy onto him when they entered into Konoha proper. She claimed that he could lug the body around since he was a male and was to be regulated to such manly duties as carrying comatose torture victims.

"No, and I only did it once. I specifically asked for high armholes to match my jacket, but he didn't do. He was practically asking for it! Qualified and registered tailor my ass," 'Mi' complained with a growl.

"Wow. You get violent and stabby over clothes. No wonder you're a natural for the job," commented 'Ushi' with a slight drawl. Her eyes danced slightly when she saw him scowl in her direction, pleased that she had managed to score a barb on the usually unflappable shinobi.

"No kidding. I once saw him go ballistic when they tried to cheat him with non Sea Island cotton," joined in 'Hebi' with a good natured smile, stretching in a manner that caught 'Mi's' attention discretely.

"Nag, nag, nag," he complained bitterly. "Whatever, I need to put him in a secured room with that chakra leaching seal array. Is it ready or not?"

'Ushi' blinked before nodding uncertainly. "I think 'Karusu' managed to complete it in time, but we never really tested it for the long run, or at high concentrations. So, he isn't a tailor that can't meet your high expectations? He didn't lie about it being bespoke?"

The nin gave the woman a dirty look before shaking his head and changed his grip on Kabuto. "This little bastard is a medic that can regenerate his cells like Naruto. Though not quite as fast."

"He nearly castrated 'Mi' as well," added 'Hebi' helpfully.

The men around them winced before nodding in sympathy. 'Mi' lapped it up for a second before deciding to punch the unconscious 'genin' in the ribs. He felt one crack satisfyingly under his fist, before it started to reform again.

"You know, the effect is somewhat ... lost if they aren't conscious," 'Hebi' commented dryly.

The man gave an indifferent shrug before doing it again. "Makes me feel better. So where is this magical chamber of ours?"

'Ushi' pointed towards the northern part of the complex with her right hand. "Make your way to the other interrogation cells, it should be the one marked with fancy fuuinjutsu script that no one can really tell what it is. If you squint, it looks like a couple of people writhing around in agony, or drunk on a Friday night."

"I know where it is," 'Hebi' volunteered helpfully and started to lead the way. 'Mi' gave a short grunt before following along, Kabuto's bound legs bouncing awkwardly as he went. The two of them made their way to their destination in comfortable silence until they came across a familiar blonde who smiled and quickly run up to them.

"Hey guys, what's up?" Yugito asked with interest.

"We got ourselves a spy that we will torture, interrogate, torture, rehabilitate," 'Mi' responded gaily. "Then we will break for a snack or a nap, then torture him some more before the day is out."

Yugito blinked at that answer before turning to face 'Hebi' for a second, hopefully more serious, opinion.

The older blonde rolled her eyes before nodding. "Yes, 'Mi' will do exactly that in the next week or so. So if you hear maniacal laughing coming from an isolated room, don't be afraid. It's just him getting his jollies off. With another guy."

"You freaking sadist," accused the Nibi jinchuuriki with a huff.

"I love what I do," responded the man unrepentantly, crossing his arms and ignoring the last aside that 'Hebi' sent his way. This meant that he let go of Kabuto, unfortunately sending him onto the ground with a painful thump.

"How did you find him anyway?" she asked with interest, prodding at his body with her foot like it was a log of wood.

'Hebi' took on an affectionate smirk, deciding to toy with her erstwhile student. "It was all Naruto; he used his highly developed sensory and deduction skills under my ... tutelage to find him and report him to us. Yet another way my darling boy adds value to 'Ne'."

"What kind of ... tutelage?" Yugito asked warily, disliking the sudden shit eating smile on her mentor's face.

With a mysterious grin, the older woman stayed silent, leaving a slightly confused jinchuurki with burning questions on the tip of her tongue.

"Hey wait! I'm talking to you! Where the hell is Naruto-kun now?"

'Mi' yawned a bit before turning his head to face the girl. "He's probably dominating the Chuunin Exam with a hand tied behind his back. Or maybe he's getting it on with his two female teammates. Damn, what a lucky bastard."

"What do you mean?" Yugito asked dangerously, not liking how her day was turning out just by meeting her two teachers.

"You know, about that, if you manage to look back way into history and the team allocations, it has always been MMF," he said seriously.

"Oh, not this again," 'Hebi' groaned out in annoyance.

"MMF?" queried Yugito.

"Male, male, female. Almost without question, that has been like the holy trinity since Konoha was founded," 'Mi' confirmed matter of factly.

"I'll have to take your word for it," the blonde accepted hesitantly, "but I don't see why that matters at all."

"Well, just forget the probabilistic argument that ignorant people like to believe in, what happens when boy and girl work together in life threatening situations on a very regular basis?"

Her eyes widened in sudden understanding. "Oh."

The assassin decided to roll Kabuto over on the floor and rest his foot over his throat. "Are you kidding me? Is this the first time that you have thought about this? Have you even seen his jounin-sensei as well?"

Yugito narrowed her eyes before nodding grimly.

He took on a lecturing tone to the suddenly interested blonde, "Ok, the unofficial rule of genin team selection is two guys to one girl. No one really knows why it happens like that, but that's the way it has been structured since I was a genin. However, it gets kinda awkward, but Naruto gets to avoid all of that nonsense. As an enterprising, young and hormonal boy, he has the perfect opportunity to, you know, have lots of fun. Without another guy being involved. It's even better when you have a female sensei to give a running commentary on what to do. And maybe even join in."

"Would you stop that? Just saying it over and over won't make it true. And stop projecting those stupid fantasies as well onto Naruto; it will rarely happen, at least not back in the day," 'Hebi' complained with long suffering annoyance.

"I guess back in your days meant back when dinosaurs roamed the Elemental Nations," Yugito observed innocently.

"Yes when dinosaurs- No! You disrespectfully little hussy, I should-"

The jinchuuriki turned up her nose before commented superiorly, "It's not my fault you're getting along in your age, just like your partner over there."

There was a rather pronounced silence after her words which had the desired effect.

"What did you say?" 'Hebi' asked dangerously.

"Oh, just speaking the truth," Yugito responded nonchalantly, acting all wide eyed and innocent.

'Mi' and 'Hebi' looked at each other before nodding in tacit agreement.

"You know, jealousy doesn't suit you Yugito," 'Mi' started off predatorily.

"Yes, we all know that age is a great proxy for... experience," continued the blonde kunoichi.

"And experience is a great thing," 'Mi' said fondly, "especially for someone new and unused to certain things in life. I mean, when you need help you got the professionals right? It doesn't make any sense for the blind to lead the blind."

"Guidance is great because every boy has to become a man, sooner or later. And if they aren't taught how to do it right the first time, I mean, that's just a tragedy waiting to happen," 'Hebi' said cheekily.

"Yep. I taught him how to kill and survive this harsh, harsh world out there," 'Mi' said in a fatherly tone.

"And it's up to me to fill in the gaps," 'Hebi' added suggestively, "which only I can do. Boy toys are so much fun to have. So eager to please, so happy to find that perfect introduction between a man and a women. Little naive girls just don't cut it."

Yugito gritted her teeth at the smiling duo before spitting out, "I hate you both! There is no way that Naruto-kun will choose an old hag like you over me!"

There was dead silence as the two blondes stared each other down.

"Apologise, now," 'Hebi' demanded dangerously.

"Make me!" spat back Yugito with a devil may care look on her face.

"Hey, not that I don't like watching two hot women fight each other in a corridor, but we have a prisoner to deposit. And you're missing out on the mud and bikinis. Can I call for a raincheck?" 'Mi' asked hopefully.

The women gave him a glare that promptly shut him up.

"I was just saying... oh fine, be that way. Prudes," he grumbled out in disgust.

The glares suddenly intensified even further, even making his iron constitution wilt somewhat under the combine power of blonde dissatisfaction.

"I'll go dump the prisoner while you two sort out your differences," he conceded weakly before walking away.

Training Ground Forty Four
Central Tower
Secured Infirmary East

Now... this is interesting...

Cold eyes regarded the ordered city around him as he slowly walked through the wide roads. With a keen sense of appreciation, Orochimaru took in the miniature Konoha that inexplicably represented the mindscape of Uzumaki Naruto. Stopping for a moment, he pushed his hand into a wall to find that it was as solid as it would have been in the real world. Exerting more force, he concentrated mentally in an effort to distort the bonds holding the false reality together.

How very odd...

Despite his not inconsiderable experience, he was unable to do it. The sannin grimaced slightly before walking away with no particular destination in mind. He could even hear his footsteps hitting the pavement, shadows flittering over the ground, even down to the faint feeling of sunshine hitting his face.

Every detail, it's here perfectly. Down the last detail. A fraudulent reality.

My, my. You are a curious one, aren't you?

Orochimaru's shade looked around in avid interest at the mindscape which manifested itself within the blond jinchuuriki before stopping. There was an area that felt a bit off, concentrated in a manner that no word could ever quite describe. But it was as familiar to him as Icha Icha Paradise was to Kakashi. The beginnings of a smirk started to form on the Snake Sannin's face before he walked confidently towards it. Traversing the grounds in a matter of moments, the nukenin found himself in front of an apartment building that he recognised in his youth.

Hmm... the shinobi quarters. What could be in here?

"Funny, I wouldn't think that Naruto-kun would let you in here."

Instinctively he turned around and moulded into a fighting pose where normal restrictions such as joints had no meaning. His eyes narrowed slightly as he extended his extrasensory powers, a bizarre mixture of chakra and something else, towards the entity confronting him.

He saw a woman regarding him with a coy expression on her face. Her ivory like skin definitely brought her up a few points in his mind as he discretely checked her out. She had long dark hair that seemed to drink in the light, a black lacquer bound into plats that extended beyond the small of her back. Her epicanthic eyes stared at him with a probing intensity which arrested his attention. Wearing a soft looking robe without shoes she looked harmless, causing Orochimaru to smile softly before letting go of his guard. He was still at full alert, though his probes started to recoil away from the woman, as if she was something that shouldn't have existed in this place at all.

Then again, I could say the same for myself really...

"Ah, so you must be the Kyuubi," he deduced with a mocking bow.

"Yes, that is what you ningen call me, I suppose," she acknowledge with another bow that screamed out condescension and put his to shame. From the slight crinkle around her eyes, the inflection in her voice, to the sheer sinuous action of her bending body which made a snake look arthritic.

She cocked his head at him as they looked at each other in silence. It dragged on, as Orochimaru refused to budge despite the increasingly dangerous scenario that he had found himself in.

Why are you roaming around here so freely?

The Kyuubi seemed to tire of the staring game and asked nonchalantly, "Why are you here?"

The sannin seemed to consider her question before responding just as casually, "Many reasons, I guess. 'Because I felt like it' is something that comes to mind."

She laughed at that, a languid sound that was as smooth as honey. Taking a few steps forward, the Kyuubi affected a smirk before stopping within striking distance.

"I must admit that I do not get guests here on a regular basis."

Stopping at that, she shook her head and corrected herself ruefully, "Well, not ones that I do not invite willingly anyway."

Orochimaru blinked slowly at that before smiling himself, "Well, I'm flattered I guess."

"Flattered that you come barging into my beloved like the wretched interloper that you are?" she asked sweetly.

"I do not think that it is fair for you to keep Naruto-kun to yourself, he is such a fascinating boy," he shot back just as nicely.

The Kyuubi regarded the man for another moment before giving a satisfied smile, "My, this has certainly been an interesting few days. Not only does my host enter into the "prestigious" Chuunin exams-"

The renegade had to smirk at the emphasis placed upon the word.

"We discover that you have done something that should not really be possible. But more importantly, you are marking my property. That seal of yours is responsible for that."

She pointed to the horizon where storm clouds were gathering. It was an angry looking thing that threatened rain and thunder.

"I am quite partial to blue skies you know, they remind me of his eyes," she said crossly.

"Would it matter if I said I was sorry?" Orochimaru responded facetiously.

The Kyuubi dropped the pretence of civility and exerted the power that was straining to be release, "Do you really think that you can come into my home and usurp it?"

Orochimaru refused to stagger back, despite the force that she had placed within her words, "Your home? You forget that you are stuck in this boy's body, under very odd circumstances. I never quite understood how the greatest practitioner of the Path ended up with such an ... ignoble situation."

His words stopped her cold as she tried to comprehend how he knew. "How do –"

"There are many paths to ascension," he responded mysteriously before chuckling, "Your one caught my attention but the risks weren't worth it. I wouldn't want to be immortal in that state."

Now he had really got her interest as she considered that the upstart bastard could actually be of some use, "You know too much for a mere mortal..."

He angrily spat at that and laughed harshly. "I am beyond that now. No one can understand the depths that I had to go, to pierce the layers of mortality to understand everything that I do!"

"Wow, megalomania much?" she observed dryly.

"Perhaps," he allowed without any shame, "but then again that is very rich coming from you and what you did. Tell me, was your cost worth it?"

The woman was silent at that, her mind firing away as she tried to understand how Orochimaru knew so much.

"We are not so different really," the sannin continued earnestly, "we have goals to accomplish and place very little value on human life. Some people call us monsters for that, but they cannot see the results and what they can accomplish."

"I think, that it's time for you to die," she concluded slowly.

He bared a wicked grin at her, his highly developed incisors showing in a menacing way.

"This has been the whole point all along," he whispered out softly.

"I cannot die."

Naruto had woken up in some terrible ways in his young life. Up on the list was regaining consciousness to see 'Mi's' self-satisfied smirk after a training session, like it was some kind of major accomplishment to beat up on a kid three times his junior. But the blond knew it was bad when he woke up to see the perfect skies of the bizarre place he went to in his dreams most of the time. Granted, seeing Kyuu wasn't a bad thing per se, but the last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was collapsing over Yuugao as he had pushed himself over a boundary he didn't know existed.

Well, shit.

His body felt like it was on fire, a fever hitting him like a freight carriage as he tried to stand up. Falling over, he gave up for now and stared at the clouds before putting his hand to his neck tentatively. The blond probed at it, hoping to meet smooth, unbroken skin, but was disappointed. It was the size of a small nut, tomoes engraved upon his flesh as he traced it with his fingers. It had an odd texture, slightly hard, like a metallic tattoo that was raised somewhat but remained strangely organic.

Seriously, what, the, fuck?

The pain and nausea was still with him after a few moments, but he ignored it and stood up, stumbling along the road to get a good grip onto something solid. A door way helped him to stand unbent, but it was a continual struggle to not collapse back onto the floor and hug himself.

Urgh, why do I feel like I was beaten up by a closet paedophile?


He turned saw his saviour looking at him with naked concern. He turned and stumbled into the Kyuubi's embrace, her comforting arms reached around him and he felt power throb between them. His aches slowly drained away, still being present, but the edge had been taken off allowing him to concentrate better. He gave her a thankful hug before trying to walk a bit.

Shit, I never felt pain before in this place. What the hell happened?

Ummm kit, you were beaten up by a closet paedophile.

Her delivery was dry and perfect, causing him to spin back in horror.

What? How could you let that happen to me, Kyuu?

His accusation made her look upset and she swatted him across the head, making the blond growl some more.

Whatever. You let this happen to you. By being so weak and defenceless, it was like kicking a puppy. The outcome was never really in dispute.

He wanted to yell at her, rail against her words as lies but he just slumped over in self-loathing. The blond remembered the fight between the two of them and it was no contest. Given enough surprise and the chance to unleash his zanpakuto, he might have pulled off something approaching a stalemate, but he was clearly dominated before the fight even began.

Damn it!

As much as he resisted the urge to stamp his feet and yell, the teen couldn't help himself.

This isn't fucking fair! What the hell do I have to do to get a break around here?

How, how much better do I have to get before I can stop getting hurt?

You're lucky that you weren't awake when he started to undo his pants once you were knocked out.


His question revealed a moment of weakness that he would show no one but the Kyuubi. She understood his sentiments, in fact she subtly fed his insecurities, but this wasn't something that she had planned. That wasn't going to stop her from using it despite its opportunistic nature, however.

What the hell happened, though? He fucking bit me, then stuff started to go hazy. Oh shit, what about Hinata? Ino? Yuugao?

They are safe for now. An ANBU team found you guys and took you to the central tower. And for the bigger question about Orochimaru, well, he violated you with his chakra. He put a part of himself into your body, deep enough to affect your soul.

Kami, that sounds disgusting!

That's because it was, kit.

What, what the hell happens now?

Well, you see, I'm not sure.

What do you mean? Aren't you the certified genius around here?

Dammit, don't you dare use that against me now!

You can't have it both ways, you greedy kitsune. Wait, he split his soul up into pieces? Wow. That's pretty fucked up. How can anyone do that to themselves? Divide off parts of their soul like it's going out of fashion?

Most people can't. Or won't. It leaves their sanity in tatters and weakens their grasp on life. But if they are strong enough, they can exert some control over their host.

Wait, that bastard can control me now?

Oh relax kit, do you think that I would let him do that to you?

He relaxed a bit at her assurance, but still felt a bit uneasy about the whole situation.

Dammit, what do I have to do to get stronger. I mean, all of this extra training and I still get my ass kicked! It isn't fair dammit!

Don't be too hard on yourself. You haven't spent the last thirty or so years training and butchering your soul into pieces. You just have spent the last seven. You'll get there.

That's not the fucking point!

Yes I know. But there are some limitations that you can't overcome just like that. You have to want something so bad, to really give it up.

I want that fucker dead, you hear me! Dead!

My, my, aren't you a bit touchy? And bloodthirsty? I must say I feel slightly turned on by all of this. You really are a bad boy aren't you?


All in good time I guess. We have work to do, before pleasure. First up is to get you up and running, and then deal with this pesky little seal on your neck.

I don't like this. What the hell is happening in the real world anyway? How long will I be unconscious?

Not sure. I think we should worry about our uninvited guest first.

Kyuu had a predatory grin on her face that sent shivers down Naruto's spine in an unusual way. She drew him in close and whispered into his ears.

Now be very, very quiet. We are hunting Orochimaru's.

She gaily took his hand in her own as they stalked Naruto's mindscape with on objective in mind.

It was hunting season.

Come on kit, don't tell me that this isn't fun.

Well, maybe, just a little bit.

She held onto his hand tightly as the two of them moved through a fan search pattern of the mindscape, something that not even Naruto had bothered to explore deeply in the past.

This is weird you know, I mean, how big is this all?

Naruto-kun, how big is your mind?

He stopped to think about that question before sounding a bit unsure.

I donno. Big I guess.

You guess or you hope?

Quiet you!

The human mind is a wonderfully complex thing, capable of so much. Though I wonder if this does accurately represent everything in Konoha, despite the fact that you haven't been to all places.

You know, I never really thought of that.

Could be useful in the future, once we find our rabbit.


I mean, Orochimaru.

His silence was mocking, despite the hard pressure being exerted on his hand by the Kyuubi, warning him that any smart comment would be met with pain.

What, it was an honest mistake.

Oh please. Of course there is a natural connection between that bastard and a furry animal.

One day you will easily be able to hunt them both with the same difficulty that I have with those damnable rabbits.

It's good to have a goal to work towards, isn't it kit?

He refused to answer that one and pointedly ignored her for a few moments.

Kit, try and narrow his location for us. He can't keep hiding away forever. As much as I like spending time with you, this is getting a bit annoying.

How the hell do I do that?

She stopped for a moment and placed her hands over his eyes.

Hey, what –

Calm down and close your eyes.

The blond stifled his irritation and complied reluctantly.

Now, relax and think of this place. How long have you known it?

For as long as I've met you.

Exactly, you know this place well because in a real sense it is you. Now, how does it feel normally?

I – don't know. Calm usually, or a place that feels ... nice I guess.

And how does it feel now?

He thought about the question for a few moments, scrunching his eyes as he truly felt deep and recoiled slightly at what he found.

Kinda... oily? Something like a ... stain that won't go away. Urgh.

Not bad kit. Where is it located though?

Naruto relaxed even more, feeling something bizarre happen. He didn't quite need his eyes anymore as his senses seem to expand beyond his body.


What's happening kit?

I can see ...

It was like seeing everything in details that he could never appreciate before. Naruto remembered Wave for some reason and how he looked at the coastline. The horizon seemed to stretch out towards the ocean and into nothingness, the equivalent of staring into space at night. But it was now like he was able to zoom in and comprehend what had formerly been beyond his sight.

He could see the parts of the mindscape that were as solid as reality, plus the parts that were barely holding onto existence yet seemed concrete from a distance. He could feel bizarre concentrations of highs and lows around the place, though he couldn't find a word to describe what they were. Over and over he looked, his senses stretching beyond what was considered normal, even for a shinigami. Things from the tiniest details were clear to him, without warning or real understanding as the stimulus flooded his mind with increasing intensity.

Oh dear.

The Kyuubi could feel the reiatsu burst coming from her host as he instinctively used his powers to seek out the odd meta-human that had invaded their territory. The knowledge retained from the original soul-slayer came into the forefront of her mind, understanding flowing easily as she understood what the blond had done. Her eyes quirked northwards as she gently laid her fingertips on Naruto's temple, before covering his eyes.

My, oh my.

A large part of her was annoyed at how Naruto could grasp certain things so easily, but was unable to do others. She saw how his body was trembling at the effort to use the latent reiatsu that flowed in tandem in his body. The sheer balancing effort was getting to him and she did not want to see one side overcome the other.

Ah Naruto-kun, you must realise that these things are two streams that run parallel to each other, but must never twine.

She gently removed her hands from his eyes and exerted her own power into him, with just the right amount of sharpness to jolt him back into their reality.

Naruto crumbled a bit, causing Kyuu to support him slightly as he finally started to breathe again. He wondered about the inanity of needing oxygen in a dream, chuckling hysterically at the notion before he had to take in deep breathes again.

What's wrong?


But his tone was flat and there was something wild eyed about her boy that concerned the woman.

Kit, what happened?

She pressed him about it, refusing to let go of him until he relented and explained himself.

The teen refused to say anything else, his mind in shambles as he tried to remember and comprehend things that no mortal was made to do. For a brief moment he had held the entirety of the projected world and had understood. But now that he was lucid and awake, it began to flow away from him, like water held in a person's palm. No matter what he did, the tricks that he had learnt to memorise and retain it were of no use. He felt empty in a bizarre way, like a container bereft of anything to hold.

I saw it. I saw it all...

Kyuu looked concerned at his mumblings, the feral look in his eyes slowly fading away back to sanity.

But, but now... it's gone.

She nodded in understanding before engulfing him into a comforting embrace.

I think it's better that you didn't remember. Looking too deep, too fast has driven stronger people than you mad, kit.

The blond stayed silent after that, blinking every once in a while as his shattered thoughts rearranged themselves into something resembling order.

What, what the hell just happened?

Kyuu remained silent as the blond mumbled for a bit, blinking furiously to ward off the headache that was fast approaching.

Something ... dangerous.

Alright, I'm never going to do that again.

Probably for the best.

They remained like that for a few moments, a maternal scene of comfort between the two as the shocked boy was confronted again by his weakness. She gently nuzzled the crown of his head with her chin, her fingers lightly running over his back which sent light shivers through the boy. After enough time had passed, she softly pressed him with a question.

Did you see anything useful though?

Her charge nodded hesitantly before opening up his thoughts to her.

I know where he is.

"Well, that could have gone better."

The wry comment was made to no one in particular, but that didn't stop Orochimaru from grimacing and looking at his arm in disgust.

What had once been a well formed limb was now a corrupted mass of flesh that seemed to be dying from the inside. The pseudo-flesh was rotting, the stench hitting his nose and causing his stomach to churn in disgust. He stifled his annoyance, rationalising that he had experience worse things for the sake of his experiments.

"For Kami's sake, Minato, you pretentious hack, couldn't you even seal the Kyuubi right?" he spat out disdainfully.

He knew that placing his seal on the jinchuuriki would have been the ultimate prize, an elegant way of addressing the slight that the Sandaime had dealt to him all those years ago. He may not have wanted the blond for a host, but controlling a potential powerhouse like Uzumaki Naruto was too good of a chance to ignore.

Despite his antagonism towards the Yondaime, he had at least grudgingly respected his abilities with fuuinjutsu. But seeing the spectral embodiment of the nine tails not only alive and well, but also wandering around Naruto's mindscape had him reconsider the tiny bit of praise he was willing to give out.

The whole situation raised more questions than answers, especially seeing how she wasn't as powerless as he had hoped.

He remembered the power that she had emanated before casually unleashing it like a ninja lazily throwing a kunai. It was enough to make him shudder in remembrance.

His will was strong, but he sincerely doubted that it was enough to suborn that of the Kyuubi along with Naruto.

"What the hell are you?" he asked again out loud, leaning against the wall as he tried to think of an exit strategy.

Most people's minds are not like this, and I would know, I've raped my way through enough of them to tell. And the fact that the Kyuubi seems just as stuck in here as I am means something.

Orochimaru more sensed than saw the sudden appearance of two people. The first was the infuriatingly polite woman that had sent malign chakra splinters into his arm which were slowly eroding his flesh while travelling towards his heart. He had no idea about what would happen once it reached there, but he would rather not cross that bridge. Next to her was the shorter blond boy who had attracted his curiosity. Both of them stared at him in gruesome satisfaction, especially Naruto who looked like he was ready to rip off his arm, beat him half to death with it and then eat him while he was still conscious.

"Oh, it's you again," he said rather unenthusiastically.

"It's time for this to end, I'm afraid," the Kyuubi said dispassionately.

Naruto seemed to struggle with his rage, the fact that he was held back by the woman being the only thing that was preventing him from blindly rushing at the sannin. He gritted his teeth angrily, words that were on the tip of his tongue failing him as he just gave up.

"What, no words Naruto-kun? My, oh my, I always did find the silent and still ones so fascinating," Orochimaru taunted maliciously.

That was the trigger that he needed and Naruto didn't disappoint.

"You sad excuse of a piss drinking whoreson, why don't you just eat shit and die!" he shouted out hoarsely.

Wow, I knew 'Mi' was a bad influence on you.

The Snake Sannin's eyes widened in surprise and chuckled, "My, what a filthy mouth that you have. Maybe someone should wash it out with something."

He never stops, does he?

"As much as I love the banter between the two of us, I brought you here for a reason," he spoke out mysteriously.

"What do you mean, we found you," Naruto asked suspiciously.

The pale faced man chuckled at that before giving them both a condescending look, "Yes, you would have thought that wouldn't you?"

It was then that they noticed the strange concentration of pressure that surrounded the area that they were in. Its presence was slowly wafting over and lightly touching everything around it.

Kyuu narrowed her eyes and flash ignited some chakra, sending an intense burst that covered the area that they were in. Naruto and Orochimaru winced at that, but they both stayed on their feet as the blond's eyes widened at the widening gap which was now visible in the horizon.

Shit, what is that?

I think that's the metaphysical representation of the dimensional door which contains some sort of spatial entity.

Wait, what?

It's where he came in from and is the source of the corruption that you're feeling.

Disappointed that his genjutsu was dispelled so easily, the renegade sighed before extending the Kusanagi from his mouth again. Holding the blade delicately in his hand, he gave them a half hearted salute before relaxing into his fighting style.

"Let us see how things turn out now."

Hi no Kuni

"Did you have your fun?"

Orochimaru turned with an ambiguous smile towards the Kazekage, the taciturn man who gave him a suspicious look before sitting back into his chair more comfortably.

"Indubitably. It was awfully refreshing seeing youths that are entering into the cusp of their powers."

Sabaku no Hideki was a hard man, his face usually hidden behind the veil which formed part of the customary robes worn by elders in Kaze no Kuni. They were long and loosely flowing, hiding a multitude of things that were easily in his grasp. His darkened eyes regarded Orochimaru with amusement before they quickly schooled themselves back into indifference. Years of training and intrigue had made him a difficult man to read, even to his closest advisors who always had to tread lightly around the kage.

He is cold steel, this one. Hard and unyielding, everything that I need and more.

"And then crushing them before they had a chance to shine," the sannin finished smoothly.

"That's a trite justification, why would you even bother entering into the Chuunin exams personally?" the kage asked curiously.

His features hardened into a scowl as he stood up deliberately, "This was an unnecessary risk because they now know that you are here, operating in their heart. I know that you things such as secrecy and subtlety are beneath you, but honestly, did you take leave of your senses?"

"I wanted to see how my old village did things after I have left, to see if they had changed anything. Plus, there were a few... trophies that I wanted to take as well," he admitted candidly.

"Trophies," the kage asked warily, his displeasure still evident in his harsh tone.

"Nothing to concern yourself over," he said soothingly, "I was just removing some obstacles that could potentially become a problem for us during the end game."

"Genin? You exposed yourself to take care of some wet behind the ear rookies? What threat do genin pose to our plans?" Hideiki asked flatly.

"All genin are not made equal," the sannin countered, "especially the ones that I took care of. Call it a preventative measure. You should know, your dear son is a genin himself. In many ways, he is a deal breaker. Konoha has a few things which might become problematic if left... untouched."

"This is not what we had agreed upon," the kage said darkly. "We were supposed to be relying upon the element of surprise; perhaps you remember that concept from your first year?"

Orochimaru had to crush his instinctive reaction to punish such insolence, and contented himself with a lop sided grin. "My presence will draw their attention away from what we are doing. They will lose sight of everything else in their pathetic and amateurish attempts to take me down. When they do that, it wouldn't be too hard for you to slip your kunai through their ribs, will it?"

Hideki could tell that he was being mocked, but refused to take the bait. "That could work, in theory, but then again, their threat levels are raised up unnecessarily. How will we respond to that?"

"What's there to respond to?" Orochimaru asked pointedly. "It looks like only one single man was involved, so they will do the usual things. But the tactics used for holing up one person are different to preventing an entire army from knocking on the doors. The cracks will come and then we shall see who is laughing."

The kage still looked uneasy at that, but there was little he could do about it at this point. "We shall see, I guess. Though, these surprises and unilateral decisions make me seriously reconsider our arrangement. One would think that they were not entered into in good faith."

Laughing at that, Orochimaru stood up and gave him a cynical look. "Good faith? What are we, fiduciaries to each other? Let's not play at games here. You are the one that wanted to break up the Hikari no Doumei (Alliance of Light), did you not?" the renegade pointed out blithely.

The kage's mouth twisted at that name before he grimaced. The strategic relationship born between the Fire and Wind nations was one that had held them through the various shinobi wars in the past.

For generations, the two had held each other in bonds of brotherhood as they had endured conflict after conflict before the Daimyo's had decided that enough was enough and imposed their peace on the Elemental Nations. They had had faithfully honoured the spirit and letter of their venture for generations, being sealed in blood, tears and promises.

And now the Kazekage wanted to renege on it.

Other nations knew that to take on one would invite retribution from the other. Years and years of cooperation had created strategic benefits which had culminated into the Kaji Arashi (Firestorm) doctrine. The combination of katon and futon jutsu had created devastation on a level that few could comprehend. Firestorms raged throughout the wars, self-sustained tornadoes of fire and ash that indiscriminately destroyed everything in their path. In the past they had caused the roads themselves to burn—the air itself became a weapon, reaching levels that caused super-heated steam to erupt—and sucked people into the eye of the storm like a vacuum. Few nations would willingly stand up to that knowing that their countries could be consumed in a conflagration that would leave little for the survivors.

Iwa had learnt that to their sorrow before they regressed into tactics that diminished the effectiveness of large scale jutsu use. But it was a lesson that no tactician could forget when dealing with the Suna-Konoha alliance.

But for something that had worked so well in the past, why the kage wished to act against it seemed baffling.

They stared at each other, each measuring and pondering if they could trust the other at all before filing away their contingency plans.

"Speaking of this, are you sure that they won't interfere?" Hideki asked seriously.

"They?" Orochimaru asked coyly.

"Please, don't play at being stupid. They will be present and judging this stupid little contest that they foisted on the villages after the last time. Our entire plan kind of fails if that assumption falls through."

The Snake Sannin scoffed at that notion, "Since when have they? For over two hundred years they have left us do what we wanted. The kages bow down to them in name only, but they are just paper tigers. You should know that, you have dealt with the Wind daimyo intimately, if the rumours are true. How is she by the way?"

"Acting like a stupid irrational woman," the kage replied flatly.

The renegade laughed at that before sighing in sympathy. "Doesn't help that she is a powerful, irrational woman, does it?"

"No," admitted the Kazekage candidly.

"I must admit, it is an odd precedent that she had started by giving most of the military contracts to Konoha. How does it feel to have them operating in your jurisdiction?" he goaded with a sincere looking smile conveying his faux concern.

"There is little choice in the matter, while the daimyos are acting unconscionably," Hideki ground out in anger.

"Yes, it's all about the funding, isn't it?" Orochimaru asked sardonically.

"That inbred bitch has no idea of what she is doing, and Konoha is guilty of undercutting our prices to capture more market share," he seethed out loud, remembering the various indignities that he had to suffer, where he had to beg for contracts that should have been his as of right.

"Konoha has not lived up to their side of the bargain. An ally does not enrich them at the expense of the other," Hideki declared righteously. "I don't care that they are projecting strength when it does not exist, it cannot continue any longer. Suna will show then that we are not a captive protectorate of the Konoha superpower. We can stand on our own two feet."

Orochimaru clapped at that, a light tapping of his palms, slowly and deliberately with the ever present sneer on his face. "Oh, bravo, bravo. That is certainly one way for the junior to surpass the superior. It warms my heart. It really does."

Hideki cocked his head sideways before standing up. "Isn't that really what you are doing? So bitter about Sarutobi appointing Minato that you went off and decided that if you weren't going to have it, then no-one else was?" he asked slyly.

"I do not expect you to understand the delicate situation and relationships that existed back then," the sannin denied flatly.

"Of course not," the kage agreed mockingly, "we all have our reasons for doing this, and it's not like I can judge you for your motivations. Why, that would make me a hypocrite, and I think I have sent far too many to their deaths to not realise that now."

The Kazekage buffed his fingernails against his robes before continuing, "It's as though our daimyo doesn't understand the concept of the shinobi caste. Though Konoha may be our allies, there is always room for 're-negotiation' of our agreement when times change. I have made very pointed overtures to Sarutobi to no avail. Betrayal, if that is the right word to be used, is only natural when the benefits exceed the costs. And betrayal is something that the Elemental Nations know all too well. Isn't that right Orochimaru?"

The yellow eyed man quirked up his lips before giving a mocking bow. "Guilty as charged, my dear Kazekage. Guilty as charged. But then again, I am not the one about to break an alliance that has stood over two wars, some piddly little border disputes and the envy of the rest of the world."

"The situation is ... fluid," he responded cagily.

"Isn't it always?"

Training Ground Forty Four
Central Tower
Secured Infirmary East


Hyuuga Hinata stood miserably by the Uzumaki's bedside as she gently took his lukewarm hand in her own. Her sensitive fingers gently probed for a pulse running through his arteries before finding an irregular pattern. Her brow furrowed as she remembered how strong it was usually when she had the guilty pleasure of holding his hands as they went out, usually with Hanabi riding on Naruto's shoulders. That had always annoyed her, but she would have given a lot to see her crush back to his normal state of being.

His pulse should have been as steady and strong as a metronome, almost capable of being used as a time reference. But she felt it stutter and flutter like a candle in the wind, which bothered the girl to a level that she couldn't understand. He was the rock in her world, the thing that she could depend on for being there and able to stand when she would fall. But now that wasn't the case, and it was never a pleasant thing to have self-held truths to be proven false.

But what was worse was the crushing feeling of guilt that threatened to overcome her as she gazed upon her lifelong crush.


The strongest person that she ever knew beside her father was standing on deaths door as he fought desperately to save them. She gently brushed away a strand of hair that had fallen over his eyes. With some trepidation, she slowly nudged the blond's head to the side so she could see the seal.

The mark was dark and ominous, indelible ink which stained the boy's tanned skin like some sort of tar. She made a move to touch it, but Naruto subconsciously flinched away from the offending hand. She had to suppress a cry before she lovingly rearranged his head so it was straight again.

The girl looked lost as she didn't know what to do. Ino was still in a medically induced coma while medics and some members of the ANBU were examining her. She knew that Team Seven had been placed in the same position and some of them were still being operated on by the medics. She had heard rumours that Shino had his arm amputated as a result of some wounds he had taken.

Stupid, lousy Hinata, lying unconscious when he needed you.

Needed you!

What were you doing?

When he needed some help, the only time he really needed help, and you were taking a nap?

How can you protect him when he is the one risking his life to save you?

What use are you to him?

Her self-recriminations had robbed the kunoichi of her sleep. Her pale lavender eyes were tinged with crimson as she tried to hold the tears in. She felt useless and worthless, the scornful words in her subconscious punishing her along with her conscience. She had tried to keep up appearances, remembering years and years of lectures about decorum and self control from her family.

But any self control was beyond her at the moment, her painful insecurities pulling her downwards. As she felt her cheeks moisten, Hinata hastily made a move to wipe them before anyone could see her shame. She grabbed onto Naruto's hand desperately, grasping onto him in a way that she could not while he was conscious.

Why me? Out of Team Eight, why me?

She had visited Ino briefly before being firmly ushered out of the room. The only thing she knew was that the medics were unsure about her condition. The high frequency brain waves she was emitting indicated that she was caught in some sort of genjutsu based nightmare, but no technique seem to be helping her regain control or snap out of it. The only reactions were slight whimpers and shouts which no one could explain. There was talk of a specialist being called to assist, but she had no idea if that would help at all.

The Hyuuga got off easy compared to her teammates. The worst that she had were a few bruises and a shattered pride. But she was the one to be left watching the pieces come apart without being able to put them back together again.

It was stupid and somewhat selfish, but she felt that it was a form of torture she was going through as well. After everything that they have been through, her team was as close to her as her family. In some respects, they were even closer. She had always felt that they were strong enough, that with Naruto with them they were untouchable.

But she now knew the truth. That because she had let the blond take on the lion's share of the work had things ended up the way it did.

No, it was my fault.

My fault that I let Naruto-kun do that.

I knew that we couldn't rely on Ino, but I could have been stronger for him, so that he didn't have to suffer like this.

Naruto-kun doesn't need people that he has to look after. He needs people who can stand by his side and rely upon.

What were you Hinata? Were you his partner, the person he could trust to fight and watch his back?

Or were you just one of these parasitic leaches that added no value and took him for granted?

What are you Hinata? Which one? Decide now damn it!

She felt her fists tighten as she swore that this would never happen again. She didn't question the odd voice in her head because she agreed with everything that it said.

I will get stronger.

I will do it so you don't have to be hurt anymore.

Anything for you.


The kunoichi held onto Naruto's hand with such desperation that she would have caused him some discomfort had he been awake. But it remained cold and clammy, like all the familiar warmth had been sucked out of him.

"If you do that any harder, you might break a bone or two."

Startled, Hinata looked up to see the ANBU guard look at her suspiciously, both of them casually resting their hands over their ninjatou. She felt slightly self conscious until she realised that she had a right to be here.

"I would never hurt Naruto-kun, never," she responded with uncharacteristic viciousness.

The female ANBU gave her an inscrutable look, helped by the neko face mask that covered everything but her eyes before she gave her a slight nod.

The taller male operative cocked his head slightly before relaxing his grip on the hilt of his blade. "Perhaps, but it looks like he sure took a beating for the rest of your team."

Hinata coloured at that, not being able to deny that statement as she was reminded again of her failings. Ashamed of the blunt truth, she bowed her head slightly, her fists clenching as she started to shake again.

Turning to her right, the guard gave her partner a disproving look which he shrugged off

"Maybe it would be a good idea if you gave him some time to rest and recover," she began kindly, "there isn't really much anyone can do for him right now."

The Hyuuga heiress was loathe to leave the blond alone by himself in the cramped, sterile room with the two masked operators, but she could admit that her presence wouldn't do anything but make her feel better.

Haven't you had enough of that? Trying to make yourself feel better?

Isn't it time that you stood up and took some responsibility so that when he wakes up you won't be nothing but a waste of space anymore?

Hinata gave an imperceptible nod to herself as she gave Naruto one last tearful look before walking away from the room. The two guards watched her exit before standing more at ease and moved to opposite ends of the infirmary.

They had a job to do and they were damned if anyone else would hurt Uzumaki Naruto under their watch.

Hokage Tower
Jounin Lounge

"Another drink please."

Yuuhi Kurenai sat in the bar conveniently located in the jounin lounge, along with the rest of the jounin sensei as they tried to digest the events of the last five hours. It was a sombre mood that everyone was in, even for those who did not enter in teams but had found out what had happened. Most people were not surprised to see that Kurenai had come down there after seeing her students in the infirmary. She had held it before taking her feelings out on twenty year old aged sake. The porcelain cups were arranged neatly in front of her, but were heavily used over the last few hours as various people had joined her. Some of them gave a few quiet words of support, while others were content with just being there and drinking as well. She didn't mind but was in no real mood to talk to anyone about what had happened.

"Was- was I wrong to send them in?" she asked in a tortured whisper to herself. The jounin was questioning her judgment after everything that had happened, feeling responsible for how things had turned out.

Her feelings had taken a wild ride as she was informed of Team Eight's encounter with the Snake Sannin. Her heart seized as she thought of the potential disaster that could have led to. And what it did lead to. While she knew that Naruto was good, he was nowhere near Orochimaru's level.

Hell, I don't think anyone is in this village.

That was a morose thought that depressed her, seeing how there were threats out there that not even she could face comfortably. And to have her three students up against that renegade just made her wonder if karma was realigning itself somehow.

With trepidation she had approached the medical quarters where Naruto, Ino and Hinata were placed. A semi-crazed and hysterical Hinata ran up to her and hugged onto her with such a distraught look that her heart broke for the girl. She had said what she could, and tried to get the story from the Hyuuga. The disjointed tale was enough to make her pale and check up on the remaining two. Their conditions were as bad as Hinata made it out to be, and the two of them stayed around for a few hours, hoping for a breakthrough. Unfortunately, circumstances were not so obliging so she went off for a few moments, trying to understand what had happened just a few hours ago. The Hyuuga heiress refused to go home which brought a wan smile to her face.

Oh Hinata... I hope he opens up his eyes one of these days.

Otherwise it will just be another one of those easily avoidable tragedies that we see too often.

The other jounin-sensei gave her sympathetic looks before murmuring soft nothings, unable to really add anything which would make the situation better.

"Should I have held them back, and this wouldn't have happened? Right?" she asked them, a tinge of desperation in her voice as self-loathing was starting to hit.

"Look, you can't blame yourself for this. It wasn't your fault," Asuma tried to counsel the woman, seeing how wound up that she was.

She scowled at the cigarette smoking man before taking a shot of liquor. "That's easy for you to say. Your team made it through without one of them being nearly beaten to death and the other in a coma."

Asuma frowned at that before crossing his arms. "Hey, don't get all bitchy at me. The fact is that these exams are dangerous and things happen. There is no amount of preparation that you could have done to prevent that. You did the best you could so that they could stand up on their own two feet."

"That, that doesn't make me feel any better," she said moodily, her cup raising to her plump lips before sending the liquor down.

"You really care for them don't cha?"

She looked at Genma sadly before nodding. "They are my first and probably my best."

Kurenai laughed at that before sighing, "How sad is that? I've been spoilt by them and any other team in the future won't be anything but a disappointment."

"Don't say that," Gai advised seriously, his face uncharacteristically not sporting his grin which too many people saw as a sign of naiveté.

Stopping for a moment, she poured more sake unsteadily before putting it down on the table. Her crimson eyes grew reflective and maudlin, tears building but refusing to flow. "I, I was so sure that they could do it. That they would dominate the exams. And – and then this happens."

Asuma took a deep breath before placing his hand gently over her shoulder. "How are they?"

"No one really knows. Naruto and Sasuke are placed under ANBU watch while we try and figure out what to do. Ino looks like she's been screwed up and no one seems to understand why."

"Is it true then?" Genma asked intently.

"What?" she asked in confusion.

He looked around before lowering his voice. "Was he there?"

Kurenai looked confused as she tried to avoid the question. "What are you talking about?" she answered disingenuously.

The other man seemed to read an answer in her response and shut up. Taking up his glass he gave the ceiling a salute before drinking it in one motion. He put it down before looking around the rest of the room.

"Where the hell is Kakashi? And Anko?" he asked curiously.

Everyone else looked around, but no one really knew where the secretive nin was. Mitarashi Anko was the proctor for the second exam and her absence was also conspicuous. Kurenai didn't seem to notice as she was lost in her little haze, trying to think of how the problem could have been sorted.

Did I fail them somehow?

Could I have stopped this?

Training Ground Forty Four
Central Tower
Secured Infirmary East

"Oh Naruto-kun..."

'Hebi' whispered out in soft pity as she saw the boy lie on his bed, breathing shallowly as a solid heartbeat began to register on the medical equipment. His sun tanned face was a sallow, pasty colour that looked like a corpse on the coroners table.

The blonde carefully reached for the boy's hand to squeeze it gently. She had never seen him like this, not even after the brutal training program that 'Ne' had devised for him when he was still a kid. Though torturous and inhumane, even by shinobi standards, he had never been as badly injured as he was today.

Her hands then fondly reached for his cheek, feeling the bizarre coldness that seemed to be emanating from his skin. She gently turned his head over so she could see the side of his neck.

Though it was a simple symbol it represented so much ugliness that it bothered her. The only other person in Konoha who had it was Mitarashi Anko, who was well known for her psychological issues, which may have been a direct result of the seal. The potential for such a seemingly innocuous thing to change her student bothered her deeply.

"You really care for that brat, don't you?" 'Mi' asked carefully, seeing the tenderness that seemed uncharacteristic for the kunoichi that had been partnered on and off again for over a decade.

Both of them were dressed in ANBU fatigues, masquerading as bodyguards in the small Dignitary Protection unit. Most people knew better than to enter a room sealed with the black ribbon. Given the rather volatile political state of affairs, it was standard operating procedure that the operators were given orders to kill on sight anyone that remotely looked like a threat and crossed the ribbon.

She gave an absentminded smile as she continued to stroke the blonde's hair gently. "Naruto just grows on you. I mean, how many kids do you know that are as strong as him?"

'Mi' closed his eyes for a moment before replying casually, "Oh, I don't know, Uchiha Itachi, perhaps?"

The kunoichi's eyes flared at that before she shook her head vehemently. "Don't even say that! Naruto is not like that sociopath. He has compassion and a heart and wouldn't go off and kill his entire family for no discernable reason!"

Nodding at that reasoning, 'Mi' had a sardonic smile on his face when he realised something. "That may be true, but what would happen if he ends up seeing his mother again?"

He gave her a conspiratorial look before musing out loud, "Do you think he will pull a Kinslayer on Kushina?"

'Hebi' had never really considered that before, but dismissed it out of hand. "As much as I would like to see that, it's unlikely to happen."

"Oh? She hurt him really badly for no reason and there are only a few ways that a person can react to that. One is to get broken by it, the other is to break the person that did it."

Staring at Naruto for a while, he sighed before shaking his head, "And I don't think that our boy will be broken by anything. Not even what I had to do to him. But still, you underestimate the abandonment issues that he has. His psych profile certainly fits it and it's been consistent since he joined us, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it."

"Right, and I'm sure yours says that you're a deranged sociopathic child abusing sadist," 'Hebi' commented sarcastically.

He winced at that and touched his chest like she had wounded him. "Ouch. Painfully true, but still, I thought we were partners. Solidarity, remember?"

She gave him a withering stare before sniffing, "I was told to moderate your behaviour so it reached something that could be seen as acceptable. We operate in two man cells and I drew the short straw, again. I can't wait till rotations come again. I'll grab Naruto while you can have Yugito."

The assassin gave her an inscrutable look before feeling the need to defend himself. "Oh come on, I'm not that bad. You're really breaking my balls here. Haven't I saved your life on more than one occasion?"

"You've endangered it more times than you've saved my tight, shapely arse," she shot back at him.

'Mi' rolled his eyes before facing Naruto again. "Whatever. Back on topic, if she did come back, I'm sure Naruto would wage a sophisticated and relentless campaign of psychological warfare against Kushina until she was driven to suicide."

He ran the scenario in his mind before grunting, "That ... would be something to see."

"You have little sympathy for that woman, don't you?" 'Hebi' asked with some surprise. She had never seen her partner express his emotions so strongly before and it fascinated her. 'Hebi' had long wondered if he had feelings or was just a highly functional but patriotic killer.

"She is not fit to be a mother. It's that damned simple. We live in a village full of orphans because being a shinobi is dangerous. Our life expectancy is low and it makes life that more precious because it is so kami damned finite. So when a mother makes the choice to abandon their kids because it's all too hard, then yes. I hope that bitch regrets her selfishness and burns in hell. And then die. Can you imagine how Naruto-kun would have turned out if we didn't step up into the picture? Being left alone by himself in that shitty little apartment when he was just ten?"

'Mi' had a far away look in his eyes before continuing, "Hate just leads to more hate. Sure, Sarutobi was taking a more active role in the kid's life, but he had his reasons for keeping his distance. Stupid ones, high minded ones, but it wasn't an arbitrary decision. If we didn't bring him into our world, he might have developed an unreasoning hatred of Konoha that would make the sun look like a campfire. Right now he has a general distaste for the majority of the people living here. And that's fairly understandable, considering everything."

"I guess that's better than nothing," she responded drilly.

He looked at her like she was being obtuse. "Trust me, it is. Hell, the alternative is much worse. He could have hooked up with Orochimaru and could you imagine what the two of them would be like against Konoha?"

The kunoichi shivered a bit before lightly running her fingers in Naruto's hair. "Scary stuff. But that's never going to happen. It looks like that snake faced bastard has made his way to the top of Naruto's shit list. I'm sorry 'Mi', but you have been replaced," she said with a grin.

"Very funny," the assassin shot back before sighing, "You should be careful, you know."

"What do you mean?" she asked curiously.

He hated to touch on such a delicate issue, especially right then but he pushed on nonetheless, "I think you're getting too close to Naruto."

"You're just jealous that he occupies more of my mind than you," she teased with a smirk.

Not willing to admit that it did actually annoy him a bit he scoffed at that, "Whatever. Just be careful about forming attachments."

"I don't need to be lectured by you," she spat our resentfully. She glared at him before crossing her arms and sniffing, "I have fought just as long and as hard as you have. Don't you dare go off at me about 'attachments', I still remember -"

"Stop there, now," he whispered out softly. 'Mi's' eyes hardened into granite blocks that indicated when he was at his most dangerous. The two of them stared at each other before they both backed down, neither acknowledging who was wrong in the first place.

They both ended up staring at Naruto, watching his chest rise up slowly but rhythmically. 'Mi' was fond of the kid and he was like a fixture in 'Ne', but he realised that nothing would be the same anymore. He gave a discrete glance towards 'Hebi' before trying again.

"Be reasonable 'Hebi'. He's a jinchuuriki in a world that either wants him for their own, or dead to deny him to others. It doesn't exactly promote a great life expectancy."

She just gazed into Naruto's withdrawn face before lightly stroking his forehead again. "I don't think that it will be a problem. This kid will probably outlive all of us."

He could easily believe it, but that was supposing that Naruto could live for the next five or so years. Their accelerated training program to create mini Minato's were showing some promise as the jinchuuriki were shaping up nicely. But there was no substitute for experience, something that 'Ne' had learned to their regret.

She turned to face him before sitting down on the seat next to Naruto's bed. "I'm an adult for crying out loud. I know that making friendships is dangerous in our line of work."

Her eyes grew soft for a moment before blinking. "But dammit, that is what makes Konoha different. The fact that we put our bodies and souls on the line willingly. We are not pawns who give the kage or daimyo a blank cheque to our bodies. We are still human beings, with all the weakness that comes with it."

She was reluctant to raise an issue that had bothered her for years, but decided that he had opened up the floodgates. "That means that it is my right to take a risk to whom I open myself up to. It's not something that I want to be afraid of, living a life where the only person that I can trust is myself. I just find that to be incredibly... sad."

Her partner said nothing as he heard her, realising that this was possibly a shift in their relationship.

"The more connections he has, the healthier it is for him," she continued in a deliberately lecturing tone that would get on 'Mi's' nerves. "Relationships are important to him. In fact, he realises that more than most people his age. Or even older. Abstract concepts like nationalism, patriotism, they are just words to Naruto. They have no more meaning than things like hot and cold. He knows what it means, but it doesn't motivate him to do the things that we do. Sure, it's not great but I know that he would never act against a friend unless he was betrayed first. For whatever reason, that gives me a lot of comfort," she finished with a grin.

"That might change though. Especially with how things have been moving so quickly and out of our control," he pointed out with concern, "Speaking of things vaguely related to killing, have you read the official after action report on Wave?

That was another surprise that she could have lived without, especially when all the grisly details were placed upon paper. "What do we make of it?" she asked uncomfortably.

'Mi' just let loose a filthy curse before smacking his fist into an open palm. "Dammit, there was a reason why we closely observed Naruto out on our ops. Despite everything, the boy has never killed until this day."

The blonde thought long and hard on that and was startled to realise that it was true. "How about his clones?"

"They don't count. At best, it's an indirect thing because it's just not the same. But in a single engagement he has killed more civilians than we have in a fortnight."

"They were hardly civilians," 'Hebi' felt compelled to point out somewhat pedantically.

"In terms of skill and power, it was like throwing a water proofed explosive note into a barrel of fish. You've seen the pictures, he and Zabuza ripped the Kami loving shit out of them. I expected nothing less from the Butcher of Kiri, but from Naruto? We did not raise him to be indiscriminate," 'Mi' pointed out harshly.

"Don't remind me, but let's not be hypocritical as well," she replied with a slight frown.

"It's messy business that we do," he shinobi agreed, "And Naruto knows that we are not the nicest of people around the place, even considering that we are shinobi. People would call us bandits and highwaymen if they knew of our existence."

"We are not thieves and killers, 'Hebi' shot back at him adamantly.

He shook his head at her seeming naiveté before it was his turn to adopt a lecturing tone. "Oh really? Are you so sure about that? Instead of strangers and travellers, we prey on other nations and villages. There is no accountability in our work, just results and anonymity. None of this registration bullshit where our faces are a matter of public knowledge for clients. The only thing that we answer to is Danzo, our consciences and the kage's noose if they ever find us."

"You're getting awfully philosophical about this. You thinking of getting out?" she asked flatly.

The question hovered between them before he sighed out loud like the burdened man that he was, "Despite my ... feelings about what we do, we perform a necessary and bloody job until Sarutobi frees himself of his delusions. We are like garbage collectors. We are needed, but you wouldn't invite that person over for dinner."

'Hebi' wrinkled her nose at that comparison and complained rather testily, "I think what we do is more glamorous than that. We are better than most of the ANBU that are fielded currently."

"Yeah, like that was hard," the assassin snorted, "The Kyuubi massacred most of Konoha's best when they stood down that bastard fox to give the Yondaime a few more minutes. What's left is the best that the Academy had to offer from very slim pickings. Nearly two generations of shinobi died that day. We are slowly catching up, with every mission that we take on. It's just a matter of time and volatility. We have the resources and the talent, but whether or not other forces will sit back and wait is another matter entirely."

"Kami, this makes me feel so old and useless," 'Hebi' complained suddenly. "And don't you dare make a crack about my age."

"It isn't getting any easier, every day when you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder how you ended up like this. I'm sure that when if I was a boy I wouldn't quite be so proud of everything that I've done," he confessed.

"We've done enough and we bore witness to it. That's enough for me," 'Hebi' responded strongly and with feeling. "Oh yes, what's the news on Naruto's so called protector?"

'Hebi' said the words with barely concealed contempt as she regarded Yuugao's direction with disdain. The violet haired ANBU was in a critical condition still, located in another room where medics were struggling to find out why she had severe internal haemorrhaging with no external wounds to show for it.

'Mi' understood the question and put his paranoia to work, "Did she intentionally do a poor job to let him die? That would have been an unlikely cover, seeing as she nearly did die and all that."

He mulled over it for a few moments before scratching his chin. As badly as 'Hebi' wanted to think the worst of the kunoichi, it just didn't feel like the right explanation to him. "I don't think so, though, the two of them appear close. Don't be too harsh. I mean, look at her; she's in a critical position and looks like she's going to be crippled anyway. That poison is doing nasty things to her body."

While she accepted that, it still irritated her to some level to see how things ended up the way it did. "It just annoys me that he's more injured than she is. Dammit, she was supposed to be a bodyguard. It's more than likely that Naruto's cover as a jinchuuriki was blown by some hateful villager. We don't want him snatched or murdered. But hell, she got off light compared to Naruto-kun. I always think that failure is suspicious."

Again the assassin played the part of the devil's advocate, "Let's be realistic, it was against Orochimaru. That sick fuck would have kicked the shit out of us if we were there."

Another truth, but one that they didn't particularly enjoy admitting. "I know, I know, it ... it just annoys me that despite everything that we do, shit like this happens. Right in our very bloody village. Seriously, what the hell are the IS ANBU doing? Playing with themselves?"

The man laughed at that before nodding his head. "Who knows, maybe. They might just be happily masturbating away while Konoha burns around them."

He then got more serious before drawing out a notebook and writing down things of interest that had occurred to him. "Despite what Danzo bitches out about Sarutobi covering for his ex-student, the ANBU make it a priority to murder Orochimaru if he's seen on sight. Well, at least report and make up plans for it. It isn't because of a lack of effort that the bastard is still running around and creating overly complicated plots to destroy our village. He is just that good. And he knows our playbook and tactics; hell, he helped write quite a few of them. We all thought he was a devious bastard back then, but he was our devious bastard. Maybe, maybe we should have known better."

The fact that an enemy of Orochimaru's calibre could enter Konoha at will and pull something like that off shook 'Hebi' and she couldn't let it go. "But still... if Naruto isn't safe within Konoha's own walls, where is he?"

"That kid doesn't want to be safe. He wants to be independent. To be able to stand on his own two feet and look at anyone that wants to mess with him in the eyes. And then spit on their faces when he's done trashing them. Any other kid would be a monster with that kind of power, but Naruto can control himself and understands how dangerous things are for him. Which probably makes him the best person to be responsible with it. Or so we hope. If anything, we can channel his rage to more useful ends."

The blonde just took Naruto's hand and raised it to her mouth, touching it to her lips. "What do we do now?"

After finishing his notes he looked up at his partner and snapped the notebook shut. "We play this charade for a while before report back to 'Ne'. And then we prepare."

"Prepare?" she asked warily. The last time she had heard that they had seriously meant business over state borders.

"Yes, do you think that son of a bitch came back to Konoha to tag two genin?" 'Mi' asked rhetorically. "No, he's planning something big and we have got somebody who knows something in our hands."

"You won't be gentle on him, will you?" she asked strangely.

"Please, this is me. Gentle goes with me like you and celibacy."

She sighed at the cheeky grin on his face and slapped her palm to her face. "I knew it was a mistake to have sex with you."

Hokage's Office

"Why haven't their families been notified?"

The Hokage sat at his desk while the ANBU Commander was facing him, looking uncomfortable as he flicked through a dossier which had precious little fact but worthless many conjectures. He idly wondered how many people went over this before it sat on his desk, but decided that it wasn't worth the paper it was written upon.

"It would not be prudent for us to release such sensitive information right now," the masked man began delicately. "Not when we do not know what actually is going on."

"Tell me, when will we know what is going on," the Sandaime asked with razor sharp dryness.

The ANBU started to scratch his chin before mumbling a bit, "I can't give you anything beyond an indicative timeframe, but rest assured when I know you will know."

Sarutobi stared at him before the younger man coughed uncomfortably. "Accidents happen all the time, especially in the Chuunin exams; it will hold for the time being," he said defensively.

"Accident implies a lack of intent and due care, this was a targeted direct attack upon our shinobi," the Sandaime replied coldly.

"Yes, by one of your ex-students as well," the commander replied just as coldly.

That caused the old man to stand up in anger. "How dare you-"

"I dare because it is the truth and needs to be said," he replied evenly, showing Sarutobi how cool and dispassionate he was under pressure. There were reasons why he was appointed to his position, though he did not wish for those qualities to be used against him at that moment.

"Are we sure that he is here?" Sarutobi asked again.

The ANBU pulled out some documents out his vest and placed them upon his desk. He spread them out across the wooden panel, everything from the initial combat scene to the surgery that Yuugao had to undergo.

"You've seen the marks," he replied, pointing to the pictures of the juin jutsu in particular. For completeness sake he produced more documents regarding the past findings on the seals from when they were first encountered by Konoha.

"Kami help us," Hiruzen breathed out sadly.

Not again. When will this ever end?

They were slightly different in shape and size from Mitarashi Anko's, but then again the renegade did have a fair bit of time to improve and refine his technique. He had remembered when his student had approached him with the idea of augmenting standing shinobi with the equivalent of a chakra battery and he had approved of it. The old man had little doubt that this was the result of it.

And to think I was so supportive back then...

"How do you wish for the information to be controlled?" the ANBU commander asked warily.

"Can any secret really stay a secret in this place?" Sarutobi asked sadly.

"For a massively public event like the Kyuubi where everyone had a vested interested in knowing how we were saved, no," the ANBU admitted candidly.

"But for an event only shinobi know of, that are sworn to secrecy under penalty of slow torture by Ibiki, then I think we can manage. Because, if we don't, then what chance do we have at all?" he asked rhetorically.

"What is your advice then?" the Hokage asked reluctantly.

"Compartmentalise, deny, delay and defend. Then deny some more. It is a very effective strategy practiced by insurance companies. It will work for us," the commander replied confidently.

"Then do so," he ordered.

"Roger that sir. I will gather up everyone who has knowledge of the events and give them a 'stern talking down to'."

The old man chuckled at that euphemism, which he had developed himself back when the hardest thing he had to deal with was Jiraiya peeking at bathing women before he knew what to do with him.

Glad that things were no longer so tense between him and his boss, the ANBU continued with his plan. "Everyone will know what needs to be done. Some of the CINT boys will be on the case and everyone will be up for finding Orochimaru, sir."

"Sounds sensible, let's hope for all our sakes that no one finds out about the situation between Uchiha and Uzumaki. We do not need more complications than what currently exist."

The ANBU gave a short salute before going off through the window, each man left alone with decisions that would affect the polity. After a short moment, there was a knock on the door as Jiraiya seemingly stepped out of nowhere, a cheeky grin on his face as he gave a comic salute with his right hand.

"That was fairly impressive, that you could maintain that for so long," Sarutobi commented lightly.

That caused the white haired man to scowl lightly. "You knew that I was there?"

Hiruzen rolled his eyes before sighing with some disappointment, "I might be old, but not incompetent. Was there any reason for you to hide yourself just then?"

Giving a light shrug with his shoulders, the sannin made his way over to the spare seat in front of the Hokage's desk and sat down heavily, "Not really. Force of habit I suppose. Been doing it for too long."

He scrunched his face in annoyance before commenting, "But not enough to fool the best. It's saved my life more times than I received royalties from Icha Icha, which is saying something."

Both men smiled at that, both having the entire first run of each book on their respective bookshelves. It was part of the odd bond that they shared. Deep inside they knew each other quite well, and it was Sarutobi's deepest failing that he could never quite appreciate what kind of person his student would become.

"You are too kind to that man," Jiraiya said all of a sudden.

"What do you mean?" the Sandaime asked with some confusion.

His student looked at him as if he was senile. "There have been administrative fuck ups recently, and they have been gross. The worst in living memory. Need I remind you of them?"

The Hokage rolled his eyes and sighed, "No, but I'm sure you will regale me with them again."

"This is not a laughing or trivial matter," Jiraiya snapped and stood up. "First we have the Kumo 'diplomat kidnaps the Hyuuga before losing his arm because he wasn't put under observation properly' incident, the Uchiha 'slaughter an entire founding clan without nobody noticing the chakra usage until afterwards' incident, the Scroll 'Naruto shows that being awesome is an incidental benefit of being Jiraiya's godson' incident, now the Orochimaru 'waltz into Konoha to brand the best and brightest along with showing the rest of the world how we can't even run a Chuunin exam securely' incident. What's next? The 'entire village turns into zombie from biological warfare and start eating each other' incident?"

"Tell me, can you honestly say that you have operational control of this village?" the sannin demanded.

Student and master stared at each other, both of them entrenched in their own positions that they could not back down from them now.

Jiraiya looked anguished as he sat back down with disappointment. "Damn it, I left here thinking that things were in order. That things were being done properly. That I served a better purpose being out there collecting intelligence than being in here."

"I, I trusted you dammit," he said sadly. "I trusted that even if what happened to Naruto did happen, you would do the decent thing. And for the most part, it was okay. Except for that fucking orphanage. Minato's son deserved better."

The Sandaime sighed at that, knowing that it was a sore point between the two of them that wouldn't be reconciled anytime soon.

"And I'm going to tell you. You were wrong," he accused flatly.

"Over what?" asked the Hokage.

He chuckled and seemed lost without an idea about where to begin. "About me, about this village, about Naruto, about everything, why not. You don't need me out there more than you need me in here."

"I admit that you gave me an excuse to be out of the picture, and, I took it." The white haired man looked ashamed but continued on, "That is my sin and I guess that means I have to pay for it. But no more. You tolerate that man's screw ups and we all suffer for it."

"What would you have me do then?" the Sandaime demanded. "Yes, there are problems, but there have always been problems. No village can run a security network that is absolutely impenetrable. The doctrine has always been to acknowledge this and use misdirection. We can stop an army, but we cannot stop one single person working alone without any support."

There was a sour look on Jiraiya's face before he interrupted, "That's not quite true. Ame does a good job of it, but I doubt you would be willing to go to their lengths."

The kage took a deep puff of his pipe before taking off his hat. "Isolation harms everyone. You should know this. It makes conflict easier to justify when they are not people to you, but faceless enemies."

The sannin acknowledged the reasoning but ploughed on. "The point remains that the ANBU have been failing. Despite the reviews and commissions that you undertake, there are structural issues that you cannot address because of the Hunter strategy," Jiraiya argued forcefully.

"If memories serves this old man correctly, you were a key architect of that," Hiruzen pointed out sarcastically.

"Well, yes," he admitted ashamedly, but continued on doggedly, "but I think we need to change it somewhat. It's running down our forces ragged, where some of the people that need to stay in ANBU are rotated out to serve. We cannot keep on doing this along with the low margins on missions. The high volume strategy is slowly deteriorating our quality from the inside, and I don't think that we can renegotiate rates easily into the future. At the very least we have to deal with the Suna situation."

The Hokage felt another familiar headache approaching as he rubbed his temples. "Yes, I am very aware of the ill feeling that exists between us. But it is difficult to say no to a daimyo when they want something."

The sannin remembered the first time he had encountered part of the royal family touring their domain. He was invited to join them and he could not find a way to say no without incurring their displeasure. The shinobi was glad that he did because he had gained very valuable contacts and had a better understanding of the geo-political landscape than he did before. The daimyo of Hi no Kuni was an affable enough man, with exquisite manners and even more exquisite courtesan, but he recognised the ruthlessness within him that was needed to govern a country in the Elemental Nations.

"Why would she ask and divert its contracts away from her own village, though?" Jiraiya pressed like a mastiff, "It's unprecedented and disruptive to our alliance. I've been to Suna and the anti-Konoha sentiment is building up."

The Hokage didn't want to ask his question, but pressed on nonetheless. "How bad is it?"

Jiraiya sat back on his chair heavily, his hand rubbing his eyes with tiredness as he remembered the tenseness in the village where none existed a mere decade ago. "Think of it as a poison. An economic decline that is slowly sapping the vitality and growth of Suna. I mean for crying out loud, they live in the middle of a desert! Any disruptions to their welfare tips the balance in a bad way. Not only that, but the recipients are us, a trusted ally. It looks bad and is affecting the information sharing that we have against Iwa and Kumo."

It had long been a concern to him that there was a big problem with the extra-workload that was passed their way. Sarutobi was loathe to say no and display any more weakness in front of the world and reluctantly accepted. But he knew that wars had been started on lesser matters. Another long puff and he felt the rich tobacco enter his lungs, one of his only sources of comfort that he could enjoy, "Is there a way, to perhaps, farm out those contracts back to Sand? Like make them independent contractors?"

"It's certainly sneaky enough," his student agreed, "but it doesn't address the root problems. We need to get our daimyo to convince her to go back to the status quo. Our shinobi are being overworked and they are paying for it in the field. And I don't think that Suna wants to take the scraps off our table as well. They do have their pride, like any professional."

"We can deal with Suna after the exams," Sarutobi stated sadly, "there are more important matters to deal with, I'm afraid. How are Naruto and Sasuke?"

Jiraiya gritted his teeth and stood up suddenly, pacing the room in anger as more regrets weighed upon him. "Sasuke is in better shape than Naruto, but that's not saying much."

"We have two bigger problems that you need to intervene now. Your commander can't handle this, anymore than I could," the sannin stated flatly.

"What might that be?" Hiruzen asked warily.

"We tend to forget that we are not always dealing with orphans in the shinobi ranks," the Toad Sage responded dryly, "and we have two victims with rather prominent parents from founding clans that will not appreciate being lied to about their children and current heirs."

The Sandaime winced at that and wondered how badly his life would be for the next week. "Yes, quite."

"I suggest that you speak with them sooner, rather than later. I hear that Mikoto is rather upset and had a confrontation with the ANBU who refused to let her see her son."

"How did she find out?" Sarutobi asked with annoyance.

"Oh, I might have mentioned it to her, in passing," Jiraiya replied breezily.

"You what?" asked the Hokage in mortification.

The sannin lost his jovial expression and gave his master a serious stare. "She had a right to know, will keep her mouth shut and can help Sasuke stay grounded enough to not leave the village. Orochimaru has eyes on him and that cannot be good. He needs to know that there are things in Konoha that are not worth leaving behind. I'd suggest the ANBU to keep an eye out on him, but I have no confidence in them at the moment."

"That will be remedied soon enough," Hiruzen muttered darkly.


The Hokage gave Jiraiya an enigmatic smile but said no more.

"I'm not going to like this, am I?" the white haired sannin asked with trepidation.

"Consider this the price of your impertinence," the kage responded mysteriously.

"Man, I knew I should have gone rogue and accepted Kumo's offer when they made it. They even added a harem as well," Jiraiya lamented to Sarutobi's amusement.

The two of them spent the rest of the night speaking and exchanging information. And during that exchange Sarutobi realised that his student had changed from the long journey he had taken after the Kyuubi's rampage. Regret started to sink in, which he viciously repressed as the two of them argued long into the evening, ideas offered and refined before the beginnings of a plan began to emerge.

Jiraiya left, giving a clumsy salute before heading off to see his godson. For a brief moment Sarutobi envied his student's freedom to go off and do the things that he wanted. His wizened hands stroked the desk which had sent more men and women to their deaths than he had ever personally taken.

Is this what it comes down to? A gilded cage?

The trappings of the kage position meant so much to him, but decades of familiarity was breeding contempt in his mind. Hiruzen shrugged that insidious thought out of his mind before gazing at his clock longingly.

The hands were moving slowly towards the hour, signifying another all nighter that he had to pull because duty would not permit otherwise. His hand moved absentmindedly to his mug, grimacing slightly when he tasted the cold dregs at the bottom. Swirling them around, the Hokage watched the tea leaves move in odd patterns like pollen floating in the air.

Hiruzen stood up and stretched slightly, feeling his muscles complain as he moved over to his pot. His eyes moved over the familiar item, being a gift from the Nidaime who had given it to him when he was appointed as Konoha's Fire Shadow. The Senjuu had joked that it would be the most vitally important thing he would ever need in the office.

With a fond smile on his face he realised that his old sensei was not joking at all. The ability to stay awake for ungodly hours to make incalculably important decisions under uncertainty was at times the difference between victory and defeat.

There was another light knock at his door that made him groan internally. The sheer immediacy of all intelligence was overwhelming at times, never letting him take a break for an extended period of time. Sarutobi looked sadly at his cup and wondered if he could accelerate his retirement.

Doing nothing but read all day sounds wonderful right now.

"Sir, I have come back with my report."

Hiruzen found Kakashi at his desk, his trademark bored expression on his face as he lazily pushed a manila folder onto his desk.

Can this day end? Will this day end?

"Let's dispense with the preliminaries, what did you find?" he asked brusquely.

The Copy Nin still wondered if the old man was still upset with him about the whole 'stabbing Naruto in the chest' incident back in Wave. He was rather annoyed at being sent out for a seemingly trivial mission such that he couldn't properly give his team one last test before they entered into the Chuunin exams.

But that quickly changed when he started snooping around their mysteriously destroyed forward operating base.

"The attack was premeditated and highly unusual. There was chakra residue all over the place and it was suspiciously close. The ANBU have been over the scene on our northern border already. But I just didn't stop there."

The Hokage grunted at that while flicking through the paperwork. He agreed that there was little extra marginal value to be added by sending him, but Kensuke Nomura had insisted. That opinion changed when he hit on the last few pages of the report which made him widen up his eyes.


"This incident requires a thorough investigation, do you understand me Hiruzen?"

The trip to the Capitol had been a rather pleasant one on the well maintained roads that criss-crossed Hi no Kuni. Sarutobi Hiruzen had taken a light ANBU escort that made good time after he had received a personal summons from the Fire Daimyo.

"There were good men out there. Loyal to a fault. Especially Kurata. Those are very important qualities, do you not agree?" the daimyo asked his kage.

Sarutobi gave a wary smile and nodded, wondering internally if that was another subtle dig which Nomura had just given him. As time passed the man's memory remained sharp as a tack and he in particular gave the old man grief about his ex student.

"But times change and he couldn't quite pull front line duty as he used to. Then again, it was highly improper to deny him what he loved doing. So as a reward I had him assigned to a quiet, out of the way garrison where he could earn his pension with an honourable discharge. Does that sound appropriate?"

The two men faced each other, a genial smile on Kensuke's face as Hiruzen gave a light cough. While the Fire Shadow generally enjoyed the verbal spars with the daimyo, they were awfully personal this morning and he had to tread carefully.

"Your compassion and benevolence are well known, sire, such that people outside of Hi no Kuni know of it as a fact," the kage replied sincerely.

Nomura grimaced at that, causing the Sandaime to wonder if he had insulted his sworn leader somehow.

"Yes, quite. Others would accuse me of favouritism, but I tend to believe that duty should be rewarded, if only to set a good example. Kurata was a good man."

His face then twisted into something ugly and he stood up suddenly.

"As it happens, Kurata is now very much a dead man."

There was naked anger in the daimyo's face, his fists clenching as he paced the office like a predator. Hiruzen examined Kensuke carefully, wondering how important Kurata must have been to make him so angry.

"I'm very sorry to hear that-" Sarutobi began.

"Save your condolences for when you mean them," The Daimyo responded flatly, stopping in the corner of his room to face the kage.

"I have no doubt that he died in an honourable way. In fact, I think he would have preferred dying in battle instead of in bed. He was a veteran of Hirigata Pass after all."

The daimyo gave another scowl before correcting himself, "Maybe the word survivor is more correct. But the fact remains that he was in a secured location surrounded by soldiers and your shinobi. And he died in a secure location surrounded by soldiers and shinobi. Do you know what I'm referring to?"

The Hokage nodded and tried to remember specific details about the attack towards at their northern border.

"You'd better, because I do not take border incursions lightly. Especially not if my dear cousins think that they can violate the delimitation agreements negotiated by our ancestors. They were sealed by blood a long time ago. If anything, they could be used as sufficient cause for war."

War wasn't a word that Hiruzen wanted to hear, especially when it came out so casually from Nomura's mouth. From long experience he knew that he tended to act more on words said in conversation, not ones in more serious and formal settings.

"And I am rather annoyed that I get a ten page report which is light on details and specifics." The daimyo walked over to the paperwork in question and waved it in front of Sarutobi's face.

"Though, I must admit, heavy on speculation and vague in future response," he completed dryly, his point made.

"There was insufficient evidence left at the scene, so there are no strong conclusions that can be drawn," the Hokage defended strongly, remembering how frustrated he was when it first happened.

"Is that an excuse I hear?" Kensuke asked blandly.

"I've heard this rather quaint expression from some of the men of the seventy ninth. In fact, it comes from this sergeant from the Hiroki province. If memory serves me correctly, it goes like this."

"Excuses are like assholes," he started with a deadpan expression, "everyone has one and they all smell."

Nomura stopped himself again before qualifying his statement, "Unless of course, you are Yukino, then that is a place that I wouldn't mind spending more time in. But nonetheless, I like to think that I pay you to do a reasonable job-"

"Actually, you don't really pay us –" Sarutobi started to say before he was interrupted by a hand gesture.

"A nominal salary is a salary nonetheless," Nomura replied airily, waiving off the concerns as he smoothed his robes. "In any event, I am fairly sure that the royal treasury has spent some time and money on giving health benefits to shinobi, even upon retirement. In fact, I'm told its one of the most comprehensive programs anywhere. It sure beats Kiri and their appalling lack of infrastructure."

"That might be true, but-"

The daimyo seemed to tire of the constant interjections and tossed the report over his shoulder. "But nothing. I have seen the mission logs, and impressive work by the way. You are running more missions than any other village. That's all well and good because I just adore efficiency and productivity."

Kensuke walked back to his oak desk and sat down, drew a calligraphy pen out and started making notations on a ledger while talking to the Sandaime. "At the end of the day, a shinobi's duty is to his lord. Tell me, who might that be?"

Sarutobi rolled his eyes gently but played along, "You, sire."

"Yes," he agreed amiably while doing some calculus in his head, "and national security is one of those boring, but necessary parts of the job description when you sign on as a Konoha nin. In fact, this is the same for all nations. My cousins and I would hardly let shinobi operate in our borders otherwise. The concessions still mean something."

Nomura blew gently on the drying ink and held the paper to his critical eye. His teachers had always commented that he had no real style or patience to become a true master, but it was something he hardly cared for. The sums seemed right and he pushed it towards the Fire Shadow.

"Time to cut some of the private contracts back and work towards keeping Hi no Kuni that little bit more secure," he said sweetly.

Sarutobi knew a dismissal when he heard one, no matter how much it irritated him that the richly dressed man in his opulent palace could give him orders like a mere servant.

Insolent, young –

The daimyo frowned for a moment which made the Hokage still slightly, wondering if the rumours were true and that Nomura had mind reading powers. It was outlandish, but his penetrating stare was something that had unnerved many people, including the other feudal lords. Reaching into his desk, he smoothly pulled out the drawer and took out an envelope. It was of heavy, fine velum which was sealed with red wax. An imprint of a tiger was pressed upon the wax, keeping the contents together.

"This is something for your son as well. I do remember the wager that we had, even if he doesn't. Tell him not to spend it all in one go as well."

"Will that be all?" the Sandaime asked flatly, quickly pocketing the envelope into his robes.

"Why, yes. That will be all. I'm so sorry about taking up your time, but it is always a pleasure to see you in person. After all," Nomura chuckled with affected mirth, "I'm not sure how many more occasions that we will meet again in the future."

The Sandaime's blood chilled slightly at his words, compounded by the odd knowing look in the daimyo's eyes.

As he got up to leave Nomura had one last parting shot to give. "Not that there is any rush and all that, but please have it mailed out to me by the end of the fortnight. After all, it will take some time to muster up all the troops in Hi no Kuni."

End Flashback

"Are you sure about this conclusion?" Sarutobi asked intently, his eyes devouring the paragraphs written on the fly with alarm.

"As sure as I can be about anything," Kakashi answered in his trademark drawl. When the Fire Shadow gave him an annoyed look, the nin subconsciously straightened up his posture and adopted a more concerned tone.

"The tracks were very faint and all but missing, so I had to go for a very long haul recon over the northern border. Pakkun and his brothers found very faint traces which extended to Ta no Kuni. So I did what any other nin would do in that situation. I snuck by the borders," Kakashi related in a measured tone.

"How was security there?" Hiruzen asked innocently.

The copy nin closed his visible eye and gave a light shrug. "About what you would expect for a smaller nation, but when I got inside things were... odd."

Sarutobi fought back the urge to yawn and instead propped up his head with his arm, where his elbow was resting on his desk, "What do you mean, odd?"

"Everyone looked afraid and desperate," Kakashi responded flatly, "like every moment they had was their last. There were rumours of a power struggle between a few groups which had destroyed a few villages around the place."

The Hokage took some time to digest the new information, piecing together Kakashi's accounts with what Jiraiya had told him. "Did you manage to go to Otogakure?"

The silver haired shinobi made a face, which was hard to tell normally due to his mask. But Hatake had been serving Hiruzen for too long for the kage not to notice. "Not really. I don't think it actually exists at all. I did a quick tour of the place but there were no obvious buildings that even looked like a Hidden Village, as we know it."

There was a mysterious smile on Sarutobi's face that made Kakashi nervous as he said his piece, wondering what was going on behind the crafty old man.

"What do you think that means?" the Hokage asked softly.

Hatake raised his eyebrows slightly before he started to think on the issue. "It's rather odd, as we have heard that there are nin taking up contracts, so they have to be assigned somewhere. Somehow. I didn't probe too deeply because the tracks separated to different areas after they reached the heart of Rice Field Country."

"This is definitely something to think about," Hiruzen stated dourly, his free hand moving to his goatee which he proceeded to stroke. For some reason he found it to be a soothing act that helped him think. Adroitly, his mind came up with several hypotheses which he went through, discarding and retaining the more likely ones.

"Is there anything else you need, sir?" Kakashi asked with affected boredom, desperately wishing to go home and get some rest after a month behind Konoha lines.

"Not just yet, Hatake," the Sandaime murmured out, his eyes scanning the various pictures that the shinobi had taken out in the field. Taking a slow breath, he stood up and walked to his window.

The sun had come up like it did every day. And nearly every morning the kage would stare at it from his office, a regular pattern that seemed depressingly familiar to him. The old man couldn't help but feel that they were on the cusp of something, that there was a gathering storm out there that he needed to deal with.

"In your opinion," he began darkly, "was this a pre-meditated attack on Hi no Kuni by Ta no Kuni, or was someone else using it as a base?"

Kakashi blinked as he stood up as well. The constant pace and state of hyper-alertness that he went through on his mission had exhausted him, though he wasn't ever going to display that in public.

Slowly, he walked over to the window and scratched the back of his head absentmindedly, as he had thought about the exact same things on the way back to Konoha, "I don't know. Things are a mess right now in Rice that some band of Iwa or Kumo nin could have decided to set up a forward base there."

"Yes, relations are still fairly strained between us and them," the Hokage noted dryly, a wry grimace on his face as he wondered if they could ever get beyond the horrors that both sides inflicted upon each other during the last Shinobi War.

"But I honestly cannot say, Hokage-sama," Kakashi replied. "We need more investigative teams before we can present incontrovertible proof to the daimyo. Right now all we can say is that attacks occurred and the perpetrators went off into Ta no Kuni as part of their extraction point. It could have been just one way point to their ultimate destination."

There was silence between the two men as they both considered the problem and how it would affect them into the future.

"Get some rest," Sarutobi ordered gently, "but before you do that, there is a ... problem that we have to deal with, delicately."

Inwardly annoyed at that, the copy nin nonetheless nodded his assent and waited for his orders.

"This concerns Sasuke and your team. There has been an unforeseen ... incident."

"What's happened?" Kakashi asked with a growing sense of unease creeping from his stomach.

As his leader told him what had happened during the Chuunin exams, he wondered if there was anything that they could do to fix things.

Sarutobi sat back down heavily and watched the conflicting emotions playing over Hatake's face and did not envy the task that the jounin had to do. His eyes briefly glanced over the clock and wondered if he could take an extra long lunch break at his favourite spot, but ruthlessly crushed that errant thought.

I can rest when I'm dead.

With that morbid thought he dismissed Kakashi and turned his eyes to more reports that were stacking up on his desk and wondered if there was a point beyond burnout.

Kami knows I've earned it.

Training Ground Forty Four
Central Tower
Secured Infirmary West

Well, damn.

The irrepressible blond's healing had improved since he was last taken into the central tower. The bruises covering his face had faded, but the teen was still unconscious and seemingly dead to the world. He was only given a few moments before a masked ANBU firmly asked him to leave so he made his way over to the other injured people. The shinobi could see how information was being restricted and segmented amongst those who needed it.

The classic hallmarks of ANBU IS.

He mused at that thought before darker ones began to form.

Or a conspiracy.

He only knew because he was present in the Central Tower when they had hurriedly moved them into the infirmaries. Otherwise he would never have known that his surrogate brother and student had been beaten to an inch of his life, along with his ex girlfriend.

Ex-girlfriend. Kami, how did that happen again?

It was a bitter thought that still rankled the swordsman, how their budding relationship had been called off for no good reason in his mind. But still, he did care for the violet haired kunoichi and wouldn't have wished for her to be injured like she had.

Then again, for someone to do that to her and Naruto, while escaping, is bad news. No ordinary genin could have done this.

He finally reached the eastern wing of the suddenly secured infirmary and had a somewhat easier time of getting in. His face was fairly well known amongst the shinobi ranks and most people trusted him. Even fewer knew that Yuugao and Hayate used to be an item and found it easy to overlook the orders to turn him away. He then looked at his former lover, who looked like she had been stabbed several times with a sword. The bandage-covered wounds that were certainly consistent with that of a long blade.

Well... she... actually... probably was.

Hayate quietly sat on a nearby chair, his eyes moodily looking over Yuugao as he wondered how many times he had to do this in his shinobi career.

Too often. The hospital seems like my best friend.

It was at that moment that he started to cough, a nasty hacking sound which forced him to grab a handkerchief from his pocket. He quickly brought it to his mouth and tried to breathe through his nose. It helped slightly, but there was still a raw pain from his lungs that wouldn't go away anytime soon. He hesitated to look, but eventually lowered the cloth from his mouth to see the blood-tinged phlegm with an annoyed grimace.


With great distaste he folded it up and deposited it back into his trouser pocket, annoyed that his condition was worsening over time. His coughs had gotten the attention of a medic who had been seconded to the infirmary to deal with the inevitable casualties that the second exam would deliver.

"Are you okay?" she asked with some concern.

"I'm fine, don't worry about it," Hayate said dismissively, his concern still being with Yuugao as he looked at the ECG and the waveforms flowing across the screen. He had limited experience with such things but knew that a steady pattern was preferable to an irregular one.

The medic didn't look to assured and gently placed a few fingers around his wrist. The tokubetsu-jounin gave her an annoyed look for her presumption, but did little to stop her.

"Everything seems normal," she muttered softly before looking at him with a question in her eyes.

"It's something genetic," Hayate allowed vaguely, hoping it would be enough to stop her from questioning him any further.

"Ah, I see," she stammered out in embarrassment. "Is there any reason why you're here?"

The last bit was asked to cover for her professional mistake as many ninja's were quite secretive over their health, especially if they belonged to a clan. They were quite touchy over such things and most medics knew better than to pry into such issues.

"I'm here to see how Uzumaki and Uzuki are doing. They are important to me," the swordsman replied coolly.

"Patient Uzumaki's condition is rather classified at this point in time. Patient Uzuki has some, uh, complications."

I hate it when they use that word.

"Complications?" he asked intently.

She looked apologetic before shaking her head. "I'm afraid that it is not my place to tell you. Confidentiality and all that. I mean, she doesn't even know yet."

Hayate sighed a bit before looking resigned, his head dipping slowly as he mulled over what could have happened in the forest. His mind came up with increasingly lurid scenarios before he shook his head and decided to make himself comfortable.

This could take a while.

"Hey, you."

Hayate winced at how weak Yuugao sounded, but then again there were multiple tubes going in and out of her mouth and nose. The kunoichi was hooked up to IVs and was on a steady regime of blood replenishing pills when she had woken up and found herself bedridden. She also had to face the annoyance of being told nothing and had relied on people visiting her for information. It was a somewhat bitter revelation that few people did bother to come, or perhaps even know that she had been close to death. She had drifted off to sleep and when she had awoken, Yuugao was glad to see that Hayate visited, even if she was uncomfortable with his presence. Especially when he fell asleep himself in a chair.

The man had woken up with a scrunched piece of paper being thrown at his face, which didn't do much for his temper, but seeing that sly smile on her face was worth being awoken rather rudely.

"Naruto's doing fine, well, as much as can be expected, I guess. He still hasn't woken up yet," he replied gently.

"That little brat better not die on me, not after me putting my beautiful body on the line," she joked weakly as she struggled to sit up.

Wordlessly Hayate got up and gave her a spare hand, which she used to hoist herself and push herself against the headboard. She gingerly touched the side of her ribs as it ached, and started to gently pry underneath the bandages to see how bad the wounds actually were.

"Please do not do that, there needs to be pressure on those wounds as they haven't completely healed yet; it has barely been a day."

Both of them turned their heads to face the admonishing medic who walked down the hallway briskly. Quickly grabbing onto the clipboard lying on a nearby desk, she went over the routine checks that occurred whenever a patient regained consciousness.

Hayate just stood back and watched the medic flash lights into Yuugao's eyes and record her reaction times, wondering how bad it all was. Not all ninjas were blessed with accelerated healing factors, and most injuries did take some time to heal.

Better than being a civilian. Having no control over the chakra pathways makes broken bones a bitch to heal.

It was a little known fact that consistent use and control of chakra had many benefits, like circulation, metabolism and a strengthened immune system. It also meant cuts, bruises and broken bones tended to heal faster than usual. The increased general level of fitness also meant that their recovery levels were much better than that of a normal person.

"So, what's the diagnosis?" Yuugao asked casually, the only hint of concern being a slight tightness around her eyes which Hayate picked up.

The medic gave him a meaningful look before the wounded kunoichi sighed and made an impatient wave with her hand. "You can tell him as well. I guess, out of anyone besides that blond brat, he has a right to know."

"Thanks," Hayate drawled out, wondering if she would maintain a bedside vigil for him if the situation was reversed.

"I know you would do the same for me," Yuugao replied sweetly before clutching her ribs again.

I don't miss this part so much. The sex and playfulness, definitely. The bitchiness? She can keep that.

He must have made some sort of facial expression which gave away his thoughts because she gave him a wicked smirk that caused him to roll his eyes.

Seeing that the two of them had history, the medic wondered if it was appropriate to tell such sensitive information, but it was Yuugao's call.

She took a deep breath before speaking in a compassionate voice, "I am sorry, but the wounds that you have taken render you unfit for active duty."

There was complete silence for a moment as both of them stared at her in disbelief. It stretched on as the two ninjas tried to digest the sudden bit of news.

"What-what do you mean?" Yuugao asked in a brittle voice. Her hands instinctively clutched onto Hayate's, a vice like grip which he returned.

Kami, I hate this part of the job.

"The damage done by the enemy's blade contained a unique poison that managed to linger in your system. There was some remarkable healing done in your muscles which helped you live until help could arrive. But a large portion of the toxin remained in your body which has broken down your immune system."

She presented toxicity charts which didn't make any sense to them, so she pointed to the danger areas. "We have no idea what it is. All our tests and examinations so far have come up with nothing. The good news is that it has stopped spreading."

"Can't, can't you leach it out or something?" the kunoichi asked desperately.

"Trust me, we tried that," the medic replied somewhat apologetically, "we ran an operation where we filtered out your entire blood out and replaced it with the same type, but it's still there because it changed your organs, so it secretes out slow amounts."

Yuugao whitened at that and grabbed onto Hayate's hand with more force, if that was possible.

Hating to be the bearer of such bad news, the medic gritted her teeth and continued with the rest, "You are lucky to be alive. I'm afraid that you have to have regular transfusions from now on."

Yuugao blinked her eyes, unwilling to believe and protested out loud, "But, but I feel okay! I mean, sure, it hurts a bit, but–"

She tried to stand up to show that she was perfectly fine, but halfway up she collapsed back onto the bed. The kunoichi was dumbfounded, unable to believe that her body was so weak and unresponsive. "What's wrong with me?"

Sighing at the scene, the medic came and helped her sit more comfortably before speaking softly, "The poison manifests itself as a bizarre form of chronic fatigue which will strike you at irregular intervals."

Yuugao couldn't hear her words as the medic subtly made her exit. Though she had made many similar pronouncements in the past, it was never something that she enjoyed doing.

The kunoichi sat there for a while, still as a statue before tears started to flow from her cheeks. Slowly, she started to shake before she started to cry. It was a small sound at first, but gained momentum until it was a soul heaving shudder that tore at Hayate's heart.

Hayate stood there, confused and unsure of what to do. He had never seen Yuugao cry before, not in all the time that he had known her. They have laughed, argued and fought with each other, but she had never been so weak and vulnerable. It was like a large part of her had been broken and there was nothing that he could do to help.

Fuck, dealing with crying women is not my thing. Where is that damnable Naruto? I'm sure he could do something.

So he did the only thing that he could, which was to hold onto her. She grabbed onto him like a lifetime, his shoulder quickly being stained while he made comforting and reassuring sounds to her. He wasn't sure if they actually made sense and he was lucky that Yuugao wasn't really paying attention as well. Ironically enough, both parties felt useless, though in different ways.

"What, what the hell now?" she whispered out brokenly.

"What happens now?" she asked forlornly.

"I'm useless, what do I do now?"

Training Ground Forty Four
Central Tower
Secured Infirmary East

This is just great, another unfamiliar ceiling.

Naruto slowly opened up his eyes and laid still, his body sending messages of pain to him as he blinked slowly. The blond slowly tilted his head to the side to see a jug on his bedside table. He wanted to lift up his arm for some water, but even that simple act seemed beyond him at that moment. Closing his eyes again, the jinchuuriki winced at how everything had went to hell in just a few hours.

Man, I wish this was just a horrible nightmare that will go away.

As much as he wanted that to be the case, he knew that it wasn't true.

Well, you're awake now and that's a good thing. Right?

Naruto grunted internally and opened his eyes again, focusing on the bare concrete ceiling above him. It was stark, unpainted and had uncovered pipes running through. He thought it was awfully similar to the ones at 'Ne', where he had woken up many times before.

How odd, do all military places use the same builders?

Probably the same specifications to save costs, but are you okay kit?

Am I okay?

Naruto was about to give a flippant reply before he stopped himself and really thought about the question. He slowly moved his arm to his neck, gently touching the place where the Snake Sannin had bit him.

He had done the same thing in his mindscape when he had gained consciousness there. The blond was hoping beyond all odds that it wasn't there anymore, but he was to be disappointed.

The circular marks were still present, each eliciting a slight wince when he poked at it with his fingers. Pain that would have debilitated other people was something he had learned to push aside, the only thing that he was grateful to 'Mi' for.

Why is it still here?

You know the answer to that question, Naruto-kun.

He did, but it wasn't something that he wanted to admit, not even in his thoughts.

The teen idly traced the stylised tear drops which were on the side of his neck, near where his jugular vein would be. They felt quite similar to what they were in his unconscious state, a bizarre metallic feeling tattoo that seemed to be part of his flesh. He gritted his teeth at that before letting them drop back to his sides.

Well, fuck.

It makes me sad that you never catch a break, kit, it really does.


The blond sent a wry thought to his erstwhile companion while he wondered if all hospital beds were so stiff and uncomfortable. He sniffed a bit, wincing slightly at the heavy use of bleach and starch before ignoring it and allowing himself to relax for a few moments. Everything had happened so quickly and rapidly that he wasn't sure he was on top of everything, or anything.

Don't get too complacent now, Naruto-kun. Everything changes now.

One of the ANBU noticed that the boy was awake but allowed him a few moments to get his bearings, before speaking up. "You're awake, I will inform the officer in charge, stay inside the room," he ordered in a no nonsense tone.

"How is–" Naruto started to ask.

"Save your questions for later," the operator interrupted rudely, "because I don't have the answers. Stay in the room, kid, it's for your own good."

The blond scowled at the man, giving him the finger while his back was turned and grumbled out loud, "Miserable bastard."

One more ANBU remained and waved his finger at him like he was a truculent child. "Really, we are here to help, so don't do anything stupid. We're surprised that you're up at all."

Despite himself, the blond gave a self conscious chuckle before scratching the back of his head. "I'm pretty tough, you know."

Giving the teen a considering look, the man couldn't help but nod his head at that. "You are a tough little bastard, aren't ya? You know, we always need people like you."

The jinchuuriki blinked for a few seconds before pretending to give it some thought. "ANBU uh? I'm not sure."

Scoffing at that notion the operator came up closer and leaned in and started to whisper conspiratorially, "Look kid, you don't get any hardcore than the ANBU. None of this kiddy civilian contract nonsense. Pure black ops with danger pay. And who knows, maybe one day we will even get performance bonuses."

Seeing that the genin wasn't looking impressed as they should have been, the man crossed his arms and shook his head. "This will all make sense to you in a few more years. Don't worry, if you're good enough we'll contact you."

He moved again to the corner, his eyes constantly roaming around the room looking for potential threats to come in at any moment. Naruto rolled his eyes for a bit, before noticing some very discretely placed security cameras which gave full coverage of the infirmary.

Looking around for anything to do, Naruto sighed before giving up and tried to stand on his own. Grabbing onto the side handlebars, he tried to hoist himself before giving up and rolled over to the jug. Grabbing onto it he started to pour the water into his mouth, his throat greedily taking in the liquid that some splashed onto his shirt.

Kit, didn't I teach you manners?


It was then that he realised he was not in his familiar clothes and wearing the thin paper gown that was anything but comfortable.

"Where are my clothes?" he asked the guard still left in the room.

The ANBU pointed to a footlocker at the foot of the bed with his hand. "Don't worry. We got most of your stuff, or what we could find."

"How is Hinata-kun? Ino-kun? And Yuugao as well!" he shouted out testily.

"No idea, but I'm sure the commander will be here soon enough to your questions. Hey, they don't tell me anything so don't waste your breath," the ANBU advised rather gruffly.

Seeing that he wouldn't get any joy from the man, he pushed himself up so that he could sit upright. Leaning against the headboard, he gripped onto his sides as he fretted over his teammates.

Shit, I hope Hinata and Ino are alright. And Yuugao. Dammit.

I thought you were upset with her, weren't you a few weeks ago?

Naruto scowled internally before giving a mental wince.

I guess that's not so important, after all.

Geez, you're a pushover aren't you?

It was more Anko and Kurenai's fault than anything else.

But she didn't do anything to stop them.

Yeah, that's right.

He thought about it and sighed out loud, his thoughts going everywhere and nowhere, leaving him disorientated and confused.

But hell, bleeding all over me kinda makes us even.

Soft, soft I say. You're rather easy to please. Ooo just destroy my trust in you and all that, but it's all okay if you bleed over me at the end, I forgive you. Pfft. Soft.

Oh shut up, you.

Soon enough the doors opened again and a man stepped into the room. He was wearing the standard ANBU combat fatigues and jacket, with brown hair and eyes. There was nothing really remarkable about the man, no facial scars or peculiarities that would make him stand out in a crowd. A small part of Naruto was quite impressed that anyone could be so ordinary that they would blend into the surroundings.

Damn, he must be one hell of a ninja.

Possibly, but think of how hard it would be for women to remember, or notice him, in the first place.

"How's the seal?" he asked in concern.

The teen instinctively touched the side of his neck before grimacing. "It hurts like a bitch," he stated flatly.

The ANBU winced in sympathy before rubbing his chin. "Don't worry about that too much. You survived, which makes you more special than you know."

"What, what do you mean?" Naruto asked dangerously.

The man was frowning absentmindedly as he was thinking of what he needed to get done. "In good time. I need to debrief you first, kiddo, then we can get someone to have a look over that. Don't worry too much about that yet. "

"Who the hell are you?" Naruto asked brusquely, tired of having his questions ignored since he had woken up.

"Things have happened to you which are important, Naruto. Now, I know a lot of it won't make any sense to you, and I'm afraid that it may never will."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Naruto asked in confusion.

"I need to know details. What happened when you met that Oto nin? How did he fight? What did he look like? Did he tell you what he was doing in Konoha?" the ANBU continued without a pause.

"I'm not telling you anything until I see my friends," the blond stated flatly.

The operator sighed before shaking his head unhappily. "Don't let this face fool you, it may look plain and compassionate but really, you don't want to get on my bad side. I will find out what I need to do, even establishing a very brief but painful reign of terror over you and everything that you care about."

His face somehow transformed in a menacing way which might have freaked out a rookie genin in any other circumstance. Sadly for him, Naruto was no ordinary genin. He was more outraged than afraid, causing him to gape at the man before spluttering out, "Seriously, who the hell are you?"

The man just gave a slight hint of a smile before responding, "Call me Tenzou, kid."


Authors notes

Sorry about taking this long to update; you can blame my beta for everything.