Sit Upon the Frozen Heavens
By:
James D. Fawkes

For NaruHina version, see "Chapter VI: B-Side".

Chapter Six: Memories in the Rain
— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Tsunade, the Fifth Hokage of Konoha, frowned, looking down at the young man that kneeled in front of her submissively with suspicion in her amber gaze. His head was bowed, showing her a crown of dark brown locks that could only be the result of a desperate dye-job. His breathing was calm and deep, as though he were not afraid of whatever judgment she would make of him.

She could sense no nervousness or fear from the seventeen year old before her, his neck bared enough for any fool to make a swift, killing blow. He was trusting his life in her hands, almost like he was not a mass murderer with a humongous bounty on his head. He seemed as if nothing had changed since he was thirteen, as if he was simply requesting or reporting for another mission.

She looked over toward Jiraiya, noting dully that he looked as serious as she had ever seen him, and silently asked a second time if the story he had told her was true. The white-haired pervert nodded solemnly, telling her just as silently that the information he had given her just a few days ago was indeed true. Her frown deepened.

Naruto stood by the door, his arms folded in front of his chest and his half-lidded blue eyes watching the scene with an aloofness that even Hyuga Hiashi would admire. He was, Tsunade noticed with a hint of sadness, becoming more and more like the ninja he was supposed to be. A Chûnin flak jacket was leaned up against the wall behind his leg.

"Oi, Baa-chan," Naruto called calmly, swallowing his fear as she turned a narrowed eye onto him. "Aren't you going to even ask for evidence of his loyalty or something like that?"

Naruto suppressed a shiver as Tsunade threw a dark glare at him, her right eyebrow twitching dangerously beneath her blonde bangs. He gulped at the promise of pain hidden deep within her molten chocolate gaze, a thick drop of sweat trickling down his face as a vein started to pulse visibly on her forehead.

"He's right, Tsunade-hime," Jiraiya said calmly. Naruto breathed a sigh of relief as the woman's intense glare was refocused onto the white-haired man, her burning eyes willing the Toad Sage to burst into flame spontaneously. Jiraiya seemed unfazed.

"It's your responsibility as Hokage to review all the evidence and facts before making a judgment," the pervert continued, his eyes unwavering and strong. He was firm in his conviction and was taking the situation with all of the seriousness it deserved. Naruto had a newfound respect for him.

Tsunade hung her head and sighed, leaning back against her thick wooden desk, "I know that."

She looked up at Itachi expectantly, "Well? Do you have any proof of your loyalty?"

Itachi seemed to hesitate, then pointed at Naruto, "My first piece of evidence, or rather, my first two pieces of evidence, rest on Naruto-kun's fingers."

Taking his cue, Naruto held up his right hand so that his Hokage could get a better look at it. Resting snugly on his ring finger and his middle finger were the Akatsuki rings of Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame. One bore the kanji character for 'Suzaku' and the other bore the character for 'South'.

"I see," Tsunade nodded, "but if that is all you have…"

"No," Itachi responded, pulling a scroll from the depths of his mantle, "I have more."

He laid a scroll out on the floor, unraveling it so that the assembled group could see that it was a storage scroll. He bit his thumb, wiping the blood that gathered onto the paper, then flipped through hand seals. He finished quickly, placing his palms against the edge of the delicate but sturdy rice-paper. In a flash, two pieces of a legendary sword sat in Tsunade's office.

"Is that…" Jiraiya asked quietly, "Samehada?"

Itachi nodded, "I retrieved the two halves of this sword before I set out to make contact with Naruto-kun. Without the life force of its original owner present, it was unable to resist me. As it was, in two pieces, its sentient mind is slowly dieing, though its powers are no less weak."

"Which means that it could be re-forged into something else," Naruto injected, eyes fixed on the broken sword. "It could be melted down and shaped into armor, or even several new swords."

"Since Naruto-kun is the one who broke it," Itachi said, glancing back at the boy, "I think he deserves to decide what shall be done with it."

Naruto shrugged at the two Sannin's questioning looks, confirming that he had indeed cut it in two, then spoke, "I don't really have any need of it, so it should be made into ninja-to for the ANBU. I think they'll find it really useful."

"Very well, I'll have our best blacksmith get to work immediately," Tsunade turned back to Itachi. "Anymore evidence…?"

"Yes," Itachi nodded, pulling two scrolls from his mantle, "the last words of the Sandaime Hokage and the head of Hoshigaki Kisame."

Eyes wide, Tsunade reached out and grasped the scrolls, one of which had a seal on it that could only belong to her sensei, Sarutobi. The other had splotches of blood along the edges and bloody fingerprints on the outside, both dried up and dyed maroon from age. She handed the bloody scroll to Jiraiya, who took it with something of a grimace on his face.

With haste born of anxiety, Tsunade tore open the scroll in her hands, her eyes scanning the paper with a critical gaze that left even Itachi impressed. She looked up at several points in her reading, either at Itachi himself or at Naruto, no doubt trying to justify the words before her. Her lips fell into a sad smile as she read the last bits of it, her eyes settling on Naruto, who shifted uncomfortably.

She sighed as she rolled the scroll back up, looking over at Jiraiya. Her face twisted into a look of disgust as he grimaced, holding up the severed head of the infamous ninja Hoshigaki Kisame. There was a hole in the man's forehead, right beneath the metal plate of his hitai-ate, and a surprised look on his face, his mouth opened slightly in fear to reveal sharp teeth. Jiraiya held him by his blue hair.

Tsunade sighed, "Alright, we have the evidence needed. Welcome back, Itachi-san."

"There's only one problem," Jiraiya said, frowning as he resealed Kisame's head, "what are we going to tell the villagers?"

A mischievous and evil smile crept over Naruto's lips as an idea popped into his head, "I think I know what we can say to them…"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Sasuke slowly walked into the plaza, noting absently that it seemed every person in Konoha was gathered for whatever purpose Tsunade had summoned them. Looking over, he could see Sakura and Ino chatting, probably taking guesses about what was going on. He didn't see Naruto anywhere, though, and snorted as he figured that the blonde was eating Ramen somewhere.

Sasuke turned his dark gaze over to the stage that Tsunade stood upon and saw a tall man that couldn't be older than seventeen standing next to the Hokage. There was something familiar about the man, the hairstyle in particular, but he couldn't place his finger on what it was that made the man seem memorable. Or rather, he couldn't place his finger on who the man reminded him of.

It bugged him. It was even more annoying than when Naruto had worn those god-awful orange jumpsuits. Those he could handle, simply because it was Naruto who wore them. The nagging feeling in the back of his head, however, he could not handle. It kept telling him that he should recognize that man standing up on the stage. That he knew that man.

Sasuke growled lightly, wishing that Tsunade would just get this whole announcement thing over with, so that he could go home and ponder this problem properly. But there were still people who had yet to arrive, people who, for whatever reason, needed to hear this speech that she was going to give. So Sasuke waited.

Finally, after everyone had arrived, the grand and mighty Fifth Hokage spoke up, her strong voice carrying out over the massive crowd standing before her, "People of Konoha! I have gathered you here today to tell you the truth of a matter that has long since been misunderstood and misinterpreted!"

"Get on with it," Sasuke growled lightly, scowling up at the youthful face of the Hokage.

"The truth that you know is nothing more than a lie!" she claimed, her voice echoing across the silent mass of citizens and ninja. Her fierce, chocolaty brown eyes bore into the gaze of everyone present, forcing their attention onto her. "I have come here today to speak to you about an event that has bred a great misconception!"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed as she continued her speech, her words strong and unwavering. There was an unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach, as though something was wrong with this entire set up, this entire event. With a muffled curse, he turned his Sharingan on and immediately felt his stomach drop. She was lying.

"I have come here today to speak to you about one single event," she continued, her gaze firm and unwavering. "I have come here today to speak to you about that dreaded event nearly five years ago. As I'm sure all of you have guessed, that event is…"

"No…" Sasuke whispered disbelievingly, his eyes wide as she pressed on.

"The Uchiha massacre," she finished, her lips drawn tight as the entire assembly looked at her with awe and surprise. "What you have been told is a lie. Uchiha Itachi was not the man who slaughtered the Uchiha clan. Uchiha Itachi is a victim of a dastardly plot, as well as circumstance."

Her eyes swept over the entire group, "We have learned recently, from the mouth of the man himself, that Orochimaru desires the Sharingan above all else. He wants its power to learn every technique the ninja world has to offer. With the Sharingan, he could accomplish that. And the Uchiha clan was the only clan with the Sharingan.

"We have also learned," she went on, ignoring the looks she got, "that he wanted the eyes of the strongest Uchiha he could find. He wanted the eyes of Uchiha Itachi. But Itachi was too well protected. He had an entire village, as well as his clan, to back him up. So Orochimaru resorted to the best possible plan he could execute in order to get Itachi's eyes."

Her face became grave, "He killed the entire clan and framed Itachi for it all."

The gasps of horror that followed were expected, but she ignored them, "By framing Itachi, he hoped to force him out of the village, where he would be helpless against the Snake Sennin's attacks and tricks. But Orochimaru was wary. Itachi was the strongest Uchiha since Madara. Defeating him would not be easy. So he left some insurance. He spared Uchiha Sasuke and left him alive incase Itachi proved too strong."

"She's…lying?" Sasuke whispered to himself, confused. "But…why would she be lying about this? Unless…"

He looked over at the man standing on the stage, his Sharingan peering at and memorizing the familiar stranger's appearance. His eyes widened to impossible size as the supposed identity of the man was revealed. But…was that truly Itachi standing up there, looking as if the world was calm and everything was alright?

"What Orochimaru didn't know," Tsunade went on, "is that Itachi was reporting to the Hokage about the incident the moment that Orochimaru left the village to wait for him. At the time, there was no conceivable way to prove Itachi's innocence, so he was sent out on a spying mission. Luckily for us, Itachi proved too powerful for him to beat.

"Recently," Tsunade held up a scroll, "the Sandaime's last words were found and shown to me. In this scroll was the proof of Itachi's innocence. And so, Itachi was recalled and brought back here where he could do the most good as one of our elites!"

She gestured to the brown haired man standing on the stage with her. As he walked forward, she introduced him, "People of Konoha, I give you one of our most powerful shinobi and the man who killed Hoshigaki Kisame, Uchiha Itachi!"

There was a loud roar of approval from the crowd as Itachi bowed, but Tsunade ignored it all in favor of scanning the members of the gathering. She frowned as she looked amongst their numbers, but the person she was looking for was absent. Uchiha Sasuke had left the assembly.

This did not bode well.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Sasuke bit his lip, rolling over the information he had learned in his mind. He felt anger boil up inside his belly as he thought about everything and his curse seal reacted to that anger, flaring to life painfully. He stifled a groan as he forced the wretched mark back down, his lip bleeding from where he had bitten into it.

"I want the truth!" Sasuke demanded, glaring at the teen that was unpacking and rearranging his old room. In a strange sense of déjà vu, it almost seemed like the older boy was merely coming back from another mission.

"The truth?" Itachi asked calmly, arching his eyebrow slightly.

"I know Tsunade was lying!" Sasuke shouted angrily. "Tell me the truth! The real reason why you killed the clan!"

Sasuke let out a shuddering sigh, leaning back against the tree he was sitting in. It had been a few hours since he had asked that question, demanding that Itachi tell him the truth and not the lie that Tsunade had conjured. Itachi had seemed hesitant at first, as if he didn't want to tell Sasuke for whatever reason.

"I killed them," Itachi said slowly, "because I was ordered to."

"What?" Sasuke hissed quietly, eyes narrowed.

"The clan had plans," Itachi continued vaguely, "plans that would have weakened the village more than the nine-tails attack did. They were so obsessed with their own supposed superiority that they were willing to sacrifice the whole village in order to prove their strength. I had to stop that from occurring, or else we all would have been torn apart."

Itachi's words from so long ago had popped into Sasuke's mind unbidden at that point, and he suddenly could tie that in to what Itachi had tried to tell him.

"Obsessed with the organization, obsessed with the clan, obsessed with our lineage," Itachi had hissed at those policemen, "a worthless compulsion that enslaves us, limits our capabilities, leading us to fear what you don't understand."

Then those words that followed, "I've had enough. There's no hope left for this pathetic clan. The people of this clan are all the same. You focus on the trivial and lose sight of what's most important. Change is impossible in this fog of ignorance. How can we evolve when regulation is all we know?"

He didn't want to believe it, that Itachi had been justified in his murder of the clan. It seemed impossible that the noble Uchiha clan was capable of such a dastardly plot, that they had actually planned to destroy the village to prove their strength…that his mother had been involved in it all.

"The Hokage tried to convince them otherwise, subtly, without letting on that he knew about their plots, that I had told him what they intended to do," Itachi had continued. "But they didn't stop. They were too loyal to the clan. They put that loyalty above their loyalty to the village. Inevitably, it became impossible to change their ways. I was offered the mission to exterminate them for the good of the village. I accepted."

Itachi lifted haunted red eyes to meet Sasuke's wide black ones, "You can't understand, Sasuke, because you didn't grow up the same way I did. You didn't see the horror of the Third Great Shinobi War. I knew that, if the clan succeeded, the village would be too vulnerable to defend itself. If that happened, a Fourth Great War was imminent."

"Liar!" Sasuke had yelled, punching the older boy in the face. Itachi didn't block or dodge, his face twisting to the side with Sasuke's momentum. There was no blood, only the dull pain in Sasuke's knuckles.

"Liar…" Sasuke whispered aloud, hugging his knees to his chest. "You're such a liar, 'tachi."

Sasuke tensed, grasping at the mid-length sword strapped to his back. With a sharp, metallic rasp, it slid from its wooden sheath as Sasuke stood, slicing through the wires that had attempted to bind him to his tree. He adjusted his grip on his weapon, brandishing it in front of himself as the wires fell, cut and useless.

"Well, well," an oily voice cooed from the foliage, "perhaps he's not as useless as we first thought…eh?"

"You're right, Sakon," another voice called, a cockier tone to it, "and it seems that little twig of his has some use as well. Here was me, thinking that slab of steel wouldn't even cut butter."

"Whoever you are," Sasuke's eyes flashed, their irises bleeding into crimson red from their normal dark black shade, "you should know better than to attack a member of the elite Uchiha clan."

With three puffs of thick smoke, three corresponding summoned creatures, demons as they appeared to be, appeared on the tree with Sasuke. Flute music picked up in the crisp night air, ringing in the ears of Sasuke and the strange blind monsters. He scowled as the beasts charged towards him in perfect tandem, moving to the tune of the music.

Breaking into a soft run, Sasuke moved on a collision course with the beasts, muttering under his breath as he did so, "Banshou Issai Kaijin to Nase, Ryûjin Jakka."

As flames engulfed his sword in a fiery blaze, he swiped at the first monster, biting deep into its unnatural flesh and its ugly hide. With a dark growl and an explosion of smoke, the beast disappeared into nothingness, unable to retain its form after the fatal blow that Sasuke had dealt to it. The other creatures became more wary.

The flute seemed to pick up speed and become more frantic, moving at a much faster tempo than before. The beasts responded to this increase in speed and followed suit, jumping towards Sasuke with more agility than before. Sasuke ducked under the swing of a particularly brutal looking club and stabbed forward, impaling the second beast on his flaming sword. It vanished.

The music dancing in the air picked up even more speed, but that didn't matter to Sasuke. He rushed the final monster, ducking and weaving through its vicious and desperate strikes as it tried to kill him. As he stabbed its heart then beheaded it with his sword of fire, he idly wondered if such a beast were capable of feeling emotions like desperation.

As the final summoned creature disappeared in an explosion of smoke, Sasuke turned his impassive gaze towards the four strange ninja who had been watching the entire bout with amusement. His menacing Sharingan eyes swirled as he looked at each of them in turn, his lips curling slightly, "Who are you?"

"Who are we?" the gray-haired one chuckled loudly, his lips an unnatural shade of green. "We are the Sound Four, or the Otogakure no Shinobi Yonin Shu. You can call me Sakon of the West Gate."

"I am Jiroubou of the South Gate," the tubby one said sternly, his arms folded in front of his chest. Idly, Sasuke thought he could pass himself off as an Akimichi if he wanted.

"I'm Kidomaru of the East Gate," the one with six arms smirked. Sasuke recognized him as the cockier voice from before.

"I'm Tayuya of the North Gate," the red-haired girl said with her hands on her hips, glaring at him. "Don't forget it, you stupid bastard."

"I see," Sasuke muttered, gauging his opponents' strengths and weaknesses. If he remembered correctly, based on the Sound Genin from the Chûnin Exams, ninja from Otogakure were often lousy team fighters. He smirked, the flames from his blade illuminating his face in a dark light, "Is that what you'd like me to put on your gravestones?"

Tayuya swore, then, in a flash, they all leapt at each other, each side determined to pound the other into the ground. Ducking under Sakon's high kick, Sasuke grabbed the other boy's leg, spinning around and throwing the silver-haired ninja into the oncoming Kidomaru. Tayuya was next, but Sasuke merely moved to the side, tripping her with his right leg and digging his elbow into her spine, right between her shoulder blades. She fell to the bark and didn't move.

With a jerk of his arm, the fire on his sword went out and he sheathed it with a dark scoff. These guys weren't even worth his blade. Sasuke turned his head as Jiroubou let out a battle cry, charging at him like a wounded rhino. Sasuke's lip curled into a sneer and he vanished in a blur, reappearing in front of the large ninja with his elbow buried in the larger boy's gut. Jiroubou fell backwards and didn't move.

"If this is the extent of your power, the extent of the power Orochimaru has given you, Sound Four, then I'm not impressed," Sasuke said smugly, his Sharingan fading back into black. "Orochimaru needs to find better help. You guys…you're pathetic."

Sasuke felt his lips curl in satisfaction as the four sound ninja stood up unscathed, each wearing a smirk on his or her face as black markings slowly crept across their skin. Crimson red bled into his black eyes as two tomoe swirling around his pupils appeared within his irises, spinning around and around like a wheel.

'I'll become stronger, Itachi,' Sasuke thought as a dark smirk crept onto his lips. 'Then, when I'm strong enough to beat you, I'll force you to tell me the truth. No more lies, Big Brother. No more lies from your mouth.'

Sasuke jumped backwards, flipping through hand seals as Sakon rushed forward to attack him. He stopped on the tiger seal, inhaling deeply as chakra gathered in his lungs. He blew outward and a giant fireball was conjured, barreling into the unprepared Sakon, consuming him in a ball of crackling flames.

Tayuya was next, leaping towards him in an inevitable taijutsu clash. Sasuke ducked underneath her right hook and kneed her squarely in her unprotected stomach, bringing his elbow up over her as she heaved and collapsed in on herself. Like before, the Uchiha's bony elbow came down and landed right between her shoulders. She crashed against the tree bark, sending splinters in the air but Sasuke was already gone.

Kidomaru was after her and, before the six-armed teen knew what had hit him, three of his arms were broken and hanging by his side at odd angles. He screamed as pain, like liquid fire, rushed through his limbs, racking pain receptors like looting bandits. He never saw the right hook aimed at his cheek before he went flying into the wall of a nearby building.

Jiroubou stumbled forward, roaring like a wounded rhinoceros and moving like a sumo wrestler, his hands reaching for his opponent. Sasuke scoffed at the larger boy, disappearing in a flash and reappearing behind his enemy, hovering in midair as his kick soared forward and crashed against the giant teen's skull, sending him diving forward into the wood.

Sasuke smirked, letting out a mocking chuckle, "Just as I said, pathetic."

Sakon stood first, his already blistering red skin darkening to crimson as his sclera blackened and an ugly fleshy red horn grew upwards from his forehead. Tayuya's skin darkened and tanned, horns growing out through her hair and forming a sort of crown on her head. The other two underwent similar mutations, each one more disturbing than the last.

Before Sasuke could move to parry their attacks, Sakon had knocked him down and Sasuke found himself staring up into those pitiless yellow eyes. He rolled out of the way as a vicious punch came down towards him, splintering the hard wood of the tree branch and sinking halfway through the limb.

Instantly, Sasuke moved, flickering in their vision as he appeared behind Sakon, his sword held in a reverse grip. Blood suddenly gushed out of the other ninja's back as a stab wound became clear a few inches from his right shoulder, doubtlessly puncturing his right lung. Sasuke hissed, using Naruto's name for the technique, "Senga." (Flash Fang)

Tayuya came charging at him next, calling out a battle cry as she aimed her fist for his unprotected head. He spun around swiftly, his sword moving like a phantom past his right hip and upwards. The strike caught Tayuya unprepared, slipping past her guard easily. Her shirt and chest bindings suddenly split open, revealing her bare breasts to the boy in front of her. A thin red cut arced up from her left hip, rolling over the swell of her right breast and ending at her shoulder.

Her nipples hardened in the cool night air and, with a shriek of embarrassment, she covered herself up with her arms, her bronze cheeks flooded with red. Sasuke's fist came from nowhere, colliding solidly with her cheek and sending her flying to the floor where she lay, motionless, her breasts exposed to the air. He blushed and looked away, half wishing he had kept his Sharingan on to burn that image to memory.

Kidomaru jumped at him next and Sasuke immediately turned his attention towards the six-armed teen, his sword flashing. He made two cuts into the red flesh of his enemy, the first one an exact opposite of the one on Tayuya and the second one a horizontal strike that had been meant to disembowel the spider-like foe. It failed, but Kidomaru collapsed backwards anyway.

Jiroubou was last and charged towards Sasuke like a rampaging hippopotamus, roaring like a stampeding elephant and growling like a pouncing lion. Sasuke's arm seemed to move of its own accord, stabbing the ninja-to into the giant teen's thick, round thigh. Blood spewed forth like a fountain, and for a second, Sasuke wondered if he had perhaps severed the femoral artery.

There was another roar and Kidomaru had leapt at him again, all six fists raised and prepared to pummel Sasuke into the ground. Ryûjin Jakka came to life in its wielder's palms, flames consuming the blade in a blaze of fiery glory. Sasuke made to end Kidomaru's life with his flaming sword when something unexpected happened.

Sasuke's Cursed Seal came to life at the last second, bringing with it a crippling pain that brought Sasuke to his knees and a cry of agony from his lips. Ryûjin Jakka's flames vanished into thin air and little black marks began to spread over the Uchiha's shoulder and neck. Kidomaru's fists struck true, sending Sasuke into the tree trunk with vicious ferocity.

Ryûjin Jakka became embedded in the wood as Sasuke curled up into a fetal ball, clutching at the skin of his neck and scratching the flesh surrounding the Cursed Mark raw. Kidomaru grinned at this and walked up to the boy, rearing his fists back. He threw punch after punch at the Uchiha, clobbering the teen with all his strength.

"You can't control it, can you?" he asked smugly, standing back to gaze at the small bruises he had inflicted. "You can't control your mark!"

He sent one more punch at the boy and tipped him on his side, grinning nastily, "Control of that mark is power, and power is what you want, right? Come with us, and we'll give you that power."

Cackling sadistically, Kidomaru picked up his comrades and disappeared into the calm stillness of the night, his laughter echoing through the air.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The night was dark, filling the air with a calm stillness that belied the true nature it held in its icy grasp. Mist crept along the ground like a sneaky thief, hiding those who wished to remain hidden and obscuring the ground like a blanket of thin silk. All was quiet and not a person moved amongst the deceptive stillness.

A shadow suddenly became visible through the heavy fog, gliding along like a specter searching for his next victim or a place to haunt. The mist moved away from the shadow, as if afraid of it or the might it may hold. Slowly, steadily, the identity of the phantom shade became known, and Uchiha Sasuke was its name.

Slung over his back was a pack full of clothes and such the like, as if he were going camping or on vacation. Were it not for the deep scowl planted firmly on his lips, like tent bolted into the soft ground, then it might have been misconstrued for an overnight stay at one of his friends' houses.

Anyone who knew Uchiha Sasuke, however, would also know that he wasn't one to go on camping trips with anyone or on vacation for any reason or even stay the night at his friend's house, like a normal child his age. In fact, anyone who knew Sasuke would tell you that he was downright unfriendly, and even cold and apathetic.

Sasuke frowned as he continued walking forwards, ignoring the chilling mist as it caressed his bare shins as intimately as a lover, water droplets clinging to his smooth legs. His face was damp, an invisible sheen of water and vapor masking his face and his bare forehead. He rubbed his brow nervously, feeling almost naked without his hitai-ate.

Itachi hadn't been home when Sasuke had decided to leave, which made it all that much easier to escape the ancestral home of the Uchiha. It would have been decidedly harder to run away if Itachi had been there to prevent him from going. Luckily, his elder brother was probably out on some mission or other.

"Why, Nii-san? Why did you do this?"

Tears, hot and salty and pouring down his cheeks, black eyes wide with fear and anguish.

"Foolish little brother…"

Blood; endless pools of blood stained the brown earth a sickly maroon. Mother and Father lying dead on the floor, crimson soaking into the wood and the mats.

A tall teen, almost abnormally so considering his age of thirteen, walked into the light, his crimson eyes whirling and glaring dispassionately. Fear; uncontrollable fear flooded him in the face of certain death.

Sasuke shivered, rubbing his arms to warm himself in the cool night air. He continued walking, his footsteps silent and steady. His sandals made no sound as they clapped against the ground, his toes disappearing in the dense fog. He was like a phantom; a specter that did not exist and lacked the ability to make sound.

"If you wish to kill me, then hate me, despise me, and live in an unsightly manner…"

Sharp gasps and killing intent, suffocating him and his lungs as he desperately tried to breathe. Blood painted the walls, the ceiling, the floor, even the ground was stained red. Crimson oozed from the small cracks between the wooden boards.

"Run, run and cling to your pathetic life. Then, one day…"

Tomoe swirled together, forming a shuriken shape that spun slowly.

"…when you have the same eyes as I do…come before me…"

"Sasuke-kun," a voice called softly, reaching through the thick vapor blanket that should have shrouded him in anonymity. Sasuke froze, his body going rigid as he thought up maneuver after maneuver to ensure his escape. Each one was rejected; he wouldn't hurt Sakura.

"Sakura," he turned to look at her, but she recoiled, as if frightened of his cold, emotionless eyes and his toneless voice, "what are you doing up this late?"

"I…" she stuttered, as if unsure of her words, "I came to see you. I thought…it's just…I thought you might need some company."

He almost arched an eyebrow; calmly responding, "Why's that?"

"Well," she glanced at her feet nervously, "things seem to be…changing, recently. Your…brother came back home. I thought…maybe you needed someone to talk to; someone to listen to you and pay attention to you."

Sasuke didn't respond.

"Is there…" Sakura started hesitantly, "…something wrong?"

"No," Sasuke replied after a moment, "nothing's wrong."

He turned away from her, forgetting that he had a backpack on his shoulders, "Everything's fine. Go home, get some rest."

There was a muffled sob from behind him and it took all his control not to turn around and address her tears, whether to quell them and comfort her or to simply watch as she fell apart in front of him, he didn't know. But the urge was there all the same and he had to clench his knee muscles tight to prevent from turning on his heel.

"Why, Sasuke-kun?" she cried, tears rolling over her delicate cheeks. "Why won't you say something to me?"

"I'm leaving, Sakura," he said after a pause, his voice soft. "I'm leaving so I can get stronger; strong enough to force the truth from Itachi. I need that strength, the strength to make my brother tell me the reason he killed our clan."

"The Curse Mark?" Sakura asked quietly, trying to stem the flow of her tears. She hiccupped, sniffling as she wiped the water from her eyes.

"Orochimaru gave it to me," Sasuke said simply, as though she hadn't known that. "He gave me that power. If I go to him, I can learn to control it and gain even more power. Power that can help me force the truth from Itachi."

"Is that all you care about, power?" she cried hysterically, her voice trembling with more pain than he'd ever thought possible. "Do I mean so little to you? Has all we've been through been for nothing? You're just going to throw everything we've ever accomplished away, just for some lousy truth that you're probably better off not knowing?

"Why can't you see it?" her knees buckled and she collapsed to the cobblestone beneath her, sobbing into her hands. Her voice was meek and desperate. "Why can't you see that I love you?"

A pair of warm arms swept her into a soft embrace, holding her against a muscled chest she'd been dreaming of for the better part of three years. She latched onto his shirt, sobbing into his shoulder, "I love you, Sasuke-kun. Please don't go."

The kiss was soft and tender and unexpected, but Sakura didn't care. All she cared about was the warmth pooling in her stomach and spreading outwards. Suddenly, all her pains were gone and all her tears dried. All that mattered was the soft pair of lips pressed against her own, massaging her fears and pains away.

"Goodbye, Sakura," she was starting to feel drowsy, even as his words were whispered into her ear. "And…Thank you."

'Genjutsu?' Sakura thought absently. Then, her vision faded into black.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto had a bad feeling, not unlike the one he had when he had first met Kisame and Itachi in the inn while he and Jiraiya had looked for Tsunade. It was an acute sense of foreboding, and it usually warned him, quite accurately, of when something bad was about to happen or had happened.

Naruto glanced to his left; Shikamaru stood next to him, wearing his Chûnin vest overtop his normal attire and standing straight and alert. That was uncharacteristic of Shikamaru and proved that his danger senses were most likely correct in their detection of something wrong and of foul play. This whole thing had Orochimaru written all over it.

As if Shikamaru's uncharacteristic attentiveness wasn't alarming enough (and Shikamaru being serious was a sign of something horribly wrong), Tsunade was pacing back and forth behind her desk, constantly biting her lip and cursing something or other. Naruto could here enough swear words in there to make a prostitute blush.

Hyôrinmaru rattled in his sheath and that really put Naruto on edge. Hyôrinmaru had never been nervous or overly cautious enough to echo such a sentiment as this feeling of wrongness. If Hyôrinmaru was nervous, then there was definitely something wrong. Naruto shifted uneasily.

As Tsunade continued to pace, Shikamaru looked over at Naruto and arched an eyebrow, as if to ask why he wasn't wearing his Chûnin flak jacket. Naruto shrugged, his eyes following the female Hokage as she walked back and forth, still cursing up a storm. Naruto didn't like the Chûnin flak jacket, so he chose not to wear it. That didn't make him any less of a Chûnin, after all.

Finally, the blond woman stopped her pacing and sighed, leaning forward and laying her palms flat on her clean desk. Her face was dark and serious and her amber eyes were as hard and sharp as tempered steel. When she spoke, it was quiet, but seemed to carry across the room quite easily, "At precisely Seven hundred hours this morning, we received word from Haruno Sakura about a certain situation."

She turned her gaze to Naruto, "It has come to our attention that, at approximately 00:45 hours last night…Uchiha Sasuke left Konoha."

Naruto and Shikamaru's eyes widened as the blond boy started, "But…why would he—?"

"We don't know," Tsunade said calmly. "Sakura-san was too hysterical to tell us anything else. She's at home right now crying into her pillow. As such, we are unsure if he left purely of his own free will…or if he was forced to leave. After all, it's very possible he was coerced into leaving."

"So you think he was threatened?" Naruto asked, eyes narrowing.

"It's a possibility," she responded.

"Sasuke's not the nicest guy around, but I doubt he'd leave willingly," Shikamaru spoke up. "He was probably threatened, and for someone to threaten Sasuke, they'd have to be pretty strong."

The Chûnin's eyes hardened, "If Naruto and I are going on this mission, Hokage-sama, which I believe is the reason you summoned us here, then I'd like to request a team of Jônin to come with us."

"I can't honor that request," Tsunade replied. "Right now, all of the Jônin are out on missions and won't be back for a while. Most Chûnin are in similar situations. I'm sorry, but the only thing I can do is allow you to take whatever strong Genin you might cross on the way out of the village. If you're lucky, you'll find three or four of them."

Shikamaru sighed, turning towards the door, "All right, we better get going, then. Come on, Naruto. Let's go."

"Naruto," Tsunade called out. Naruto paused, looking back at her. There was a gleam in her eye that he couldn't recognize. "In times of war, much like our current Cold War with the Sound, field promotions can occur if a ninja shows enough aptitude."

Naruto's eyes widened as she smirked and shooed him out the door. The heavy oak creaked shut with a loud bang.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

This mission was going to be a difficult one, Naruto could feel it in his bones. Sasuke had left the night before, and if he was being forced, then there was no doubt that there were other ninja to worry about. Sasuke and those unconfirmed ninja had an eight-hour head start. To catch up with them and stay on their trail, he needed to have those who could endure the long run. He needed the elite of the Genin.

Naruto looked over the people he had chosen for the retrieval team, mentally listing his reasons for choosing them. In order to avoid casualties and fatalities, he needed to be sure about the people he was choosing for this mission. To rescue Sasuke, he couldn't afford to take anyone that wasn't ready for intense combat.

Kiba was a certain necessity. As a member of the Inuzuka clan, his nose and sense of smell were unrivaled amongst the Genin. Were they to come across more ninja than they could handle one on one, then Kiba and Akamaru's tag-team method of fighting would prove invaluable. They needed Kiba's skills and senses in order to catch Sasuke and whatever ninja he was with.

Neji would have been Naruto's first choice from the Hyuga, but the prodigy had been training with Hiashi and, thus, was in no condition to join the team. Naruto would have brought Hinata along either way, but as it stood, it seemed she would have to be their eyes for this mission. She had some pretty good skill with a sword, but Neji's eyes were still better than hers.

Naruto would have like to take Lee, and if not Lee then Chouji, but Lee was still too weak from his surgery. It was likely that he wouldn't recover fully for another week or two, so Lee was definitely out. It was a shame, too. A taijutsu specialist would have been a most welcome addition. Chouji was Naruto's alternative to Lee and Shikamaru had even recommended him, but it turned out that Chouji was in the hospital for food poisoning.

Shikamaru had been assigned the mission, so Naruto hadn't needed to ask for him to join them, but he would have if it had come to it. Shikamaru was an amazing strategist, one with far more skill and wit than most of the people Naruto knew. His strategic ability would play a big part in how well this mission went.

The last person that had decided to join their crusade was the one that Naruto had expected the least, though it would perhaps be better to say he hadn't expected her to join at all. The team had run into Tenten on their way to the gates and she had been happy to join them. She was a bit too excited in Naruto's opinion.

Be that as it may, Tenten would definitely be an asset on this mission. She had an unprecedented skill with weapons, especially those of the thrown kind. As a primarily long range fighter, it was essential for her to be on the team, now that he thought about it. What if the enemy had a long range fighter? That would have spelled their doom.

"Right," Naruto said, nodding to himself as they all looked at him and waited for his orders. "You all know why you've been brought here. You all know what this mission is for and why we're on it. Sasuke ran away. We're going to bring him back."

He pulled out a scroll and unfurled it, digging into his kunai pouch for the pen he knew was there, grasping it and clicking the point out. He drew a diagram, "We'll form a single file line and line up in this manner. Kiba, you're first and you have point. You have the best nose in our group and know these forests better than any of us. It's also up to you to look for and warn us of traps and snares.

"Shikamaru, you're after Kiba. Behind Kiba and near the front of our group, you'll have one of the best viewpoints during our trek. You've also got your Kagemane no Jutsu, which will prove an invaluable asset. You're our thinker and our strategist, so it's up to you to come up with ideas for battle and such the like.

"I'm behind you, Shikamaru. I don't mean to brag…much…but I'm easily our strongest man. If anything happens that overwhelms us and leaves us in a bad position, one that we can't escape from, I want all of you to retreat and wait till I tell you it's safe. I intend to return from this mission without any fatalities or serious casualties.

"Hinata will be after me and will be the group's eyes. With her enhanced vision, she can easily see things that the rest of us would miss. She's got my back, so any long range or sniper attacks won't hit us or she can warn us before they do. Her eyes might not be as good as Neji's but they're essential to this squad. Beyond that, she's pretty good at medical stuff, too.

"Tenten is last and right behind Hinata. She's our sniper, our long range fighter. She's the assassin of our group and will primarily focus on surprise attacks should we be able to execute them. Should any of our enemies be a long range specialist, it will be your job to take them down."

He clicked the top of the pen and its ball point retracted into it, leaving the tip blunt and hollow. Naruto showed all of them the diagram, then rolled it up and handed each of them a kunai, "If we get separated, channel chakra into this kunai throw it. It'll act as a homing beacon for me and make it easier for us to regroup. If you're fighting an enemy, only throw it if you can't win. Got it?"

Everyone nodded to him, a grim look on each of their faces. Naruto leaned back, rolling his shoulders, then straightened, "Right then, the most important part is last. A couple of you don't actually know Sasuke, a few of you don't even like him. I'm not going to lie to you and say that we're on this mission to rescue a friend. We're not."

All of the gathered ninja, save Shikamaru, looked at him in alarm, but Naruto continued, "But Sasuke is a fellow shinobi of the Hidden Leaf Village, a comrade in arms, and we protect our own. Right now, he's headed for a very dangerous situation, one that few would ever come back from. It's our job to bring him home."

"Wow," Kiba grinned, chuckling, "it looks like you do deserve that Chûnin title!"

"I may not like him that much," Shikamaru droned, shrugging lightly, "but it's the Leaf ninja way to take care of our own. Even I can't screw around on this one."

"We'll succeed, Naruto-kun," Tenten said, ignoring the slight look Hinata gave her. "We can't lose."

Hinata smiled at him and made a soft hum as she nodded her head, assuring him that they would all try their hardest. Sasuke would be brought home. They would make sure of it. Smiling in return, Naruto spun around to face the large forest standing tall in front of him. In a blur, all five members of the retrieval team leapt into the foliage.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Three hours passed quickly for Naruto and his team as Kiba led them constantly onward, chasing down the four Sound shinobi who held Sasuke captive and carried him towards their village. Naruto was slowly becoming more and more anxious, though he hid the anxiety behind a mask of indifference. Orochimaru and his henchmen were not stupid enough to keep moving without setting traps.

Kiba paused a moment, sniffing at the air with a tentative nose. The other four team members stopped as well, waiting for the Inuzuka's assessment. Earlier on in the chase, Kiba had told them that the enemy was traveling strictly by land, which no doubt meant that they were not used to traveling through trees. That presented the retrieval team with a speed advantage.

If you traveled on the ground in a forest, you had to expend a great deal more energy in order to weave in and out of the trees, whereas those who jumped through the trees could move twice as fasts as those on the ground. That also meant that the retrieval team would be far more fresh and energetic than the enemy when the inevitable battle occurred.

"There was a fight nearby," Kiba told them calmly, the usual loud brusque gone. "Those Sound Ninja probably got into a skirmish with some Leaf ninja who were on their way back from a mission. No one died. Other than that, I can't tell any details about what happened."

"We're going to ignore it," Naruto said firmly. "The only other Leaf ninja out on missions are Chûnin and Jônin, so they can take care of themselves. We need keep going and rescue Sasuke. The longer we stall, the more shortcuts we take, that's all the more chance they have to cross the border into Sound territory. We'll lose them if that happens."

"Naruto-kun's right," Tenten said. "We don't need to involve ourselves with other teams. They're probably fine and our mission is still very important. We have to keep moving."

"Right," Kiba nodded, and the group was off again.

As the retrieval team continued to chase their enemy, it soon became clear that the Sound ninja were on guard from their previous skirmish. There were several instances when Hinata's Byakugan had barely caught them before they triggered a trap. Twice they had nearly fallen victim to a series of explosive notes set to trigger a perimeter mine. Three times, they had barely stopped before getting caught in dangerous wire traps.

Finally, however, as the sun reached its noon zenith, they had caught up with the enemy. Hinata's Byakugan caught sight of the four Sound ninja as they rested, minimal traps set up around them to keep them safe or warn them of enemy presence. Sitting in the center of the group was a large, sealed barrel that couldn't be holding anything but Sasuke.

As the retrieval team slowly crept closer, Naruto told them their roles in this confrontation. He would go first and take them by surprise while Hinata stabbed one through the spine with her sword. Tenten was to assassinate the gray-haired one while Shikamaru trapped the girl for information.

Just as they were about to move, however, a cocky voice called out, "Well, well, look what we have here. A couple of insects caught in a spider's web."

A web-like substance shot through the foliage, aimed to pin all five members to the tree they were crouched in. Naruto swore as the team broke apart, flinging his hand at the odd substance, "Sôkatsui!"

A thick ball of blue flames crashed into the sticky web, disintegrating it as it dried out and turned to dust. With a growl, Naruto forwent the plan and motioned for his team to attack outright. In a blur, all five members of the retrieval team leapt into the clearing, prepared to face off against the Sound Four.

The two teams glared at one another, fire burning in each of their eyes with an intensity to match the sun (or, in Naruto's case, an intensity to match the frozen sea). The enemy ninja all had something weird about them, Naruto decided. One had two heads, one had orange hair (orange!), one had six arms, and the other had reddish pink hair.

Finally, the orange haired one, who was doubtlessly the biggest and tallest person of the entire group, smirked and spoke to his team, "You guys go ahead. I'll handle these little punks."

Naruto smirked in return, reaching up and grasping Hyôrinmaru's azure hilt with his right hand, "Do you really think you by yourself can beat me, let alone all five of us?"

"All right, Jiroubou," the gray-haired one said, "you can have these guys. Make sure to catch up with us after you feed."

The fat one, identified as Jiroubou, merely nodded, slowly going through hand seals. Naruto scowled darkly and tightened his grip on the smooth cloth covered wood grasped between his fingers. He started to pull it loose when Kiba interrupted him.

"Wait, Naruto," Kiba halted him, "you guys go on ahead. I'll take care of this big guy, okay?"

As Jiroubou made to make another seal, Naruto's right hand shot out and grabbed his in mid-motion, stopping him cold. He turned to Kiba as Tenten, Shikamaru, and Hinata moved to follow the others, ignoring the squirming Sound ninja he had a firm hold of, "All right, Kiba. He's all yours. But I expect you to catch up with us, got it?"

"Heh!" Kiba scoffed. "You give me too little credit, Naruto!"

Naruto smirked teasingly, then leapt after the rest of the retrieval team as they continued to follow the Sound Four. As he reached the edge of the clearing, however, he paused and turned his head around to look at Kiba, the small smirk still present on his lips as he said, "That's Naruto-taichô to you, Kiba."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"Jiroubou's late," Sakon commented lightly, not really concerned with his teammate's unusually tardiness. It wasn't much to worry about unless he had been defeated by the team Konoha had sent to track them down.

"We don't really have anything to worry about," Kidomaru said cockily. "Those Genin Konoha sent to follow us don't really seem all that tough. They couldn't touch us during the invasion, what would make them able to defeat us now?"

"Don't get too confident, you stupid bastard," Tayuya swore at him. "They obviously have some skill if the Leaf Village sent them after us! And did you forget? Orochimaru-sama put that blond shit in the Bingo books as Rank-A!"

"But he's the only one we have to worry about, isn't he?" Kidomaru shot back. "The rest of them are weak-ass punks who couldn't hurt a fly! Together, it should be pretty easy to take them down! Besides, Jiroubou was the weakest of us anyway."

"Well, we don't need to worry anymore. He's here," Sakon said. Sure enough, Jiroubou's heavy body landed at the far end of the clearing, unscathed and clearly victorious. Sakon scowled, "What took you so long?"

"Sorry, sorry," Jiroubou said, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "Those guys were stronger than I thought they'd be."

"Damn fat-ass," Tayuya muttered, the raised her voice. "Well, don't just stand there, you stupid bastard! Pick up the barrel!"

"Alright, alright," Jiroubou sighed, bending down to pick up the barrel.

The other three ninja glanced at each other, throwing a suspicious glare at the large shinobi. Jiroubou never failed to reprimand Tayuya on swearing, especially when it was directed at himself. Since Jiroubou hadn't corrected her, that could only mean…

"Hey, Jiroubou," Sakon's oily voice called, "you're so obedient today…"

"What do you mean?" Jiroubou asked confusedly.

"I mean," Sakon replied, throwing a kunai at his supposed comrade. The large boy dodged out of the way, alarmed, "that you're not Jiroubou!"

The large teen scowled, then shifted into the pony-tailed Chûnin from the Konoha team, his eyes narrowed and his lips drawn into a tight frown, "So, you got me. What ever shall I do?"

"Reign Over the Frozen Heavens!" a voice called as the sky darkened, black clouds blocking out the sun. "Hyôrinmaru!"

A fierce dragon of water, easily three times the size of a normal Suiryûdan, rushed through the trees, passing just overtop of Shikamaru's head and aiming for the three Sound ninja. Cursing, the three of them leapt out of its path, but Kidomaru wasn't quite fast enough to escape the torrent of water as the beast splashed off of the ground. It soaked into his shirt and four of his arms, instantly freezing and weighing him down. He barely managed to right himself and land on his feet, swaying as the ice threatened to pull him to the ground.

Naruto walked out of the trees, the rest of the team following behind him. Cursing their luck, Sakon and Tayuya grabbed the barrel and raced off into the foliage, leaving a slightly uneasy Kidomaru to fight off the rest of the retrieval team. Kidomaru smirked, flashing through hand seals, "That's alright! I can take down all four of you with only two arms!"

Naruto made a move to take him on, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Tenten smiled, jerking her head towards the trees. Naruto nodded, and was about to leave again when Tenten pulled on his arm, spinning him around until he was facing her. Surprised, Naruto could do nothing as Tenten leaned forward and kissed him.

Her lips were warm and soft, but had a certain edge to them that Hinata's did not. If he had to describe the difference between kissing the two girls, he would describe it as two different worlds. Hinata's kisses were soft and tender and held all the regality and passion of a princess who loved a prince. Tenten's kiss was more possessive and passionate, like a tigress claiming her mate.

Then, to Naruto's slight disappointment, it was over and Tenten leaned back, flustered and blushing. Naruto's cheeks burned as well and he could see something sparkle in Tenten's eyes, something that he had only seen in Hinata's eyes before. He opened his mouth to talk, but she shook her head and whispered, "Go."

Confused, but suddenly feeling much calmer and more confident than before, he turned and followed Hinata and Shikamaru into the trees. He would talk to her later and determine what had happened in that moment. For the time being, he had a job to do, a mission to complete, and nothing was going to stop him from completing it.

Tenten allowed a small smile to grace her lips. At least, if she died in this fight, she had gotten a kiss out of him. Even if she could never have anything more than that single kiss, that one action would leave her content for as long as she let it. She squared her shoulders and drew a kunai, then turned to face her opponent.

"Come on, now, little Kunoichi," the dark-skinned, six-armed shinobi taunted, "let's play a little game!"

She scowled at him and tightened her grip on her kunai; Naruto was counting on her to defeat this freaky boy, and to do so without dying. Even if he hadn't directly said so, she knew that it was so. He was the kind of person who cared about everyone except his enemies. She smiled sadly. That was one of the things she loved about him, one of the reasons she wished she were in Hinata's shoes. For now, though, she could settle for being a reliable comrade. She would defeat this bastard.

"Heh, heh!" Kidomaru laughed, going through hand seals. "You won't last three minutes!"

Even if she died, she wouldn't lose.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"Huff, huff," Sakon panted as he looked back, glaring at his enemies. The Leaf Ninja team was shrinking as more and more of its members stayed behind to fight, but so was his own team. Things looked grim; at the rate things were progressing, the Konoha team would outlast them.

He swore loudly, "Damn!"

He landed solidly on a tree branch, his movements halting as he tossed the large, cylindrical coffin towards Tayuya, who caught it deftly and with ease. He tensed as he turned around, shouting to the girl behind him, "Take the target to Orochimaru-sama! I'm going to put a stop to this nonsense once and for all!"

Tayuya nodded obediently, "Don't die, you stupid bastard."

Wordlessly, she leapt onward, the large barrel containing Uchiha Sasuke tucked safely in her arms. She might not like Sakon and the rest of their team, but even she wasn't a fool. If the rest of the team died, she'd be all alone against some odds that she rather didn't like. Even one of the elite Sound Four didn't stand a chance five-on-one.

The pony-tailed Chûnin wasn't that big of a concern for her. He looked to be the softest of the group, more the brainy type than the muscle of the team. He was pretty smart, but she could probably annihilate him if she went all out. He seemed more like the strategist that the combat specialist. Luckily for her, she could do both.

It was the blond boy that worried her, not anyone else. Even if it only lasted a second or two, he had managed to tear a hole in their barrier during the Chûnin Exams the month or so previous. Not only that, but he was rated in the Otogakure Bingo books as a Rank-A ninja nearly on par with the legendary Hatake Kakashi. And Orochimaru had been the one to put him there.

Kimimaro was probably the only one besides Kabuto and Orochimaru himself who could match up against the blonde and have any chance of victory. They were simply the only people in Otogakure who had the skills and power to fight that monstrous little kid and even Kimimaro and Kabuto still didn't have a sure victory.

She shivered. After all, when that dragon had been called on earlier, it had been so powerful that it even affected the weather. Something with that degree of elemental control was obviously far stronger than any jutsu she could use. She had just barely escaped from it the first time. There wasn't a guarantee she'd escape a second time.

She glanced back and then redoubled her pace, her legs screaming in agony as she forced them to keep working. Behind her were Naruto and Shikamaru, following at a pace that would easily outlast her own. If she didn't get a move on, if she didn't either cross the border or run into some form of help, she was dead.

Left to fight the second girl on the team, Sakon grimaced as the two remaining boys sped past him, knowing that he wouldn't be able to stop them. He only hoped that, should this girl prove to be his better, she would end his life quickly and painlessly and not cripple him or leave him alive. Orochimaru would kill them if they returned empty handed.

Considering how obsessed Orochimaru was with the Uchiha boy, failure was not an option. He needed to either defeat the girl that stood there and glared at him defiantly or die in the attempt, hopefully swiftly and painlessly. He was hoping for the latter, though he would fight his hardest, because he knew that the blonde powerhouse harbored some feelings for her. And Orochimaru wouldn't tolerate the continued living of the Sound Four if they failed this mission.

He'd kill all four of them, that's precisely what he'd do. He wouldn't kill them quickly, either. He would drag it out for as long as he could, watch as they squirmed and begged for release, then have Kabuto heal them up again only to torture them to death's door once more. That was the Snake Sennin's style. If you were such a failure and at the same time extremely lucky, then he'd kill you on the spot.

"Well," Sakon drawled calmly, a smirk curling on his lips. He would fight to the end, "let's get this show on the road, eh?"

Hinata merely drew her sword, brandishing it in front of her body as she called out, "Hajike, Tobiume."

o.0.O.O.0.o —

Tenten panted, her back pressed up against the large trunk of a tall, thick tree as she waited for her opponent to make his next move. Her chest heaved and her breasts bounced as she sucked in air as if it were becoming scarce, her eyes flickering around her. Somehow, he had managed to break free of the ice that had encircled his arms and was currently using his limb advantage effectively.

She had tried to take him out quickly in the beginning so that she could go on and help the others, but her efforts had been for not. Shortly after freeing himself of the ice, Kidomaru had disappeared into the foliage and started using sniper tactics to try to kill her. He too had been mostly unsuccessful and she only had a few scratches.

"Heh, heh, you're better than I gave you credit for," Kidomaru chuckled darkly, his voice echoing over the small clearing Tenten stood in. "You've lasted ten minutes fifty-two seconds so far and, despite my best efforts, are, for the most part, unwounded."

There was a metallic ping as Tenten deflected a few of the six-armed ninja's custom kunai knives with some of her own shuriken. The four shuriken became embedded in several trees, while the five golden kunai sank into the ground with a soft thump, rendered useless by the girl's skill.

That was how the majority of the battle had been going. Every time Kidomaru threw kunai at her, she would deflect it with one of her own weapons. Every time Kidomaru shot his strange webbing at her, she would slice it to bits with her skillful weapons throws. Since her back was to such a thick and ancient tree, the majority of his attacks were within her range of sight.

Neither of them could get an attack in on the other and neither could make any dangerous or deadly, or even debilitating, blows on their opponent. In fact, were it not for how tired Tenten was and how much energy she had to expend to defend herself, the battle would be an obvious and indecisive stalemate.

If she were to be blunt with herself, though, Tenten knew she had no hope of winning. Her enemy was a highly skilled ninja with far more field experience than her and a great deal more stamina. She couldn't even tell where her opponent was and yet he could see her clearly enough to aim with deadly accuracy.

"I need help," Tenten whispered, not really expecting someone to answer. "Please, I need help!"

"Foolish little girl," a voice answered her, strong and feminine, "you have needed help for far too long, yet you wait till now to admit it?"

In an instant, the forest around Tenten melted away into a beautiful blue sky with the sun shining on her neck and a delicate breeze wafting against her skin, warm and soothing on her cuts and gashes. She felt a smile curl her lips and let out a soft sigh, relaxing in the gentle atmosphere around her.

Until she looked down, that is, and found that she was standing not on land and grass, or even sand, but on a cloud that hovered over a giant ocean that stretched as far as she could see. She let out a terrified shriek and waited to fall plummeting into the icy water below her, but nothing happened. She was still standing on the cloud.

"Did you really think you would fall in this place?" the voice from before asked.

Tenten whirled around, coming face to face with a black, serpentine dragon with vibrant pink eyes. The dragon swirled around her, coiling its large body around Tenten's own body and leaning back once it was eye level with her, "You are in command of this place. It is shaped purely by your soul, and so long as your soul is stable, you can stand on the clouds and fly through the air."

"Who," Tenten stammered nervously, her voice quiet, "who are you?"

"I am your fighting spirit given physical form," the dragon said, talking even though its lips and mouth remained motionless. "I am your power, your unique ability, and I shall always be a part of you, no matter what. I am Sôunga, the Dragon of the Wind, and I am at your service. Whatever you desire, I shall do my best to grant it."

"How," Tenten started, unsure to ask her question, "how do I…?"

"As long as you can hear my name, you shall know," Sôunga answered cryptically. "Now, it is time…"

"…to die!" Kidomaru's voice called loudly, snapping Tenten's eyes open (who wasn't even aware that she'd closed them).

With a diagonal flick of her wrist, Tenten swung the sword gripped in her right hand, words tumbling out of her mouth that she would never forget, "Ama ni Jôshôshiro, Sôunga!" (Ascend into Heaven, Frost Cloud Fang)

A thick blade of wind, nearly a third as tall as the trees around her, leapt from the arc her swing had made at an amazing speed and sliced clean through Kidomaru's arrow, then through the trees in front of her, and, finally, based on the agonized cry she heard, it cut through Kidomaru as well.

Letting out a sigh of relief, Tenten grinned and looked down at her new sword. The curve of the katana was delicate and majestic and the polished steel was clean and firm. The hand guard was a simple circle made of pure gold and the hilt was simple black wood with three flat golden studs to hold the blade in place and no cloth. At the bottom, where the cap would normally be, was a three-toed dragon's claw that held a beautiful amethyst gem.

Tenten's grin widened into a smile, "Beautiful, Sôunga."

In a blur, Tenten leapt off towards her friends.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto's lips curled into a frown as he walked over the smooth but hard stone beneath his feet, his blue eyes bright with determination and excitement. He recognized the scenery from a history book he had read once about the Hokage, from the Shodai all the way to the Yondaime. This was the Valley of the End, where the Shodai Hokage had battled and beaten Uchiha Madara.

For a moment, Naruto worried about the comrades he had left behind on this mission just so he could get this far. He hoped that all of them made it out of this tragedy alive, especially Lee, who was fighting Kimimaro, and Shikamaru, who was taking on Tayuya. He wasn't too worried about Hinata and Tenten. They could take care of themselves well enough to survive their opponents.

Naruto looked up and thought, for a moment, about the irony of the situation. They were at the Valley of the End, where a Hokage had fought an Uchiha. Now, he stood atop the Shodai's head and was the son of a Hokage, and Sasuke stood atop Madara's head and was a scion of the mighty Uchiha clan. He had to fight down a hollow laugh at how ironic that seemed.

Taking a few more steps forward, Naruto gathered air into his lungs and yelled, "Sasuke!"

Sasuke didn't move for a moment, then slowly turned around, locking his cool, coal black eyes onto Naruto's dark clad form. His gaze was dispassionate, and held none of the usual fire that made him Naruto's rival, "Naruto."

Sasuke turned back around, "Go back home, Naruto."

"I'm not leaving this place without you, Sasuke," Naruto said coldly, determination in his voice. "You're coming back even if I have to drag you there myself!"

"I'm leaving," Sasuke said firmly, his tone icy. "I'm leaving to get more power! Power enough to force the truth from Itachi! Power enough that he doesn't have to lie anymore!"

"Lies? Itachi?" Naruto asked confusedly. "Sasuke, did he—?"

"No!" Sasuke shouted angrily, eyes bleeding into red. "I don't care what he told you! It's all lies! There's no way the Uchiha clan would do something like that! No way my father would do something so horrible! No way—!"

His voice softened and he suddenly sounded like a scared child, "No way my mother could do something like that."

He flung a kunai at Naruto, shouting, "The Uchiha clan was honorable! There's no possible reason why they would plan to revolt! I've had enough of Itachi's lies!"

Naruto deflected the kunai with his sword, his lips curling into a scowl as he leapt onto the edge of the waterfall, dashing across it and towards Sasuke, knowing that he could not reason with his friend. Sasuke leapt off Madara's statue, mirroring Naruto's movements as he drew his own blade from its sheath.

They clashed at the dead center of the waterfall, sparks flying off their swords and the blades wobbling and twitching as the two of them fought for dominance. Sasuke's ninja-to was shorter than Naruto's katana, but its size didn't make it any weaker. It held its ground against the larger sword and didn't bend or chip.

Sasuke smirked, eyes glinting dangerously, "You know, Naruto, we never did get to have our match."

Naruto's eyes widened, then an excited grin crept over his lips as he said, "You're right."

His grin widened as he brought his left hand up and started doing hand seals, repeating Haku's words, "But now I have two advantages…"

Sasuke's eyes went wide as Naruto continued, "The first is that I've occupied your hand, thus preventing you from using jutsu…The second…"

"…is the water around us," Sasuke finished, looking around himself as needles of water formed a small cage around him. He swore loudly, already thinking of his escape.

"Sensatsu Suishou!" Naruto cried, the needles converging on the spot Sasuke had occupied a moment before. Naruto allowed his grin to widen as Sasuke landed lightly a few meters away, standing atop the water. Naruto could make out the shadow of a grin on his face and couldn't help the excitement that flooded him.

Naruto dashed forward, already flipping through more hand seals as Sasuke backed up, doing seals of his own. The water around him churned as Sasuke took a deep breath, his mouth shut tightly. Simultaneously, the unleashed the full power of their attacks. Naruto called out, "Suiton: Suiryûdan no Jutsu!"

A dragon of water twisted its way out of the river, swirling and twisting as its form continued to solidify into a giant beast made completely of the abundant liquid. It bared fangs made of water as its unnatural yellow eyes glowed amongst the blue. With a silent but monstrous roar, it gushed forth.

"Katon: Karyuu Endan no Jutsu!"

As his lungs burned and the chakra within them quickly became fire, Sasuke put his fingers to his lips and blew out as hard as he could. A mass of fire leapt from past his lips, scorching the air in front of him as it rushed forward, engulfing the air in the smell of flames. It sizzled as it collided with Naruto's giant beast of water, turning the great dragon into steam as the water put out the rest of the flame.

Sasuke felt a grin tug at his lips and couldn't help but notice just how much fun it was to have such a challenge as the boy in front of him. No one had pushed him to his limits in such a way before, not even Itachi. Now, after knowing that they stood on nearly equal ground for almost two months, they would truly see which of them was better.

Naruto was in front of Sasuke again, swinging his sword down with one hand. Sasuke matched his attack with a horizontal slash at eye level, drawing their blades into another inverted tug-o-war. Both swords jiggled as they each tried to get the upper hand, to beat their opponent in a contest of brute strength.

Pulling away, both struck a second time, Naruto upwards diagonally and Sasuke diagonally downwards. Another direct clash occurred, but both knew by now that neither outclassed the other in pure strength, so they pulled away again, then swung in the direction opposite of their previous strike.

They clashed several more times, each blow more thunderous and quicker than the last, before they both admitted that their skill with a blade was about equal. That automatically meant they were about equal in speed, but neither would except that as the truth without direct proof. Naruto thought he had the upper hand in speed.

He disappeared with almost no noise and reappeared behind Sasuke, sword poised to strike. From behind, he missed the small smirk on Sasuke's face before the Uchiha vanished as well, solidifying once more behind Naruto, his sword in mid-stab. Twisting around, Naruto held Hyôrinmaru above his head until it was parallel with his ears, watching Sasuke's sword grind against the blade.

Naruto arched an eyebrow, "Shunpô?"

Sasuke's eyebrow arched as well, "Could it be anything else?"

Jumping back from one another, Sasuke went through a familiar set of hand seals while Naruto prepared his defense. As Sasuke called out the name of his offensive technique, a skill that Naruto not only knew but had in his own arsenal, Naruto called out the name of his defensive jutsu.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!"

Sasuke inhaled sharply, the air in his lungs converting itself into fire chakra, then put his fingers to his lips and blew out as hard as he could. A large ball of fire, easily three times as big as the one he had used on Kakashi months ago during the bell test, barreled forward toward the seemingly defenseless blond. Sasuke knew better.

"Suiton: Suijinheki!"

A large, three meter tall wall of thick water rose up, encircling Naruto from all around. As the fireball slowly sputtered and died against his unnecessarily strong defense, Naruto was already going through more hand seals and planning an offensive move Itachi had taught him during the return trip from Yuki no Kuni.

As the wall of water collapsed, Naruto called out the name of his attack, "Suiton: Suigadan no Jutsu!"

Four, drill-like fangs of water launched themselves at Sasuke from all sides, quickly closing in on him. Four Shuriken leapt to him from Naruto's hands. Sasuke scoffed as he realized that he only had one option if he wanted to prevent Naruto from driving him into a corner. With a flick of his wrist, the four water fangs evaporated into steam and the shuriken fell into the river as melted slag.

Sasuke held his flaming blade up, smirking, "How about we up the ante?"

Naruto grinned, "Thought you'd never ask."

Jumping backward, Naruto swung his sword and called out its name, "Hyôrinmaru!"

A giant dragon bigger than any Sasuke had ever seen from any technique launched itself towards him, intent on pushing him down beneath the water. Sasuke leapt out of the way, watching as it crashed into the water and rumbled the cliff with its force. Then, seconds later, the water began to freeze all along the river until only a small space in front of the Shodai's statue remained liquid.

Sasuke chuckled darkly, then threw his head back and laughed. This was a challenge. Even his could not match that raw power with just his sword and his will. Orochimaru may have been able to, but he was far above Sasuke's level. And if Sasuke couldn't defeat Naruto under his own power…he just needed to use someone else's.

He dropped his guard and watched the look of disgust cross Naruto's face as the Cursed Mark flooded him with power, drawing small black blemishes across his pale skin. He knew, though, that even level one would not be a match for Naruto. No, he needed much more power. Soon, he could feel the might of level two tingle over his skin.

There was a ripping sound as Sasuke's shirt tore and two misshapen wings sprouted from his back. His skin became dark and a black cross stretched over his nose like and ugly scar. His sclera turned black but his Sharingan remained its malevolent red. Finally, his hair lengthened to match the statue beneath his feet and became bleach white.

He brandished his flaming sword, an excited grin on his face. Naruto only seemed disappointed, not at his power or his strength, but at Sasuke himself, as though the Uchiha had lowered himself to a level Naruto had thought him above. Then, Naruto said that one word, the one word that Sasuke had forgotten all about, "Bankai."

The transformation occurred just as Sasuke remembered it would — the wings, the tail, the gauntlets, the greaves, even the flowers and the sky darkening. Whatever part of the river had remained unfrozen was now frozen, and even the Shodai's statue was blanketed in the never-ending plain of ice.

The attack came before he could catch it, at speeds he could only dream of at his current level, and then he barely managed to raise his sword in time. Naruto's eyes were frigid — colder than Sasuke had ever seen them — and he suddenly understood why Naruto had been promoted and apprenticed to Jiraiya for a while.

The kick was even faster and knocked Sasuke right into Madara's statue, breaking the thick layer of ice that had crept over it. Even with the Level Two Cursed Mark, Sasuke felt weak and powerless. There was a heavy pressure in the air, one that he'd never felt before, and it made it hard for him to breathe.

Slowly, like an infant crawling desperately towards his parents during a thunderstorm, Sasuke stood again. It felt like ages had passed instead of a few short minutes and he stumbled once or twice before flapping his awkward wings and flying until he was level with Naruto. The blonde seemed unsurprised and merely raised his sword.

Sasuke brandished his sword as well, trying to recompose himself and lose after having fought his hardest. He waited for his blond opponent to rush him, but the boy merely stood there, floating in midair, his sword pointing towards Sasuke. Finally, however, he spoke, but his words were of no comfort to the Uchiha, "Sennen Hyôrô."

Before he could do anything, several pillars of ice rose up around him like a cage, trapping him within their grasp. Looking up, Sasuke knew he'd never make it in time to escape from his opponent's attack and accepted his defeat. He sheathed his sword and bowed his head, then waited for the inevitable.

As soon as Naruto twisted his sword, the pillars rushed in and converged upon Sasuke, trapping him in an inescapable cage of unnatural ice. There were no screams, no sounds of pain, and no feel of death. The blond slowly hovered forward, raised his sword, then slashed into the thick cage.

It shattered into thousands of tiny pieces as Sasuke was thrown backwards, his skin its normal pale color and his sclera their normal white. He cried out in pain as he collided with the rock of Madara's feet, hitting so hard that the cliff caved slightly and conformed to his body, holding him to the rock wall firmly.

Naruto gently floated down, his icy additions evaporating as he slowly landed on the water, walking across it as though it were dry land. Sasuke's heaving breathes were heavy and pain filled, but Naruto couldn't figure out why. He hadn't hit Sasuke that hard, had he? It hadn't been his intention to wound Sasuke, merely defeat him with an overwhelming display of power.

As Naruto drew closer, however, there was a flash of light behind him and he spun around gripping his sword and scowling. He kept his surprise in check as a pair of shoji doors opened in midair, only to reveal another pair of similar doors that opened as well, revealing a traditional Japanese dwelling. A black butterfly fluttered out, followed by a tall old man who was hunched over, had a head that was shaved bald and covered with scars, and a beard that reached his knees and was bound by black cord.

The old man opened his eyes and Naruto suddenly found it impossible to stand and very difficult to breathe. He gasped as he fell to his knees, shivering and clutching at his throat and chest. He felt terror unlike any he had ever imagined, as if there was a god holding a knife to his throat, poised to slit it at any second.

There were two deep growls that Naruto heard, one that he recognized as Hyôrinmaru (who he could also tell was coiled around him protectively and snarling at the old man) and one that could only be the Fox. Despite their efforts, however, Naruto could not shake off the elderly man's dark intent.

"Yam—Yamamoto-sama," Sasuke's voice gasped, and the old man's eyes left Naruto. He could breathe again as the aged warrior turned his gaze to Sasuke.

Slowly, deliberately, the man identified as Yamamoto walked toward Sasuke, his eyes stern and harsh. Still, Sasuke didn't seem to be suffering as Naruto had, so the blonde boy figured that Yamamoto's stern glare was nothing more than that. After a moment, he spoke up, "When you called out to me asking for help, for a way to clinch victory and ascend to greatness with justice as your cause, I answered your plea."

Sasuke seemed to know where this was going, "Ya-Yamamoto-sama…!"

"I gave you the power you sought, let you borrow my power, until you were strong enough to awaken your own," Yamamoto continued, his voice calm but still just as stern. "The time has come for you to search within yourself and find your true power, just as your friend over there found his, and…"

Yamamoto reached down and pulled Sasuke's sword from its sheath. Naruto watched with wide eyes as the ninja-to slowly morphed into a full-length katana with a black scabbard. A brown substance wrapped over it, transforming into a gnarled cane. Yamamoto continued, "…it is time I reclaimed my own sword."

Without another word, Yamamoto turned around and slowly walked back toward the gateway made of shoji doors. He paused, and turned back to Naruto, "Your father, boy, he would be very proud of you."

Naruto's eyes widened for a second, then he glanced at Sasuke for a second, "But…why…?"

Yamamoto had turned back towards the doors and, besides the fact that he hadn't walked into them yet, there seemed to be no indication that he would answer the blond. Finally, after a long pause and a thick silence, he said quietly, "It was such a small seed…I wanted to see it grow."

Then, in a flash of light, Yamamoto disappeared from the world and Sasuke suddenly sobbed. Alarmed, Naruto turned around and walked toward the Uchiha, who pounded his fist against the thick rock. Naruto asked, "What's wrong?"

"I've been such a fool!" Sasuke suddenly cried, tears pouring down his cheeks. "I-I…H-he was crying, that night…I ig-ignored that in favor of my own hatred! H-He was crying because he had to choose between the clan and the village!"

Sasuke sobbed again, "And he chose the village!"

The unspoken, "Just like I should've," hung in the air, but Naruto didn't voice it and neither did Sasuke. Lifting his head, tears streaming down his cheeks, Sasuke's next words were nearly begging, "Please, Naruto, take me home!"

Smiling sadly, Naruto hefted Sasuke onto his shoulders and steadily walked over to the bank of the small lake. He almost slipped and fell in a few times, after all, walking on water with someone slung over your shoulders isn't the same as doing it on land.

As soon as Naruto's foot touched dry earth, the sky opened up, and down came the rain.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto gently closed the door behind him, unaware that it didn't shut fully, as it should have. His hair was soaked and clung to his head and the sides of his face, but still managed to stay messy and untamed. His clothes were dry, merely because Tsunade had forbidden him to come into her office with wet clothes.

Sasuke was resting in the hospital, asleep and no doubt recovering from the whole ordeal. There was a group of ANBU, a full squad if he remembered correctly, guarding him to prevent another catastrophe from happening. Jiraiya was supposed to seal up the Cursed Mark as soon as he got back in.

For the most part, the retrieval team had returned without any significant injury. Kiba had come in with a few broken bones and Shikamaru had walked in with a broken finger, but other than that, the worst injuries were minor scratches. The thing that had thrown Naruto for a loop was the enemy they had managed to capture.

According to what he had been told, Tenten, Lee, and Gaara (who had greeted Naruto and was given a warm hug in return) had fought and defeated Kimimaro. Somehow, they had also managed to bring him back alive, though he was quickly dying. After some major elective surgery, he had been cured and was recovering in a hospital bed. ANBU were on constant watch with him, too.

Aside from that, the mission had gone pretty much as it was supposed to. Sasuke had been brought back, the enemy ninja who had kidnapped him or threatened him, namely, Sakon, Ukon, Tayuya, Kidomaru, and Jiroubou, were dead, and everyone had come back alive and mostly unharmed. It had been marked down as a success in their records.

One of the biggest surprises Naruto had gotten on the mission, beyond meeting Yamamoto and the events therein, was meeting Kakashi on the way back home. His sensei had been relieved to find that he and Sasuke were fine and mostly unharmed, though he was slightly wary of the empty sheath on Sasuke's back.

Kakashi had asked some uncomfortable question, such as how Naruto had found out about his heritage and whether or not it was true. Naruto had been put on the spot and could do nothing more or less than tell the truth, the entire truth, to Kakashi. That made Kakashi, Jiraiya, Tsunade, Naruto, and Sasuke as the only people who knew what Itachi had done.

Itachi, surprisingly, had met them at the gates and told them the good news about the rest of the team. Kiba was the most severely injured of the entire group, and all he had was a broken right arm, a dislocated shoulder, and a few fractures in his left hand. Shikamaru was the next worse of with a single broken finger and a bruised ego. Naruto had, of course, joked about how Shikamaru always had to fight girls.

Naruto had barely stepped foot outside the hospital, though, when, like a predator pouncing on his prey, an ANBU had informed him that Tsunade wanted his oral report immediately. When Naruto had huffed and complained about the abruptness of the demand, the ANBU had cryptically said that the report wasn't the only reason Naruto was being summoned.

And, as he walked into the Hokage's office, he knew that the ANBU hadn't been lying. Tsunade never had that look on her face unless she was dealing with something really serious and would rather not have to. He saluted her, grinning cheekily as she waved his gesture off with a sigh and a flick of her wrist. He stood at ease and waited for her to start.

"Before you give me your report," Tsunade said, sounding grave. The door squeaked but neither paid it any attention, "I have something I need to discuss with you."

Naruto did not like that tone, even though she continued, "You are aware, aren't you, that matters of family fall primarily into the Council's hands and not the Hokage, right? That they can make decisions about clan matters that do not infringe upon that clan's basic rights?"

"Yes, I'm aware," Naruto said hesitantly. "Jii-san made sure I knew about that stuff so that they and everybody else couldn't take advantage of me and my ignorance. Why?"

"Well," Tsunade sighed again, "the council, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the Namikaze clan would take too long to 'rebuild'," somehow, Naruto knew that the Namikaze clan hadn't been very big to begin with, "if they followed the usual laws of monogamous marriage."

Uh-oh. Naruto really didn't like where this conversation was going. Apparently, Tsunade could tell, so she reassured him, "It's all your choice, however, and you don't have to choose now, but they would like to know by the time you turn sixteen. Anyway, they've ruled that you can have up to four wives of your choosing. Sasuke and Itachi are in similar boats, and can marry up to three."

Knees weak, Naruto fell back into the chair sitting behind him, the thud of his weight on the cushions blocking out the gasps of surprise from behind the door. Up to four wives? And it was all his choice? A small, rational part of Naruto knew that not only was this most men's dream, it was also something Jiraiya would kill for.

But him? Multiple wives? Never. He would never marry anyone but Hinata, and there was no reason why he would even consider marrying two or three other women as well. There wasn't a single thing that would change his mind. He wouldn't answer yes to the proposal no matter what. Unless…

Unless…they all loved him for who he was. But could he really do that to Hinata? Force her to share when any other man would never have to ask that of her? He wanted a family, in fact, he desperately desired to have a large family that he could love and cherish for the rest of his life. If he married more than one girl, he could have that. But would he really force Hinata to share?

No. He wouldn't ask her to share, at least not directly. He wouldn't even think of forcing her to share, either. He'd talk to her, ask her what she thought of this decision the council had made, and, depending on her response, that's what his answer would be. Hinata was his partner just as much as she was the love of his life. If it didn't bother her, he might say yes to this proposal.

"Listen, Naruto," Tsunade said quietly, "I know this is a big bombshell to drop on you, but I don't have enough control of civilian affairs, and marriage falls under that category, to reject it. Its all your choice, even if the council is doing this for its own greedy purposes."

"But…" Naruto started. "Why?"

"You have…techniques that no one else knows how to do," she said, and Naruto instantly understood what she meant: Hadô and his other Kidô. "The council wants to ensure that the usage of those techniques becomes widespread enough in their lifetimes. The only way to do that…"

"…is for me to marry multiple women and father many children," Naruto finished softly.

Tsunade sighed, "This is a lot to take in, I know. Go home and rest. You can give your report in a few days."

Standing, Naruto bowed, "Hai."

Then, he disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

Outside the door, as Tsunade opened up her drawer and pulled out a bottle of saké, Hinata and Tenten turned to look at one another, mentally going over what they had learned. Since they hadn't seen Naruto once he had gotten back in, they had decided to see of Tsunade knew where he was. Fortunately for them, they had not been fast enough to catch Tsunade before Naruto. That had allowed them to eavesdrop.

"Would you really…?" the rest of Tenten's question was silent, but it was obvious enough that Hinata knew what she was talking about.

"H-hai," Hinata said, embarrassing images going through her head, "but only if you truly love Naruto-kun."

"How did you…?" Tenten's mouth refused to make another sound as she gaped openly at the girl next to her.

"Ano…your kiss," Hinata murmured quietly. "I saw you kiss Naruto-kun earlier. Do you really love him?"

"I-I don't know," Tenten replied softly. "I think I do. But…I'm not positive. Besides, marriage? I want to get to know him a bit more before I think about that."

Hinata smiled, "Remember, you only have until Naruto-kun's sixteenth birthday to decide!"

"I think I can make up my mind by then," Tenten retorted humorously. "So, we're in agreement then?"

Hinata nodded, "Mm. We can share. And if one of us hurts Naruto-kun, the other can her ass."

Tenten smiled, slightly surprised at timid little Hinata's wordage (though she wasn't quite so timid or little anymore), then held out her hand, "Agreed. We can share. But only because we both love Naruto-kun. It'll be our job to give him what he's wanted above all else."

Hinata seemed shocked that Tenten knew Naruto's deepest desire, but grasped the other girl's hand, smiling warmly, "A loving home, more affection than he's ever thought possible, and a big, loving family, with plenty of children for him to spoil."

Tenten suddenly pulled the Hyuga into a huge, and the younger girl was surprised to find wet tears soaking into her shirt as the older girl whispered into her ear, "Thank you, Hinata. Thank you for giving me a chance."

In that moment, Hinata knew she had made the right decision. She and Tenten most certainly would not agree about everything in the coming days, but their friendship and their love for Naruto would hopefully make things much easier to weather.

Hopefully.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Read the Author's Notes!:

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach

Sasuke will develop a new zanpakuto. Or rather, the zanpakuto he had will awaken its true self. Before, it didn't have the strength to become Sasuke's weapon. Now, after having drawn strength from Yamamoto's sword, it does (Yes, people can use others' zanpakuto. Toussen has proven this in Bleach canon). The only thing I'll tell you about it is that its name is going to be Murakumo and it's going to be a lightning elemental sword.

Sairin… (The Second Advent)

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes(Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)