Sit Upon the Frozen Heavens
By:
James D. Fawkes

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

Chapter Seven: The Real Folk Blues

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

A dark figure, clothed in the blackest of blacks, dashed across the grounds at amazing speeds, his sandals silent as they clapped against the ground noiselessly. Pale armor guarded his forearms and torso, dark gloves reaching up from his fingertips to the tops of his biceps. A snarling white dragon mask with blue markings hid his face from view, his spiky blonde hair sweeping back in the wind as he crossed the short wooden bridge without making a sound.

"We're leaving for a couple years, brat, no more than two and a half," the white-haired Jiraiya said seriously. "I've got to train you up so that you can take on the Akatsuki. They're a bunch of S-ranked criminals. Right now, you don't stand a chance in Hell."

Naruto sighed, running a hand through his hair, "When are we leaving?"

"Tomorrow," Jiraiya replied, "at the crack of dawn. I would have us leave tonight, but Tsunade-hime wants to see you first. You'd better get going."

The guards standing at the front of the gate only saw a black streak at first, then it solidified into a person and, before they could so much as yelp, that person was upon them. The original slammed up against one guard with the force of a freight train, knocking the wind out of the samurai sentinel, while a doppelganger came out of nowhere and tackled the second one.

The person — it was a boy with blond hair who couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen — unsheathed the sword on his back in a flash, cold blue eyes gleaming from behind the dragon mask. The guard gasped and tried to force air into his lungs, but couldn't manage. His ribs were probably broken; he was doomed and there was nothing to be done, not even scream out a warning.

"I know you're leaving tomorrow, Naruto-kun," Tsunade said, "so I figured I'd get this out of the way now. It'll be a lot easier for you to work together to accomplish this mission, rather than have you simply training with Jiraiya as they try to guard you and complete the directive simultaneously."

Naruto arched an eyebrow, "What are you talking about, Baa-chan?"

Tsunade smirked, reaching under her desk and grabbing an object. She set whatever it was on her desk, the blasted smirk never leaving her lips. When she removed her hand, however, and the object in question was revealed to him in all its glory, he understood why she was smirking. Only an idiot or the most uneducated slob would fail to recognize it for what it was.

Sitting innocently on Tsunade's desk was a pale, snarling mask shaped into a dragon's head, though the muzzle was much shorter. It was an ANBU mask.

The first boy threw the guard against the pale walls of the gate, poising his sword with deadly steadiness. With a silent battle cry, he thrust the blade into the man's gut, watching as his victim's face filled with pain and horror as he wheezed breathlessly. Blood splattered over his hands, gushing from the wound as tempered steel pinned his enemy to the wall; he was beyond saving, now. Only a medic of Tsunade's caliber could fix such a wound.

Just to make sure, however, he twisted the sharp steel of his sword clockwise, like turning a brutal key in a delicate, rusted lock. To further complicate the wound, he jerked his blade to the left, opening it in another direction entirely. More blood splattered out of the man and onto his fingers, soaking the cloth and ray-skin of Hyôrinmaru's hilt. There. An injury opened in so many directions would be impossible to stitch closed. The guard was as good as dead.

"Wait, wait, wait," Naruto held his hands up, trying to understand what he had just been told, "I've only just joined and I'm already a captain?"

"Under normal procedure, you wouldn't be," Itachi said, his weasel mask attached (somehow) to the bottom left hem of his chest armor. "However, none of us on this team believe we would be good captain material. Yuugao-san is a close-range fighter and believes she would not be able to give orders during battle. I simply do not want the position and Hawk (who refuses to share his real name) said that he isn't 'leader material'."

"So, naturally, I got stuck being captain," Naruto sighed exasperatedly.

"That's about the size of it," Itachi suddenly smirked, "Taichô."

Naruto simply flipped him the bird.

The second guard gurgled his last breath, rasping wetly as he struggled to get air to his lungs. Blood trickled out of the corners of his mouth, dribbling down his chin and onto his expensive kimono. His knees gave out and his feet slipped, jerking him downwards. The sword protruding from his chest, however, made it difficult for him to do much than slide a few inches as his pierced heart slowed to a stop.

As his shadow clone disappeared with a soft pop and a thin cloud of smoke, the original withdrew his sword and slashed at air, flicking the blood off of the silver blade. He frowned beneath the porcelain, glaring at the red staining the hilt, wishing that it was made of something that didn't soak up the blood, like metal or diamond. He would have to see about replacing the ray-skin and cloth with sapphire reinforced by seals.

Stabbing his sword into the ground, he made a hand seal and two Bunshin popped to life, scrambling to do his silent bidding. Each one grabbed one of the guards and dragged them across the bridge, off into the forest. From their, Itachi would use his raven contract to dispose of the corpses.

Peering over the past the open gate, Naruto looked into the sprawling compound that was hidden behind the tall, all encompassing fence. He needed to do this cleanly, one that spoke of ninja involvement and would make Orochimaru slightly nervous about being caught. A simple fire to destroy the wooden abodes within would be too vague and seem more like an accident.

"Ano…Naruto-kun, we heard what Tsunade-sama told you," Hinata started nervously, her index fingers pushing together, "and…"

"I…ah…" Tenten blushed, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, "I…want to get to know you better…"

"I…" Naruto looked over at Hinata, silently asking her what she thought. The girl simply smiled and nodded, red rising on her cheeks. He looked down, "I'm…not sure if…if I can really love two girls…but…"

He locked gazes with Tenten, "But…if Hinata-chan is encouraging it…I think I can try…"

Tenten smiled shyly. Naruto's lips tugged into a grin as he grabbed both girls' hands, "The first thing you're going to learn, Tenten-chan, is food crafted by the gods! Ramen!"

'Somehow,' Naruto thought to himself as he pulled both giggling girls towards Ichiraku, 'somehow…I'll find a way to love them both…equally. Hinata-chan, Tenten-chan…thank you. Thank you for doing what few have ever done. Thank you for caring.'

Blue eyes swept over the grounds, taking in the placements of the guards and watchmen. He needed to make sure there was no sign of struggle. This needed to look like a massacre done by an elite ninja, an S-rank foe, not the A-rank Chûnin ANBU peering into the darkness, guided only be the moon's light. His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of something that could foil his plans.

A watchdog. A mongrel, but it was a watchdog nonetheless. It was lying near the farthest house (which wasn't as far as it sounded), supposedly asleep. If it caught wind of him, the entire thing would be ruined and he'd have to pull off a powerful, area-effective jutsu. That dog had to go. Besides, with its thin, stringy body, its visible ribs, and the gaunt, sunken eyes, he was probably putting it out of its misery. It was obviously being starved.

Naruto mentally went over the mission assignment once again: Assassinate Echigoya Rokube — The merchant, Echigoya Rokube, has been discovered dealing weapons and other illegal objects and substances to the Hidden Sound village. He and his partners must be eliminated and made example of. S-rank mission.

Frowning, Naruto turned his attention back to the dog and pulled a kunai out of his holster. Taking careful aim at the sleeping beast, he knew that he'd only have one shot at this. A flick of his wrist sent the weighted weapon flying through the air, whistling lowly. With a soft thud, and a small splash of blood, it buried itself in the mongrel's skull, right between the eyes. It was dead instantly and painlessly.

With the beast taken care of, Naruto made hand seals and four more Bunshin popped into existence next to him. They all nodded, two of them taking off towards the farthest building, one taking the middle building, and the other taking the building on the far right. They all moved silently and stealthily, avoiding other guards.

Unsheathing his sword, Naruto leapt onto the roof of the middle building and pulled out two shuriken with his left hand. He threw them, watching as they each sank into the body of another guard. The first one sliced through one guard's neck from the back, severing his spinal cord and killing him almost instantly with a splash of blood. The second embedded into the forehead of the other guard, whose eyes glazed over as he fell backwards.

Naruto cursed as a third guard came rushing out of the building, his lantern swinging about in his hand as he frantically tried to figure out what was going on and why his comrades were dead. Naruto pulled out a kunai and chucked it with all of his strength, watching as it soared through the night air and sliced clean through the third man's neck — in the front and out the back. He collapsed backwards in a violent spray of blood, clutching his neck as he died.

With the three guards taken care of, Naruto leapt onto the roof of the third building, running silently over the tiles. No one noticed him, leaving him a clear cut path towards his target. He passed by several more guards, making sure he was unseen as he traveled over the rooftops. As he reached the back of the lengthy building, he saw a sort of walkway stretching out from it.

A cold, satisfied grin swept over his lips, his eyes sweeping right over the walkway and to the other end of it. There, hidden away behind the building and protected by the large walls that enclosed the entire compound, was a small, comfortable shack big enough for only one man to live in. There was a light on that shone through shoji doors and tobacco smoke filtered out of the window.

As he put one foot forward, intent on barging into Echigoya's little hut, the memories of his Kage Bunshin flooded his mind.

His blade sank into the unprepared man's chest, pinning him against the wall stomach first. Twisting the samurai's arm behind his back, he dug his elbow between his victim's shoulder blades. His other hand crept up, jerking the man's jaw sharply. With a loud crack, the previously asleep bodyguard's neck snapped and broke. The man slumped, dead.

The man sitting on the floor was ignorant of the ninja creeping up behind him, blade gleaming in the candlelight. He seemed to be meditating as he sat on his cushion with his hands folded in his lap, murmuring some weird incantation. The blond boy walking up behind him, however, was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. With a swing of his sword, the chanting stopped and blood gushed out, flooding the room with crimson and splattering against the white shoji door. Naruto glanced down at the sword lying near the dead man's feet. This was not a civilian, so the blonde could kill him.

The woman walked past, shivering lightly as she moved towards the pot of boiling water. With a content sigh, she poured the water into a cup and started to make tea to alleviate the cold, not noticing the shadowy figure leaping through the door she'd left open. Her ceramic cup would fall to the floor later and shatter when she walked back to her room and glimpsed through an open door, only to see a body and an ocean of blood.

He tackled the unprepared man to the floor from behind, forcing the balding man to the wooden boards beneath them. His knees pressed painfully into the man's back, driving all air from the man's lungs. While his target was stunned, he reached down and grasped at two places: the top of the man's skull and the far side of his jaw. With a twist and a sickening crunch, the aging samurai knew no more.

He was pressed up against the wall, waiting for his next target to pass by. He could hear the man humming, as well as his heavy, uncoordinated footsteps. The man was either drunk or deliriously happy; or perhaps some combination of the two. As soon as his foe stepped close enough, though, he reached around and pulled him to the wall, using the momentum of the roll to slice cleanly through his throat. With a wet gurgle, he died.

Several other memories flitted through Naruto's head, but he blocked them out. The first five told him that there weren't any other ninja around, which made his mission a lot easier. With a grim smile, he looked over the edge of the tiles and saw a guard below him, holding a lantern as he dutifully protected his boss.

Silently, Naruto hopped off the roof and fell toward the ground, sword in hand. The man walking around below was unprepared for him as tempered steel slashed at him, the momentum of Naruto's fall adding force to his weapon. The blade started at the man's skull, cutting downwards through his neck, then his chest, and finally, his groin. A fountain of blood erupted from the slice as the body fell in two separate directions, cut in half down the middle.

Naruto threw a kunai at the second guard, who had stood there and gaped at the ninja that had appeared from nowhere. The knife flew quicker than the man could react and, by consequence, sunk into his throat, severing his vocal cords. Wheezing as he gasped for air, the man clutched at his neck as blood gushed out and over his chest, staining his clothes. He fell backwards and, with a final gurgle, died.

Pulling the meanest posture he could manage, Naruto turned and walked towards the hut, throwing the doors open in a show of strength. The man inside seemed not to notice as a shinobi in bloodstained black and cream garb walked up behind him. Kneeling down, Naruto clapped his hand over the man's mouth.

That seemed to get Rokube's attention. Echigoya reached up and desperately tried to ply the blonde's fingers from his mouth, but to no avail. Naruto slowly stood up, dragging Echigoya to his feet as well. The man struggled in his grasp, flailing his arms about in vain hope that he might force his captor to release him. Naruto leaned forward.

"Echigoya Rokube," he whispered into the man's ear, his voice menacing and cold, "you have been caught illegally dealing weapons and other important stuffs to the enemy country of Hidden Sound. For this crime, you have been sentenced to death."

Naruto reversed his grip on his sword so that the point was poking Echigoya in the chest. Jerking his arm back, the sword sunk through flesh and bone, blood gushing out and splattering the floor, walls, and ceiling, soaking his white kimono as the blade pierced the man's heart and came out his back a few inches from Naruto's left hip. A few seconds later, Echigoya went limp.

Pulling his sword free, Naruto swiped at air, flicking the blood off of his blade and extinguishing the candles simultaneously. Reaching up, he sheathed the sword on his back once more and wrote a single word on the wall in Echigoya's blood.

With a final glare at the corpse now cooling on the ground, the dragon-masked ninja walked backwards into the shadows and disappeared into the darkness, the word 'Traitor' gleaming on the wall in the moonlight.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto hung off the cliff, waiting for the guard to walk by. He wasn't using charka, except in his fingers to keep from falling, so even the sharpest of senses would be unable to find him in the pitch darkness. Then, he heard it; the soft whistle of a bored watchman as he walked past, performing his rounds.

'Kimura Izaemon,' Naruto thought to himself, 'has been implicated as one of Echigoya's accomplices in the man's letters. His deeds and actions are a danger to the Land of Fire. He must atone with is life. That's what the mission statistics said. Itachi is taking care of another guy, another of Echigoya's accomplices, and Yuugao and Hawk are busy tracking down a few of the middlemen. That leaves me to take down Kimura.'

The moment his ears caught the sound of the man's feet right in front of him, Naruto flung himself up, flipping over so that he collided with his target feet first, knocking them both to the dirt and the air out of the guard's lungs. Before the man could so much as gasp, Naruto's sword was pressed up against his throat. Placing his free hand against the dull side of the blade, Naruto pushed down like a chef carefully cutting vegetables and sliced through the guard's neck. With a gush of blood, he died.

There was a gasp and Naruto looked up at the second guard, who had just turned the corner of the large red fence. Without hesitation, Naruto flung a kunai at the man, hitting him in the throat. There was a splash of blood that splattered over the ground as the guard reached up for his neck, dropping his spear and stumbling backwards. He wound up tripping on the edge of the cliff and fell to the ground fifteen feet below with a sickening crunch.

Standing, Naruto leapt up to the top of the fence, crouching on it like an overgrown bird as he looked out over the entire compound. Despite the fact that it was night, the grounds were fairly well lit and there were very few places and shadows to hide in. There was a single pond to his right, near the wall, and several small bushes surrounded it, but hiding there wouldn't be a very good idea.

There were two large buildings connected to one another by walkways, all panted red but for the dark roof, and they blocked his view of the back but for small glimpses. Attached to the building on the right was another walkway, and attached to that walkway was a small hut, the pale white door glowing from an indoor fire. Naruto's eyes narrowed. That was his best bet.

Naruto leapt down from the gate top, sword poised in a downward stab. As he came down, his sword sunk through the guard's right shoulder a few inches from his neck and sliced through several organs as well as vital arteries. There was a violent spray of blood as the man collapsed and died, letting him know that he had severed the jugular vein, and it splashed all over him, soaking his uniform through and dyeing Hyôrinmaru's hilt red.

Hearing footsteps, Naruto rushed up to the building and pressed himself up against the wall. A few seconds later, another samurai walked onto the walkway right before Naruto's eyes. Leaping from his hiding spot, Naruto grappled the man and pulled him outside, pushing him against the wall. With a violent stab, he cut through the man's spine and into the wall, jerking his blade upwards and into a lung.

As soon as his sword was loose, the man slumped against the wall and slid to the ground, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Going through several hand seals, Naruto stopped on snake. The earth and dirt at his feet rippled and dove upward, swallowing the corpse whole and dragging it down beneath the surface.

A single seal later and several Kage Bunshin popped into existence noiselessly, saluting him before they rushed off to their destination. As soon as they were all out of sight, Naruto leapt onto the roof and looked towards the back of the compound, which had previously been obscured by the very building he sat atop.

There were several small huts in the back, a couple fenced in or separated by fences for whatever reason, though it soon became clear why. The windows were barred with thick wood and several guards patrolled the fronts, which meant there wasn't a back door. There was no light peeking through the heavy bamboo doors, so that meant these huts could only contain one thing.

Prisoners.

Naruto frowned, standing up straight. He took off at a run, dashing over the thick clay and porcelain tiles that lay beneath his feet. As he reached the edge of the building, he leapt forward in a sort of dive, landing between two guards and rolling past them. As he stopped his movement and finished in a crouch, the men beside him gasped in surprise.

His hand reached up and grasped his sword. In a blur of movement faster than lightning, he lashed out at both men, then sheathed his blade again. There were two identical spurts of blood, the dark red liquid sinking into the dark cloth of his clothes and soaking his hair, and then the two sentinels fell to the ground, cut in half at the waist.

Twisting around, Naruto flung two kunai towards the far wall, barely missing the other guards. Predictably, both the burly and scrawny groups of samurai panicked slightly when the black metal flew past them. Naruto didn't bother to hide as they looked towards him, biting down on the two strands of ninja wire as he flashed through hand seals.

He stopped on tiger and took a deep breath, watching as the samurai sentinels tried to wiggle out of the thin, durable wire that had them trapped. His eyes cold, he blew out and two streams of fire raced down the wire at amazing speeds, consuming the samurai as they went. Each one screamed as their skin melted off their bones, but Naruto's wince of sympathy was barely noticeable.

Turning his gaze away from them, Naruto leapt over the building in front of him, landing on the wall behind it and leaning against the back of the small hut. Turning to look at the barred window, he tapped against the wood as hard as he dared to. There was a slight ruckus — he had obviously startled whoever was in there.

"Hello?" a voice asked unsurely, barely older than perhaps fourteen or fifteen. "Who's there?"

"Depends," Naruto said softly. "Who's in there?"

"Ishida Mitsunari," the voice replied, brimming with confidence, "former heir to the Daimyo throne of Nami no Kuni."

"Nami no Kuni, huh?" Naruto replied. "What are you doing so far away from home, Ishida-kun?"

"I'm a 'political hostage'," Mitsunari said darkly and bitterly. "Gatou kidnapped me to use against my father about two and a half years ago. He said he'd kill me if my father didn't bend to his demands. If it had been my choice, I would've rather died. Because of me, Gatou and his bastard buddies have my country under their thumb."

Naruto allowed a chuckle to pass his lips. He could practically hear Mitsunari flush, "Don't laugh! It's not funny!"

"You're right, it's not," Naruto didn't bother to stop laughing, "but the irony is killer."

"Right," Mitsunari said scathingly, his tone sarcastic, "irony. It's absolutely hilarious."

"It is," Naruto replied, "because Gatou's dead."

Mitsunari shifted around, a pregnant pause blanketing the two of them, then, "What?"

"Gatou's been dead for about a year or so now, give or take a few months," Naruto told him calmly. "I saw him die with my own eyes, his neck slashed almost in half. If that didn't kill him, I'm sure the four story fall did."

"So, Gatou's dead," Mitsunari mused. "That means that my country is free. Good. Even if they don't need me, I'm sure things are working out for them."

"You could always go back, you know," Naruto told him. "I could set you free and lead you back home or point you in the right direction. I could even kill the guys holding you captive so that you can make a clean get away."

"No," Mitsunari said solemnly, "I can't go back. Gatou and his friends warned me that the moment I escaped, they'd launch a full-scale invasion and destroy my country. My freedom isn't worth the lives of so many innocent people. I could never forgive myself if I were the cause of that."

"But if I kill the guys who are keeping you locked up," Naruto insisted, "then they won't be able to strike! You could go home, safe and sound and free, and Kimura wouldn't be able to touch you!"

"It's not that simple," Mitsunari fought back. "Kimura is merely a small link in a large chain. If he dies and I'm found missing, they'll still assume it was my doing and destroy my country. I can't do what you're asking. I'll not condemn my people to death simply to escape my prison!"

Naruto suddenly chuckled, "Well said. It seems, Mitsunari, that you and I are very similar people. Now, let's get you out of here."

"Weren't you listening?" Mitsunari demanded hotly. "I can't go!"

"Yes, you can," Naruto said, grinning as he sliced the bars off of the window. He leapt through it, landing inside the small hut next to a boy about a year his senior with long, auburn brown hair. "Because, to the rest of the world, tonight will be the night that Ishida Mitsunari dies."

"What are you talking about?" Mitsunari asked confusedly.

Naruto ignored him, pulling out a scroll from one of the three pouches tied to the back of his belt. He unrolled it and bit his thumb, swiping it along the rice paper before going through hand seals. He pressed his palms against the paper and, in a poof of smoke, a nondescript body lay naked on the floor.

"This is what's called a 'Corpse Doll', recently developed by Konoha's R&D," Naruto explained, waving his hand over at Mitsunari. He fell to his knees numbly sitting next to the crouched Naruto. The blond grabbed his hand a pricked his thumb with a kunai. "All you have to do is get a blood sample of the person you want to mimic and you can create a realistic corpse of that person."

Naruto pressed Mitsunari's thumb against the body's forehead, wiping the blood across the doll's brow. As soon as the two of them withdrew their hands, the body on the floor twisted and morphed with sick squelching sounds until an exact double of the brown-haired boy was lying with its eyes closed on the wooden boards.

"How does this help us?" Mitsunari asked acidly. "How does this change the fact that my country will be targeted?"

"Because Kimura and all the people associated with his illegal shipments are targeted for assassination," Naruto explained. "Doing this ensures that whoever's left, in the case that my team actually misses someone, can't blame you."

Naruto nodded, then looked out the broken window, "Are there any other prisoners?"

"No," Mitsunari replied quietly. "No one that we'd want to rescue, anyway. They're all prisoners of war; hostages from this village calling itself 'Hidden Sound'. They're supposed to ensure that the negotiations with that place go smoothly. They're collateral, I think is the right word."

"All right," Naruto nodded, then turned towards the window. "Come on, let's go. It's a long walk back to camp."

"Wait!" Mitsunari insisted. "What about Kimura?"

Naruto was about to reply when the perfect answer hit him.

He advanced on the cowering man, his sword stained with blood from the many guards he had slain. It was splattered all over his mask, painting the white porcelain a dark and scary crimson. The red liquid dripped from his hands and gloves, which squeaked slightly with his every move. His blonde hair was wet, slick, and matted with scarlet and sweat. He imagined he looked like a demon.

"Please!" Kimura begged. "I'll give you anything! Just spare me my life!"

"Kimura Izaemon," he began darkly, his voice a low growl.

"Please!" Kimura continued, begging pitifully. "I'll tell you anything you want to know!"

"Your future," he spoke harshly, his breath rattling against his mask, "is death."

His strike was fast as lightning, slicing cleanly through the man's neck. He watched stoically as Kimura's head flopped to the ground, blood gushing from both sides of the severed neck. It splashed against the wall, staining the floorboards crimson and coating the room in a coppery stench. His job done, he turned around and disappeared with a small pop.

Naruto let go of the breath he'd been holding, "Kimura Izaemon is no longer a problem."

Mitsunari shivered at his tone, then sighed, "Alright, let's go."

Naruto nodded, "Stand near the back wall."

Mitsunari did as told, feeling uneasy as the blond boy went through several strange hand motions. The feeling intensified as his companion took a deep breath, pressing his fingers to his lips, and then blew. A giant fireball was what came out, barreling into the front wall of the hut with raucous intensity.

"I've had some tutoring in Ninjutsu, but," Mitsunari whispered in awe, "I never imagined…"

"Stop ogling and hop on!" Naruto said hotly.

Mitsunari turned away from the flames almost reluctantly, draping his arms over Naruto's shoulders as he climbed onto the boy's back. He expected his new friend to just burst through the wall like a rhinoceros, but the blond proved him wrong by pressing his hand up against the rear wall and closing his eyes.

"Hadô no Sanjuusan," Naruto said quietly, "Sôkatsui."

There was a bright flash of blue and, suddenly, a large portion of the back wall was missing, as if it had simply disintegrated. Mitsunari kept his eyes wide open, afraid that he'd miss something if he blinked. With a large space cleared for their exit, Naruto leapt away from the hut and into the woods, even as the other prisoner huts caught fire..

Mitsunari didn't look back even once.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto landed atop the roof of the tall building, amazed at the advanced structure it displayed. Yuugao landed next to him, her long purple hair cascading down her back and her mask covering her face. She was his partner on this mission because the target was suspected of hiring high-level ninja.

The mission was simple. Echigoya Heisuke, the uncle of Echigoya Rokube and nearly twice as corrupt as his nephew, needed to be assassinated. Itachi had been trailing him a little while back and deemed that he had no more information that would be useful to them. Thus, the order was given to assassinate him.

Sunlight blanketed the small town in brightness, which meant that there were much fewer places to hide. Normally, they wouldn't be doing a mission like this in broad daylight. It risked mission failure and the discovery of their involvement. That was not something that Konoha needed, considering how tense the situation with Sound already was.

Echigoya, however, had made things a bit more complicated than Team Foxhound would have liked. He was scheduled to leave the country by boat in the middle of the day and would henceforth be unreachable in the Land of Earth, sheltered by a few of Sound's allies in Iwagakure, the Hidden Stone village.

That was why Naruto and Yuugao were where they were, perched atop a three story building made of sanded, symmetrical stone. Behind them was the vast land of Fire Country, and in front of them was the famous Sea of Japan, which split Fire Country in half and ran along the edge of the East Continent and up to Tsuchi no Kuni.

Naruto knew that, if they were going to kill Echigoya Heisuke, they had to do it here and now. He could not be allowed to escape to enemy territory and safety. They would have to make it through a town crawling with body guards and keep out of sight of civilians to do so, but it was necessary to accomplish their mission.

Naruto motioned to Yuugao and she nodded, jumping to the next rooftop before diving down into the alleyway. She was going to take that side of town and he would take the other. Splitting up might not be the best idea, but it was the only idea that would work for them. Everything had to work or else the entire mission was blown.

Unsheathing his sword, Naruto leapt down on the two unsuspecting sentinels, landing silently behind the first one. With a swing of his blade, the first man fell to the ground, cut in half at the middle. Naruto vanished before the second could so much as brandish his spear, reappearing back to back with the man, his sword stabbed through the guard's back and out his stomach.

Wrenching his weapon free with a spurt of blood, the second guard fell to the ground and gurgled his last breath, his life's essence staining the ground crimson. Naruto didn't bother turning around and simply rushed out of the small alcove, going right and dashing towards the other man walking down the street.

Steel flashed as he tackled the third guard to the dirt road, his sword slicing through the samurai's vocal cords and severing his jugular vein. Blood sprayed out, soaking Naruto's arms and hands in crimson and staining his white porcelain armor red. Gasping for breath, the third guard fell limp and died.

Creeping forward quietly, he stopped and crouched down at the edge of a slanted dirt ramp. The area he currently stalked in, it seemed, was elevated above the rest of the port town. He peered over the edge, looking down at the ground beneath his position. There, right below him and a meter or so to the left was another guard, yawning as he patrolled the area.

Naruto was more cautious than that, though, and turned his gaze upwards toward a walled-in building and the street beside it. There, in plain sight of the first guard, was another guard walking up and down the dirt road, no doubt patrolling that area while the first one merely looked around every once in a while.

He would have to time this just right in order to stay unnoticed. If he was too slow, the second man would see him as he killed the first and would raise an alarm before Naruto could do anything. If he was too fast, the second man might catch him out of the corner of his eyes, then raise an alarm anyways.

As soon as the second man had turned around, Naruto hopped off the edge of the ramp and landed behind the first guard, jumping atop him and dragging them both face first into the ground. Wasting no time, Naruto raised his blade and sliced cleanly through the first guard's spine, killing him instantly.

As soon as the first man was dead, Naruto dashed towards the second at full speed, his feet clapping against the ground noisily. Apparently, his haste had alerted his enemy to his presence as the man turned around and his face twisted in horror. He looked ready to scream out in terror, but Naruto would not give him the chance.

Hyôrinmaru was sharper than most blades, which gave him a distinct advantage over normal metal. In assassination, it made for a cleaner kill. As Naruto ran his sword through the second guard, it became clear that, even without Shikai or Bankai, Hyôrinmaru was a superior sword.

The silvery blade bit into the samurai a lot easier than a normal sword would, making a neat incision in the cloth he was wearing as it tore a whole in pale pink flesh. There was no blood, surprisingly, as though the man had been drained of it long ago. There was no flash of crimson or spurt of scarlet. There was only a pained and agonized gasp as the life left his eyes.

Naruto pulled Hyôrinmaru free, a torrent of red spraying out as soon as the metal had been pulled loose. The guard staggered backwards, gasping and holding his hands over the wound as if he couldn't believe what had just happened. He tripped over his own heels and gulped in his last breath, then went still.

Paying no notice, Naruto charged chakra to his feet and jumped atop the large brick building in front of him, peering over the edge of the roof tiles. He grimaced in annoyance. There, strolling along the cobblestone street, was another guard. He was distinctly dumb looking and seemed nothing more than a common thug.

Naruto pulled a kunai from the holster on his leg, taking precise aim as the thug stopped moving for a moment to look around. His muscles tensed, he threw the tiny blade with all of his might, watching as it sailed down at unstoppable speeds towards its target. With the force of a freight train, the small kunai sunk into the man's neck. There was a large spurt of blood, then the thug collapsed sideways, dead.

Channeling chakra to his legs once more, Naruto jumped across the wide street and onto the building across from him. Looking down from the roof to find an empty alleyway, he leapt again onto the next building, landing softly on the tiled roof. In front of him, he could see the vast and wide body of water that his target intended to travel on.

Peering down beneath him again, Naruto frowned and let out a frustrated sigh. How many guards did this guy have stationed around the tiny little port town? Was he seriously that paranoid that he thought he needed such extensive security measures? Did he know that he was being followed? Was that even possible?

Exasperated, Naruto drew another kunai from the holster on his right leg. Luckily, this guard wasn't in view of the boat or else he might have alerted a few people to his presence. He threw the tiny blade and watched as it buried itself up to the hilt in the man's skull, which guaranteed that he was dead.

Jumping down, Naruto broke into a run instantly, heading towards the docks. After all, that's where his target would be, preparing to ship off so as to escape the wrath of his enemies. Yuugao would probably be along shortly, as soon as she finished up with her group of guards on the other end of town.

As he ran up the gangplank, however, Naruto received his first shock in quite a while. Every single bodyguard on the ship, whether they were samurai, ninja, or even simple civilians, was dead and bleeding sluggishly over the already red boards. As a cry of terror reached his ears, Naruto's gaze flickered over to the only survivor of this massacre.

"Help me!" Echigoya cried pitifully, his old wrinkled face soaked with sweat. "Plea—!"

He never got to finish his sentence. Protruding from his neck, stabbed through the back and severing his spine without a doubt, was a thin, straight ninja-to. Just as soon as it had killed Heisuke, however, it was jerked out of the corpse ruthlessly. As Echigoya fell to the ground, dead, Naruto got his first look at the assassin.

Naruto's first thought was, 'Itachi'. It left just as quickly. The man standing before him looked to be about twenty years old, his body lean and muscular. His bare chest was covered only in fishnet, a long, dark coat not unlike Ibiki's hanging open on his shoulders and hiding his arms. His hair was short but his bangs were long, his dark eyes stoic and cold.

Dark pants rippled as he shifted slightly, his black eyes glancing at something behind Naruto. In a calm voice he spoke, just barely above a whisper, "The shadows of Konoha."

Naruto just barely brought his sword up in time to block the man's blow, sparks flying as his enemy's steel slid against Hyôrinmaru. His blade jiggled as his arms strained under the man's superior strength. One thought flashed through his head, overriding the alarmed, panicked responses that tried to make it to the surface, 'Fast!'

"Taichô!"

The man jumped back as a familiar purple-haired woman lunged toward him, seeking to stab him and bury her blade in his abdomen. She settled into a defensive posture in front of her blonde commander, brandishing her sword threateningly. Naruto scowled, knowing that he would have to finish this battle quickly.

He flashed through one-handed seals, the water around the ship churning as it lifted into the air, forming a cage of needles around the unidentified man, "Sensatsu Suisho!"

The man, however, seemed prepared for such a thing. As the needles of water rushed in to attack and skewer him, his arm seemed to blur, moving in multiple directions all at once. When he stopped moving, the needles of water had all splashed down on to the deck of the ship, returned to their base composition.

As the shock of his failure sunk in, Naruto could only watch as Yuugao dove at the enemy ninja, bringing her sword down in a vertical slash. The man blocked it simply, pushing her back and then kicking her in the stomach. She flew back and collided with the floor, skidding to a halt at Naruto's feet.

Growling, Naruto pointed his palm at the man and shouted out his next attack, "Hadô no Sanjuusan: Sôkatsui!"

A ball of blue fire rocketed forwards from Naruto's palm, targeting the mysterious shinobi who had, by all accounts, done their job for them. It exploded against the man, sending up dust, smoke and pieces of wood in the process. Naruto growled again as he looked up towards the sky, where the man had jumped.

Naruto leapt upwards as well, landing on one of the long poles that clung to the mast and held the sails in place. His eyes were narrowed into thin blue slits as he glared at this new and impressive enemy. Whoever he was, he was at least high A-class in strength and skill, perhaps even S-class.

Jumping over towards his opponent, Naruto brought his sword down in a vertical slash. It was blocked almost effortlessly, drawing another growl from the blonde's throat. His next attempt was to slice the man in half at the waist, but that attack was blocked as well. Snarling, Naruto vanished.

The man twisted to the left, his long coat fluttering on his right as tempered steel stabbed through the knitted cloth like it was nothing. As the coat settled, obscuring Naruto's hands from view, the man reared his arm back, stabbing forward with his ninja-to, crashing right into Naruto's mask.

The porcelain cracked and shattered as he pulled his sword back again, attempting to behead the blonde. Naruto ducked underneath it, twisting his blade and the cloth trapped around it, shaking his enemy's footing. As the man righted himself, he was unprepared for the fist that his opponent had thrown his way.

The man's head jerked backwards as he stumbled atop the thin, horizontal wooden pole, a bruise already purpling on his cheek. His face didn't change even the slightest, despite the angry puce spot on the right side of his mouth. His lips didn't even twitch and his eyes seemed as if they refused to narrow.

Then, he seemed to fade from view as his voice spoke up from behind Naruto, "It looks like I have found a worthy opponent."

"Taichô!" Yuugao called, tackling him as the man's blade scraped against the back of her armor. They righted themselves in midair and landed with a dull thud on the deck below, glaring up at the man.

"You are indeed skilled," the man said. He jumped from the mast and did an acrobatic flip, landing on the other side of the deck on his knees. He stood slowly. "My name is Shigi."

"Yuugao," Naruto commanded sternly, "get off the ship."

Nodding, Yuugao leapt backwards and off the boat, landing on the dock and backing up steadily, as her Taichô had commanded. Naruto jumped on to the ledge of the deck, then sprung upwards high into the air as he swung his sword, calling out, "Sôten ni zase, Hyôrinmaru!"

A dragon made of liquid ice soared downwards, opening its massive maw in a roar as it flew towards the man identified as Shigi. As the beast closed the distance between them, Shigi lifted his sword and batted the dragon away as if it were nothing. It swerved off course and crashed into the ocean, turning the immediate vicinity into ice.

"What do you know of this man?" Naruto asked as he landed next to Yuugao.

"He's called 'Shigi the Silent'," she told him. "He's marked down as a low S-rank ninja with incredible combat skills. Supposedly, he's a rogue ninja from Iwagakure that almost never speaks. Other sources say that he's a ninja from a clan employed directly by a Daimyo, though which one, they don't say. His trademark is called the 'Hane Shunshin'." (Feather Body Flicker)

"S-rank, huh?" Naruto breathed. "Think we can take him?"

She didn't get to answer as Shigi beckoned with his hand, saying, "Come, Ryûjin."

Naruto vanished, reappearing in front of Shigi with their swords locked, glaring at the man with frosty blue eyes. He jerked forwards suddenly, kneeing a surprised Shigi in the stomach and leaving the man open long enough to get his combo off. Shrugging the man's sword out of the way, he slashed downward.

Twisting his grip, he brought a second slash upwards, hacking a diagonal mark in Shigi's chest starting near his left hip. The third slash was horizontal from left to right, targeting the ninja's abdomen. Gripping his sword with both hands, he slashed downward again, deepening the first cut.

Kneeling forward slightly as Shigi's body shifted back from the force of his blows, he carved another left to right horizontal slash in his enemy's thighs. The next one was another diagonal slash that deepened the first, followed by another left to right horizontal slash that deepened the first as well.

Next, above the first horizontal slash, he carved another one, this time from right to left, in Shigi's torso. He followed up with a downward slash over the right side of the ninja's chest, then a horizontal left to right slash over his pectorals. He deepened the first right to left horizontal slash, then carved a downward diagonal slice from the notch between his collarbones to underneath the left side of his ribs.

The thirteenth slash sliced upwards into the left side of Shigi's chest with more force than all of the others. He stumbled backwards, Naruto jumping up and doing a summersault in midair, sword gripped tightly in both palms. As gravity pulled him back down, his sword carved a brutal slash through Shigi's head, torso, and the rest of his body, from crown to crotch.

In a voice as quiet and dark as death, Naruto said, "Hattou Issen."

In a puff of smoke, Shigi vanished to reveal a piece of mast that had been brutally slashed into tiny chunks. The real Shigi was standing at the ship's helm, a single long cut down the center of his torso. He had escaped the majority of Naruto's vicious attack, but he'd still been hit by the first strike.

"Indeed, a worthy opponent," Shigi said calmly, even as the cut on his chest bleed sluggishly, soaking his pants and painting his stomach red. "Don't die yet, Ryûjin."

And, in a blur of motion, he disappeared, leaving three black feathers behind.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The night was dark, the full moon blocked out by blue-tinted clouds as they lazily crossed the midnight sky. Stars too were hidden by these clouds, their bright twinkle snuffed by thick, condensed vapor. The vibrant trees turned dull and lifeless, once bright leaves turned to a sickly, dead green.

The wind was cool and brisk, howling as it wound through tree trunks and past branches, ruffling anything loose as it went. Blonde hair swayed in this wind and blue eyes blinked to keep from drying out. Red-ish orange flames flickered in the gentle gale, crackling away as dead wood fed them and kept them strong.

The blond shoved his stick further into the flames, watching as they rose furiously, lighting his little clearing and warming his chilled skin. A second jab and the fire took on a life all its own, flaring almost anxiously as the cool wind gentle settled it back down. It flashed in the blonde's blue eyes, bright and raging.

"Hayate-kun…" Yuugao said slowly. "Hayate-kun was a very good man. He was kind and gentle, but he knew when the job was more important. He loved the village and all of the people inside of it, and often professed to me his desire to start a family."

Yuugao smiled sadly, "We were planning to get married. He told me to wait until after the Chûnin Exams, when things settled down. There would be too much excitement going on if we did so before then. He just wanted to have a quiet wedding with a few friends and colleagues, nothing big and fancy. Said that the size of the wedding wasn't important, it was the people who came."

Naruto nodded, understanding, "So…what happened?"

Yuugao bit her lip and tears welled up in her eyes, "He…he was killed a few days from the Finals. My old squad found him atop one of the buildings near the apartment used by the Sand Shinobi. He was…He was…cut nearly in half, his eyes wide open. He looked…so terrified."

Yuugao sobbed into her knees, "How could they do something like that to such a sweet man?"

Naruto yawned, his mouth forming a perfect 'o'. He stretched his arms out, groaning noisily, and leaned backwards, letting out a satisfied sigh. He stood up and walked over to his sleeping bag, lying back on it to look at the sky with his hands folded behind his head. He smiled and let out a slight chuckle.

Yuugao was due back soon from whatever patrol or the like she had gone on. Itachi and Hawk were with Jiraiya at the main camp, receiving new orders for new missions and such the like. He himself was just coming back from an assassination mission that had almost gotten him killed. If Yuugao hadn't shown up at the last second, he might have been overwhelmed.

"Kurokawa Shinzo," Naruto said coldly, walking towards the man with his sword drawn. "Commander of Otogakure's main army and one of Orochimaru's highest ranking figures, despite the fact that you're only a samurai with nothing more than a slightly above average knowledge of Ninjutsu. You plan to lead the army to Konoha tomorrow and do as much damage as you can."

Naruto stopped moving, glaring at the tall, muscular man, "Your future is death."

Shinzo chuckled, "That's what you think, boy."

He snapped his fingers and there was suddenly a large group of ninja, all Jônin if they could sneak around without him noticing, surrounding him on all sides. They all leered at him like he was a weak little Genin that they could tear apart in their sleep. He knew that, against a couple of them, he could win, but against this large number, he stood no chance.

'Hinata-chan, Tenten-chan,' he thought solemnly, 'I'm sorry.'

There was a flash of steel and dozens of kunai rained down upon the large group, killing several of them before they could so much as breathe. A figure with purple hair appeared from nowhere, standing back to back with Naruto as she brandished her sword at the remaining men. Naruto felt a sigh of relief pass his lips before he could stop it.

"I'm here, Taichô," Yuugao said confidently.

"Taichô," a feminine voice called quietly.

Naruto looked up to see Yuugao walk into the clearing. His eyes went wide as she sauntered past the trees, her hips swaying seductively. She was clad in nothing more than a thin, silk, fuchsia-colored robe that was hung low on her arms, revealing pale, creamy skin and not a small amount of cleavage that Jiraiya would kill for.

As he looked into her eyes, however, he realized that she wasn't just trying to seduce him. She was crying, tears streaming down her face as if Hayate had just died all over again. He felt a pang in his heart. He hated seeing beautiful women cry. It was a bit of a chauvinistic thought, but it was true nonetheless.

"Taichô," she whispered softly, leaning down to straddle his waist. "Please, Taichô. No…please…Naruto-kun…"

Her robe slipped further, showing just a hint of her right areola, a dark pink against her creamy skin. Her smooth thighs, taught and lean like all shinobi, pressed up against his hips, strong as steel cords. He could feel, through the cloth of his pants, that she wore nothing beneath her robe.

"I miss Hayate-kun so much, Naruto-kun," she said into his ear. "This ache in my chest, it won't go away. I-I need to feel something else…something to distract from this pain…"

"Yuugao," he said softly, his eyes gentle. Something tugged at his insides, a feeling of sympathy and a need to wipe away those tears, no matter the cost. A little voice in his ear whispered 'genjutsu!' but he didn't hear it. "I don't know if…"

"Please, Naruto-kun," she begged, anguish clear in her voice. More tears fell. "If-if not this…then I might just stick my hand in that fire!"

Naruto sighed, feeling as if he were about to betray Hinata and Tenten, "If you're sure about this…"

"I am," she replied. "You…you remind me so much of Hayate-kun…"

She sighed, closing her eyes as she tugged his shirt off of him, "Please…make love to me, Naruto-kun…"

The rest of the night passed in a blur of heated flesh, gasps and moans, and a deep sense of guilt that welled up in Naruto's gut. Yuugao had done a lot for him and he considered her a close friend, but was he really doing what was right? He scolded himself in these moments; Yuugao was grieving and he could not live with himself if he did nothing to help her.

Still, he gave her a number of chances to change her mind, asked her repeatedly if she was sure that she wanted to keep going. In the end, however, he still found himself beneath her and succumbing to the glorious feeling of her slick, velvety flesh. Even with that sick feeling in his gut, he could not stop himself from enjoying the sensations that came with this strange adventure into sex.

When Naruto awoke the next morning, it was without the warmth of a female body pressed up against him. At once, he shot up in his sleeping bag, looking wildly around the clearing. The fire was out, the fuchsia robe lay next to him and he was completely dressed once more. But Yuugao was missing.

Dread filled him as he realized that though he had woken up, it was the middle of the day, just barely after noon. He never woke up that late on a mission, not even back on the Wave mission. There was only one possible explanation for why he had woken up so late in the day, with Yuugao missing.

She'd drugged him. Not only that, but she had used Genjutsu to make sure it worked.

As a wheezing breathing filtered into the clearing, Naruto leapt out of his sleeping bag, grabbing Hyôrinmaru from the ground beside him and resting his hand on the hilt. He looked over towards the direction of the noise, then immediately dropped his weapon as dread plopped once more down into his stomach.

He rushed over to Yuugao as she collapsed forward, coughing roughly as blood trickled down over her lips. He gently lowered her to the ground, supporting her head with his arms and desperately trying to figure out what was wrong with her when the only injuries she had were a few scrapes and bruis—

Kabuto.

Even as he realized who had put his teammate in the condition she was in, he also realized that there was nothing he could do to save her. Someone of Kabuto's caliber, someone with enough medic skills to severe arteries and block chakra from reaching vital organs, would not leave enough behind for someone else to heal.

"Naruto-kun," she whispered. He tried to shush her, frantically asking Hyôrinmaru to help heal her the way he had Hinata, but all he got was a firm shake of the dragon's head. She was beyond help. "I'm…sorry, Naruto-kun. Sorry that I…tricked you…"

She coughed again, "When…Jiraiya said…Kabuto was… behind all this, I…I wanted to kill him by myself…so I…drugged…you…"

"It's alright," he said soothingly, "I forgive you."

"Just like…Hayate-kun," She smiled, looking at something far in the distance, something he couldn't see. "It's…It's all…just a…"

Her lips formed over the next word, but no sound came out. He knew what she was trying to say, though, and whispered it back to her, "Yeah…Just a dream…"

With a peaceful smile on her face, her eyes slowly closed and she fell limp in his arms. The heavens opened as he stared up at the sky and released thick, heavy rain.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

As Jiraiya awoke, he sat up from the ground and yawned, stretching his arms wide. Once he had regained focus of the world, he blinked and rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't seeing things. What he saw didn't change, so he blinked owlishly once again and wondered if he was sane.

"Hey," Naruto said lightly, a peaceful smile on his face, "got any food?"

"Uh…" Jiraiya looked over at the pot of stew boiling over the fire, figuring that Itachi or Hawk had probably set it up. "Sure…"

Smiling, Naruto dished himself up some of the stew and dug in. He ate quickly, that damnable smile still on his face to the point that Jiraiya wondered if it wasn't pasted on. Through a full mouth, the blonde mumbled, "This food tastes terrible, as always."

Jiraiya frowned; it was his recipe after all, "If it tastes so terrible, then why are you eating it?"

Naruto swallowed and threw Jiraiya a grin, "They say hunger is the best spice."

Jiraiya didn't bother to comment as the blonde simply continued to shovel food down his throat. When he was finally done eating some ten minutes later, Naruto burped and let out a sigh, then glanced at his aged companion, "Have you heard this story?"

Taking a deep breath, he said, "There once was a tiger-striped cat. This cat died a million deaths, revived and lived a million lives, and he was owned by various people who he didn't really care for. The cat wasn't afraid to die. Then, one day, the cat became a stray cat, which meant he was free. He met a white female cat and the two of them spent their days together happily."

He took another breath, making sure to make it dramatic to add flare to his story, "Well, years passed and the white cat grew weak and died of old age. The tiger-striped cat cried a million times and then he died, too. Except this time, he didn't come back to life."

"Hm," Jiraiya nodded thoughtfully, "that's a good story."

"I hate that story," Naruto said.

Jiraiya arched an eyebrow, blinking in confusion, "Huh?"

"I never liked cats. You know that, sensei," Naruto smirked.

Realization dawned, and he chuckled humorously, "Oh yeah. Heh. Heh heh. Heh heh heh."

Naruto soon joined in and it erupted into a full blown cackle the likes of which he hadn't felt in years. As they continued to laugh ridiculously, Naruto stood and started to walk away, still laughing at whatever the two of them thought was funny. As his humor died down, Jiraiya called, "Hey, Naruto!"

Naruto stopped, "Yeah?"

"I just want to ask you one thing," he said seriously.

Naruto still smiled, "What's that?"

"Is it for the girl?"

There was a pause as the mood immediately turned sour, "She's dead, Sensei. There's nothing more I can do for her now."

With those haunting, pain-filled words hanging in the air, he walked back into the trees and vanished. Absently, Jiraiya wondered if he'd ever see him again.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Naruto landed silently on the large wall, much like the wall that had guarded Echigoya Rokube's little corner of the world as well as the place Kimura Izaemon had inhabited. This wall, however, was much larger and much more intricate than those other walls. This wall was a wall worthy of a royal castle.

Indeed, that was what this wall guarded; a large, tiered castle with at least four floors and reaching at least four stories. Several guards were in place around the perimeter as well, protecting their liege from any outside threats. They were all samurai, but he could see a couple of ninja perched atop the roof of the vast structure.

Hopping down off of the section of wall he'd climbed atop, Naruto squatted down in the shadows, trying his best to remain hidden from the scores of enemies littered across the sprawling grounds. As soon as the guards defending the first of many gates turned around, he took his opportunity and dashed towards them.

The first guard lost his head, quite literally, and fell to the ground with a vicious spray of blood. As the second guard turned to investigate the sounds that had undoubtedly caught his attention, Naruto thrust forward with his sword, catching the second man in the stomach with a brutal stab that literally destroyed his insides.

To make sure that the man couldn't speak or even die slowly, Naruto pulled out a kunai from the holster on his right leg and jammed it up through the man's chin and the roof of his mouth, doubtlessly severing his tongue. Pulling his knife loose, Naruto allowed the man to fall to the ground and finish dying.

"Savage anger," Naruto hissed as he dumped both bodies into the mote on the other side of the wall, "anger and misery."

Making two clones and sending them to the small house that was also on the grounds, he crossed the small bridge cautiously, peeking around the corners of the other wall on the opposite end. Two more guards; two more men who would die because Kabuto had decided to kill one of Naruto's friends.

Sheathing Hyôrinmaru as he grabbed two kunai, he dashed out between the two sentinels and threw the kunai in his hands. With two identical, sickening thuds and two identical spurts of red blood, both of the guards collapsed to the side, dead, with a kunai sticking out of their skull and their eyes wide open in death.

He stalked up behind the kunoichi, holding his sword ready. She was pacing around her room, but she wasn't looking behind the unfolded wooden blind that allowed her to change in privacy. If he were to be honest, he didn't think she deserved that Chûnin vest she was wearing. You had to be an idiot to ignore a very good hiding place.

As she turned her back to him, he leapt out of his spot and raised his weapon silently. She didn't even realize he was there until it was too late for her to do anything and she had a sword sticking out of her chest, piercing her heart. He pulled his sword loose with a spray of blood, watching as the warm corpse slid to the floor, releasing a steady flow of crimson onto the wood tile.

Throwing the other two guards into the mote, Naruto turned a single eye back at them as the dead bodies slowly floated away, "By death's invitation."

He descended upon the second kunoichi, sword flashing as she looked up at him. She barely dodged out of the way, but she managed to escape his steel. She squared herself, moving into a taijutsu stance that he didn't recognize at all. He scowled. He needed to finish this quickly. With a soft swoosh, he disappeared and rematerialized behind her. Before she could so much as register his presence, he had already lopped her head off. She fell to the ground, blood squirting out of her neck and very much dead.

Pulling a kunai from his holster, Naruto dashed towards the next gate the one that would bring him closer to the towering castle that he needed to infiltrate. As the guard turned in his direction and seemed to see him, he threw his kunai and watched as it sunk into the man's forehead, knocking him backwards and to the ground, dead.

Before the second guard could even turn around and register that he was there, a second kunai had appeared in his hand and already been thrown. It sunk into his neck, cutting his vocal cords and severing his throat. With a defeated and desperate gurgle, he fell to the ground, suffocating on his own blood.

Naruto turned at the gate, dashing with full speed up the winding steps that would take him to the castle. As a shadow looming around the corner courtesy of a torch revealed the presence of yet another guard, Naruto drew his sword and lopped off the guard's head, killing him instantly. The body fell to the wayside, but Naruto paid it no mind.

The mission specs that had led Yuugao to travel to this place and, inevitably, to her death were flashing through Naruto's eyes: Yakushi Kabuto is currently leading the Otogakure army while Orochimaru recovers. Assassinate Yakushi Kabuto and cripple the enemy forces. Mission Rank: S.

Yuugao had taken this mission for the purpose of killing the man who had murdered her fiancé, Gekkô Hayate. While she hadn't been lying about needing comfort from Naruto, she had had an ulterior motive behind it: while Itachi and Hawk would respect her wishes, Naruto would never have let her do this mission alone.

The blonde raced up the stairs, the castle tiers coming closer and closer as he continued upwards. On the last leg, however, he heard voices at the end of the path, revealing the presence of samurai guards. He scowled. He didn't have time to eliminate all of the men who guarded Kabuto. That would take him all night.

Just as he was about to round the corner and run into another pair of guards, he leapt upwards and vanished without a trace, the samurai sentinels none the wiser. He landed and reappeared behind one of the ninja guards on the first tier. Silently, he impaled the shinobi on his gleaming silver blade.

Knowing that he couldn't escape the guards below if he just let the body drop, he held onto it after sheathing his weapon and grabbed two kunai. He threw them both with all of his might, then drew a third and shifted slightly. He threw that one as well, this time in a direction across from his.

The first two kunai buried themselves into the backs of the samurai guards' skulls, killing them and severing their medulla oblongata. The third kunai sunk into the throat of the ninja guarding the opposite end of the first tier. He fell from his perch and off the castle entirely with a silent gurgle and a violent spurt of blood.

Letting the first body go, he allowed it to fall to the unforgiving earth. He vanished again, reappearing behind an alert ninja on the second tier. He decapitated the Nin and let the body fall, throwing the head towards the shocked ninja guarding the other side of the tier. With that shinobi preoccupied with his comrade's head, Naruto buried a kunai in his head right between his eyes.

There were two more ninja on the third tier, each one dying as Naruto sliced their heads off. They too fell off of their tier, and then the castle all together, one landing in a pile at the base, and the other landing in the mote with a distant splash. Though they had been slightly on guard because of his suspicious noises, they weren't prepared to face him.

The ninja perched on the fourth tier were a lot more prepared than those who died before them, but they were only B-rank ninja at best (and Itachi had insisted that Naruto be able to match him in hand seal speed before letting him go on any mission) so they were taken care of quickly. He watched, almost satisfied, as the last of the shinobi sentinels fell with a silent cry.

Leaping through the rear window, Naruto crept up towards the silver-haired teen that seemed as though he were meditating on the floor. As he raised his sword to deliver the final blow, the teen's lips suddenly twitched into a smirk and he chuckled, "My, my, Naruto-kun, coming up here all by yourself to kill me."

Kabuto's cruel eyes snapped open, "Just like Yuugao-san did."

Naruto swung for his neck angrily, but Kabuto had already moved out of the way, still chuckling like he was the funniest person in the world. A sinister blue glow lit up the silver-haired teen's hands as he settled into a taijutsu stance, still smiling that damnable smirk as though he were merely toying with the one his master called Dragon God.

"You caught me by surprise last time," was all Kabuto said.

Naruto snarled, "Bankai!"

In an instant, the roof exploded, disintegrating into the wind. The floor had become slick ice as wings, claws, a tail, and a dragon's head made of frozen liquid formed on Naruto's arms, legs, and back. Naruto's eyes had transformed just as quickly to frozen glaciers with thin slits for pupils.

"I know something you don't know, Naruto-kun," Kabuto said in a sing-song voice.

"Shut up!" Naruto yelled loudly.

"Yuugao-chan was pregnant," Kabuto teased him. "Oh, it was only a few hours along, but I could still tell. She was carrying your child, Naruto-kun."

"Silence yourself!" Naruto replied angrily. "Before I do it for you!"

With a swing of his sword, dragon made of subzero water soared towards Kabuto, who jumped away as the massive beast. It flew away and into the sky, where it became obscured by the dark clouds that followed Naruto's transformation. Kabuto turned his gaze back to Naruto, his smirk widening.

"Go away, Naruto-kun," Kabuto said calmly. "Return to what you were: a memory of a pathetic Genin with no talent whatsoever."

"I will," Naruto stated lowly, finishing in a roar of, "never be a memory!"

He stabbed his sword into the frozen floor, screaming, "Hantei!" (Judgment)

A jagged pillar of ice rose up at astounding speeds, consuming Kabuto and trapping him where he stood, a look of surprise and horror on his face. Several sharp spikes speared through it in a circle, stabbing through Kabuto's arms and legs and everything nonfatal. Naruto twisted his sword and several more pillars rose, shifting into icy blue dragons with red eyes and gaping maws filled with sharp teeth.

Still more pillars rose in between the spaces separating the dragons from each other. They were tall, reaching towards the sky and disappearing into the clouds. He lifted his sword and both the pillars and the dragons stiffened, as if standing at attention before their master. His voice colder than the arctic itself, he said, "Teme wo Yarakasu." (You are guilty)

His sword twisted and immediately the pillars dove in on Kabuto, encasing him in another layer of ice. They melded together until they looked like a single round, tall pillar, reaching towards the heavens. Another twist of his sword and the dragons rushed in, too, melding into the pillar like ornate statues.

With a cold fury, Naruto rushed forward and stabbed into the pillar, crying, "Shine! (Die!)

A blade of ice shot forth from the point of contact where Naruto's blade had bit mere centimeters into the pillar, stabbing forward and out the other side of the pillar. It was stabbed through Kabuto's heart, and would stay there until the traitorous ninja died. The best part about it, the part that satisfied Naruto the most, was that the ice would prevent Kabuto from healing anyway.

As the wings and other appendages melted away and the ice on the floor dissipated, leaving only the pillar, a voice spoke from the shadows, "Well done, Ryûjin, and welcome to the class of S-rank."

A kunai flew from Naruto's hands, but Shigi the Silent caught it between his fingers effortlessly. His face didn't twist into a smile nor did his expression change at all. He simply stood their, a long scar down the center of his chest that seemed almost invisible next to the creases his muscles made.

"What are you doing here?" Naruto growled.

"I cannot say hello to my favorite ANBU?" Shigi asked innocently, his tone never changing.

"I suppose you could," Naruto ceded, "if you had a favorite, anyways."

In an instant, they were at each others' throats, metal clanging as they swung their weapons at one another. Naruto's vertical slash was blocked by Shigi's horizontal one, and his second slash, a diagonal one, was blocked by Shigi's vertical slash. Pressing their blades together inescapably, Naruto curled his fist and launched it at his enemy's head.

It hit head on and Shigi's head jerked back, even if the rest of his body remained motionless. Shock filled Naruto as Shigi brought his head back down and looked at him impassively, enough that it distracted him from Shigi's fist until it was too late. Naruto went flying, but righted himself in midair and flung his palm out, crying, "Hadô no Sanjuusan: Sôkatsui!"

Shigi jumped over the ball of blue fire, landing effortlessly, even as Naruto cried out once more, "Sôkatsui!"

Dashing to the left allowed him to dodge the second attack and Naruto called out its name once again, "Sôkatsui!"

Shigi dodged to the right of the third one, but wasn't prepared for it to be a feint as Naruto appeared in front of him and knocked him into the sky with a powerful uppercut. The blonde followed him into free fall, jumping past him and attempting to deliver an axe-kick that would devastate him if it landed.

He crossed his arms in front of himself and let them take the brunt of the blow, tumbling downward towards the floor of the heavily damaged castle. He righted himself at the last second, landing on his feet and hunched over as the boy fighting him came down at an amazing speed.

At the last second, Shigi raised his sword and defended against Naruto's strike with a horizontal block, pushing the blonde's sword away with his own. As Naruto stumbled backwards, Shigi rushed forward with a vicious stab, attempting to get the boy right through the tender, almost defenseless stomach.

Twisting his foot, Naruto angled his body as best he could. Shigi's sword slid along the cream chest armor and never penetrated, though a straight stab would have. Going with the twist, Naruto brought his foot up and landed a heavy kick against Shigi's chest, knocking him backwards and into Kabuto's pillar.

As Shigi stood straight and went through familiar hand seals, Naruto's eyes widened and he jumped, leaping over top of a giant fireball that would have easily roasted him. As the fire petered out, Naruto threw a kunai down at the defenseless Shigi, then disappeared in a blur and a soft swoosh.

Shigi knocked the kunai away effortlessly, but he wasn't fast enough to dodge or block Naruto's stab, which sliced through his left shoulder and made that arm practically useless. Smirking at the impassive ninja, Naruto slowly pulled the blade out, coated with blood, just barely noticing the small wince that crossed Shigi's expression.

Shigi immediately lashed out, Naruto just barely dodging as his blade sliced a thin cut into the blonde's already whisker-marked cheeks. Ducking beneath his enemy's guard, Naruto landed a harsh palm strike on Shigi's nearly bare abdomen. The air left the dark-haired ninja's mouth with an audible swooshing sound.

Taking advantage of his enemy's surprised state, Naruto landed an uppercut on Shigi's chin, then brought his leg up and launched the pale man backward, where he skidded to a stop on the hard floor. He stood up weakly, panting and his face actually screwed up in pain, if only slightly.

Walking up to the downed man, who clearly wouldn't be getting up for a while, Naruto raised his sword and prepared to make the final blow. Shigi merely looked up at him with those stoic eyes and asked, "Why do you so desperately cling to life? That I do not understand."

Naruto didn't answer, he merely swung his sword.

"Stop!" a familiar voice called. Naruto's sword halted mere inches from decapitating Shigi, the blade shining in the moonlight. Shigi didn't even let out a breath of relief.

Jiraiya walked up from somewhere, though where he had come from was unknown to the blonde. Had he been here all along, waiting for this moment, or the moment when Naruto was defeated? Had he just arrived and merely wanted to interrogate this mysterious ninja? Was Shigi actually an ally in disguise?

As the old man walked forward and glared at the defeated Shigi, his eyes cold and stern, the last question was answered. Shigi was most certainly not an ally at all. In fact, Jiraiya was glaring at the man is if he were Konoha's worst enemy. That still left several questions to be answered, but Naruto figured he'd learn in a moment.

"Tell me," Jiraiya said, his voice brooking no argument, "I wish to know. Was this all the work of Aizen Sousuke?"

A smile actually curled on Shigi's lips as he dragged himself into a kneeling position, "So sharp, as always, Jiraiya-sama. Yet…so naïve…"

Fire lit up over the floors, reaching a meter tall instantly, as if it had been burning for half an hour. Shigi turned his gaze over to Naruto, "We shall meet again."

Without another word, Shigi leapt backwards into the flames and vanished from sight. At hearing Jiraiya sigh, Naruto looked up at his sensei questioningly. Jiraiya shook his head and turned around. Naruto followed after him and the two of them vanished into the shadows of the night.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach or Cowboy Bebop (The Cat story)

Naruto did get some training done, but it happened off-screen. No one actually wants to read about his training when the action-packed, realistic ANBU missions are more exciting, right? For those of you who would ask, no, he won't be ANBU much longer. He quits right after he gets home. Yuugao's death hit him hard.
1.) — Naruto uses Bankai so often because he often faces enemies he wants to
crush.
2.) — Zettaireido (Absolute Zero) is a Bankai attack that will appear in the sequel.

And those who picked it out get a cookie and a pat on the back. The missions were all based on Tenchu Z. I had particular fun with that game and thought it appropriate for "Naruto Gaiden". No, I don't own Tenchu Z either.

Hic veni, da mihi mortem iterum… (Come here, give me death once more)

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

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