Chapter 42:

Kaede whistled as he looked out over Konoha in the distance. "That's one impressive time/space jutsu." He looked over his shoulder to the genin ready to stop him. "Kaede is adequately impressed. It seems Kaede underestimated Konoha." He grinned malevolently and turned around. He studied his opponents for a moment.

He seemed disinterested – at best – and overall insulted. Something about his demeanor changed, but the only outward sign was his speech. His words were cold. "Usually, my opponents are too distracted to notice what's going on around them. It's rare that I have to work for my prize, but I think, this time, I'll have a little fun."

"Kage Bushin no Jutsu!" Konohamaru ran at his team's target in triplicate. The giant of a man easily dispatched the first, but the rest of the genin took cover before he could refocus. The remaining Kage Bushin proved more resilient. They ducked and weaved through their target's assault.

Unknown to Kaede, Moegi sailed overhead. She swayed and twisted as if expertly skiing down a snowy slope. She watched their opponent for an opening or any weakness to exploit. She kept Konohamaru as safe as she could with timely advice. With her aerial view, she easily conducted the battle. Time was of the essence. They had to quickly subdue their target.

Konohamaru knew he did not have the same level of chakra as Naruto. Just summoning two Kage Bushin taxed his chakra reserves, and he sacrificed one to ensure his teammates could get into position. He could not safely call another to face their giant opponent. Instead, he focused on his taijutsu. He ducked and weaved, and he awaited an opportunity.

Kaede swung in massive arcs, and he often left gaping openings. Konohamaru did not fall for his traps. If he dipped into an opening, he knew retaliation would follow. Instead, he maneuvered around their giant opponent. Eventually, either the original or copy got behind Kaede.

The one behind leapt and caught the burly attacker in a headlock. "Huh, this might be easier than we thought." Konohamaru pondered their tactics just long enough for Kaede eviscerate the Konohamaru attacking from the front. Wide eyed, he was not prepared for the next assault.

Kaede flipped and pile-drove the real Konohamaru into the dirt. The impact drove air from his lungs, and he wheezed and spat. His eyes clenched in pain, and Moegi had to swoop down to save him. Kaede watched their escape and tried to ponder the aerial maneuver.

He did not have long to ponder as Udon interrupted. He threw a half-punch and a half-uppercut. As Kaede recovered, Udon sent a half-knee into his jaw. He continued a seemingly relentless assault of his strange taijutsu as Moegi helped Konohamaru recover.

Konohamaru coughed and wiped blood from the corner of his mouth. "We have to get in there. Udon can't keep up his Yuurei Kowasu forever." He stood, wobbled as he took a few steps, and stopped to catch his breath.

Moegi knew their team leader was right. She slapped her cheeks and walked up next to him. "We've got to be careful. I'm sure he is at least beginning to understand the basics of my Kami no Motsure."

Konohamaru nodded. "You're probably right." He punched a fist into an open palm. "If Boss were here, he'd know exactly what to do." He looked to Moegi. "We can't let Tsunade-sama down. It's now or never."

As they prepared to step towards the battle, Udon flew past them. They stared in the direction he came from blankly. They were too startled to feel the terror they knew they should feel. Kaede marched towards them as he wiped sweat from his brow.

Udon pushed off the tree that caught him. His eye was swollen half-shut, and a shallow gash split his temple. He swallowed gulps of air as he tried to refocus, gather, and mold chakra. He knew he had to rejoin the fight as quickly as possible.

Konohamaru launched forward and threw a punch. Kaede caught him mid-swing. "You brats are trying my patience." He dropped the genin and delivered a devastating roundhouse kick to his gut. He spat blood as he flew into Moegi.

Kaede tilted his head one way. "Don't know why the Fifth sent you here alone to fight me." He looked towards Konoha. "I don't know why she moved us away from the village either. You were safe there with the Fifth and her doting ANBU." He turned in time to see Konohamaru already in his face.

Kaede just laughed as he dodged a fierce hook. He caught the retaliatory knee and threw him into Moegi again. Konohamaru managed to recover just before hitting her. She was still prone from the last attack, and he did not want to injure her. Instead, he landed on all fours right over her. Startled, she could only blink.

For the briefest of moments, they stared at one another and blushed. However, Konohamaru had an idea. He leaned down feigning injury and whispered in her ear. "You guys got to show off first, but I think it's time I broke out my own taijutsu." He waited for her confirmation before rolling over and inspecting his palms. A particularly sharp stone bit into the butt of one palm, but he could still throw a punch.

With feigned effort, Konohamaru got to his feet and excavated the sliver of stone. He patted dirt off his trousers as Moegi stood and created a sign. Udon wiped his upper lip dry before entering his fighting stance. Kaede's grin widened as he watched.

Konohamaru nodded, and Udon catapulted forward. Moegi closed her eyes and focused her chakra. She felt and heard everything around her. She smelled their team leader's blood as he spread it across his scarf. Her lips twitched in slight pain as she lifted off the ground. She sensed it clearly. The time was close in coming.

Udon had recovered little. Even so, he resumed his assault on Kaede with his fierce bursts of chakra. He shortly ran out of stamina again, but Konohamaru jumped between his teammate and their opponent. He caught the giant's punch and redirected the force as best as he could. Mouthing his thanks, Udon retreated. Konohamaru took only a moment to assess the situation.

Obviously, they succeeded in wearing their opponent out. He sweated heavily and tried to hide a need to catch his breath. "That's Udon for you. His Yuurei Kowasu doesn't cause any physical harm, but it still wears on you. Not as effective as Hyuuga juuken, but it gets the job done." Konohamaru spared a brief glance towards Moegi. "Still gotta buy time."

Udon wiped his nose as he panted. He only hoped he wore Kaede out enough. The man was tough. Unlike Pein however, he was susceptible to Yuurei Kowasu. The blasts of raw chakra drained him, but they weakened the target enough for his teammates to otherwise subdue. He turned his attention to Moegi. Hopefully, Kaede had no clue just how useful her Kami no Motsure was.

With a bored expression, Kaede caught a hook and a jab from Konohamaru. "Is that all you've got? You were imaginative enough to catch an inkling of my ultimate jutsu, but you're really starting to bore me." He kneed the genin and then punched him into the ground. With a grunt of dissatisfaction, he stepped back.

Konohamaru laughed as he spat blood and rose again. Kaede was not impressed. He simply prepared for another assault. He blinked stupidly as the genin swung far too early. "Have you taken one too many hits to…?" He flew into the ground before he could finish his statement.

He replayed what just happened as he pushed himself up. "The brat missed. I know he did…" He shook his head to try to clear the cobwebs. "What was that?" He pushed himself to his feet only to see Konohamaru uppercut far too early. He put his arms up to block only to realize his mistake.

Kaede bit the edges of his tongue as he flew upward. "That scarf is alive?!" He landed hard on his back and looked to the genin in amazement. "That Rasengan was impressive. Certainly better for ending an engagement. This taijutsu gives him extra reach." He stood and concentrated on the end of Konohamaru's scarf balled up like a fist.

Kaede soon learned his mistake. If he concentrated on the scarf, the genin delivered rapid punches and kicks. If he concentrated on the genin, he received a powerful blow from the scarf. Like the Kage Bushin, he felt like he fought more than one opponent.

While he fought the leader, he forgot about the other members of the team. Konohamaru fought carefully. He watched his opponent and did not take any unnecessary risks. He attacked based on his target's focus. His taijutsu took less chakra than Udon's Yuurei Kowasu, and it was not as flashy as Moegi's Kami no Motsure. However, it had its uses.

After some time, he felt the signal. Moegi was ready. "Now!" He shouted and fell back. Udon jumped in behind Kaede. He half hammered closed fists downwards to drive Kaede to his knees. "It's my turn!" Konohamaru smiled as their target focused on him.

Before Kaede could realize his mistake, Konohamaru launched Moegi at him with his 'living' scarf. She sprang from its open palm and used the sun as cover as she dove towards him headfirst. She hit his chest with less force than he anticipated, but the next series of events truly shocked him.

Kaede did not know why his body refused to move. His body seemed to seize up, so he could not retaliate. He could only watch as Moegi revealed just how they intended to capture him. Her hair snaked out in powerful strands to bind his arms and legs. Even as he struggled against his bindings, he realized something else felt wrong.

He felt sick. As if he had the flu, he felt his muscles sapped of strength. He struggled to breath, and he snuffled against the urge to sneeze. He tried to talk, but his tongue felt like sandpaper. He smiled even as he wheezed through a clenched throat. "I'll have to thank Madara for this wonderful experiment!"

Konohamaru approached the downed opponent and looked around. "Is everybody okay?" His scarf was limp and lifeless once more.

"I'm fine." Moegi stated plainly, as she fiddled with her hair. It seemed to squirm against her efforts to tame it in her strange hairstyle.

Udon took a deep, refreshing breath before he answered. "A little worse for wear, but I'll live." He held paper seals prepared for their prisoner.

Ebisu's genin team properly applied the paper seals to their prisoner. They could not risk him escaping, so they restricted his chakra and paralyzed his limbs. They also paralyzed his mouth when his constant taunts got to their nerves. They carried him back to town on a stretcher.

Konohamaru and Moegi elected to spare Udon the burden. He received the most injury in the fight. His eye was almost completely swollen shut. They suspected his wrists were twisted or broken.

Still, they were elated. They finished a mission on their own. They used taijutsu Ebisu taught them successfully – for the first time on their own. They protected Konoha while their Boss was out on an extended mission. Of all they had to look forward to, they most anticipated bragging about their accomplishments to Naruto.

They arrived in town to meet a pleasantly surprised ANBU. At least they thought so. It was hard to tell from under their masks and professional demeanor, but they gave the distinct impression of gratitude. Elephant and Bat ordered their squads to take Kaede to interrogation. The ANBU captains decided to stay with Tsunade as she addressed the genin.

The genin were worried; though, they did not fear what she had to say. They fretted instead over her health. Outwardly, she appeared the same as usual. She looked younger than they knew she really was. Because of Naruto, they knew she wore a genjutsu for a disguise.

No, they saw something deeper. She leaned feebly on a cane, and her eyes almost seemed dead. As she observed them each in turn, they noticed uncontrolled muscle spasms at one corner of her lips and eyes. They wondered if the time/space jutsu overextended whatever remained of her chakra reserves. Without the necessary nourishment, they pondered how much chakra she lost in her coma.

"You did a great thing for the village, young genin." Tsunade sounded older than she usually let on. "Ebisu would be proud, and I'm sure Naruto would enjoy your antics as well." She turned to her captains. "Make sure these genin are properly compensated for their actions. They should see medics while I catch up on current events."

The ANBU captains saluted the Hokage, and then they lead the genin away to seek medical treatment. Though they offered to carry him, Udon refused. Tsunade watched them leave fondly. "They really are like that knucklehead." Shizune stifled a sobbing laugh at her sensei's words. With a heavy sigh, she leaned backwards and tapped her back. "I'm really getting too old for this."

Shizune shook her head and wiped a tear from her cheek. "Not at all, Tsunade-sama." She smiled kindly. "Just think of what Naruto-kun would say if he heard you talking like that."

Tsunade laughed. "That brat might just have the audacity to ask for my seat as Hokage!" She stared affectionately to a passing cloud. She saw her brother, lover, and that pervert in its shape. With a heavy sigh, she returned her attention to the living. "Come on then!" Shizune snapped to attention. "We have work to do!"

Hiashi recovered quickly enough and turned towards Suna as soon as he extracted his hand from the hot, desert sand. He pushed chakra into his feet as he watched Suigetsu work. The Hyuuga head understood the water shinobi was an expert with Suiton, but he had not counted on the rouge acting before he claimed victory.

Inwardly, Hiashi sighed. "No, his victory is not in defeating me. His victory lies in capturing my youngest daughter. I cannot allow Sasuke's designs to involve either of my heirs!" He ran towards the rocky cliff face as quickly as he could, but he already knew his timing was off.

Suigetsu took advantage of certain properties of water. He knew how it expanded and contracted based on temperature, and he soaked the desert sands with his powerful Suiton. He was glad he took out Matsuri early. Otherwise, his improvised plan could easily fail.

He rapidly heated and cooled the water to destabilize the rock face. The moving, condensing, and expanding water cracked the hard surface until it could barely hold together. When Hiashi was about the deliver the final blow, he used low ranked Suiton to create large bubbles of water.

As the bubbles expanded, the rock face finally exploded. The falling boulders fell against the bubbles, and they exploded in scalding or freezing downpours. Tsume, Hishu, and Mori protected Matsuri under ledge as Hiashi rushed to Hanabi.

Suigetsu bubbled halfway out of the desert sands with a victorious grin on his face. In liquid form, he surrounded the young Hyuuga and dragged her underground. Hiashi stopped in his tracks. He did not have time to track them as he turned to defense. He had to stop the collapsing cliff from crushing Matsuri and Kankurou's genin.

It took hours for sand nin to dig them out. In that time, Hiashi lost track of his daughter with his Byakugan. He narrowed his eyes in a very visible form of anger. He knew how powerful Suigetsu was, but he also had strong companions. Among them, Sasuke was the biggest challenge.

He folded his arms over his chest. What purpose could Hawk have for his youngest daughter? Why would the water shinobi enter the desert with the expressed desire to declare war on the Hyuuga?

"It's time you stopped embellishing." Sasuke commanded as Suigetsu finally concluded his tale. "Needless to say, you successfully captured Hyuuga Hanabi, and you managed to best the head of the Hyuuga clan. While I am sure he is angry, I doubt he'll show such emotion to the world."

Suigetsu shrugged. "Ain't my fault. The guy has a real stone cold face. Impossible to read, that one." He chuckled. "You gotta admit. My story was great! I only embellished a little, but you can tell I'm a real genius. They oughta write a book about me!"

Karin sighed. "Get over yourself!"

"You know what…" Suigetsu started. "I'm in such a good mood; I'mma leave that'n' alone."

"Shut up both of you, or I'll let Juugo kill you." Sasuke knew his threat only offered him a temporary respite, but he only needed them quiet long enough to start the jutsu. "Prepare everything like we discussed. The sooner we get started; the sooner we can move on."

Karin gingerly picked up Hanabi and placed her on some soft loam. She feared Sasuke's anger more than for Hanabi's safety. She carefully monitored the girl's vitals while Juugo and Suigetsu set candles up around the bed of loam and Sasuke.

Tenganyume was a delicate jutsu. It allowed the Sharingan to easily manipulate the psychology of the target, but the user was left extremely vulnerable. If not for Hawk, Sasuke would not dare use it. He meditated for several moments to properly prepare himself.

He built the situation in his mind and molded his chakra around it. He had to get every detail as precise and accurate as possible. He had to convince Hanabi the events were real. He also had to rely on her memories to fill in anything he did not know or somehow missed.

The first trip into Tenganyume was crucial. It was the first build and set the tone for further trips. If he messed up, he would have to waste chakra building a new situation. If he succeeded, he needed only repeat the same situation ad nauseum.

Sasuke smirked. It was easy to manipulate the unsuspecting. He need only trick a genin. Regardless, Hanabi was still only the backup. It was far easier to work with preexisting material than to create it, even with the Sharingan.

Mizukura rejoined his troops at a ruined farm. He surveyed the damage from the flood with a deep, regretful sigh. "The rains must have fallen hard and lasted long to do this kind of damage. The farms nearest the capitol are above the floodplains and usually avoid the worst of it." He looked up when one of his lieutenants approached.

"Mizukura-taichou, we've finished investigating this area. It appears this farm lost minimal crops. We were lucky in that regard. In addition, the entire family and most of their animals made it to a secure location before most of the floodwaters hit. We also found…" He paused, unsure of his words. "Well, I think you should have a look, sir."

Mizukura nodded and followed. He did not know what his lieutenant had to show him, so he felt some disquiet. They approached a man covered in mud and other debris. The river obviously washed him ashore after a long and likely arduous journey downstream. In his years of service to the daimyo miko, he had yet to see any survive a trip down the flood-swollen river.

"He still breaths, Mizukura-taichou." The lieutenant reported automatically.

"Well, there's a first time for everything." Mizukura pondered as soldiers escorted a medic to the river-beaten man. He watched as they applied first aid and tried to scrub the mud from his exposed skin. The captain-commander tapped his chin. "Something about this man seems familiar." After a moment of thought, he waved the sense of déjà vu away. "In any case, keep me informed on his condition. As soon as he is awake, I want a full account of who he is."


Shion's steadfast guardian looked to the curious soldier. "If he is a citizen of our land, he needs proper escort to his estate. There are dangers after a flood, after all. If he somehow survived the trip downstream from one of our neighbors, he'll need food and water. I'd like to speak with him if he is a guest from a foreign land as well."

The soldier saluted without further questions. "Of course, sir."

Mizukura nodded. He served as one of the lieutenants under the previous captain-commander, so he already had a lot of respect from the troops. The transition to his position was easy, and everything continued to run smoothly.

Still, they had to recruit troops after the fulfillment of the prophecy. Some of the newer troops did not understand all the tasks and protocols associated with enlistment. He was infinitely glad he had reliable lieutenants. Without them, he would run himself ragged just explaining everything.

Mizukura walked into a nearby tent expecting reports to read through and requests to approve. He was sadly not disappointed. There were few leaders who enjoyed paperwork. He would rather accompany his men and do some good in the field. With a heavy sigh, he sat down and opened the first manila folder.

It was hours later before he was disturbed. He almost welcomed the interruption, but he had several emergency requisitions to sanction. He almost dismissed the intruder before a familiar voice spoke up. "Pardon my interruption, but I believe we have some business to attend to."

Mizukura turned in surprise to see the guest who washed up on the swollen banks of the nearby river. He was hardly recognizable in his current condition. Blood, bruises, and caked mud darkened his skin. His clothes were in tatters, probably from boulders in the river rapids.

Shion's guardian stood in shock and amazement. Before he could answer, a medic and soldier rushed into the tent. The soldier spoke up first. "I'm sorry, Mizukura-taichou! He rushed off before we could…"

Mizukura held his hand up to quiet further explanation. "It's okay. I do believe our guest here is correct. We have some business to attend to." He looked to the medic and soldier as they stood gaping at him. "In private, if you would."

They saluted and left without another word. After a moment, Mizukura sat and invited his guest to do the same. "I must say; I'm surprised." He tilted his head as he watched his guest for familiar mannerisms. "I'd like to know how you survived swollen waters and jagged rocks… However, I do believe there are more pressing questions. I'm sure you'll indulge me."

Tenten walked through town with Neji. Something felt off, but she could not put her finger on it. She enjoyed spending time with him, and she wanted to get to know him better. He often closed himself off, and he seemed too aloof at times. He seemed the same as always, yet she watched him suspiciously.

Neji seemed to have taken Mizukura's advice to heart. It was hard to tell, though. He had not said anything since the captain-commander interrupted their lunch. He just wandered through town, seemingly aimlessly. He obviously expected Tenten to follow because he stopped and waited whenever she fell behind.

As they continued their walk, Neji eyed each business they passed. He did not look with suspicion, but Tenten thought she detected obvious disdain. "Is he mad about Mizukura's warning? That's not really like him…" She watched him, and a strange feeling growing in the pit of her stomach seized her mind. She had hoped the feeling was simply fatigue talking.

She shook her head. She could not explain exactly what she sensed was wrong. She might even sound crazy if she started with the compliment she received after Zetsu retreated. She had expected a reprimand. After they made it to the city proper, he seemed colder and more distant than usual.

She blushed as she shook her head again. "What would he think if he knew what I was thinking?" She looked to her teammate, and the heat left her cheeks. "True, I can keep my cool around him usually, but it takes me a moment to recover once I do lose it."

Neji stopped and turned to face Tenten. He seemed to ignore her anxious expression. "What do you think of Mizukura?" His tone was cold and hinted at ill temper. It was not the aloof and nearly expressionless tone she was used to.

She stiffened as she stared at him. She did not gawk. Instead, her resolve solidified. She took a deep breath and answered his question. "He is a responsible and reasonable man. He serves Shion-sama and this land well. He is affable, and he has a resolve to stand for what he believes. He can seem strict when necessary, but he is not overbearing or cruel."

Neji nodded. "Yet he thinks to order us away from an investigation. We only offer our support, but he has ordered shop owners to be wary of us. Perhaps he wishes to keep such investigations internal, but somebody hired assassins who endangered Hinata-sama."

Tenten set her jaw. She did not like the venom in her voice, but she needed to find the source of her disquiet. "You speak of Hinata with such dispassion that it's hard to recognize you beneath that cold exterior."

Neji paused for a long moment before replying. "You must be imagining things. After the ordeal with Zetsu, I'm surprised you required no more medical attention than first aid." He eyed her a moment before turning. "Now then, let's continue our walk. There are more sights I wish to see. Perhaps a farmer…"

"No." Tenten interupted, and he turned around. She gulped at his spiteful stare. She hoped everything was just conjured by her own mind. In spite of her sudden fear, she pressed on. "Why did you compliment me back in the woods?"

Neji almost appeared to smirk. "You fought well and held Zetsu off until I could return. Why would I not compliment your tactics and judgment?"

Tenten looked down dejected. Something far worse replaced the feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her worry turned to fear. Tears welled in her eyes, but she fought them back. Though her body shook and voice quavered, she felt a surge of strength. "It is a dangerous jutsu. It puts the user at a supreme disadvantage once the opponent sees through it, and it should never be used without support."

Neji raised an eyebrow. "Are you second guessing yourself now? It is a dangerous habit." He paused and made to turn again. "If you are very well finished…"

"Even if the opponent is temporarily thrown off by the appearance of the jutsu, the user must sacrifice equal to any benefit received." Tenten was obviously not finished. "The veil of a genjutsu can only do so much. A good support can mitigate any sacrifice the jutsu requires. Make sure to never use that jutsu while you are without support."

Neji narrowed his eyes. "You may well believe the words you speak, but the situation was dire. Why are we even having this discussion? My report will reflect well upon your actions."

"They are your words, Neji!" Tenten almost yelled as tears finally broke through the dam of her self-control. "You told me never to use my jutsu without support! You were supposed to be there to back me up! You were supposed to get me out of trouble!"

She could have sworn Neji's lips twitched. "As I said, the situation was dire. Zetsu had me captive, and Shion-sama was injured. There was no way Mizukura or his men could help. Obviously, his barrier was meaningless to Zetsu's spears."

Tenten smiled. "See, that doesn't sound like you at all. Mizukura-taichou is not useless. My jutsu disrupted his barrier, so it was either time-space or Suiton." Her tone grew harsher with every word. "Though, I suppose you wouldn't actually know that." Venom punctuated her words.

Naruto walked ahead with Shikamaru. The blond genin wanted to discuss the missions with the team leader. The details were obvious for the first two. He was more curious about the Nara's opinion. They did not have details on the Earth daimyo's children, so they did not know the youngest daughter's age. Still, the assignments seemed purely diplomatic.

They were to guard the daimyo's youngest daughter while he hunted. The assignment was not difficult. They were in the heart of Earth and surrounded by enough rock nin to slow down just about any invasion. If they had anything to fear, they were small time bandits, thugs, and other brigands.

The mission benefitted Konoha financially and diplomatically. They had a village to rebuild, and stronger ties could ensure further aid. Naruto and his friends had no desire for war, so improved relations appealed to them.

The second mission depressed Naruto somewhat. Earth wanted their assistance securing the site for the next chunin exam. The blond genin was the last of his class to achieve promotion, and he had no team to participate. Still, he swore to uphold his nindo. He would try his best, and he promised to protect the genin participating in the exam – where applicable.

Naruto was more curious about the third mission. It was ambiguous; though, it seemed to directly refer to the knucklehead shinobi. In essence, he was to report to a special committee for some kind of interview or testimony.

"What do you think they want?" Naruto was obviously curious. He had no idea what he had to offer Iwa. He would not sell out Konoha; though, he doubted they wanted anything of the sort. He wracked his brain for an answer, but he hoped his brilliant friend already had one.

Shikamaru looked to the clouds and almost appeared to ignore his powerful friend. After a moment, he answered. "Well, there are a few possibilities. They might want some information about Akatsuki. There is the Shadow Council, so perhaps they want to overcome and impasse." He sighed. "It's troublesome, but maybe they want to put you through some sort of test."

Naruto blinked. "Test? Like what?" He had not thought of that possibility.

Shikamaru shrugged. "You're too troublesome to put in a chunin exam. You don't really know how to hold back, and you pack some serious jutsu." He paused. "Not to mention, you're just way too powerful." He locked the blond with his rare, serious gaze. "Those are the most likely possibilities. They either want you to testify about Akatsuki or pacify a need to see you participate in the chunin exam."

Naruto turned his eyes to the clouds as Shikamaru returned his gaze to the fluffy, white formations. "I will become Hokage, even if they don't let me participate. I'll just prove I'm the best…" He paused. "…but it would be cool to show off like that." He smiled impossibly bright. "I won't let my friends keep racing ahead of me!"

Shikamaru chuckled. "Leave it to that troublesome knucklehead to think we're the ones racing ahead of him. Regardless…" He cleared his throat. "However, you do look a lot like the Fourth. In the worst case, they may want recompense."

Naruto shrugged. "Then we run." He felt his brilliant friend stare at him. "No way Kanaeru sent us here if they intended anything like that. Besides, otou-chan only performed his duty. Let the old geezers sort out their past feelings. I'd rather prepare for the future."

Shikamaru shook his head. "You know what they say about the past, right?"

Naruto grinned. "Yeah. You're doomed to repeat it if you don't learn." His grin widened at the incredulous look he received. "I did say prepare for the future! Ain't no way I'm letting some silly mistakes from the past ruin what I plan to build."

Shikamaru had to hand it to his hyperactive friend. He sometimes had the outward appearance of an idiot, but his sensei really pounded critical thinking into him. Iruka, Kakashi, and Jiraiya had the right idea. They saw something in him, and they started grooming him for the highest position of power in the village.

Still, Shikamaru wanted to know what the blond meant. "Does that mean you have an answer to Nagato's question?"

Naruto shook his head in the negative. "Nah, I don't yet. I just know I want to protect my friends from war." He smirked and chuckled. "I also plan on making friends everywhere!"

Shikamaru shook his head in disbelief. "Well, I suppose that's a good enough place to start." He honestly did not know what to expect from the knucklehead, but he was glad to call him friend. He returned to cloud gazing only for another interruption.

"I know Nagato wanted peace the wrong way." Naruto started. He felt his brilliant friend's attention as he just continued. "You can't force peace on people." He looked up and thought about Nagato's story. "You can't create something through hate. I understand; sometimes you have to fight for something." He paused with a sigh. "Not to mention, there are things worth fighting for…"

Shikamaru felt drawn by his friend's words. He knew the blond could be charismatic when he wanted, but he never took advantage of people. Really, the existential speech surprised him most. "Maybe there are others who don't think that something is worth fighting for."

Naruto nodded. "There are things everybody wants." He paused for a moment before seeming to shift gears. "You're courting Temari, right?" The young Nara practically spat in surprise. "Supposed to be a secret?"

Shikamaru coughed. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. Nothing really official yet."

Naruto nodded. "Do the Nara practice arranged marriages? I think the Hyuuga do, and I've heard our daimyo married off some of his sons and daughters for political gain – usually diplomatic."

Shikamaru scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, that's how tou-san and kaa-san got together. Really, tou-san was too lazy to find his own woman, so his parents found kaa-san." He sighed. "I'd rather find an ordinary woman and have an ordinary life." He rolled his eyes and muttered something similar to his catchphrase. "I can't deny; I'm okay with Temari."

Naruto chuckled. "Only you…" He laughed a little louder. "Temari is gorgeous, and she obviously has eyes for you. How can you go back to boring ordinary after that?"

Shikamaru yawned. "Simple." He looked to his knuckleheaded friend. "I actually like boring. Unlike some people, who will remain nameless…" He coughed and seemed to say a certain jinchuuriki's name. "…I don't really want to stand out. I'd rather go with the flow and let things fall as they may."

"Things didn't turn out the way you wanted, huh?" Naruto watched his friend shrug. "I'd really have it no other way. Konoha needs you." He paused. "A good Hokage recognizes and uses the best talent he can find, and you just fit nicely into my plans."

"There you go with your plans again." Shikamaru was amused. Others might see the jinchuuriki as some clueless wannabe, but he saw something deeper every single time he looked. He was curious where the knucklehead planned to go. "What do arranged marriages have to do with what everybody is willing to fight for?"

"Freedom." Naruto paused and looked for confirmation in his friends eyes. He felt more than saw the spark, the light. Moreover, he found it humorous to see him nearly miss a step and trip. "You can't force peace on people because, eventually, you either have to clamp down on their everyday lives, or they sue for simple things they can only have when they are free to chase them."

Shikamaru forced his eyes to stay on the clouds high above. They had no lofty ambitions, much like him. They floated from one port to another on the whim of the winds. They collected water vapor and eventually soaked the earth when laden enough. They lived a simple, ordinary life. "You're talking about freedom, but you want me to give it up to work for your Hokage office."

Naruto smiled softly. "Yeah, well… Maybe my ideas aren't perfect... I just know Nagato had it wrong. His ambitions either crush everything or lead to another revolution. I think he saw it, too. Blinded as he was with revenge, I don't think he was that foolish."

"You really are amazing, Naruto." Shikamaru observed a particularly fox-like cloud pass over the horizon before continuing. "You continue to surprise and confound me." He sighed. "Besides, Temari would kick me if I didn't help you." He smirked. "Not to be cruel, but I think a change of subject is overdue."

"Huh?" Naruto asked dumbly.

"What are you going to do about Hinata?" Shikamaru practically cooed cruelly.

Naruto blushed. "Okay, I need to cement my decision…" The conversation seemed to end abruptly with his acknowledgement as the gates of Earth's capitol came into view.

Hinata and Sakura hung back. They watched their male teammates for long while as they discussed details of the mission. At least, that was what they thought. Sakura stole glances towards her pale-eyed teammate. She hoped they were friends, but she was never really confident enough to call somebody that without some kind of confirmation.

Regardless, she wanted some girl talk, and Ino was not around. Clearing her throat, she tried to break the ice. "Why Naruto?" She flushed red as she realized how dumb her question sounded.

"Huh?" Hinata responded innocently. She seemed suddenly drawn back to reality. Perhaps she was watching the road for potential dangers.

"Why…?" Sakura coughed as she thought about her question. "Why did you choose Naruto? I mean; you've had a crush on him since the academy. He seemed like an idiot back then, and there were cuter guys…"

Hinata smiled. She did not get mad at the apparent insults. She knew how tough the medic's exterior appeared. She also understood where the question was coming from. "I guess I saw something nobody else could."

Sakura sighed. "Okay, he obviously isn't so stupid. The sensei at the academy just ignored him. I…" She stopped when her female teammate shook her head.

Hinata continued gently. "I think…" She sighed. "No, we were kids. We believed what our parents told us."

"Then why didn't you hate Naruto?" The Hyuuga's calm demeanor surprised Sakura.

Hinata thought back. "I suppose because otou-sama never disparaged Naruto-kun."

"Ugh, that makes me feel worse!" Sakura looked downcast.

"Sakura…" Hinata started and hesitated. After a moment, she continued. "People were afraid, and they felt their fear justified an outlet. Don't hate yourself, and don't hate those who feared him."

Sakura sighed. "It's kinda hard. He never deserved any of it. He's the Fourth's kid for crying out loud!"

Hinata nodded. "Yes he is, but he never hated anybody. He didn't even understand why everybody hated him until he found out he was a jinchuuriki." She paused. "That was when he joined the genin ranks. Do you want to know what I saw in him in the academy?"

Sakura nodded. She was honestly curious. She only saw an annoyingly flirtatious – using the term loosely – child. Most of the adults seemed to hate him, and her peers reciprocated that hatred with taunts and ridicule.

Hinata smiled and blushed. "I saw unadulterated light. I saw an unwavering will. He reached out to the future to grasp it, and he didn't care who got in his way. He wanted to turn the hatred he saw around, and he earnestly wanted to protect everybody. He noted his special people, but he never turned away from anybody in need."

Sakura just stared wide-eyed at the pale-eyed shinobi. "You really love him." Her teammate's words floored her, and she said the first thing that came to her mind.

Hinata nodded. "He's had to discover everything on his own. Nobody helped guide him throughout his childhood and the academy. Iruka had to let go of his prejudice first. I don't know why the Third or Kakashi never helped, but I think I can guess."

Sakura rolled his eyes. "Yeah, he seems slow and dim, but he absorbs things like a sponge. Did you see those jutsu he used against the Pein Rikudo?"

Hinata covered his mouth cutely as she chuckled. "He is also very creative. He seems to combine his Rasengan with any jutsu he gets his hands on." She sighed in recollection. "He was the same in the academy. People shrugged it off as a lack of formal training, but I could see how hard he worked on his taijutsu combinations."

"He trained and augmented his own taijutsu?" Sakura easily put two and two together. She thought back to their early genin days. "I thought he just threw random kicks and punches, really. He seemed to get lucky a lot, but, I mean, he's Naruto!"

Hinata shook her head. "He watched every match and incorporated what he saw into his own style. Kakashi and Jiraiya honed his taijutsu, but his style is just as flexible as his imagination. You've seen him build on, perfect, and invent ninjutsu." She looked down; another thought crossed her mind. "I'm jealous. You got to spend so much time with him."

"I spent time with him, but I never watched him." Sakura sighed. "I only watched Sasuke-kun. I'm not ashamed to say I really fell in love with him." She shrugged and laughed. "I just crushed on him in the academy. Nothing like you."

Once again, Hinata shook her head. "No, I think I just had a crush. I'll admit; I couldn't get him off my mind even as I trained with Shino and Kiba. However when I saw him again at the chunin exams, I realized just how much I missed his light in my life."

Sakura smiled. "Yeah. He's pretty unforgettable." She looked to the sky. "I admit; I kinda missed him while Jiraiya trained him." Her eyes widened and she waved her arms at her teammate. "I don't mean like love or anything! I mean; he's kinda like a brother and all, but I don't really feel that way! I…"

Hinata laughed. "I think we all missed him. He was gone for three whole years. I'd be disappointed if you didn't miss him." She smiled reminiscing. "Shino and Kiba won't admit it out loud, but I know they missed him. Even Akamaru whined happily when he caught Naruto-kun's scent."

Sakura looked down in thought. She admired the pale-eyed shinobi walking beside her. While she fell in love with an external perception, her counterpart fell in love with what everybody else refused to see. Both their feelings evolved over time to more accurately match reality, but the Hyuuga had a head start in that department.

"Naruto-kun won't trade you for anything in the world." Hinata drew her pink-haired girl out of her reverie. "You've been a good friend to Naruto-kun. A little harsh at times, but he's grown thanks to your presence. It's nice to have another friend to talk to, and a female friend right around my age is great for these kinds of talks."

Sakura blinked before she smiled. "Yeah, we girls need to stick together." Her smile turned a little cruel as she leaned in. "You know; I think Ino and Chouji are dating."

Hinata nodded with a wide smile. She lacked any sinister signs. "I know. Isn't it great?"

Sakura folded her arms over her chest with a harrumph. "I don't think you've got this gossip thing quite yet." She sighed. "Oh well, we'll have plenty of time to go over things like that. Anyway, it looks like we're here."

They picked up their pace to catch up with the guys. Together, the four-man cell entered the capitol of Earth to start their first assignment for the daimyo.

Madara watched the kousotsu curiously. The armor-clad man stood in place as he observed his surroundings. The strange light continued to bob around him and strobe seemingly random colors. Confident in his abilities, he allowed the silent warrior to get the lay of the land. However, his patience had its limits.

After a while, he started tapping his foot. Not long after, he angrily and repeatedly jabbed his fore and middle fingers into his biceps. Finally, he called the armored figure out. "Are you so slow? I gave you the opportunity to finish your sightseeing, and I even offered you an easy, first strike. You are in my territory. You will answer my questions, and then you will die."

The kousotsu turned his gaze to the masked Akatsuki shinobi. His eyes seemed to penetrate the mask and witness bare of any disguise. "I am under no obligation to name my sumitsuki. However, I am an honorable warrior. Though I have forgotten my name, you – Madara referred to as Tobi – may refer to this humble self as Gayt."

Madara's visible eye twitched. "You are a man full of interesting surprises." He held up his hand and counted up his observations. "One, you followed the man who can outrun lightning. Two, your armor completely masks your chakra. Three, you know more than you let on. Four, you think to actually surprise me with that jutsu over your shoulder."

He balled his fist before pointing to the ball of light. "I see through your plans. You want to disguise your jutsu with that creation, or you wish to distract me with a pitiful genjutsu. You are a foolish kousotsu. Perhaps your sumitsuki is more the fool for sending you to face me."

Calmly, Gayt answered. "Star is neither creation nor jutsu. She is my eternal companion who has braved even jigoku for my soul. While she aids me, I do not use her. You show your fear and lack of understanding. If your eyes cannot see it, you jump to conclusions and hope to strike fear into your opponent."

He held his arm parallel to the ground beneath his feet. "I am no fool for seeking you. I understand more than you realize, and I hold secrets you cannot hope to wrest from my breast. Do you still wish to spout nonsense your eyes cannot see?"

Madara's chest heaved in frustration, and he breathed through clenched teeth. He did not speak for several, long moments. After a moment, he closed his eyes and stretched his neck. "You certainly can run your mouth. It is of no matter. You cannot defeat me." He smirked under his mask. "Your only hope is to flee, but I am much inclined to hunt you like the useless creature you are and end you."

"Tell me…" Gayt started. His voice never wavered. "How do you expect to best me?" He almost felt the heat of his enemy's anger. "You cannot sense me. You cannot see my companion." He seemed to know what buttons to press. "Allow me to return your words. You cannot defeat me."

Madara laughed. He seemed amused as he waved his the armored figure off. "You…" He doubled over in laughter. "My, you are a brave fool." He heaved a breath as he regained his self-control. "You think we rest in stalemate? You have obviously never faced the Sharingan."

Gayt nodded. "I have not, nor have I faced any kekkei genkai. They seem to have no effect on me. In essence, you face me as a shinobi freshly recruited from the academy. You cannot rely on your perceived superiority."

Gayt formed a fist, and a seemingly crystalline poleaxe appeared from the ether. At the same instant, Madara released the black flames of Amaterasu. He laughed as the flames lapped at and washed over the heavily armored warrior.

"How can you expect to escape so easily when burdened by that ridiculous armor?" He chuckled and turned away. "The Uzumaki never could see when the end was nigh."

"Ah, these flames are familiar. Are you sure you can control something so otherworldly?" The elder Uchiha stopped in his tracks when he heard the words of a man who should be consumed.

End Notes

I actually thoroughly enjoyed the official Naruto manga... Hinata gave an epic "come to your senses, man" speech, and Kishi seemed to give NaruHina some more direct time.

Anyway, I did not directly name Konohamaru's taijutsu in this chapter, but I'm not going to make anybody wait. It is in the below jutsu list.

I hope you guys like the taijutsu I created for Konohamaru, Udon, Moegi, and Tenten. Though I introduced them late, I actually conceptualized them long before the Pein Rikudou fight. The timing was just bad to introduce them, and, as was implied, may have actually made the outcome worse.

As always, all reviews are welcome, and outright flames will be ignored.

Story Word Count: 8,049
Story Page Count: 15


Yuurei Kowasu - Phantom Breaker: Udon's taijutsu

Kami no Motsure - Hair Entanglement: Moegi's taijutsu

Ken o Mohou - Mimic the Fist: Konohamaru's taijutsu