"Interesting," was the rather inappropriate word that Itachi used, considering that a mutant demon had attacked them.

Naruto had no time to vocalize that opinion; however, as a girl's loud screaming then pierced the air. He glanced over to his companion, who was instead staring at the sound's origin point, which seemed to be on the path leading into the village outskirts. The blond rushed right towards the scream and removed his kasa once again, hot blood quickening in anticipation. Behind him, Uchiha Itachi shook his head and moved into action behind his impulsive partner. Thus began the charge into Hell.

Chapter Four: Doing As He Pleases – Naruto's Investigation

Disclaimer: Naruto's not mine. I'm not getting paid to write this, et cetera.

Naruto pushed chakra into his legs and leapt over the wooden wall surrounding the little mountain village, Itachi less than a step behind. He glanced down in midair to see an innocent-looking girl his age gripping a kunai and standing back to back with an older male shinobi, the latter wielding an enormous cleaving sword. More than a dozen mutants had the pair surrounded.

The jinchuuriki thrust his arm outward and used a partial cursed seal mutation to change it into a snake, which expanded and rushed towards the mutant now rushing at the girl. The snake's poisonous bite tore into the creature's skull, puncturing its cranium. Naruto pulled back and pried the monster's head apart, sending blood and brain matter gushing into the air. The blond then launched the Kusanagi towards another mutant closing in on his rear, grinning down at the orange-haired girl who was now staring up at him in awe.

'Damn I'm good,' Naruto gave his ego a pat on the back as he made a quick one-handed seal – a trick Itachi had shown him, causing the airborne Kusanagi to split into six replicas.

The hulking, dinosaur-like mutant howled in torment as the six white glowing blades impaled deep into its thick hide. However, the attack was somehow not enough to put the monster down, and it began to stagger towards the blond despite the swords punctured into its vitals. Naruto reeled his serpent arm in and returned the hissing appendage to its normal human state, and then leaned over and prepared to counter the beast as it gained momentum. He couldn't help but notice the parallel to a past opponent, both in the mutant's appearance and in its unstoppable resilience and determination.

'Just like Kimimaro,' Naruto mused, but the circumstances didn't permit him time to pursue that thought to its logical conclusion. 'At least this one doesn't have the bones.'

The nameless cleaver-wielding shinobi let out a war shout and brought his blade down into the dinosaur mutant's arm, but lacked the strength to cut through the beast's iron hide. The mutant howled again and raised its arms to deliver a crushing counterattack.

"Idiot," Naruto hissed under his breath, wishing that the person had taken the girl and retreated so that he and Itachi wouldn't have to deal with unwanted distractions.

He ran through several hand seals, now glad that he'd had the sense to cancel his own mutation, and ended with a snake sign. The ground beneath the wounded mutant changed into thick mud, causing it to sink to its waist. The distraction was enough to cause the monster's attack to miss. The wet earth began to move, gaining in speed to become a rushing mud river that swept the beast headlong into the village wall with crushing impact.

Naruto sneered and began making additional seals to press his hard-won advantage with his Doryuudan technique. However, Itachi's Housenka beat him to the proverbial punch. Fire-encased, blazing hot kunai plowed into the beast's hide as Naruto dismissed his replica Kusanagi blades and called the original back to his hand, traveling through the pre-existing wounds to incinerate the primitive demon's insides. The mutant thrashed and roared against the indescribable pain. Itachi silenced the raging creature with a single hand sign, detonating the explosive notes attached to his kunai. The helpless beast exploded into a bloodied smear as the blast opened a gaping hole in the wooden village walls.

"Tch," the blond groused, irritated with being outdone. "You're such an ass, Itachi."

The Uchiha ignored Naruto's complaining. His attentions were preoccupied with the two mutants now engaging him at once. Itachi used his Sharingan to predict and counter their movements, evading attacks with a natural grace that made the jinchuuriki envious.

"Look out!" the orange-haired girl's voice cried out beside him.

Naruto took an instinctive step backwards and whirled around to see the insect-like mutant closing in on him. The creature's sharp armored pincer lashed out at him at an inhuman speed, leaving him no time to dodge. The blond could do nothing except raise his arm to block. The pincer clamped down onto his ANBU bracer, crushing the light metallic protector as though it were an aluminum can. Naruto battled down the urge to moan as his attacker exerted destructive pressure on his wrist.

'Fuck!' he howled out in his mind, knowing that he would soon be missing an arm unless he did something.

He measured and swung the Kusanagi at the creature's head, but the monster's other pincer intercepted and clamped down onto the glowing blade. Naruto attempted to pull it loose, but lacked the strength in his current position to match power with the beast. Meanwhile, the pressure on his trapped wrist kept increasing. He concentrated chakra into his legs, but the bug somehow seemed to guess what he was planning and hoisted him into the air so that he couldn't touch the ground.

There seemed to be no help coming, either. Itachi's two opponents were somehow managing to hold him in check, and the idiot with the cleaver was locked in combat also. The girl was shaking in terror, helpless as she tried not to drop her kunai. Not even a proper kunoichi, Naruto guessed. He could now hear a scraping sound in his wrist, as the bone was losing its strength and beginning to compress.

"Damn it," Naruto growled, pumping chakra into his cursed seal as a last resort as the mutant raised its barbed tail to deliver a killing strike. "Like Hell I'm getting maimed in a place like this," he continued as the vile markings began to slither across his tanned skin.

The creature then thrashed and relaxed its grip, however, as the girl moved into action and plunged her kunai into an exposed seam in its armored exoskeleton. The tail whipped over and knocked her sprawling onto the ground, but the distraction granted Naruto enough space to raise his legs and deliver a chakra-empowered drop kick to the mutant's right shoulder, causing it to release its pincer grip on the Kusanagi as chitin broke with a loud crunch.

Naruto wasted no time in severing the creature's other arm with the glowing blade. He next slammed his weapon into the monster's skull, killing it with one clean stroke. The mutant dropped dead onto its knees, and the blond glowered and kicked its motionless husk onto the ground. His ruptured wrist was even now beginning to swell with blood, making it hard to use. The jinchuuriki allowed the arm to dangle at his side, seeking his next target as he deactivated his seal, unwilling to accept its corruptive taint unless he needed to.

That next opponent came straight to him instead. Naruto's instincts pricked and he managed to roll to the side in time to avoid the charging ogre. This mutant had a more humanoid appearance, ignoring the hideous warts and indentations covering its torso.

'You're one ugly motherfucker,' the blond thought with a taunting grin, sidestepping an incoming punch. 'Then again, so are the rest…'

The ogre snarled in anger as it missed Naruto and then grabbed and uprooted a small spruce tree. The demon container blinked and moved to avoid a downward swing. The monster started to push him back using its improvised club. Naruto bit down on his lip as he hit the ground to duck underneath a tree swipe and dropped his sword, smearing blood onto his thumb. He managed to complete the summoning ritual right as the ogre prepared another swing, and a massive crimson serpent burst out through the ground and coiled around to protect him.

The uprooted tree splintered against the snake's hard scales and the enraged reptile then descended upon and devoured the surprised mutant whole in retaliation, its poisonous bite goring into and rendering the creature helpless to resist. Naruto didn't bother to loiter around and watch the serpent digest its meal, instead checking the area to make sure that his own side was clear and then turning his attention towards Itachi.

The older teenager moved his head to avoid a lunging blow and grabbed onto the oncoming demon, using its own momentum to send it crashing into its cohort with a martial arts throw. The two mutants crashed into one another with a sickening thud, and Itachi turned and ran up along the nearest tree trunk. He then somersaulted backwards into the air and executed an acrobatic midair twist while making hand seals, and rained a huge Grand Fireball down onto his two unprepared victims' heads.

'Show-off bastard,' Naruto groused, grabbing onto his hurt wrist and tucking the swollen limb into his cloak using his good hand.

The smoke cleared, revealing a large, charred crater in the earth where Itachi's attack had made contact. Nothing save smoldering ashes existed therein. The Uchiha, however, kept his attention concentrated on that spot, his swirling crimson stare narrowing ever so little in suspicion. Thus, he had no trouble reacting to the mutant that burst out moments later.

The crustacean-like beast had black scorch marks mottling its armored hide and exuded a rank, cooked stench. The mutant was pissed, taking rattling breaths as its large crab claws clacked and snapped with unrestrained rage. Naruto decided to get the earlier assist back and morphed his arm again, extending the serpentine appendage to coil around the monster's arm and halting its initial lunge. The jinchuuriki brought all his inhuman strength to bear in order to hold the struggling creature in place.

"Now we're even," the blond cackled, pulling back with his snake arm and tightening the coils on the ensnared mutant.

"Hn," was the predictable response, as Itachi started into a quick seal sequence that Naruto knew he'd seen somewhere.

His answer was a high-pitched, telltale chirping sound. The blond Missing-nin shook his head, disbelieving, as Itachi's right hand became encased with electric current. Naruto noted that the Uchiha's Chidori was a whole lot sloppier and less intense than his weak little brother's. However, the assassination technique nonetheless accomplished its purpose, piercing through the crustacean's armored chest as though it were wet tissue paper. Itachi withdrew at similar speed, managing to avoid getting mutant blood onto his hand. The creature twitched and went still.

The thousand birds quieted and silence reigned. Itachi glanced down at his hand and nodded, and then tucked it into his cloak, deactivating his Sharingan. Naruto took a silent kill count, noting that there had been more enemies at the start than were dead on the ground now. The others must have retreated into the wilderness, he reasoned.

"Shit," Naruto said to the approaching Uchiha, observing the carnage surrounding the mismatched quartet. "This little quest keeps on getting weirder."

Itachi glanced down at Naruto's arm, which was tucked into the demon vessel's clock in a manner identical to his own, and then strode past him towards the two unknown shinobi. The jinchuuriki blinked, but started in the same direction. The stout warrior with the huge meat cleaver was helping the still-downed kunoichi to stand. He called the Kusanagi into his good hand again and shouldered the glowing sword. The two shinobi looked between Naruto and Itachi, letting his stare rest on their slashed Konoha hitai-ate.

"You have our gratitude, strangers," the male spoke in a sincere voice. "I'd thought she and I were worse than dead."

"You two must be Fuuma," the Uchiha stated rather than asked, as though it were impossible that he could be mistaken.

"That's right," the big man responded, strapping his cleaver to his back. "I'm Fuuma Hanzaki. Her name is Sasame," he next introduced the kuniochi, whose cheeks reddened in response to the sudden attention, too embarrassed to speak.

Naruto glanced over and sent Sasame a sinister grin. Her blush deepened, but he soon realized that she was looking past him at Itachi, who didn't seem to care a whit. His mood soured at once. Not that he was the least bit attracted to the brat, but a little damned gratitude would have been nice. He had saved her useless skin a moment ago.

"The pleasure is ours," Itachi said in his haunting monotone, not bothering to return the introductions. "Now then," he continued, motioning towards the butchered corpses littering the earth all around, "we would like a detailed explanation on the circumstances here."

"Take a look around," Hanzaki grunted, sounding bitter. "Thanks to this epidemic, our homeland's been changed into this nightmare. Those creatures were once normal people, like us."

Naruto and Itachi looked over at one another, digesting this tidbit. Some unknown pathogen was – at least according to Hanzaki – causing mutations in people, turning them into rampaging monsters.

"Oi, I take exception to being labeled as a normal person," Naruto declared, pointing the Kusanagi at the Fuuma warrior. "Though I wouldn't want to be compared to them either," he added in a less boisterous voice.

"Then the apparent source to this issue," the Sharingan master muttered, but then stopped his statement.

'…Is Orochimaru.' Naruto completed the sentence in his head. 'Fucking snake bastard.'

"You two ought to leave this place as soon as possible," Hanzaki interrupted. "There's nothing here now except ghost towns and lost dreams."

"How poetic," Itachi deadpanned.

The jinchuuriki repressed the urge to chuckle, and instead dismissed his serpent.

"Not happening," Naruto continued in his partner's place, "we've got business in these parts. Besides, I'm not a person who can leave something like this alone."

That last part wasn't a total lie, as the blond did tend to get involved in things that were neither his business nor his obligation – a do-gooder despite his people-hating tendencies. He did think that this exchange represented an odd role reversal, though, with Itachi making the sarcastic remark and he, Naruto, having to pick up the Uchiha's slack.

"I see," the Fuuma warrior spoke at length, not quite trusting Naruto and Itachi but likewise unwilling to turn such dangerous men into enemies. "I guess we could use the help," he added, looking around at the slaughter. "You two had might as well come to our hideout, then. There's not too much to be had there, but at least it's better than camping in the woods with the monsters."

"That will be acceptable," the illusionist agreed, surprising the blond. "Please handle the mess, Naruto-kun," he said, turning back towards the jinchuuriki.

Naruto's more rebellious instincts railed against being commanded to clean up, as though he was some servant, and he almost told the older teenager to do it on his own. He shook his head and used a one-handed seal to created several shadow clones, which went about hauling the bloodstained, mutilated corpses and stacking them in one large pile. He then mutated his good arm one last time and used it to spew a Karyuu Endan onto the heap. He looked back towards Itachi, but the Uchiha had vanished – as had the two Fuuma.

"Bastard!" Naruto cried out as he rushed to catch up.


The 'hideout' was not quite what Naruto had been expecting. Rather than a remote mountain stronghold or something similar, the Fuuma had taken the blond and Itachi to a large merchant town along the north and south trade route linking Fire and Thunder. Hanzaki and the other Fuuma shinobi who had declined to enter Orochimaru's service had been 'working' as robbers prior to the outbreak, and had made the town their base. Now, however, it had become a survivor center; the sole remaining haven in Rice Field.

The Fuuma kunoichi, Sasame, had revealed all this and more while escorting the pair to a room in a run-down motel located along the town's main avenue. The girl hadn't made so much as a peep during the earlier introductions, but had turned into a regular little chatterbox as soon as her brutish-looking kinsman, Hanzaki, had taken his leave. To his credit, Itachi had been quite convincing in pretending to care about the crushing brat's mundane sob stories about her broken clan and this ravaged nation.

Naruto was sure that he wouldn't have been able to repress his scorn, believing that a proud shinobi clan that lowered themselves to crooking the knee to toilet scum like Orochimaru deserved to be ripped apart at the seams. Thanks to Sasame's blushing preoccupation with his stoic partner, the blond demon container hadn't been expected to participate in the discussion at all. He still wasn't pleased with their current predicament.

"Man," Naruto complained, raking a hand through his blond hair. "I can't believe we're getting mixed up with these," he paused and completed the sentence in a low, dangerous hiss, "people. I thought we had our own mission."

For a long moment, Itachi was content to ignore him. The Uchiha was standing at the mirror in the bathroom, his skin pinkish due to the hot morning shower he'd taken several minutes earlier, and was occupied with cleaning his painted nails. The older teenager's long slate hair was unbound and streaming down his back, and he was stripped bare save a white towel bound around his waist and that strange bead necklace he liked to wear.

Naruto continued to observe him, but not in an admiring manner. He couldn't help noticing that Itachi's exposed skin didn't contain so much as a single cut or scar, and bore no markings at all save his ANBU tattoo. For a man who had served time in Konoha's Black Ops and had completed more high-ranking missions than seasoned shinobi thrice his age, such a thing was unreal. The blond couldn't help thinking back to that drunken night he'd seen Anko in the nude. The kunoichi had been crisscrossed with battle scars.

Those particular memories in turn made Naruto's groin stir, and he shook his head and pushed both them and it back down. No sense in stirring the ashes when he could do nothing in his present location to sate the resulting urges, not unless he wanted to bugger his roommate – and he didn't, though he had a sinking suspicion that Itachi would let him.

"I'm not the one who charged to their rescue, Naruto-kun," the Uchiha at last looked over, noticing his companion's lingering stare, and answered him in a smooth voice. "You might do well to reconsider the heroics next time."

Itachi examined his image in the mirror one last time and then strode back into the main room. Naruto continued to watch him as he sat down at the small wooden desk that was located in the corner and leaned against the wall, picking up and considering Naruto's mangled ANBU bracer in the process. The blond looked down at his damaged wrist, now pressurized with bandages to reduce the swelling.

"You are the one who agreed to come here, though," the irritated jinchuuriki snapped right back as Itachi relaxed, "and put some damned clothes on."

The pair then heard a startled gasp outside the door, something that a normal person might never have discerned. Itachi gestured Naruto to investigate, causing the blond to pull a disagreeable scowl, but he rose and used a Shunshin to reach the door in an instant. He pulled it open, and a surprised Fuuma Sasame let out a squeak and stumbled backwards. Naruto reached over and caught her, not quite certain as to the reason, and pulled the kunoichi trainee back upright.

"Eavesdropping isn't a nice habit, sweetheart," Naruto said with a leer and let the startled girl go. "You might as well come inside," he called back, shooting Itachi a malicious grin.

The Uchiha's blank, emotionless stare indicated that he was neither amused nor impressed with his blond comrade's antics. Itachi knew that Naruto had invited the Fuuma girl into the room in order to irritate him, given her obvious attraction to him. He remained seated, not bothering to retreat into the restroom and change into something less lewd than his current undress.

"Fuuma-san," Itachi muttered with a curt nod, his thin lips quirking into a small, insincere smile, "good morning."

"Hello," Sasame replied in a low mumble, cheeks bright red as she looked between Naruto and his Uchiha companion. "I hope I'm not interrupting," she added in a rush.

Naruto blinked and glanced back towards the blushing kunoichi as he plopped onto his mattress, noting that he was almost as tall kneeling down as she was standing up. The Fuuma girl's gaze roved nonstop between him and Itachi, her cheeks turning ever deeper red. The jinchuuriki likewise turned his stare towards the older teenager, who titled his head in response and crossed one leg over the other.

Naruto was no idiot, and didn't need much time to reason out what Sasame was thinking. The demon container looked down at his current dress: a tank top and boxer shorts, as well as at his unmade bedding, and then sent another reluctant look back at the almost naked Itachi. His own cheeks turned red, but not with embarrassment.

"Oh Hell no," he almost shouted, glaring towards the kunoichi. "Don't even think that."

Sasame didn't seem quite sure whether to be relieved or disappointed with the news.

"I've brought some more medicine and bandages," she declared, reaching into her small backpack and producing some medical gauze. "I thought those might need changing," the Fuuma girl said, tapping Naruto's wrist.

"Er," the blond stalled, a bit surprised. "Thanks," he said, as his earlier anger dissipated.

Naruto knew that there was no urgent need to treat his wounds, as his demonic regeneration would repair the internal damage on its own given enough time, and had more or less done so overnight. Despite that, he didn't mind the attention. He held still to allow her remove the old wrappings, watching in suspicious silence as Itachi stood and strolled back towards the restroom, no doubt to plot his next counter move.

The blond, utilizing his Sharingan-like insight, was then able to predict the Uchiha's parting shot and turned his head in time to avoid being caught in the lethal S-ranked kinjutsu, the Full Moon Towel Drop. Sasame had her back to Itachi and suspected nothing. Naruto didn't look again, even when he heard the bathroom door snap shut.

'Creepy-assed fucking bastard,' he swore in his head.

"You're skilled at this," Naruto complimented the Fuuma girl in a bored, distracted manner as she rewrapped his arm, keeping ideal pressure on the bandages.

"I'm still learning," was the quiet response.

The blond hummed and rapped his knuckles on the hotel room's wall. Itachi emerged a moment later, this time clad in a silk robe and shower slippers. Sasame meanwhile cut Naruto's bandages and pinned them.

"So, Itachi-san," Naruto said as the illusionist returned to his seat, "about that Chidori…"

"Sasuke attempted to murder me with the technique during the attack on Konoha," Itachi replied in a neutral voice, shrugging as though he couldn't have cared less about the matter.

The blond hadn't been aware that there had been an Uchiha reunion during the Akatsuki raid on the village. He'd been much too preoccupied with not getting killed in his own right at the time to give a steaming shit about Sasuke. Still, the news served as a stark reminder that Itachi was a cold-hearted bastard, ignoring the relative ease that the two had with one another now.

"Ah," Naruto snorted, grinning. "The Sharingan strikes again."

He was roaring with laughter inside, knowing that Sasu-chan would crap a brick at seeing his 'beloved' brother using his signature jutsu.

"I didn't have the Sharingan active," the Uchiha droned in his usual apathetic manner, leaning against the wall again. "I did, however, manage to watch and memorize its short hand seal sequence. From that starting point, deciphering the other mechanics behind the jutsu was a rather simple exercise."

The jinchuuriki snorted again, amused with Itachi's roundabout speech. Still, the sheer idea that the Uchiha could suss out a high-ranked killing technique like that with nothing more than a little trial and error was outright ridiculous. Then again, perhaps it wasn't so ridiculous. Boiled down, the Chidori amounted to little more than concentrated nature manipulation. Naruto imagined that he too could cheat it, provided he wanted to – which he didn't. His choice weapon at close range was much better than that.

"Right," the demon vessel parroted back, "simple."

This little tidbit gave Naruto a sudden inspiration, however. The question was whether or not he could trust Itachi with the matter, and also whether the older teenager's apparent prodigious skill with assembling techniques extended into other shinobi disciplines. Regardless, he had long since accepted that it wasn't something he'd be able to handle on his own.

"I've been thinking," Naruto then said. "I want to check out Orochimaru's old stronghold in this region. There might be something in the place that can explain the plague," the jinchuuriki explained, "or whatever the Hell this problem is."

For a long moment, the Sharingan user stared at the ceiling, considering his companion's proposal.

"Perhaps, but I doubt it," the Uchiha answered. "Further, we don't know where to search. He would be able to tell us," Itachi continued, meaning Pain but unwilling to mention the Leader's name or position with the Fuuma girl present, "but also won't approve a side mission without an acceptable reason."

Naruto understood that 'an acceptable reason' meant a purpose that would somehow prove advantageous to Akatsuki's agenda. He likewise doubted that something as humanitarian as researching a strange disease would be deemed as such without much persuasion on his own part, as he could tell that Itachi wasn't willing to assist in the matter. Not that the blond had a clue how to work that weird meditation jutsu that his partner used to make contact with headquarters, and he didn't care to take risks with his mortal soul.

"I know where the base is," Sasame blurted out. "I've been there once, a long time ago."

The demon vessel clapped his hands, delighted to have such a expedient solution, and stood and headed towards the window.

"There," the blond gloated, leering towards a displeased-looking Itachi – at least, as irritated as the apathetic Uchiha genius ever appeared. "Problem's solved. You can tell me how to get there," Naruto declared, then directing his attention towards the kunoichi.

Itachi reached a hand to his brow and brushed an errant hair to the side. For whatever reason, he didn't seem to like this idea. Naruto wasn't planning to back down. He had personal reasons to do this, and his words made clear that he wanted to do it on his own.

"You would do better to go with Naruto-kun and show him, Fuuma-san," the Uchiha muttered. "He tends to get lost otherwise."

The blond sent the Uchiha a mulish glare, incensed both with the lie and with Itachi putting an unwanted burden on his back in sending a virtual noncombatant along with him on his dangerous 'assignment.' He shook his head and sent the girl a questioning look, both asking her whether or not she was willing to go and hoping that she either lacked the nerve or wouldn't want to go without Itachi being present with them. To Naruto's surprise and disappointment, Sasame nodded in acknowledgement. Now it was his turn to choose.

"That works too, I guess," he conceded at length with a sigh, knowing that this deal, no matter how galling, was the best compromise he'd get. "I'll be waiting outside in two hours, get geared up." Naruto then reached over to the desk to swipe Itachi's wallet and measured out enough cash to cover a week's expenses, to be generous, and then took a little extra to spite the illusionist. He didn't care. "You know where we're going and how long it'll take, so snag whatever provisions we'll need," he concluded, striding over and handing the ryo to the girl.

"That was a rather curt dismissal," Itachi commented as the door slid shut. "You should be more polite to girls, Naruto-kun."

For an odd moment, Naruto thought that he was being serious, and indeed his expression revealed nothing to hint otherwise. He wondered what all those Uchiha women might have thought about his lip service to chivalrous behavior.

"You'll have to excuse me," the blond shot right back at him. "I've been known to get a mite cantankerous when I get stuck shouldering dead weight."

"Be extra conscientious about avoiding trouble during the trip and there will be no problem with her going along," Itachi stipulated, twisting the proverbial blade. "You'll have to protect her otherwise. You can consider it an incentive to be quick about the mission."

"Either that," he mumbled, "or an incentive to leave her to the monsters when she turns into a hassle."

The container knew his nature wouldn't let him do something like that, however, and it looked as though his companion realized that much as well. Itachi didn't even bother to respond to the comment, and instead began to pick at and clean his painted nails. Naruto realized that the Uchiha wasn't amused with his little 'rebellion,' and was determined to make the whole experience as unpleasant as he could in retaliation.

'Like a sulking toddler,' Naruto almost sneered. 'I'll just have to give him a lollipop to quiet him down,' he reasoned, reaching into his cloak.

The blond bit his lip and raised the Fourth Hokage's scroll to his mouth, smearing blood onto the seal. He held it in place as the mechanism shimmered and unlocked. This act represented additional treason against his native village, but it had to be done.

"Here," Naruto said, placing the unsealed scroll down at the desk where Itachi was sitting. "These ought to make a much more challenging puzzle to work out than Kakashi's crap. Have a crack at 'em while I'm gone."

The older teenager tilted his head, and then reached down to unroll the document that he'd once stolen months earlier in order to coerce Naruto into meeting him at the ruined palace overlooking Tanzaku-Gai. Itachi traced the seals inked into the scroll with a painted nail, as though considering the contents, and at last activated one. The Akatsuki member blinked when a second, smaller scroll materialized in his palm, but then licked his lips upon exposing the material within.

"These are," he muttered, Sharingan activating as his brilliant mind seemed to whirl with possibilities.

"Yeah," Naruto said. "Dad's research notes," he elaborated, not even bothering to attempt to conceal his heritage. He was quite sure that Itachi either knew that Naruto was Namikaze Minato's son, or would soon guess it. "I don't like to admit it," the jinchuuriki grumbled with a shrug, "but I don't know enough to piece his techniques back together right."

Humiliating though it was, it was true. Naruto's sealing abilities didn't extend past the requisite basics. He could store and retrieve items in scrolls and ink his own explosive notes, but recreating the Fourth Hokage's master work exceeded his capabilities. He hadn't enough time to learn the intricate art, and had no real aptitude in the discipline. Itachi was no true sealing master either, at least not in the same class as Minato, but he knew enough that he could at least reassemble the puzzle with all the pieces sitting there.

"The organization must never discover that these scrolls exist," Uchiha Itachi then said in a decisive voice, "Pain and Madara in particular. Yondaime-sama's knowledge in their hands could prove catastrophic."

The demon vessel thought that the Fourth's research could prove likewise catastrophic in Itachi's hands, but he had no choice but to take the risk. That knowledge would be instrumental in supplanting Akatsuki.

"Duh," was Naruto's scathing response, the blond insulted that his 'partner' thought that he even needed to point out something so fucking obvious. "I'm heading out now," he added, not caring that he still had well over an hour to kill until he was supposed to meet his guide. "Don't wreck the house while I'm gone, sweetheart."

The blond slipped out without waiting to hear Itachi's non-response. The Uchiha stared at his unexpected present, and a slow smile spread across his thin lips. He opened another scroll and spread its contents onto the desk, and set to work, pleased that Naruto's ever predictable nature had worked to his advantage once more.


Beneath Konoha, Danzou sat at a simple desk inside his secret underground bunker. Torches provided the dim lighting within the austere chamber, which had but one visible entrance that its master was able to see at all times. The scarred elder peered down at the documents on his desk. First was one Uzumaki Naruto's personnel record, which Danzou had managed to procure and reproduce at great length and with equal great care during Hiruzen's little gambling trip several months prior. The weapon's combat dossier had been sequestered inside the Hokage's personal archives, inaccessible to even the council elders.

Danzou had read through Uzumaki's service record several times now, but its contents still made the retired Ne commander and Konoha elder seethe inside. The document listed a meeting between the jinchuuriki, Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame that took place months prior to the recent invasion. The brat hadn't even been interrogated on the matter.

Danzou then glanced over towards the next item sitting on his desk – the intelligence report that an undercover Root agent stationed in Grass had sent in mere hours earlier. The report stated that Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Itachi had been spotted together the previous morning passing through the Kusa region, and that the pair seemed to be headed right into Rice Field. Uzumaki's association with the terrorist organization 'Akatsuki' was now common knowledge within shinobi circles, due to his trademark indiscretion. Though he was a potent combat weapon, he made a rather poor shinobi in the scarred man's estimation – useless in all applications other than out and out slaughter.

'No matter,' the old man thought, gripping his cane. 'That is all the use the village would ever have for the miserable little traitor regardless. Not all tools are universal.'

Danzou was, as were almost all the council elders, convinced that Uzumaki had gone rogue and aligned with Akatsuki under his own persuasion rather than Hiruzen's orders as the retired Hokage had claimed, but he could prove nothing at present. For some ridiculous reason, Tsunade was supporting the old bastard's obstructionism and there was no-one on the council or elsewhere in the village was willing to oppose the strong woman at the present. The Princess had managed in one short, blunt meeting to cow the elders into tentative submissiveness – something that Hiruzen had never managed throughout his decades as Hokage.

The one-armed war hawk couldn't help but approve. Democratic procedure, in Danzou's opinion, was slow and inept and held no logical place within a shinobi village. Konoha needed a strong and authoritarian Hokage rather than impotent domestic squabbling – and now more than ever, now that her enemies loomed on all sides. The council had been a required evil during Hiruzen's latter tenure, when his advancing age had rendered him less than able to shoulder Konoha's administrative burdens on his own, but this was no longer the case. Thus, the council needed to be curbed and Tsunade had done so well.

Danzou hadn't been the least bit enthusiastic with Sandaime's chosen successor when he'd made the announcement. She had come into consideration with three damning black marks against her – as Hiruzen's pupil, as a healer, and as a woman. Danzou had presumed that Tsunade would continue her master's weak-hearted policies as Godaime Hokage, but up to this point she had proven to be quite the pleasant surprise, proving with little doubt that Hashirama's noble blood ran true within her veins. Humbling that council represented one example, and there were others as well.

No doubt the Princess was a much better choice to protect Konoha against her implacable enemies than the one-armed and part-blind Danzou – something that the aged hawk took no issue with acknowledging. His convictions ran much deeper than mere vainglorious pride, and his previous scheming to be named Hokage had all to do with strengthening Konoha and nothing to do with seeing his mutilated head carved onto the mountainside. He was willing to shelve that agenda and support the new Hokage, so long as Tsunade made the proper decisions to preserve Konoha and kept the village's best interests closest at heart.

'And when she can't or won't,' Danzou vowed in his mind, leaning his cane against the concrete wall nearest him. He then took his brush and started to ink a mission scroll in Root's special code, 'I will.'

No matter whether or not Uzumaki was innocent, and no matter whether or not Hiruzen had indeed ordered him into Akatsuki, he had to be returned to Konoha at once. His power and his reputation as a jinchuuriki were much too integral to the village's war machine to allow him to roam about and wreak havoc across the land as a rogue shinobi. He was too much like a wild beast and would soon become accustomed to living without his leash, and would never be broken back into it unless he was caught soon.

Danzou completed his work soon enough and then stared down at the scroll, the still wet ink shining in the torchlight. He then went about returning the various documents to their proper places inside his desk, though he stored Uzumaki's personnel record within his robe instead, desiring neither to risk someone breaking into his bunker and locating the restricted dossier in his possession nor burn the precious evidence he'd gone through so much trouble to obtain. That task done, he reached beneath the desk and activated a hidden seal to release stored heat through the wood, which permeated into the scroll paper and quick dried the ink. Danzou rolled up and sealed the scroll, placed it inside his robe next to the other document and then grabbed his cane.

He then began the trek back to the outside world, his cane clicking against the concrete as he departed his subterranean workplace and entered into the bunker's long corridor. He passed two more doors along the route and glanced into each. One contained the underground lair's storehouses, packed with adequate provisions, combat equipment and medical supplies to withstand a prolonged siege. Danzou was well aware that he possessed dangerous enemies both inside and outside the village. The opposite room housed the barracks, designed to provide shelter to his personal Ne guards and across that room was the door that led into his own living quarters. Danzou never slept within his public residence, which was located right above his hidden stronghold. He instead rested here, entrenched beneath Konoha with the earth and his elite guard standing between him and all potential threats.

The scarred elder knew that there were those within Konoha who would mock his precautions and dismiss them as mere paranoia. Danzou, however, remembered the previous wars and the shadow horrors, and had experienced their ravages. He remembered his elder brother, who had been a prosperous arms merchant and a true patriot and had been most instrumental in providing a less industrialized Konoha with much needed black market munitions during the First War, when her other large suppliers had severed ties and accepted more lucrative contracts with rival villages. One night, Hidden Sand assassins had attacked his home and butchered him in his sleep alongside his pregnant spouse and two small children in order to send a message to others who might have been harboring similar ideas.

Danzou, at the time a rising star in the village's shinobi ranks and alongside the sitting Nidaime Hokage's star pupil – the eventual Sandaime, had been the one to discover the murders the next morning. He had pursued the assassins alone and without orders in an insatiable rage and had caught up to them near the border. Indeed, even the ever stoic Danzou had at one time allowed his emotions to govern his actions, at great cost. Danzou had succeeded in killing the entire squad, but had incurred the grievous wounds that were now visible to all in the process, sending him into his bitter premature retirement.

Though Nidaime had pretended concern at that time, Danzou still believed that Senju Tobirama had been pleased in his innermost heart to see him pushed out to pasture. Danzou's handicapping had all but guaranteed that the Second's prized apprentice would inherit the mantle without divisive argument and indeed, Hiruzen's nomination had been received with overwhelming support.

Danzou, ever the good soldier, had swallowed his toxic resentment and had killed his heart and had then devoted his whole existence to nurturing Konoha's strength in the shadows. He had been retained as an advisor within Sandaime's administration and requested to oversee a special division within ANBU, which became Ne. Danzou had plied his Root without hesitation to accomplish his sacred mission ever since that moment – despite that weak-hearted milksop Hiruzen's attempts to renege and uproot him.

'Fools,' the scarred village elder thought with venom, despising those peace-loving imbeciles who had behaved though this short respite would be eternal and that war would never again come to Konoha and blaming Hiruzen in particular as being the source.

The narrow corridor at last opened up into a small chamber in which a winding staircase led to the hidden entrance into Danzou's residence above. In times long past, the scarred man would climb up and down. His legs were still in working order and he had never liked to allow his condition to become a true weakness. Now, however, he was well into his twilight and condescended to using the simple wooden dumbwaiter that he had since installed due to how long it took him to navigate the stairs.

The rope-drawn elevator creaked and swung a bit as it crawled along its upward path but made it to its destination without complications. Danzou stepped out and into another narrow corridor that led straight into his public residence's exquisite lounge. To an ignorant observer, it would have appeared as though he had passed through a solid wall. The entrance to the underground compound was concealed behind a potent illusionthat required several complex seals to maintain. The concealing 'wall' felt solid in addition to its looks.

Danzou glanced over at the Ne ANBU hidden in a shadowed corner and nodded in response to his bow, and then summoned him over with a hand signal. The elder handed his cane to the subordinate and then reached into his robes to retrieve the scroll he'd inked earlier. The Root soldier didn't need verbal instruction, knowing his mission. The masked man took the scroll and handed the sword cane back to his commander and master, and then bowed again and disappeared via Shunshin.

Danzou stalked through the lounge, his lip curling in distaste as he took in the room's luxurious décor. He was a soldier and needed no such extravagance, and indeed he looked down upon those who did. However, the guests that Danzou was sometimes required to entertain due to his position as a council elder had certain expectations. He instead headed upstairs again, this time using the stairs to reach the home's second level.

From there, he was able to look upon the village he protected. The rebuilding work was nearing completion – a testament to the mercantile and industrial distinction that Konoha had attained during Hiruzen's split tenure as Hokage. Danzou would give the old devil his due. Sandaime had built the village into a reputable economic power. However, that power had come at an inexcusable cost, one that could be seen as the scarred elder saw proud and skilled Konoha-nin serving as common laborers in the streets below.

'Disgraceful,' he thought, staring down into the streets and watching as respected Jounin master Maito Gai led his cell in assisting a salvage operation in the slum district, 'Konoha's most skilled ninja ordered to put their skills to waste during this time of war…'

The Konoha slums were still in ruins, having taken enormous damage due to Uzumaki's reckless personal encounter with the Nukenin Hoshigaki Kisame during the Akatsuki raid. Even worse, industrial chemicals had spilled into the streets, making cleanup a slow and hazardous process. Ridiculous, Danzou thought, to risk compromising invaluable shinobi in such civilian matters, though he had no better idea at present. The village did need repairing and there was no special group in place to handle the disaster.

However, times were changing, both within Konoha's borders and outside. Tsunade was making long-needed changes to the village's shinobi training regime and operational protocol, much to her sensei's chagrin. Seeing Hiruzen hoisted upon his own petard with his hand-picked successor acting against his wishes was something that pleased Danzou not a little, and the elder had no doubt that the clandestine Ne operation outlined within his coded scroll would strike an even graver blow against the senile old bastard.

'One way or another,' Danzou mused, 'this ridiculous circus will soon be put to rest.'

He continued to observe the village at work as a thin, sinister smile spreading across his lips, savoring his now inevitable triumph over his nemesis. He'd waited so long, and now Hiruzen had at last made the critical error. Danzou took a special glee in being the one in prime position to thrust the long overdue blade deep into the Third's weak and withered heart. Never could he have imagined that Sandaime's little pet would have served his purposes so well.


"This place stinks," Fuuma Sasame's voice quivered in the darkness, the Kusanagi's pristine glow serving as the sole light.

Naruto was in the lead as the pair investigated Orochimaru's abandoned base, which was indeed rank with a noxious odor. He was acclimated to blood, but decomposing corpses marked a new and most unpleasant experience, at least in such gross concentration. The place was stagnant with it, as the generators that had once powered the base had since lost power, thus killing the ventilation.

For over an hour, Naruto and Sasame had been searching the compound, but had to this point discovered nothing related to the strange plague or its mutated victims. Orochimaru had been quite thorough in burning his experimental records and equipment prior to leaving town, but Naruto somehow knew that the serpent man was to blame in this whole mess and was determined to dig up some lead here.

"Better get used to it now," the demon vessel advised the kunoichi trainee in a rough and insensitive tone, though in truth he was also beating down his own gag impulse, "or else pick another career."

The horrid odor grew even stronger as the present corridor opened into a large circular room, and even Naruto recoiled in disgust. Sasame stopped in her tracks, and the blond looked back at her, and he then pondered whether he'd said a bit too much upon seeing her lurched over in a pitiable manner. The guttural, rumbling sound was all the warning he received, as the Fuuma girl retched and emptied her stomach onto the ground. Naruto managed to sidestep, but her vomit still splashed onto his shinobi sandals.

'Fucking Hell,' Naruto groused in his head, glaring down at his ruined combat shoes. 'Now that's gonna stain...'

He blamed Itachi, who had stuck him with taking the girl along, and made a mental resolution to take his puke-covered sandals and cram them up the stoic Akatsuki member's tailpipe as soon as he got back to town. Sasame shuddered on the ground, and retched again and tossed up a little more. This time, Naruto took a long step backwards to get clear. She at last stopped vomiting and looked up at him, her expression weak. She noticed his sandals at once and looked down again.

"Forgive me," she stammered out, cheeks redder than usual with embarrassment – a stark contrast to her skin, now pallid with sickness.

The blond had a stinging remark on his tongue, but swallowed it back. He couldn't quite hold the Fuuma girl responsible. Sasame was the one person who wasn't culpable in this mess. This little expedition had been Naruto's brilliant idea, and Itachi had volunteered her to participate – all she had done 'wrong' was agree in an attempt to help. The Uchiha had used her as an unwitting pawn in order to discourage and 'punish' Naruto's independence. His hard stare relaxed a bit, and he raked his hair and strode back over to help her to stand, using a quick one-handed seal to create a Kage Bunshin and passing Kusanagi to the clone.

"Don't sweat it," the blond jinchuuriki grunted as he reached into his Akatsuki cloak and pulled out his water canteen, knowing that she had emptied her own earlier. "Here," Naruto said as he held out the lukewarm chemical water, "drink."

The girl leaned against the taller shinobi as she accepted with canteen with trembling hands and then proceeded to chug the acrid ration water as though she were about to perish due to thirst. Naruto had a sudden idea and reached down towards his right leg to pull out the reserve 'last resort' kunai that he kept strapped at his ankle, and then removed his slashed Konoha headband with his other hand. The jinchuuriki pried the engraved metal emblem loose with the kunai and drew out the bunched cloth to create an improvised bandanna.

'Not perfect,' he thought, examining the holes in the blue cloth where the screws in the plate had been, 'but it'll do.'

Naruto remained silent and motionless, allowing her to continue to drink the water. He nudged her head when she at last drained the canteen and then covered her nose and mouth with the cloth, and tied it behind her ears – though a little tighter than he had to. He did have his reputation to consider.

"That ought to help with the smell some," he said as he made her stand under her own power again and started into the large chamber. "You'll wait here while I check the interior," the blond continued. "There's no reason we should both have to deal with it."

He supposed it would be less dangerous not to leave the girl behind, but this place was long since abandoned. There was nothing here except the corpses and the worms and maggots consuming them. Naruto wasn't too surprised, however, when she ignored his polite order and entered the chamber behind him. He reached out and caught his weapon as the clone tossed it back, and then dismissed the doppelganger.

"I want to help," Sasame said in a meek voice when he almost-turned back and regarded her with an impatient stare.

"Fine…whatever," the blond muttered. "Not a word about that little scene back there to Itachi-san," he added in a louder voice. "He'd never let me live it down."

The demon container moved deeper into the chamber and came across a rather unwelcoming sight. Burnt and rotting meat was strewn about in various pieces on the ground, though the main bodies had been removed, as Orochimaru wasn't about to leave his sordid secrets sitting out in the open to be discovered. However, there were still little hints as to who the victims had been mixed in with the remains, as brown silk shreds and purple rope pieces were also present.

He recognized the peculiar apparel at once. Naruto let out a low, appreciative whistle in response to the damage that had been done to Orochimaru's henchmen, thought he was relieved at the same time to know that the man responsible was now quite dead and that he would never have to run up against the man that Itachi had named as Kakuzu.

"How terrible," the Fuuma started in a low voice, as though she expected something else.

Naruto didn't consider the disparaging comment that came to his mind to be worth the hassle. To him, the terrible part was that he had to smell them now. He exhaled an irritated breath, considering the dried blood that coated the walls in this room.

"These were Orochimaru's personal guards," the blond replied as he looked down at the pieces with ill-concealed contempt, not having the slightest compassion to spare on the poor bastards. "His lair must be close to here. Keep moving," he commanded, waving Kusanagi towards the distant exit. "This place's making me sick too."

Naruto and Sasame headed into the inner sanctum, examining the snake's ransacked laboratories in an attempt to locate something. However, Orochimaru and his minions had been too thorough in cleaning house. There were burned papers strewn about, indicating that whatever records the Sannin hadn't considered worth removing had been put to the torch.

'Fuck,' the jinchuuriki thought, his mood darkening with each successive room he inspected. 'There's not a damned thing left here…'

He supposed that he shouldn't have expected too much to begin with. No shinobi worth his salt would leave important documents in an abandoned location. He noticed one intact record sitting in the corner in the room he and Sasame were now digging through. However, a single glance revealed it to be some worthless report on local rice supplies. Naruto scowled and hurled the paper into the stone wall, and then stalked over and kicked in the door leading into the next chamber. He was about to step through when Sasame nudged his arm.

"Look over there," she said in a quiet voice, indicating back down the hall.

Naruto turned his head and noticed the large cat observing them in the darkness. He was now a bit irritated that he hadn't caught onto the animal's presence to begin with, and more so that some meek girl with almost no proper training had managed to do so. However, the more he squinted at the creature, the more he saw that something wasn't right about it. The thing didn't seem to possess chakra, and thought he couldn't be a hundred percent certain in Orochimaru's dungeon lair, he almost thought he could see right though the cat. He reached down to his ankle and pulled out his kunai again.

"Don't," the Fuuma started to whine, seeing what the jinchuuriki was about to do to an 'innocent' creature.

The blond ignored her and threw the missile. The kunai struck the cat head-on, and then passed right through it and clanged against the distant wall. The spectral animal let out a livid hiss and then turned the corner and ran. Naruto gave chase at once, augmenting his legs with chakra to keep pace and leaving Sasame behind without a single thought. The incorporeal beast soon disappeared right through a dead-end wall.

"Now that's interesting," the Akatsuki initiate spoke into the still, rotten air as he moved into a one-handed seal sequence. "Don't disappoint me now, lil' kitten."

'Katon: Gouryuuka no Jutsu!' Naruto then snarled out within his mind as he opened his mouth and expelled two large, blazing dragon's heads at the concrete wall.

His attacks punched through the thick wall with ease. The blond, baser instincts roused, ran in straight behind his attacks, expecting the new opening to take him outside and to his intended target. Instead, however, the smoldering hole led into another interior lab. The second dragon's head continued through the hole and plowed into a large glass tank located inside the room, rupturing its contents and sending water gushing onto the ground. Naruto took a quick look around as the smoke cleared. The apparition had disappeared into thin air, it seemed.

He took another glance around, taking in his surroundings. The ruptured tube had innumerable thick wires connected to it, and there were other identical containers located in the enormous lab. Naruto surmised that this was where Orochimaru had kept his prisoners to be used as guinea pigs in his twisted experiments. He, however, was more interested in the ghost and the person he knew had sent it.

"Escaped," he hissed, stomping into the water puddle. "Tramp has a couple tricks, I see."

"Now that's what I call rude," a male voice laughed beneath him. "You're calling me horrible names when we haven't even been introduced."

The blond scowled and leapt back onto drier ground, and watched with suspicion as the puddle began to coalesce and rise up into a humanoid shape. The person who emerged had snow white hair and grinned over at him through pointed, razor-sharp teeth. He looked like a piranha, Naruto decided at once. His look seemed to scream out, 'Mist-nin.'

"Look at this," the Konoha Nukenin deadpanned. "The toilet can talk, and walk."

The strange teenager showed no anger at the backhanded remark, grinning even wider. He walked in closer, and demon carrier's glower deepened. The water man was in the nude and didn't seem the least bit conscious about his nakedness.

"Thanks a bunch, pal," the liquid Kiri-nin said, extending a hand. "Man, I thought I'd never make it outta that damned septic tank," he admitted, reaching back to scratch his neck.

Naruto shook his head in disdain but still accepted the handshake as he shouldered Kusanagi. Not to be polite, but because he hoped that this naked, grinning weirdo might know something about this installation or others like it. He could garrote the punk later.

"Don't mention it," he replied. "Now, I've got a question about this place."

The other teen's grip tightened, though not enough to hurt Naruto, and his grin turned menacing.

"You're Uzumaki Naruto," the white-haired shinobi sneered. "I know all about you."

The Mist-nin's other arm seemed to quadruple in mass without warning. The jinchuuriki noticed the change in time to move his head and avoid the crushing punch, but the muscled arm compensated and grabbed onto his cloak, and the white-haired stranger hurled him across the lab and into another retaining tank, where he crashed through the glass and into the water within. Naruto's mesh-sewn collar protected his skin against the razor-sharp glass pieces. The impact still hurt like a bitch, however.

"That's right," he grunted as he got up, using the Kusanagi as a brace. "You're a dead man," the blond shot back.

The nameless naked warrior reached over to his ruined prison and ripped loose a thick metal pipe, and then grinned again and charged Naruto. The blond snorted and raised his long sword to intercept the overhand swing, and this time Naruto had no problem holding his own against his opponent's strength. The liquid man leaned over and bared his piranha teeth at the demon vessel.

"You're the one who's dead meat," he crowed through the interlocked weapons. "I was hoping we'd cross paths sometime! Now I'm gonna avenge Zabuza-senpai!"


Meanwhile, a single kunoichi sat crouched in a dense grove near the entrance to Orochimaru's abandoned compound. She, unlike her illustrious colleague on this particular assignment, liked to work alone. Nii Yugito then leapt onto the moist earth as her spirit scout preened towards her position, landing with catlike grace. The Kumo jinchuuriki held out her hand, and the apparition shimmered into nothingness upon making contact with her skin. Yugito hummed as the ghost – created using the Nekomata's peculiar chakra, unloaded its memories into her mind.

Her expression soon narrowed, however, as the scout's memories revealed that a certain Nukenin was lurking within the compound's subterranean walls.

"So that's it," Yugito purred to no-one in particular, it seemed. "You're about the last person I expected to run into out here, Traitor Uzumaki."

Uzumaki Naruto's sordid deeds were no secret within her village. The spies had reported his treason against Konoha and subsequent alliance with the terrorist group 'Akastuki' in proper detail. Yugito couldn't have cared less that he had abandoned his home village. Konoha losing its jinchuuriki represented a great advantage to Kumo in the coming war. However, in selling his abilities to the Akatsuki, Uzumaki Naruto had also backstabbed his own kind. That criminal organization was hunting down the Bijuu and their containers.

Yugito reclined against the nearest tree, considering what she had learned. She had no illusions about being able to best Naruto in singular combat, not when men such as Hanzou the Salamander, the Sannin Orochimaru and various other such luminaries hadn't proven able to kill the rogue jinchuuriki. Neither was it her mission to engage him. Nevermind that the Akatsuki were known to travel in pairs, and he was thus liable to have expert help within reach, even though her scout had not located his partner.

Two explosions then ripped through the compound, causing the ground to shake. Birds and beasts alike chattered and rushed to less dangerous grounds as a sinister presence pervaded the air, seeming to originate within the compound. She wondered whether her presence had been noticed.

"There can be no mistaking it," the Nibi's voice slipped into Yugito's mind. "That foul chakra can belong to none other than the Kyuubi, and there is something else terrible present as well. We must retreat now, child. He is more than we can handle on our own. That horrible power is equal to felling even us, the Undying."

"Yes," the container acknowledged, having decided to make a withdrawal on her own and not needing the Nekomata's prodding.

Though Yugito did harbor a certain desire to see Uzumaki's transgressions punished, she had no intention to perish here. No, she would link up with Bee and his team and share her unexpected knowledge, send a message back to the Raikage, and then decide how to greet their unexpected guests. Yugito steeled her nerves, knowing that she would soon have to cope with Bee's terrible verse. She might have wished she had taken her chances with the vile one.

'You will soon remit your sins in blood, traitor,' Nii Yugito promised as she vanished into the swamps. 'Just you wait.'

Ravens cawed in the tree above where she had been standing. Two midnight black birds spread their wings and took to the air in unison – one heading in her wake and the other soaring in another direction. The rest stared down at the compound and cawed once more as a battle raged within.

End Chapter Four

Next Chapter: Naruto recruits an unexpected ally, as Itachi has his own uncalled meeting. Plots begin to thicken all over the world, and a ragtag group ventures deep into enemy territory.