Author's Note: That chapter that was originally Chapter One has now become Chapter Two. It'll still be in the story. I'll whack it back up tomorrow after I'm made a couple of corrections.


Chapter One

A Skirmish for Orochimaru's Scroll

The mist swirled eerily around the boat as it slipped smoothly and silently through the still waters. It hid anything beyond a few yards around them and yet both the boatman and his passenger felt the press of the looming rocky cliffs rising high above. In the clear light of day, the ravine was narrow and filled with a deceptively calm river of water, smooth on the surface but deadly beneath. The current would easily drag any fool down to the dark depths should they happen to fall in.

Seated in the bow of the boat, the passenger was not exactly the type of person the boatman would usually allow himself to come a hundred miles within. He had money though and had been willing to pay the boatman's ridiculous fair to pole him across to the other side. Even if he didn't like the situation, times were hard and the boatman wouldn't pass up the opportunity to make a buck or two despite his passenger's less than savoury...disposition.

Most people didn't like shinobi; in fact most people barely tolerated their existence in the harsh, often freezing plains and fens of Water country. Eyeing his passenger with distaste, the boatman noted that he was younger than most of the shinobi he'd ever had the unfortunate chance of meeting. He'd peg his age at about twenty – maybe twenty one even. Covered with a brown cloak, it was impossible to tell if the shinobi was armed or not. The only thing that gave away his profession was the telltale relaxed and yet slightly tense posture and the metal badge of identification he wore around his forehead like all shinobi wore somewhere about their person.

This however, was not what disturbed the boatman the most though and brought silly superstitious wives' tales to the forefront of his mind that he'd never taken much note of before now. No, what really distributed him was the unusual colouring of the man. He'd never seen such bright hair before. The golden strands were like a beacon in the misty gloom and the blue eyes as bright as the hidden sky above. The tanned skin spoke of long hours spent out in the sunshine – a rarity in Water country. Six unusual slashes like whiskers adorned the young man's cheeks. The boatman doubted there was any sort of weapon that could create such scars and concluded at some point the youth must have had them forcibly inflicted upon him.

Gradually a dark shadow appeared before them and realising they were finally reaching the opposite shore, the boatman sped up a little, his relief evident in his harried movements. Also having noticed the looming shadow, the blonde shinobi stood as the boat slid to a stop in the grainy gravel on the river shore. He flipped a coin to the boatman who caught it deftly and immediately bit the golden metal, assuring himself that the coin was indeed legitimate. When he next looked back up, the shinobi was gone, as if he'd never been there in the first place. Muttering suspiciously under his breath, the boatman looked around once and then wasting no more time, he pushed against the shore with his pole and quickly departed.

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Letting loose a deep moan of discomfort, Naruto tugged feebly at his cloak fastenings. It'd become torturingly humid in the last several hours since he'd left the boatman. It'd been easy to scale the cliff side with a little chakra but once up on the flat marsh lands, he'd come under the full brunt of the sun, whose rays were rare in Water Country. It was just his luck of course that today the sun was actually shining. The humidity was so terrible that he felt as if he were trapped in a box with all the air slowly getting sucked out while an inferno raged outside. To make matters worse, he couldn't remove his cloak. Discretion was wise, especially when you were a shinobi that technically shouldn't be poking his nose about in a country you had no business in. It'd been hell avoiding the Mist shinobi in the area and it would only get worse once he crossed the ocean to the main island of Water Country where the Village Hidden in the Mist was located. Oh joy!

Still, there was one enemy even worse than a Mist shinobi and unfortunately, there were millions of them. Growling angrily, Naruto slapped the mosquito busily quenching its thirst on his cheek. Regrettably in his anger, he probably slapped a lot harder than was really necessary and thus ended up wincing mightily from the blow. He rubbed his sore cheek and when his stomach suddenly growled, he was forced to conclude things couldn't really get any worse. It was lunchtime, he had little food left and he hadn't even seen a bowl of ramen in three months. It'd been so long since he'd last partaken of the simple dish he even had nightmares about never having another bowl again.

Of course, having assumed things couldn't get any worse, Naruto immediately found out that they certainly could.

One moment he'd been innocently making his way through the marsh lands, leaping like a large toad from one dry mound in the endless stretch of water to another. In the next instant, a four man squad of Mist ANBU suddenly rose from the water around the mound he'd just leapt onto. Perfectly camouflaged, Naruto hadn't even had an inkling they were there.

Naruto froze as the four shinobi surrounded him, weapons drawn.

"Uzumaki Naruto," said the squad leader, whose mask bore a resemblance to a bull. "What are you doing in Water Country?"

Naruto wasn't surprised they knew who he was. After all, his looks were extremely distinctive and he'd made it his lifelong goal to become the Hokage. Many people had come to know his face over the years in his quest to obtain the title of Konoha's strongest shinobi.

"I'm ah...just passing through?" Naruto tried knowing full well his answer wouldn't be bought. He had to try though. Tsunade had given him strict instructions that under no circumstances were he to reveal the exact reason why he was in Water Country.

"That is not a sufficient answer," replied the Mist shinobi as expected. "What are you doing out here?"

"I was...bored?" hedged Naruto. "I needed a change of scenery?" he tried. "My girlfriend's mad at me and threatening my life so I ran away? I dunno. What do you want me to say?"

"The truth," retorted the ANBU member bluntly.

Naruto sighed in exasperation. Stoic bastard, wasn't he?

"Well I kinda can't say," he replied, rubbing the back of his neck irritably. "It's not anything bad though," he hastened to add when the ANBU's blades came up threateningly. "Just some recon work, I swear."

"You do not have permission from the Mizukage to be here, nor will you divulge your reasons why. You will accompany us back to Kirigakure. Do not make us force you," announced the ANBU shinobi.

And now Naruto really knew he was in trouble. Technically speaking, the scroll he'd spent weeks searching for and finally located didn't belong to anyone in the Land of Water. It actually belonged to Orochimaru but the Sannin was dead and had been for several years now. Between them, Sasuke and Itachi had seen to that. However, the Snake Sannin's secrets were fair game and if they wanted to, the Mist shinobi could steal his secrets quite easily. But they didn't know Orochimaru had left a hideout behind in their territory and if Konoha's Fifth had anything to say about it, Mist wouldn't be laying a single finger on any of Orochimaru's numerous secrets. They were too dangerous to be trusted in the hands of anyone. The only place any of his secrets would go now would be straight into the Forbidden Scroll along with all the other jutsu and top secret information of a similar nature.

Despite knowing the importance of not relinquishing the scroll, Naruto knew he was now in deep shit. Just lovely.

He was good, he knew it but even he couldn't handle four ANBU. Neji had been in ANBU for the past three years and even by himself, he'd been more than enough to contend with for Naruto. It was not going to be just any old 'walk in the park' to get himself out of this one. He'd have to run for it.

"Uzumaki," growled the ANBU threateningly when Naruto tensed in anticipation. "Don't even think about it."

"Sorry," answered Naruto with an apologetic smile. "Tsunade-baa-chan would ban me from ramen for the next year if I told you guys what I was doing here."

The ANBU leapt, two coming in fast to restrain him but just in time, Naruto switched himself with the Bull masked squad leader who'd interrogated him. The fourth ANBU shinobi who'd hung back though, was fast and in a flash of silver, he span and his sword ripped across Naruto's stomach. The pain made him gasp in surprise. The blade had bitten in deeply and it took an enormous amount of effort not to bend forward and clutch at the wounded area. Doggedly, he summoned his chakra and in an explosion of smoke, produced nearly three hundred clones. Half of them began attacking the Mist shinobi, forcing them to use encompassing attack type ninjutsu to destroy them quickly. Fire featured prominently and as Naruto had hoped, in the process they created a great amount of smoke as whole groups of clones dispersed. Using the cover it provided, he directed the other half of his clones to scatter in all directions. In the chaos, Naruto made good his escape.

He headed North instead of West as he'd been doing previously. It was impossible for the four Mist ANBU to tell in which direction the real Naruto had gone. The only obvious way he wouldn't go would be the way he'd previously been going. No good shinobi continued in the same direction they'd been heading when fleeing an enemy. They'd weave, backtrack and go in many multiples of directions. It made the journey much, much longer but it also made it that much harder to be caught.

Naruto had planned on going south of the Village Hidden in the Mist where the land was much flatter and easier to traverse when he reached the main island of the Land of Water. Now though, he had only two options: either bypass the main island of the Land of Water completely or else go north of Kirigakure through the more mountainous and heavily forested part of the country. Not being particularly at home on the water, Naruto unenthusiastically decided on the latter option.

Within half an hour he'd covered several miles and left the ANBU far behind. Nearly all of his clones had been dispelled but there were still several keeping the Mist shinobi occupied. His wound ached and he felt nauseous but Naruto didn't dare stop to tend it. Orochimaru's scroll – largely ignored before, now seemed to be burning a hole in his pocket. He had to get it back to Konoha. He'd promised Tsunade (just as he always did) that he would and it'd been years since he'd last failed a mission.

Grimly, Naruto pressed onwards and just as the sun set, he crested a rise and there laid the port he'd last seen over two months ago. It was a welcome sight indeed.

Picking his way carefully down the grassy slope, Naruto approached the port warily. Nobody paid much attention to him. A port was where the people of the world came together and one wounded shinobi was not an uncommon sight. Naruto even noticed two other shinobi (one from Suna and the other from Iwa) with injuries of similar severity while he headed towards the poorer end of town.

The only problem with any port however, was that any local could spot potential trouble a mile off and a shinobi attempting to stowaway on a ship was one such problem. Fortunately for all shinobi, a simple henge was one of the easiest and most basic techniques. For Naruto, it was all that much easier because with his amount of chakra, he could maintain it indefinitely.

He found a large fishing trawler, bound for the main island, down on one of the outermost docks. It was a great, hulking old tub covered in barnacles and with so many patches on its sails it couldn't possibly have a piece of the original cloth left. Disguised as a local fisherman's boy, it was easy enough to get close to the boat. She didn't appear to have a name but she seemed to be manned by only four men, three of which were up the other end of the boat. When the fourth one was called to help them, Naruto quickly looked around to make sure no one was paying any attention and then jumped aboard. He fled below deck, having overheard that the boat wouldn't be leaving for another hour. That meant the boat's crew would be kept busy above deck for the time being until they came below to make a cursory check for stowaways before casting off. Naruto planned to have tended to his wound and be completely concealed by that time.

The area beneath the deck was cramped with barely enough space for one man let alone four plus a stowaway. Never the less, Naruto would make do, just like always. There were some general healing salves in a medical cabinet in one corner which would do for a cut and Naruto had plenty of bandages. He sat down at a small table which had been bolted to the floor and pulled up his shirt.

"Baka fox," grumbled Naruto. The wound hadn't begun healing at all. There was nothing that he could do about the stupid demon though. It was bothersome for it to control its chakra but recently the demon had been feeling particularly spiteful. It was almost petty the way the demonic creature had regulated its chakra and stopped it from rampantly running throughout Naruto's body. It would only heal the most life threatening wounds and illnesses these days and that meant anything non-fatal Naruto had to suffer through, cursing the fact that often the wound was bad enough that it still hurt like a bitch. However, it was all the fox could do in retaliation for its imprisonment but did it have to resort to something ... well ... quite so pathetic?

The wound was barely half an inch deep and probably could have done with stitches but Naruto didn't really have the luxury. He washed it with some water from his dwindling supply and cleaned it as best he could. Opening a jar of salve he'd filched from the medical cabinet, he scooped out a generous amount of the greenish paste that smelt eerily similar to cat vomit and smeared it across the wound. A few bandages later, a light wind jutsu to dispel the smell of the salve and Naruto was ready to find some place to hunker down and get some shut eye.

He moved deeper into the bowls of the ship and finally found the ideal spot. There was a large stack of sacks of potatoes. Climbing up onto the top of the pile, Naruto pushed a few aside and then wedged himself in quite comfortably. He pulled his pack off his back and rested it across his lap. Digging in the side pocket, he found his trusty old chakra blanket. It really was an ingenious invention. A lot of shinobi had them but few remembered or thought to use them. Naruto had received his from the Third Hokage and it'd become a trusty tool during his early pranking days. It was a bit worn in places but it still worked. By running a small chakra charge through it, he could get the blanket to activate a special genjutsu inlaid into the material which would make it camouflage itself with the immediate surroundings. The genjutsu lasted approximately ten hours which was more than enough time to catch some shut eye.

So Naruto laid back and pulled the blanket over his body. He sent a small stream of chakra into the blanket and felt it activate, making it appear as if another sack of potatoes had been added to the pile. Finally able to relax, Naruto pillowed his head on his arm, checked he had a kunai handy just in case and allowed himself to drift off.

0-0-0-0-0-0

Three days wasn't a long time but the three days Naruto spent on bored the small fishing ship felt like the longest of his life. Half an hour outside of the harbour after they'd cast off the small vessel had been set upon by a ferocious storm. Naruto had awoken in the darkness as the ship was tossed and heaved about by the thundering waves. He'd barely slept a wink that night and for the next three days he'd never been more ill in his entire life. Naruto had of course heard of sea sickness before but this was the first time he'd ever experienced it. By the time they'd docked it was all Naruto could do to stagger/sneak off the ship.

He'd stumbled through the dockside harbour, along the winding streets of the town and finally out onto the small dirt track that headed off to the North West before he'd felt some semblance of normality return to his body. Declaring to himself right then and there he'd never bored another ship again in his life if he could help it, Naruto adjusted his pack and decided to pick up the pace.

Naruto was never quite sure whether it was because normally he went on missions with Sakura or the fox usually healed him up but either way, he didn't quite realise until it was too late that something wasn't quite right. Then again, he just blamed the stupid seasickness in this case.

He was already a long way into the mountains when the headache came on, adding to the pain of the aching wound on his stomach. A few hours later and he was beginning to stumble and weave from one side of the road to the other. Naruto tried to brush it off but the light-headedness only continued to worsen and he was sure he was starting to see things. Why the hell was Shino, Ino and Tsunade playing ring-around-the-rosy? And what the heck was Gaara going to do with that pair of scissors and Akamaru? Was Kakashi really trying to make out with a scarecrow over there?

Naruto shook his head. He really didn't feel all that good.

Wait a second – why was he on the ground? How did he get down here? Did he fall? Naruto was sure he'd been walking just fine a second ago.

It was getting dark but Naruto couldn't seem to summon the energy to get up. He was feeling kind of hot and tired and it felt like his very bones ached. What was he doing out here again? He didn't really know but he was sure he'd remember some time soon. It would all be ok. Naruto closed his eyes and allowed himself to sink down into the darkness, never mind the fact that he was lying on some road in the middle of nowhere.

Author's Note: How guys. Sorry for not updating in ages. Wow – has it really been two years? Can't believe I put this up in 2008. You've probably forgotten all about this fic by now. Any how, I've been otherwise involved with "Broomsticks & Shuriken" and "Tears for the Dead" among other things. This update was indeed a long time coming. Well I thought this chapter needed to be put in to explain how and why Naruto ended up in the village with Kisho. So the next chapter probably is inconsistent with this one now but that's easily fixed. Anyway, hope you enjoyed it. Review and all that jazz.