Chapter 17

Winter Festival

Naruto strolled into the Missions Office, signed mission scroll balancing on the tip of a finger. "Ohayou, Iruka-sensei!"

"Ohayou, Naruto-kun," the chuunin smiled kindly at him. "How was your mission?"

"Eh. Fine." Naruto shrugged. It had been an easy C-rank, delivering medical supplies to some of the border outposts with Sakura. "We didn't have any trouble." He tossed the scroll in Iruka's direction.

"That's good," Iruka replied, as he deftly caught and unrolled it. His eyes skimmed the signatures from each outpost denoting delivery of the supplies before he stamped a big red 'complete' on the bottom. He snapped the scroll shut and passed it to a waiting genin for filing. He took a payment voucher off the top of the stack, filled it in, and stamped it, too, before handing it to the waiting blonde. "Good work."

Naruto beamed. "Thanks. You still want to meet for ramen tonight?"

"Of course."

"Awesome! See you later!" Naruto turned, intending to visit the bursars and then find Sakura to split their earnings, and sketched a quick bow to the Yondaime. "Ohayou, Hokage-sama!"

His father smiled pleasantly at him. "Good morning, Naruto." His gaze shifted to the chuunin sitting at the table. "Iruka-san."

"Good morning, Hokage-sama," Iruka replied. "What can I do for you?"

Minato smirked. "Lady Shijimi will be arriving today for the Winter Festival."

Iruka groaned. "I'll prepare the mission scroll."

The Hokage laughed. "Assign it to Konohamaru's team. They haven't done much tracking."

Iruka chuckled. "Of course, Hokage-sama."

Naruto looked between the two older ninja, confused. "What mission?" he asked. What was Konohamaru going to be assigned to do?

The Hokage turned his smile on his son. "The Daimyo's wife has had a number of cats in her lifetime–all orange, all named Tora, and all notorious for escaping. Every time she visits Konoha, the current cat gets loose, and a genin team has to capture it. It's something of a running joke."

"Oh." Naruto paused, thinking, before a mischievous grin lit his features. "Okay. Thanks. Bye!"

He dodged the Hokage and sped out of the room, plan already coming together.

It was the sizzle of chakra from the seal on his balcony door breaking that woke Sasuke up. His eyes snapped open, and, with hardly a thought, he rolled over and threw the kunai he kept under his pillow with unerring accuracy.

There was a thump and a curse. "Shit, Sasuke!"

The young Uchiha paused, a brace of shuriken already between his fingers, poised and ready. He knew that voice. "Naruto?"

The blonde was rising from the floor, where he'd dropped to avoid the kunai. "Yes, damn it! So put down the damn weapons!"

Sasuke considered throwing them, just to be contrary, then decided he didn't want to bother. He lowered his hand. "Dobe. What the hell are you doing here?"

Naruto grinned. The weak moonlight threw odd shadows on his face, making him appear downright evil.

That...couldn't be good.

"How did I let you talk me into this?" Sasuke muttered, as he and his teammates huddled together outside the fancy hotel the Daimyo's wife was staying in.

Naruto's teeth gleamed white in the moonlight. "I'm just that persuasive, ne?"

Sasuke opened his mouth to retort, but Sakura broke in. "We're wasting time," she whispered. "What's the plan?"

"Sasuke is gonna get Tora out here," Naruto started, "then you are gonna put her to sleep with your genjutsu."

"Me?" Sakura interrupted. "I don't know if it even works on animals!"

Naruto shrugged. "It probably will. And Sasuke already said he wouldn't use the Sharingan on a cat–"

"Usuratonkachi," Sasuke mumbled.

"–and I'm terrible at 'em," Naruto finished, ignoring the Uchiha. "So that just leaves you."

Sakura stifled a giggle. "Alright. I'll try."

Naruto grinned. "Yosh! If it doesn't work, we'll think of something else."

Sakura nodded. "So, how are you going to get Tora out of the room?"

Naruto nudged Sasuke with his elbow, and the Uchiha slapped his arm away. "Dobe," he snipped, but brought out a small pouch and opened it.

A pungent aroma filled the air. Naruto's nose wrinkled and he muffled a sneeze in his arm. "I'm gonna wait over there," he whispered, pointing down the alley. He took off and Sasuke smirked.

"What is that?" Sakura asked quietly.

"Ninja Cat Clan special catnip," Sasuke replied as he sprinkled a little on the ground. "Guaranteed to work."

Sakura blinked at him. "Ninja Cat Clan?"

Sasuke's lips quirked in a half-smile. "The Uchiha have a contract with them." Just then, a dark tabby slunk around the corner and flopped down on top of the catnip. The Uchiha chuckled and bent down to pet it. "See? If Tora is anywhere nearby, she'll come running."

Sakura stared. "That's amazing. But...why didn't you use it when we had to catch that damn cat as genin?"

Sasuke just shrugged. "Blame onii-san. He said catnip would make it too easy."

Sakura huffed as another, white cat joined the tabby rolling around on the ground.

A few minutes, and a few cats, later, a big, orange cat with a little bow haphazardly tied to its right ear appeared. The members of Team Kakashi held very still as Tora sauntered over and joined the rolling, rubbing, drooling group of felines.

"Okay," Sakura whispered to herself. She quickly ran through seals and gently placed her hand on Tora's head.

The cat yawned, rolled over, and promptly went to sleep.

"Yatta!" Sakura quietly cheered, then carefully scooped the sleeping cat into her arms.

"Awesome!" Naruto's whisper drifted down the alley. "C'mon!"

Naruto took the sleeping cat from Sakura's hold once they reached the outer wall of the Inuzuka compound. With a wink he disappeared into the ground, tunneling under the wall. Sasuke and Sakura guarded the hole, waiting for an alarm to be sounded.

But nothing disturbed the quiet, and soon enough, Naruto popped back up and sealed the tunnel. "Let's go," the blonde whispered, excitement leaking into his voice, and the trio scaled a nearby building.

When they were settled in a hiding place on the roof that afforded an excellent view of the compound, and the sleeping cat in the middle of the kennels, Sakura turned to Naruto. "Don't tell me we're just waiting for her to wake up?"

Naruto chuckled. "Not at all. Watch." He waved his hand over his head and a dog slunk out of the shadows. Sakura stiffened, but Naruto grinned. "Relax. It's one of my clones."

The dog trotted up to Tora and barked.

The cat shot almost straight up in the air, yowling like crazy, and the clone quickly dispersed.

It was immediate pandemonium. It only got better when Kiba rushed out, half-dressed, tripped over a hissing, spitting Tora, and almost got run over by the dozen dogs chasing her.

Naruto laughed so hard, he had tears in his eyes. Sakura was laughing, too, and Sasuke had to admit, if only to himself, that this was more fun than he'd had in a long time.

"Ne, Sasuke, want to come to the Festival tomorrow?"

Sasuke paused, chopsticks hovering over steaming broth. He eyed Naruto, sitting to his right. The blonde was feigning nonchalance, badly–not looking at Sasuke and swirling his chopsticks around in his bowl–which only made his interest in the answer more blatant.

Though, considering Sasuke's reaction the last time Naruto had asked him something like that...well. The Uchiha could hardly blame him.

Sasuke looked back at his ramen. It wasn't his favorite food, but it was good. Filling and, depending on the toppings you ordered, full of the nutrients needed after a hard training. Or hard pranking, apparently, and, oh, the look on Inuzuka's face...

Priceless. Just like Naruto's face when Sasuke finally agreed to ramen, a few days after their talk on the Monument.

It had been a much better way to shock the blonde silent than an insult. Because, after he got over it, Naruto smiled. Big and bright and happy.

And the anger and pain were still there, but muted. Echoes, rather than shouts. Quiet enough that Sasuke didn't blame Naruto for them anymore. Quiet enough he could feel the warmth just beneath.

Naruto was happy, just because Sasuke was going to spend time with him. Naruto wanted his company, not because he was a container, or an Uchiha, or even a hero. Just because he was Sasuke. He couldn't say that about many people other than Itachi. It was...nice.

But a tiny ramen stand that couldn't hold more than a handful of people was not the same as a festival. Teuchi and Ayame didn't give him funny looks, didn't treat him like anything other than a valued customer. He couldn't say the same for the rest of the village.


Fuck the rest of the village. He had a team to watch his back. And if it was too much, he'd leave.

Decision made, he deftly scooped up noodles. "Yes."

Naruto fumbled his chopsticks and almost dumped his ramen in his lap. He turned wide eyes on Sasuke. "What?"

Sasuke raised a lone brow and went back to eating.


"Yes, dobe."

"That. Is. AWESOME!" Naruto crowed, standing and pumping his fist in the air.

Sasuke smirked. "Sit down and shut up. It's not that big a deal."

"Suuuuure," Naruto drawled, settling back on his stool. "Whatever you say, Sass."

Black eyes narrowed. "Do not call me that."

Naruto snickered, but didn't press it. Instead, he said, "I'm gonna meet Sakura at 9:30 at the Hokage Tower so we can find good spots for the parade."


Naruto grinned. "Cool." And went back to his ramen.

It was disturbingly easy to get into Konoha. One had to merely walk through the gates, disguised as a civilian trader with the proper permits. The guards made you sign a log book and asked your business in their Village, and that was it.

Ume scoffed internally as the two Leaf nin waved her through with a cheery 'enjoy your stay!' It couldn't be this simple...but apparently it was. How had Konoha come to be known as the strongest Village? It was laughable.

She continued down the street to an inn, checked in, and unpacked her bags. She would decide which market collective to display her wares at–she had to maintain her cover–then get some dinner. Tomorrow would be a busy day.

Silent and unseen in the shadows across from the inn, Cat watched.

It may be easy to get in to Konoha, but it was much, much harder to get out.

The morning of the Festival dawned clear and chilly. The trees of Konoha stayed green year-round and it rarely snowed, but it did get cold in the winter months.

Ino stretched and yawned and got ready for her day. After breakfast and a quick peck on her father's cheek, she left to open the store.

Not all clan members were ninja. Some were too old, some injured, some simply weren't good at it or didn't want to be. Those people invariably had other means to support the clan. The Yamanaka ran a flower shop. Today, it was Ino's job to man it.

There was a rush of pre-parade business, which dried to a trickle as soon as the festivities started. Ino restocked and straightened displays and tried not to be upset. She'd been to almost every Winter Festival since she could remember, and she'd go to them again. This punishment wouldn't last forever.


She was thankful that customers picked up again when the parade was over, to occupy her mind with other things.

It was around lunchtime when three familiar faces entered the shop.

Ino grinned. "Hey, Sakura, Naruto, Sasuke-kun!"

"Hi, Ino!" the pink-haired kunoichi replied. Naruto greeted her cheerfully, while Sasuke gave her the briefest nod and then wandered over to stare at the vases on display along the far wall.

"How's your day been?" Sakura asked.

"Eh." Ino waved her hand in a so-so motion. "We've had decent business, anyway."

They chatted for a bit, until the bell over the door rang again, and the Yamanaka quickly excused herself. "Good morning! Can I help you?"

The brown-haired, brown-eyed woman who had entered smiled, but shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm just looking."

"Well, let me know if you need anything."

The lady nodded, and Ino went back to the counter.

"It sucks you're stuck in here today," Naruto said sincerely.

Ino just waved her hand again. "It's fine. Someone had to."

"What time do you get done?" Sakura asked.

"Two o'clock," Ino replied. "I'll have some time to walk around."

"You should meet up with us!" Naruto said.

Ino perked up. "Sure. Where?"

"Let's meet at the Tower," Sakura said. "Two-thirty?"


The customer came up behind the two ninja, and Naruto stepped aside.

"We'll get out of your hair," Naruto told Ino. "See you later."

Ino waved as they headed for the door. "Bye! Bye, Sasuke-kun!"

He might have grunted in farewell, but it was lost in the sound of the bell.

She smiled to herself, and turned to the woman. "Find what you were looking for?"

"It's hard to choose. They're all so beautiful. But I think I'll get these," the woman said, holding up a bouquet of bittersweet and white and yellow camellias.

"Thank you," Ino said, as she took the bouquet. "These are an excellent choice."

"It was nice of your friends to stop by and see you," the lady said with a smile. "Have you known them long?"

Ino chuckled. "I've been friends with Sakura since we were little," she replied as she wrapped the bouquet in paper.

"And the others?"

"Sasuke-kun has lived here his whole life, but Naruto came to the Village a few months ago." Ino deftly tied an orange ribbon around the paper and smiled innocently at the woman. "1500, please." That was innocuous information; Ino knew better than to gossip with total strangers. Especially when Sasuke was involved. And the Hokage would probably rather she didn't say much about Naruto, either.

The lady smiled pleasantly and handed over her money. Her fingers brushed Ino's palm.

"Well, I hope you have fun with your friends today," she said as she picked up her bouquet.

"Yes, thank you," Ino replied. "Enjoy the Festival!"

The customer smiled and nodded as she left.

The smile slipped from Ino's face as soon as the woman vanished from the front windows. She stared down at her hand and resisted the urge to rub at the spot the woman had touched. It didn't tingle anymore, but Ino could feel it just the same.


A small enough amount that a civilian or even a genin wouldn't notice it. The woman was probably counting on that.

Any spy worth their salt would know this was a ninja clan business, but the woman probably wasn't expecting a chuunin behind the counter. That was extremely unusual. The only reason Ino was here, now, was because of her punishment. Her father had allowed her to resume clan training about a month ago, but this was the only way she could contribute until her reinstatement.

That woman had done something, expecting Ino to be unaware. And, considering the questions the spy had been asking before she left...

Ino bit her lip. She couldn't tell what the chakra left behind was supposed to do. It could be just a beacon that would allow the woman to find Ino again. But it could be something more invasive, like a jutsu that would let the spy hear what Ino said, or see what she was doing.

She would have to be careful.

She did a quick round of the shop, straightening things and pretending to be busy. She went to the storage cooler, running her eyes over the stock, then returned to the counter and picked up the phone.

After a few rings, she smiled brightly. "Tou-san!" A pause. "Fine, but the tiger lilies are selling well. We might run out."

Inoichi answered the phone at his desk distractedly. Festival days were always busy for the Head of Internal Security. They had only picked up two suspected spies so far, but it was early yet. Most spies waited for the cover of darkness and sake to loosen tongues.



The Yamanaka Head leaned back in his chair, a smile on his face. "Ino! How are you doing?"

"Fine, but the tiger lilies are selling well. We might run out."

Inoichi's smile dropped from his face. In the code his clan had adopted long before, Ino had just told him there was a problem. Potentially dangerous, but not an emergency. That she was using code at all meant she didn't think it safe to speak plainly.

"Shall I bring you more?"

"Please." Ino's relief was audible. "If you're not too busy, that is."

Inoichi chuckled. He was, but this was part of his job, too. "I'll be right there."

Minato sat back in his chair, hands steepled in front of his face, carefully considering the open scrolls before him and the verbal report Inoichi had given him.

Inoichi sat patiently on the other side of his desk, waiting.

"You're certain the chakra was a tag, nothing more?" the Hokage finally asked.

"Hai," Inoichi replied.

"And it was placed after Ino spoke to Sakura and Naruto about meeting up again," the Yondaime mused. He tapped one scroll absently. "Cat said the spy stopped following them after visiting your shop. Someone in that group is the target. "

Inoichi dipped his head in agreement. "It's extremely unlikely to be Haruno Sakura," he said. "Her family has produced only a handful of ninja, and none exceptional enough to catch the attention of other Villages. The most well-known was actually an Uzumaki who married in, but she passed away many years ago."

Minato nodded. "Uchiha Sasuke."

"Much more likely." Inoichi paused, then met the Hokage's gaze. "But we both know the most likely target is Uzumaki Naruto."

Minato sighed.

"You asked me to increase security measures this year," Inoichi reminded quietly. "And to look especially for spies from Iwa."

"Aa," the Hokage agreed, just as quietly. "I did."

"I think we've found one," Inoichi replied.

Minato sighed again. "Recommendations?"

"Treat her as any other captured spy," Inoichi said. "She can't have collected much information, as there is little to find." He paused. "Unless there is DNA they may compare?"

Minato shook his head. "I have no idea," he replied. "It was war; my blood was shed all over Kusa. But they wouldn't have had a reason to keep it."

"So, a possibility, but a remote one. We follow standard protocol. Give Ōnoki no reason to suspect she found anything. We've captured Iwa spies before. He knows what we do, no matter what."

"Or he could take the lack of memories as proof she did find something."

"We could replace the memories with something else."

"If he figures out we did that, he really will know," Minato muttered, rubbing at his eyes.

Inoichi spread his hands. "We have limited options, Hokage-sama. Killing or imprisoning her will only convince the Tsuchikage she found something important. The only other thing we can do is leave her alone, to make her report."

"Except she will certainly report our...similarities, and that will only increase Ōnoki's certainty. Hell, Naruto's looks alone are damning enough. And I detest the idea of letting that old bastard think he slipped a spy past us."

Inoichi quirked his lips in acknowledgement. "Then we either wipe her memories, or give her new ones. And if the Tsuchikage decides to take either action as proof of his suspicions, there's nothing we can do."

Minato sighed again. "Damned if we do, damned if we don't." He glanced at Inoichi. "Wipe her memories. Standard protocol. Ōnoki will be pissed, and send more spies. But he won't move against us yet. It's the best we can hope for."

Inoichi nodded and rose from his chair. "Hai, Hokage-sama."

"And, Inoichi," the Yondaime said, letting a smile spread on his face. "Include your daughter in the mission. I think it's time she got her hitai ite back, hmmm?"

Inoichi smiled at his leader. "Hai, Hokage-sama."

Ino met the others in front of the Hokage Tower at two-thirty, as agreed. By three-thirty she was getting antsy. She still hadn't spotted the spy, and ANBU Cat hadn't given the signal either.

She was seriously considering just telling Naruto what was going on, when Kakashi appeared out of nowhere, dirty book in hand.

Ino let out a little sigh of relief. Finally.

"Hello team!" the jonin greeted jovially. "And Ino-san!"

She gave him her best smile. "Hello, Hatake-san."

The interaction didn't last too long. Sakura gave him grief about reading Icha Icha in public, Naruto tried to challenge him to a game, and Sasuke stood back, arms crossed over his chest, looking bored.

Kakashi deflected, said he'd only wanted to say hello, and vanished again.

Ino cast a subtle look around. She didn't spot the woman, but it didn't matter. The spy was out there, close enough to see them. Ino smiled brightly. "Hey Naruto, I want to get some food. Come with me?"

"Sure! Do you guys want anything?"

Sasuke shook his head. Sakura said, "Something to drink would be nice."

"No problem!" Ino replied. "You two grab a table. Naruto and I will be right back!"

Before anybody could say anything else, she linked arms with her fellow blonde and made for the food stands at the edge of the square. "Don't look around," she said as soon as their backs were turned.


"There's a spy following us."


"I said, don't look!" Ino hissed. "Look at me. And keep your voice down."

Naruto blinked, his gaze settling on Ino's face. "Sorry. But...what?"

She sighed. "That customer, that came into the shop when you guys were there?" Naruto nodded slowly. "She's a spy. They're pretty sure she's following you, but they have to make certain it's not Sasuke-kun she's after."

Naruto went rigid. "Sasuke?"

"Yeah. Since he's...what he is. But you're..." Ino trailed off. Took a deep breath. Everybody knew. Or at least guessed. But nobody said anything, out of respect for the Hokage and his obvious wishes. She lowered her voice "You're who you are, too. So, we split up. If she stays in the square, she's watching Sasuke-kun. If she follows us, she's watching you."

"That makes a difference?"

"Of course," Ino replied, pulling him past the food stands, into a less-crowded street. "It can help tell us where she's from, and T&I will know what sort of questions to ask her."

"Oh." Naruto frowned. "Do you know where she is?"

Ino glanced around casually. "No. But ANBU Cat has been following her."

"Oh. Where are we going?"

"I don't know," Ino replied. "I'm just getting us away from the crowd. It'll be easier for her to follow us, if she's going to, and easier for Cat to catch her."

"Oh," Naruto said again. "You're good at this stuff."

She gave him a quick smile. "Thanks."

"Hey, let's go this way. I know a place where nobody'll be."

He led her through a few twisting alleys, which she was sure she'd never been down before, until they came to bright red torii gates.



"What do we do with spies?"

She glanced at him. He was frowning, though it seemed pensive rather than angry. "We wipe their memories of their time in the Village and send them back."

He blinked a few times. "Oh. Okay." He cocked his head, like he was listening. "There isn't anybody following us."

Ino nodded. "Let's give it a few more minutes. Just in case. The spy might have lost us."

"She'd be a crappy spy," Naruto snorted. "We were walking really slow."

Ino laughed. "True. But spies are often civilians, or genin level."

"Why's that? Shouldn't they be really great ninja?"

"Think about it," Ino replied. "A spy's job is to blend in and collect information, not fight. Ninja are pretty easy to recognize, and any foreign ninja is automatically suspicious and a possible threat. But ninja don't pay attention to civilians most of the time."

"Huh. That makes sense, I guess. Sucks if they get caught, though. Not like they can fight their way out."

Ino shrugged. "It's the risk they take. And there's no guarantee a skilled ninja would fare any better. Besides, civilians aren't helpless. They can use seals already charged with chakra, and they're usually really good at hand-to-hand and weapons."

Naruto laughed. "That's true." He glanced down the path the gates framed. "Do you want to pay our respects, since we're here?"

Ino shrugged. "Sure. What shrine is this? I don't recognize it."

Naruto grinned. "Inari-sama."

When they returned to the street, Kakashi was waiting for them. His eye crinkled as he waved.

"Eh? Kakashi-sensei was in on it too?" Naruto asked as they walked towards him.

"Yeah. Remember I said ANBU Cat was following the spy? Well, I couldn't wear a radio–if the spy saw it, she'd be suspicious–so Cat didn't have any way to let me know when the spy caught up to us. Hatake-san was the signal."

"Oh. So, when he came over, you knew it was time to split up?"

"That's right," Kakashi answered, having caught the question. "Good work, by the way. Cat took the spy into custody after she left the square."

"So she was after Naruto," Ino said softly.

"Aa," the jonin replied seriously. "Hokage-sama wants to see you both in the Tower when you're done at the Festival."

"We can go now, if he needs us," Naruto piped up.

Kakashi shook his head. "Not necessary. He's watching the interrogation." His eye crinkled again. "Just come after the Festival."

"Hai, Sensei," Naruto replied.


Kakashi gave them another wave. "Ja ne!" And disappeared.

Ino smiled. "Come on. Sakura and Sasuke-kun are going to wonder where we are."

Naruto's eyes went wide. "Crap, that's right!" And he took off down the narrow street.

Ino laughed and followed.

"A spy? Seriously?" Sakura asked, again, sipping at her tea.

Ino nodded. "Yep."

"And you couldn't have told us about it?" Sakura pouted.

Sasuke lifted his chin a little higher. Not that he would ever say it, but he was feeling a little slighted, too. They were a team. Teams helped each other. Wasn't that what everyone kept saying?

"Aww, don't be like that," Naruto said, looking at Sakura, but nudging Sasuke with his arm. "I didn't know about it until Ino dragged me off!"

"It's not like I made the plan," Ino huffed, hands on her hips. "If you've got a problem, take it up with my father. Or the Hokage."

Sakura sighed, but dropped it, like Ino knew she would, with that trump card.

Sasuke let himself thaw, just a little. It really wasn't Naruto's fault, or Ino's either, even if she could have mentioned something. It's not like he and Sakura were wet-behind-the-ears genin who couldn't handle–

A small figure darted between the bodies in the crowd and slammed right into his legs, then fell ungracefully on its rear.

Sasuke stopped, surprised, and looked down.

It was a boy, maybe six, with brown hair. He was looking at the ground and scrubbing at his face. "S-Sorry, mister," he started, his voice sounding suspiciously thick. Looking up, he continued, "I d-didn't mean…" He trailed off as he saw Sasuke's face. His red-rimmed eyes–the boy had obviously been crying–widened and the sobs he had been trying to hold back burst forth. "I'm s-sorry, Uch-Uchi-ha-ha-s-sama," he stammered. "I d-didn't m-mean to! P-Please don't be m-mad!"

The boy continued babbling and crying and Sasuke just stared at him, face blank. But really, he wanted to scream. He hated the boy in that moment, for thinking he'd be mad, hated the boy's parents because Sage knows what they'd told the kid, hated Naruto for dragging him here, hated the villagers for even having a festival today, hated his father for volunteering him for the life of a freak, hated the Sandaime and the Yondaime for sealing the demon in him, hated the demon for attacking Konoha at all, and hated everyone and everything in the entire world in general.

But only for a moment, because Naruto elbowed him in the ribs and he automatically looked over at the blonde. His teammate was glaring at him and motioning with his head, obviously telling Sasuke to do something about the kid. He snorted. Idiot. What the hell was he supposed to do? It wasn't his fault the kid was scared shitless of him.

He sighed and tried anyway. "Stop crying," he commanded, wincing internally at the way his voice sounded as cold and indifferent as usual.

The kid shut up immediately, although it was obvious he hadn't actually stopped crying. He was just holding in the sobs, afraid of angering the dark-haired teen further. Sasuke ignored the pang of guilt he felt at the sight. He'd tried, hadn't he?

Naruto shook his head. "You're hopeless," he muttered. Before Sasuke could make any kind of rejoinder–honestly, what did the blonde expect? He didn't know the first thing about kids–his teammate hunkered down next to the sniffling child with a bright smile on his face.

"What's your name, gaki?" he asked, achieving a warmth in his voice that Sasuke couldn't hope to match.

"H-Hideki," the boy replied haltingly.

"Well, Hideki-chan, I'm Naruto. And don't mind my friend here. He's just grumpy."

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at the blonde–he called me grumpy?!–while trying not to smirk at the same time. Hideki was shocked by what Naruto just said, and a shocked-looking six-year-old was priceless.

Before the kid could say anything, Naruto continued. "Where are your parents?"

The brown-haired boy blinked a couple times. "I-I don't kn-know," he stuttered, looking like he might cry again.

Naruto nodded sagely. "I see. That's why you were running like that? You were trying to find them?"

Hideki nodded.

Naruto smiled again. "Well, it's a good thing you ran into us, then!" He leaned forward, as if imparting a secret. "We're ninja you know, and ninja are very good at finding people."

Hideki blinked at them a few times. "R-Really?" he squeaked.

"Sure thing, sugar," Ino replied, smiling at him while Sakura nodded.

"We need your help, though, Hideki-chan," Naruto continued, mock seriously. "Since we don't know what your parents look like."

Hideki nodded. "Ok." He scrubbed at his face again, wiping away tears and stood. "What should I do?"

Naruto stood too and grinned down at him. "Well, it will be hard for you to spot them in this crowd from way down there. You need to be higher up."

Sasuke felt vaguely apprehensive at those words; he just knew the blonde was up to something. He was proved right a moment later as Naruto scooped the boy up and shoved him into Sasuke's arms.

"Your big brother Sasuke will hold you up, and you can look for your parents, ne?" Naruto grinned cheekily at Sasuke, who had automatically grabbed the child so he didn't just fall to the ground. He wasn't a complete asshole, thank-you-very-much.

But that didn't mean he was happy about it. He glared murderously at Naruto, who should have dropped dead, but who instead just laughed. Kami, he was going to kill that idiot! The kid was all squirmy and awkward in his grip, and his shoes were probably getting dirt all over his hakama, and he was probably dribbling snot all over his haori, and what the fuck was that dobe thinking!

But then he looked at the kid, who was staring at him with wide brown doe eyes and the brat looked so…hopeful, that Sasuke's heart gave a little pang in his chest. The dobe seriously owed him one. He sighed and shifted his grip, settling the kid at his side. The pudgy face was now level with his own, and this close it was apparent that the kid was in desperate need of a tissue.

"Sakura," he started, glancing at his female teammate, but she was already digging in her pockets while Ino held her tea. Sasuke felt an uncharacteristic rush of gratitude for the kunoichi's presence.

She pulled out a handkerchief and tilted the boy's face towards her. "Here, Hideki-chan," she said with a smile, wiping his face and nose.

He smiled shyly back at her. "Thank you, kunoichi-san," he said.

"Just call me Sakura, ok?"

He nodded and turned back to Sasuke. Small arms wrapped around the Uchiha's neck. "Thank you, too, Uchiha-sama," the boy murmured, not looking Sasuke in the face.

The Uchiha blinked and looked away himself. "Call me Sasuke," he said gruffly.

He couldn't help noticing Hideki's surprise out of the corner of his eye. It melted away, though, in a timid smile. "Ok."

"Now, Hideki-chan," Ino said, "what do your parents look like? And where is the last place you saw them?"

The kid told them, and they set off, keeping an eye on the crowd.

It wasn't actually that long before Naruto called out, "Hey Hideki-chan! Is that them?"

The boy in his arms twisted in the direction the blonde was pointing. "Kaa-san! Tou-san!" he shrieked, waving his arm wildly. Sasuke tightened his grip, afraid the boy would wave himself right out of his arms. The boy tugged on Sasuke's haori. "Over there, Sasuke-nii-san!" he cried, pointing. But Sasuke was already moving in the direction Naruto had indicated, the other three right next to him.

The boy called out again, and this time his parents heard him. Two concerned faces turned in their direction, melting into identical expressions of relief when they caught sight of their son. After that came a brief flicker of anger, probably for making them worry, then shock as they saw just who was carrying their boy.

Sasuke stiffened a little, his face automatically sliding into the blank mask he usually wore. Hideki was squirming in his arms, so he bent and put the boy down, only a little reluctantly. He expected the boy to run to his parents immediately, but instead he grabbed Sasuke's hand and started pulling him forward. Sasuke could do nothing but follow, fighting to keep his bemusement off his face. Hideki only let him go when the boy got right in front of his parents, so he could be enveloped in his mother's tight embrace.

"Hideki!" she said, clutching him to her. "We were so worried! Don't ever run off like that again!" Her gaze flicked to Sasuke, though she didn't quite look him in the face, and her arms tightened slightly.

Her husband spoke up then. "Uchiha-sama," he said, with a stiff bow. "Thank you for returning our son. We are sorry if it caused you any inconvenience."

The way he said it made Sasuke bristle on the inside. He showed none of his feelings though, and merely replied, "It was nothing."

He turned to leave when Hideki cried out, "Wait! Let go, Mom!" He struggled out of his mother's embrace and ran up to Sasuke. He tugged on the teen's hand until Sasuke crouched down, face level with the six-year-old's. "I want to say thank you, too," Hideki said, suddenly shy and not meeting Sasuke's eyes.

"You already did," the Uchiha replied, but Hideki shook his head.

"No, not for helpin' me find Mom and Dad," he said, fidgeting with Sasuke's hand.

Sasuke raised one delicate eyebrow. "For what then?"

The boy leaned in close to Sasuke's ear and whispered, "For, ya' know, keepin' us all safe from the K-Ku-Kuubi." His tongue tripped over the word, mispronouncing it, but that didn't make any difference.

Sasuke pulled back a little, staring at the boy. He was watching Sasuke intently, brown eyes sincere, a light blush on his cheeks. People had said that to him before, but for some reason, coming from this boy, it didn't sound like an empty sentiment. They weren't hollow words spoken in a vain effort to ease the burden of his existence. For some reason, it meant so much more then it ever had before.

He blinked and squeezed Hideki's hands with his own. "You're welcome," he said lowly.

Hideki grinned, an expression that reminded him of Naruto. "Can I come visit you and Naruto-nii-san and Sakura-nee-san and Ino-nee-san?" he asked, all shyness forgotten.

Naruto chuckled next to and a little behind him and Sasuke smiled. A small, real smile. "Aa," he said. "As long as your parents give you permission."

He stood and resisted the urge to chuckle as Hideki rushed back to his parents, who were staring in total shock. "Can I? Please, please, please?" the boy begged, tugging at his mother's sleeve insistently.

The woman glanced at her husband, who was equally dumbfounded. Sasuke's smile slid into a more comfortable smirk and he crossed his arms in front of his chest. Their discomfiture was pretty amusing.

"Uhhh…s-sure," the man stuttered after a moment.

Hideki cheered and started thanking them as profusely as he had been begging them a moment before. "When can I, huh?" he asked.

Naruto answered. "Well, we have training and missions, you know. But when we can, we'll come find you."


Naruto nodded. "Promise. And I always keep my promises. That's my ninja way." He grinned at the brown-haired boy, and Hideki grinned back.

They said their goodbyes and turned to go. Naruto had a very satisfied smirk on his face.

Sasuke scowled. "Shut up, dobe," he hissed, even though his teammate hadn't actually said anything.

Naruto's smirk widened.

If Sasuke didn't know better, he'd think the blonde had planned for this to happen.

Standing in front of the Hokage's desk, Ino let out a breath. Last time she had been here had not been one of her better nights.

This time, though, she wasn't in trouble. She didn't think. At least, the Hokage was smiling.

"You've done well," the Yondaime said. "The spy was easily subdued and we've gotten the information we need." His smile went a little wider. "This belongs to you."

He held up her hitai ite.

She gasped and stared at him. "I-I don't understand."

"What's to understand? You've earned it back."

"But I didn't really do anything!"

"You didn't panic," the Hokage explained patiently. "You contacted a superior with your suspicions. You followed your orders, which aided in the apprehension of a spy."

"It wasn't hard or anything..."

He gave her an amused look. "You think it should be hard? Shall I set you some A-rank mission instead?" He shook his head. "A ninja's worth isn't measured by how difficult their tasks are, and a task doesn't need to be difficult or dangerous to be important. You've proven yourself to me, not just today, but over the last few months."

She bit her lip and gingerly reached for her headband. The moment her fingers closed around the metal, her tears spilled over. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."

He smiled at her, gentle and kind. "No need to thank me. Dismissed."

Naruto gave her a brilliant grin and a hug. "See you later, Ino-chan."

"Yeah," she replied, somewhat dazed. "See you."

She ran home, clutching her headband tightly to her chest. She would never, never lose it again.

A few weeks later, in a Tower far from Konoha, a short, old man with a bulbous nose slammed a fist down on his desk. "Damn it!" he growled. "They caught her!"

A younger, taller man, seated in a chair on the other side of the desk, shrugged. "Well, they usually do."

"I can't know if she found anything! They wiped her memories!"

"It's their standard procedure for spies. You know that."

The Tsuchikage growled again. "Not helping."

"What do you want me to say? We failed this time. All we can do is try again."

Ōnoki huffed and started to pace. "And risk another spy getting caught? It's a waste of time and resources. Ume can never go back to Konoha."

"Maybe whoever we send won't get caught."

Ōnki waved that comment off. "As much as I hate to admit it, Konoha is excellent at catching spies."

The two men were silent a moment. "Well, then, the only way to get in is to go openly," the younger man said slowly.

The Tsuchikage stared at him like he was crazy. "And start another war?"

But the younger man shook his head. "No, tou-san, think about it. The Chuunin Exams are coming up. That's the only time Iwa nin are allowed into Hi no Kuni, right?"

The old man's eyes narrowed in thought. "We've never sent a genin team to Konoha... that blonde bastard would know exactly what we were up to."

The younger man smiled. "So what? He has to let us in, if we're coming for the Exams. The number of teams allowed are limited, yes, but we don't need numbers. And he can only deny our participation if he has proof of ill-intent. So, unless he wants to spill the secret he's going to great lengths to protect, his hands are tied."

Ōnoki stroked at his beard. "Alright, pick one genin team to send. And go over the treaty with a fine-tooth comb. I want this plan to be iron-clad."

The young man grinned. "Hai, Tsuchikage-sama."

In another Tower far from Konoha, Baki listened patiently while the Kazekage spoke about the upcoming invasion, again.

He didn't like this.

Didn't like the plan, didn't like their ally–who was dangerous and untrustworthy–and especially didn't like how Gaara was being treated.

Not that it was much different from how he was always treated.

Baki knew he should have accepted it long ago. It was just the way things were, and he could not change it anymore than he could stop the wind.

But Baki had never been able to give up on his student. Even as Gaara drifted further along a path of bloodshed and madness.

A path the Kazekage seemed more than willing to tread, too.

War. Against Konoha. With Orochimaru. How could this turn out well for anyone?

But it was not Baki's place to speak his opinion. The Kage would do as he pleased, and Baki would do his best for his Village. And his students.

Baki loved his home with his entire being. He would never trade the shifting dunes of Suna for the rustling trees of Konoha, or the brilliant desert sunsets for the forest's black rain clouds.

But sometimes, he thought he would trade a Kage that ruled through fear and violence for one that lead with compassion and respect. That would be a Kage worth fighting for.

Author's Note:

Thank you, everyone, for still reading, following, reviewing, etc. The Chuunin Exams are coming in the next chapter or two, which is going to be lots of fun. =)