Disclaimer: If I owned Naruto, I wouldn't be writing and posting fanfiction here, would I?

I was inspired by GrownRose's 'Demon Bonds.' As I was reading, a little plot bunny was born and the little deviant refused to leave me alone. It has grown into the bunny that swallowed Tokyo. I dedicate this to GrownRose, RayneXHatake, and MichievousPuck. Special thanks to RayneXHatake and MichievousPuck for their input, comments, encouragement and persistent nagging.

The rhythmic clicking of heels echoes down the empty corridor, the steady pace preceding a solitary figure before rounding a corner into view. Unhurriedly it follows the ascending, sloping floor winding through the building to the upper levels. It is a design far more elegant that takes up far less space than the standard utilitarian staircases hidden behind non-descript doors in other parts of the building. It never fails to impress first time visitors with its simplistic composition and thoughtfulness, subtly encouraging conversation during leisurely strolls past numerous picture windows and artwork.

The flowing cadence ceases when a young, brunette woman halts before a nondescript door on the uppermost floor. Balancing a tea tray and paperwork with practiced ease she opens the door and enters. She crosses over to an expansive desk situated before a series of large windows offering a breathtaking, panoramic view of the village behind the lone occupant of the room. The blonde woman finally looks up from the document she was intently reading when the brunette set a steaming cup of aromatically soothing tea down on the surface in front of her.

After setting the papers she brought on a corner of the desk, the brunette patiently waits as the blonde picks up her cup and leans back in her chair.

"Thank you, Shizune."

Shizune nods before gesturing at the documents. "Those are the official minutes of the last jounin meeting ready for your final inspection and signature, Tsunade-sama."

Contemplating the papers for a moment, Tsunade sets down her teacup and reaches over to pull them toward her. Grabbing a pen, she promptly signs off on the last page, much to Shizune's outrage.

"Tsunade-sama! You didn't even read them before signing!"

Picking up her cup to take another sip Tsunade quirks a brow at her apprentice. "You were there at the meeting, right?" Shizune nods. "You wrote these up, right?" Again she nods. "Then I don't need to read them. I trust you," the blonde shrugs nonchalantly as she sips her tea.

"That's not the point! You're supposed to read them, then sign off on them!" Shizune rages.

Tsunade rolls her eyes. "C'mon, Shizune. You never make mistakes on the minutes. Besides, they're boring as hell. I remember the meeting quite well, so I know what I'm talking about."

"But Tsunade-sama…" Shizune is cut off by the sudden appearance of a small yellow toad onto the desk in a poof of smoke.

With a slight nod the toad presents a scroll to Tsunade.

"Greetings. I have an urgent message from Jiraiya for you, Tsunade-hime." Once finished, the toad pops out, not bothering to wait for a response.

Holding the scroll, Tsunade blinks in surprise at the spot the toad just vacated. It was very unusual for one of Jiraiya's toads not to wait for a response. Sharing a look with Shizune, she immediately breaks the seal on the scroll. Her scowl became more pronounced as her golden eyes scan along the parchment.

Suddenly her steely gaze snaps up to Shizune. "Activate condition Code Orange, Level Three, and assemble all available ANBU squads in my office on the double!"

"Hai!" Shizune snaps out smartly before quickly leaving the office.

When Tsunade took office, she and Shizune overhauled the emergency response system for the village. They broke the system down into sections coded by color and divided them further into additional levels. The colors represent the threat level. Green, the lowest level, is used to spontaneously test emergency response and evacuation time. It only has one level. The next code, Yellow, is an alert to a possible, unconfirmed threat. It too only has one level as it merely alerts everyone to stay sharp.

Code Orange is next. This meant that there is a confirmed threat either already in the village or approaching. Evacuation is not required, as the threat is in a contained area or no civilians are at risk. Level Three meant civilians and those who are chunin and below are not made aware of the threat, only jounin and higher. Level Two meant all ranks are on high alert, and at Level One the entire village is made aware of the threat in preparation for possible evacuation procedures.

Code Red is the highest alert, signifying that the village is under attack, there is an impending attack, or there is an immediate threat to civilian life. Evacuation is guaranteed. Level Two notifies all shinobi to prepare to defend from their assigned position. Level One meant all capable civilians act as a last line of defense with whatever is at hand.

Tsunade reread the scroll before rolling it up and turning to look out the window as she waits for her ANBU to assemble. She didn't remain in quiet contemplation for long before the first ANBU arrives. Within twenty minutes all available squads not on priority guard detail assemble in her office. Shizune also returned by this point. Rising from her seat Tsunade walks around and stops in front of her desk to address them.

"Jiraiya sent an urgent message that Uchiha Sasuke is currently inside Konoha." She gives everyone a moment for the news to sink in, sensing the shock and surprise in her people. "From what he has learned the Akatsuki recently regrouped and already collected almost all the Jinchuriki. Except one." Tsunade knew she didn't have to say who remained and felt the tension in the room rise. "Jiraiya reports Uchiha has been assigned to capture the last Jinchuriki. Uchiha was trained by Orochimaru and has been affiliated with the Akatsuki for the past three years. Consider him extremely dangerous and approach with caution. I do NOT want him leaving Konoha. A live capture is not a priority. Squad captains, get with your platoon leaders for sector assignments. Ermine-taichou, remain for a minute. Everyone else, dismissed."

The ANBU disappear instantly, leaving only Shizune, Tsunade and a kunoichi in a painted, porcelain ermine mask. Unlike most ANBU whose hair is still visible around the mask, Ermine uses a black hairnet to obscure her distinctive dark red coloring. The blonde eyes the ANBU for a moment before speaking.

"I briefly considered ordering you to remain as my personal guard before remembering I'd be wasting my breath," Tsunade smirks, knowing the kunoichi was grinning behind her mask. Her eyes and voice grows stern as she continues. "You will lead your squad in the search for Uchiha, but you are NOT to face off against him alone."

When Ermine shifts her stance Tsunade raises a hand to silence any protest. "I know you too well, gaki. You're twenty now and one of my best ANBU, but you're not invincible. As soon as you start fighting him, he'll figure out who you really are. You are to avoid it at all costs, if not, then only with your team. Is that understood?"

Ermine hesitates before grudgingly agreeing. "Hai."

"Good. Now get with your platoon leader, Hound, and get out there with your team."

Ermine nods before disappearing. Releasing a heavy sigh, Tsunade walks over to one of the windows to look out at the bright sunny afternoon. Spring had arrived early this year, making Konoha greener than usual for March. Shizune moves to stand next to her.

"Do you think they'll manage to apprehend him this time?" she asks her leader.

Reaching up to rub her eyes, Tsunade replies, "Kami, I hope so. Alive too," she adds, dropping her hand to look out the window. "The information he could provide would be invaluable in destroying the Akatsuki. More importantly, I don't want to give him a chance to regroup for another attempt on Naruto."

"The replacement the Akatsuki would send in his place later might be worse," Shizune muses, staring out the window.

"True, which is why I'm hoping for a live capture."

"Then why not make a live capture a priority?" She turns to look at the profile of her mentor.

"Because I would rather see Uchiha dead than escaped. He's slipped through our grasp too many times and chances are awfully good he could do it again."

Turning her gaze back out the window, Shizune remains quiet for a moment before speaking again. "If a live capture is successful, would you allow him to rejoin the village if he's compliant? Many still want to see the Uchiha clan resurrected."

Tsunade's head snaps around to her apprentice, causing her to recoil slightly. "Hell no! Not if I can help it. Not after all the shit that little prick has pulled. His clan name does not exempt him from the laws of Konoha. Anyone else would be punished severely without question. He is not the exception."

Tsunade calmly returns her attention to the view once again.

"But the council…" Shizune begins hesitantly.

"Are not in charge," Tsunade finishes with a growl, glaring at Shizune out of the corner of her eye.

"Hai," she replies quietly.

"Do you really think the Akatsuki would send Sasuke back to Konoha? I mean, they have to know he's wanted here."

Within thirty minutes of Tsunade receiving Jiraiya's scroll, the ANBU quickly mobilize and are currently conducting an intensive search of the village and the surrounding areas. Ermine and the rest of Squad 17 patrol their sector, carefully scouring part of the forest and the training grounds for any signs of Sasuke.

Glancing over at Hare, her subordinate, Ermine shrugs before leaping off another branch. "Probably. He may be wanted, but he knows the village better than any of the surviving members we know about in the Akatsuki. Otherwise they would've sent Itachi if he were alive."

Hare shakes her head. Her pale, long blonde hair is intricately braided to keep it out of her way, but still visible around her mask. Ermine had tried convincing her to cut it to a more realistic length, but Hare stubbornly refused despite repeated threats of using a fire jutsu or kunai to help trim it. She eventually came up with an intricate variation of a French braid that also served to hide its true length.

"Still seems pretty stupid when we're basically after his head."

Ermine snorts dismissively. "Teme's actions often belie a lot of villagers' proclamations he was the most brilliant thing since the invention of chopsticks."

Hare and Squirrel laugh as they continue scanning the forest.

After a few more minutes of silence Hare asks, "How do you think Sakura's gonna react?"

Ermine glances over her shoulder. Hare can tell without seeing her face she was scowling at her. "How the hell should I know? You were best friends with her. You should know."

"You were her teammate," Hare shoots back.

"Haven't been for years, Hare. You knew her longer."


Ermine sighs before looking over at Squirrel, who flanks her right. "How do you think Sakura will react, Squirrel?"

The question startles Squirrel enough into nearly missing a branch. Reworking his footing he glances over at his teammates. He was intensely scanning the area as they passed for any signs of Sasuke. Usually he tuned his teammates out whenever they got into one of their little pecking squabbles. He'd mentally work through kata routines until they finally exhausted whatever argument they were having. He hated whenever they dragged him into it because he was always on the losing end.

He shakes his head in disbelief. His black hair, with the fringes of his bowl cut framing his mask, flops around the porcelain with the movement. "I invoke the Self-Incrimination Addendum."

Both kunoichi glares at him. "What the fuck, Squirrel? You're not in court or before the council. You can't invoke the Self-Incrimination Addendum because you're not giving official testimony for anything!" Ermine snaps.

"Ah, but my dear taichou, the addendum can be invoked in any situation where one's actions or words may result in possible harm against that individual. It's especially significant when dealing with sadistic taichous and vindictive teammates," Squirrel replies knowingly.

"That's total bullshit, Squirrel," Hare scoffs.

"Not at all. Ask Ibiki-san. He is the one who explained what the Self-Incrimination Addendum applies to after the last argument you two made me the victim of."

"We did not…" Hare begins before Ermine abruptly stops.

Hare and Squirrel silently land next to her on the branch she is perched on. Standing with her arms akimbo, Ermine scrutinizes the area around them. Her teammates notice how tense she is and wait for her to speak.

"He's not here," Ermine finally states.

"There was always that chance…" Squirrel begins before being cut off as Ermine whirls on him.

"C'mon. I've got a really strong feeling where he is right now."

Before either can ask, Ermine shoots off in another direction. Within minutes they get their answer when they arrive at the Uchiha district.

"Squad 11 has probably already searched this sector," Squirrel points out.

"Yeah, but how long ago was that?" Ermine asks, enhancing her senses with chakra. "Don't argue. I've got a really strong feeling Sasuke's around here somewhere."

"Isn't that like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack?" Hare asks, eyeing the many abandoned buildings.

Ignoring the question, Ermine moves toward a bakery called the Uchiha Senbei, which is located near the entrance of the district. The Kyuubi had taught her how to heighten her senses to animalistic levels and is picking up faint traces of Sasuke's distinctive chakra.

"I've got to hand it to him, he covered his tracks very well," Ermine mutters just loud enough for her teammates to hear. They knew how keen her senses are. "So well it'd be invisible to a typical shinobi. I'm barely picking up his trail. Stay sharp."

Her teammates nod as they enter the bakery in silence, alert for any traps. After Sasuke left, Ermine did extensive research on the Uchiha clan, especially those members close to him. She was looking for anything that could give her an edge against him. Thus, she knew the bakery had been owned and operated by Sasuke's aunt Uruchi and uncle Teyaki. Her team carefully examines the entire building, but Sasuke's trail seems to disappear in a tiny office located off the bakery kitchen on the ground floor.

"Looks like Sasuke may have been in this bakery, but it appears he came in and left the same way. It's a dead end," Hare comments from the kitchen area as she studies the walls.

"No. We're missing something." Ermine crosses her arms before coming to a decision. "Hare, go back to Tsunade-sama and ask her to converge all ANBU here. Sasuke's here somewhere and we've got to flush him out."

Hare hesitates, looking as though she's going to protest, before nodding and taking off.

"Keep looking," Ermine orders Squirrel as she pokes around the desk.

Nodding, Squirrel starts examining the area around the tall bookcase lining the wall across from the desk. He notices a very slight disturbance in the dust on the floor. Moving up from the floor along the bookcase, he carefully scrutinizes the books and scrolls stuffed haphazardly onto each shelf. After determining there are no traps, he starts tilting books toward him to see behind them. When he picks up a scroll full of recipes, it triggers the bookcase to slide into the wall revealing a secret passageway. The movement of the secret door is so smooth it barely disturbs the dust.

Ermine comes to stand behind Squirrel, studying the dark passageway. Patting his shoulder, she says, "Great job," before ordering, "Stand guard."

She steps toward the passage when Squirrel stops her.

"Not alone. You said Tsunade-sama ordered to engage only with your team."

Ermine's head cocks a little and Squirrel senses she's smiling at him. "His trail is hot now. By the time reinforcements arrive he'll be long gone. You need to stay here and let the others know about this passageway." Before Squirrel can protest, Ermine grabs him by the shoulders to peer intensely into his black eyes. "I don't want any more of my friends injured because of him. I'm the only one who can take what he dishes out."

"It could be a trap and other Akatsuki members might be at the other end waiting," Squirrel reasons, placing his hands on her shoulders and meeting her deep blue gaze.

"Possibly. I'm not picking up any other signatures passing through here. He definitely came alone. Besides, his ego can't take it if he has help taking me down because then he'll never truly know how strong he is if he doesn't defeat me by himself."

Reluctantly Squirrel releases Ermine and watches as she disappears into the dusty passage.

"What the fuck did you say?" Tsunade growls threateningly at Hare as the ANBU recoils slightly.

"Um, Ermine-taichou requests you send the call out for all ANBU to rendezvous with her in the Uchiha district. She's certain Uchiha Sasuke is in the immediate vicinity," Hare repeats nervously. Although she had personally trained under Tsunade, the older blonde still scares the living shit out of her.

Tsunade narrows her eyes before turning to Shizune. "Mobilize all ANBU to converge on the Uchiha district immediately."

"Hai!" Shizune immediately leaves to carry out the order.

Tsunade turns her attention back to Hare. "Squirrel remained with Ermine, correct?"

"Hai. He was helping her continue investigating the bakery for any signs of Sasuke," she replies with a nod.

Blowing out a harsh breath of frustration, Tsunade rubs a hand across her eyes before speaking. "Alright. Get your ass back over there and try to keep your idiot taichou from going after Sasuke. Tie her up and knock her out if you have to!"

"Hai!" Hare disappears, relieved to be out of the line of fire. She deliberately neglected to point out it was probably too late and Ermine is already chasing Sasuke's ass alone. She didn't doubt that for a minute.

A couple of minutes after Hare left, Shizune reenters the office. "ANBU squads have been notified, Tsunade-sama."

Tsunade nods just as a hard tap sounds on the windowpane behind her. Both are stunned to see Jiraiya. He waits until Shizune walks over and lets him in.

"I take it you got my message if all the ANBU scurrying about is any indication, hime," Jiraiya quips with a wry grin.

"I did, but what are you doing here?" Recovering from her shock, Tsunade rises to her feet.

Jiraiya blinks at her incredulously. "What do you mean 'what are you doing here'? Didn't the toad tell you I'd be doing a reverse summons on myself to get back here as quick as possible to help protect the gaki?"

Shaking her head, Tsunade replies, "No. It just handed me a scroll and disappeared without so much as a goodbye."

Shizune nods behind her in agreement.

Slapping both hands to his face, Jiraiya groans in frustration before dropping them to look at his former teammate. "I hate it when it's mating season for the toads. They start doing things half-assed regardless of how important it is. Anyway, is the gaki okay? Did ANBU nail Sasuke yet?"

Ignoring his questions, Tsunade grabs his sleeve and drags him back over to the window.

"What…" Jiraiya begins in confusion.

"Shut up and come with me. I'll explain on the way."

"Tsunade-sama? Where are you going?" Shizune asks in confusion.

"We're going to the Uchiha district," she replies, climbing through the window.


"Shizune, Uchiha is too dangerous to leave for just the ANBU to handle. We're going to aid in the apprehension. Tell Ibiki to prepare for a possible new client that needs extra special care when handling."

Tsunade leaps away with Jiraiya hot on her heels.

Ermine proceeds cautiously through the narrow passage in case Sasuke set any traps. It's several minutes before she notices the increase of light that signals she's reaching the end. She's shocked when she emerges from a carved opening in a hillside hidden by shrubs. Looking around, her eyes widen behind her mask when she realizes she's about fifteen kilometers northeast of the village walls.

There are no physical signs of Sasuke, but her heightened senses show his trail bright as day. Ermine determines it really hasn't been that long since he passed through there. Possibly it has been within the last hour.

Walking over to a nearby tree, she places a palm against the trunk before channeling chakra into it. It's a marker she and her teammates developed to track each other whenever they are separated. It causes no damage to the tree and, to any shinobi not used to being around trees, it can't be sensed either. It doesn't work very well on stone or other materials besides trees, so Squad 17 doesn't rely on the markers too heavily. However, the three of them know each other's signatures so well that when they actively look for these markers they can sense them.

Once finished she cautiously follows Sasuke's trail, leaving additional markers on trees every so often as she closes in on her prey.

Sasuke walks slowly across an expansive clearing, as if on a leisurely stroll. He knew when he infiltrated Konoha three days ago he wouldn't be capturing the Kyuubi vessel. He wasn't like the other egomaniacs in the Akatsuki; overly confident he'd snag his quarry in one fell swoop. Madara assigned him because of his familiarity with Konoha. However, he has been gone for seven years and knew there were probably enough changes to confuse him. He always intended for his homecoming to be a simple fact-finding visit because only a fool rushes in blind.

Unlike the other morons, he knows the odds of successfully capturing Konoha's Jinchuriki increase dramatically in the village. Her guard would be lower while at home and chances are better at finding her alone training. He doubts the dobe's habits changed at all over the years. It's why he had chosen to do this alone. He certainly didn't need his team dragging him down and clumsily alerting the village of his presence.

When he noticed the sudden increase in ANBU patrols as he lurked around the village earlier, he knew they were somehow alert to his presence. He didn't bother questioning how when he knew he wasn't the cause. He only knew it was time to leave. The idiots really should've razed the Uchiha district. Leaving it standing was only asking for trouble since they have no idea there are several hidden escape routes out of the village.

Stopping dead in his tracks, Sasuke closes his eyes and reaches out with his senses. A smirk crosses his lips as he notes the powerful chakra source closing in fast. Opening his eyes, he turns to face his pursuer. He feels he should remember his manners and greet whomever is kind enough to see him off. He's touched they'd think so highly of him to send one of their strongest shinobi and hopes they at least make it worth his while for wasting his time.

Ermine halts within the tree line, just out of Sasuke's sight. The fact he is looking right in her direction proves his senses are sharp and he has become more powerful. Clearing her mind as she slowly walks forward and emerges into the field, Ermine struggles to control her emotions as she sees her ex-teammate after so long. Their fight at the Valley of the End, and every encounter since then, flashes through her mind. It has been a couple years since they last saw each other, but she is determined to end it here once and for all.

Steeling her resolve, Ermine stops several yards away from him. The scene is eerily reminiscent of when they squared off on the waters of the Valley of the End. Both silently size each other up for several minutes.

"Uchiha Sasuke, I'm placing you under arrest in the name of Konoha!" Ermine declares loudly. Even if she didn't actually beat his ass, she needs to stall him long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

Sasuke smirks at the bitch's challenge. He has no idea who she is. Her chakra is familiar, but the distortion caused by that ridiculous mask makes it hard to remember. Not that he cares enough to find out. It didn't matter when she'd be dead soon anyway.

Without deigning to answer he attacks with the Phoenix Immortal Fire Jutsu. Small fireballs fly wildly from his mouth, covering for the shuriken he launches. He wants to see what she's capable of.

Ermine dodges the barrage instead of countering or blocking his jutsu, intent on buying as much time as possible.

Tsunade arrives with Jiraiya at the gates of the Uchiha district as the rest of her ANBU arrive. Squirrel approaches and bows before his Hokage. The blonde nods for him to report.

"We found a hidden passage inside the Uchiha Senbei. It seems it is an escape route out of Konoha. Ermine-taichou ordered me to wait and lead reinforcements to the passage," Squirrel reports efficiently.

Hare stands slightly behind him, hoping the Hokage won't direct her ire at her since she clearly hasn't incapacitated Ermine to prevent the taichou from chasing Sasuke.

"Shit!" Tsunade hisses vehemently, glaring hard at Squirrel. "Is it verified Uchiha exited through that passage instead of entering?"

Squirrel nods. "Ermine-taichou stated the trail was very fresh, indicating he left, not entered."

"Are the premises clear of traps?"

Squirrel and Hare nod.

"Show me," Tsunade orders.

Following the pair with Jiraiya and the remaining ANBU trailing behind, she mutters various threats and curses, promising Ermine great misery. All of the ANBU manage to fit in the kitchen as Tsunade and Jiraiya enter the office to examine the secret passage.

"The entrance was nearly undetectable," Squirrel explains. "If it were not for the build up of dust on the floor there would have been no indicator there was even a door here. It was very well made."

Tsunade considers it for a moment while Jiraiya examines the open doorway closely. Stepping back into the kitchen she addresses her ANBU. "Squads 2 and 11, secure the Uchiha district. I don't want anyone else slipping past us. If there is one secret passage there may be more." The two squads promptly disappear. She then turns to the others. "Follow me."

Finally, she gestures for Squirrel and Hare to lead the way while they fall in line behind them.

Several minutes later they emerge outside of Konoha. Tsunade glares murderously around the area, realizing how vulnerable they were without knowing it. Jiraiya's scowl shows he's thinking along the same lines, wondering how many more secret passages lead into Konoha.

"I found Ermine's marker," Hare calls a few yards away.

At Tsunade's nod she and Squirrel continue to lead them through the woods, guided by Ermine's chakra marks.

Ermine dodges another fire jutsu, using a kawarimi to switch with a nearby log. Fortunately, logs are now in great supply thanks to the various jutsu they were throwing at each other. Now the clearing is even bigger than before.

Blowing out a harsh breath, Ermine knows she can't continue playing tag. It hadn't taken Sasuke long to realize it was Naruto behind the mask, taking the battle to a whole new level. She really isn't sure what finally clued him in to her real identity. It could've been anything from her distinctive voice to her winning personality. She thinks he's denser than granite for not figuring it out sooner. Either way it sparks a new fire within the Uchiha scion and he steps up his game.

Sasuke isn't the only one with a new flame burning bright within. Ermine starts thinking there might still be a chance to redeem him. She thought she had given up on him during the last couple of years, but as they exchange blows and jutsu she's starting to wonder. Her instincts scream the old Sasuke is still inside him somewhere and it's up to her to find him. She always listens to her instincts, even if it means fighting by the seat of her pants and trying to pull some crazy, impossible scheme off. However, she knows she has to get his attention first and the best way to do that is by kicking his ass.

Dodging another fire attack that singes her slightly, Ermine feels it's time to poke the hornet's nest a little.

"Hey, teme! Careful there! You might actually land a hit if you keep randomly throwing around fire jutsu like that!"

Sasuke merely narrows his eyes in annoyance. She is still the same loud dobe. He has to admit that before he had realized who was hidden behind the mask, he already developed a grudging respect for her ability to defend against his attacks. He decides to answer her this time.

"Still bouncing around like a hyperactive dobe while stupidly running off at the mouth, I see," he replies, effortlessly somersaulting out of the way from a barrage of kunai and shuriken. "Thanks for coming to me. Makes my job of capturing your ass easier," he finishes, gracefully landing several yards away.

Ermine pauses to stand with one hand on her hip and the other lightly touching her chest plate as if flattered. "Why teme! I never took you for an ass man! Explains why Sakura was never able to snag your attention. Actually, I thought you were more interested in roosters considering how obsessed you were with snakes."

Sasuke instantly caught her double entendre and did not appreciate her hinting he was gay. Growling slightly, he unleashes a barrage of Chidori Senbon.

Ermine disappears immediately out of range of the needle shaped electricity, searching for an opening. She has to hand it to him; he certainly got creative with his elemental affinity. Shaking her head, she considers her strategy. She needs to make him mad enough where he can't see straight, or at least distract him enough while she sets up her trap. Reappearing with a clone, Ermine gathers chakra in her hand while her clone quickly gathers water vapor in hers. Together they release their jutsu in combination at Sasuke, shouting Typhoon Water Vortex in unison. Before he can react, strong winds mixing with water vapor swirl around him, blinding his view.

Unperturbed, Sasuke merely smirks before releasing a huge fireball into the roaring winds.

Ermine's stunned the wind and water combo isn't extinguishing the flames. Instead, the fire is turning the water into scalding steam, making the growing vortex even more dangerous. She quickly realizes her error, that there isn't enough water to extinguish the fire and the wind is feeding it. Arching a brow, she figures she is just gonna have to fight fire with fire. Or close enough.

Flashing a few signs for Ash Pile Burning, Ermine quickly blows out a steady stream of ash into the winds. The maelstrom is widening fast and would soon engulf her position. Preparing to dive for cover, she snaps her teeth hard, igniting it.

Thanks to Ermine's chakra markers, Hare and Squirrel easily guide the others toward her current position. Halfway through the woods a huge explosion nearby rocks the area. The shockwaves shake the ground, knocking down some of the weaker trees and branches and causing everyone to mutter curses while diving for cover. When the 'all clear' is called, everyone reassembles and rushes toward the clearing. Tsunade already plots Ermine's punishment to make up for the stress she is subjecting her to.

When they arrive on scene, Tsunade takes in everything at a glance. Ermine and Sasuke are fighting hard and fast, exchanging blows in the middle of a newly formed, shallow crater nearly the width of the clearing. Any grass and shrubs are completely burned away and many trees are completely uprooted and broken. The ones closest to the clearing are blackened and any intact branches charred down to the trunks.

Shaking her head, Tsunade turns to her shinobi. "Get in there and apprehend Uchiha!"

Hound steps forward. "Tsunade-sama, let them finish." At both Tsunade and Jiraiya's questioning gaze he continues. "Sasuke won't run. He has to prove himself against Ermine once and for all. His accomplishments mean nothing if he can't defeat her, regardless if her capture is his mission. They both need this fight. Besides," he shrugs, "he can't escape with the number of ANBU and two Sannin present."

Studying the ANBU with wild silver hair poking up from behind his mask, Tsunade considers his words before giving in.

"Alright. Let them finish this. Spread out around the battleground. I don't want Uchiha escaping this time."

"Hai," her ANBU cry before scattering.

"Hm, seems like we have an audience," Sasuke mutters as he uppercuts with his right toward her throat.

"There goes your chance of escape," Ermine quips, blocking the blow before ducking under his arm. Coming up behind him, she attempts to hit him on both sides of his neck with the sides of her closed fists at the same time.

Spinning around, he brings up his arms together in front of him before throwing them out wide to deflect the blows. He immediately follows with a forward kick. "I don't plan on leaving until we finish this, dobe. I can deal with them easily enough later."

"Really?" she asks, throwing her arm into a downward block before grabbing his leg. Twisting around, she throws him to the ground away from her. "I thought running was what you did best. You always run when you think you're too weak to win instead of seeing things through."

Having immediately regained his feet, Sasuke growls at the jab before charging again.

"Oh? Did I strike a nerve?" Ermine mocks as she blocks and counters every blow. "Guess I should be sorry, but I can't help if the truth hurts. Didn't think you'd still be so sensitive, especially when you ran away into the great, wide world for strength and power."

Gaining the upper hand, she grabs his arm and throws him out of the crater away from her, again on his back. As he clambers to his feet to face her, she continues.

"If that's still sticking in your craw something fierce, then maybe you didn't accomplish everything you wanted. Hmmm…" She pauses in contemplation before counting off on her gloved fingers. "Let's see, your goals were to kill Itachi and restart your clan. Well, you killed your last living relative, but haven't restarted your clan. Must mean your priorities changed. Oh, yeah!" Ermine slaps her masked forehead as if something just occurs to her. "You want to destroy your home village! Clearly you're not strong enough for that if you were running again until I caught up. Hell, had to come to you or you would've been long gone without paying your old friends a visit. Obviously you realized there was no way you were strong enough to take me on. First smart thing you've done in years, teme."

Sasuke seethes and glares before charging again with a primal yell. "Shut UP!"

Ermine continues dodging and blocking his strikes with deliberate ease to piss him off more. "Oh, c'mon! I'm only repeating what I know you've spent hours obsessing over. It's not my fault you went chasing pipe dreams and empty promises."

"Words are all you have when you don't have the skill to back them up, eh dobe?" Sasuke mocks as he unleashes a fierce barrage of punches. "Or did you forget you lost at the Valley of the End?"

"I guess you could see it that way, teme," Ermine replies easily, answering with her own flurry of punches. "You forgot I held back and didn't go for the killing blow. That's gotta keep you up nights wondering if you really won fair and square or if you would've survived if I hadn't intended to just scratch you."

Sasuke over extends with a punch, giving her a chance to nail him in the back with a roundhouse kick that sends him sprawling. "Rumor has it you didn't really kill Itachi either. He died because he reached his limit. That's two battles casting doubt on your victories, teme."

Roaring in rage, Sasuke fires up a Chidori and charges. He smirks in triumph when he pierces her heart, then growls in annoyance when she poofs out of existence. A hand grabs his shoulder, spinning him into a chakra infused punch that snaps his head painfully back. Grabbing his hair, Ermine drops back, thrusting both feet hard into his stomach. As she rolls backward onto the ground, she channels chakra into her feet and kicks upward, sending him soaring to the other end of the clearing. Deftly, she rocks back then forward onto her feet and walks leisurely toward him as he groans and staggers back to his feet.

"You know," she begins conversationally, "the fact you're having doubts shows you might finally be wising up that you were wrong. Owning up to your mistakes is the first step toward fixing things and making them right."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Sasuke rages as he forms the Chidori Spear and thrusts the pole shaped electricity at Ermine.

Rolling out of range, Ermine swiftly regains her footing and counters with the Petal Dust Dance. Smirking behind her mask, she stands by and watches as he leaps, flips and rolls all over the clearing, attempting to keep ahead of the swirling cyclone of petals attacking him. She keeps the intensity of it fairly mild by her standards because she wants to force him to listen, not kill him. She probably should credit the late, not so great Fuka for showing her the technique in the first place, but felt it was a fair exchange since the tramp kept trying to suck out all her chakra in the first place.

Letting the cyclone break up, she strolls over to a panting Sasuke on the far side of the field. "What I'm trying to tell you, teme, is that it isn't too late to repent your sins and start over. You're just being a typical guy and not bothering to listen when a woman is talking to you."

Still breathing hard, Sasuke straightens up to glare at her. "You love to hear yourself talk, don't you? This is the same crap you spouted at the Valley of the End! Haven't you gained enough brains to hate me yet? Why are you still trying to bring me back? I don't intend to return to a village of betrayers responsible for destroying my clan!"

"Wow, that's the most I've heard you ever say, teme. I was starting to think you weren't capable of sentences beyond five words," Ermine quips before continuing. "And you're still buying that shit Madara's spewing?" she asks incredulously. "I told you the last time we ran into each other, Madara is manipulating you for his own goals."

"His goals run parallel to mine. I will destroy Konoha," he replies in a deceptively calm voice.

Ermine studies him for a moment before speaking. "Do you trust Madara?"

Taken aback momentarily, Sasuke arches a brow. "No."

"Then why listen to him?" She asks quietly. "You're much smarter than that. You never took anything at face value. Hell, you still don't or you wouldn't have survived a predator like Orochimaru. The Sasuke I knew and respected was cunning enough that if he didn't figure out the truth then he'd find it." Ermine notices the slight flicker of shock on his face before it disappears. "Honestly? I doubt that's changed or you would've considered your obligations complete once you killed Itachi."

Sasuke arches a brow before replying. "Have you been working in Torture and Interrogation? Because you still need a lot of work on your mind games."

"Looks like you finally found your funny bone, teme!" Ermine laughs before sobering again. "Nah, I'm just calling it as I see it. You chose to distance yourself from those who cared about you because you were afraid we would change your mind. It's easier to keep doing what you know is wrong if there's no one around to scold you for it," she shrugs. "Well, if you believe the village is guilty of destroying your clan, I'll make a deal with you. I swear to help you uncover the truth if you return home and give up being an avenger."

Sasuke stares at her for a few moments, his face inscrutable before suddenly blasting a fireball at her. Unable to dodge in time, Ermine throws up her arms to shield her head as the flames engulf her. Sasuke's smirk turns into a scowl when she poofs out of existence.

Reflexively he spins around, drawing his Kusanagi to block Ermine's katana strike. She barely dodges away when he channels lightning into his blade, cutting through the middle of hers. Tossing the hilt, she rolls away, arming herself with a pair of trench knives in one fluid motion. Standing a few yards away, his sword ready and still blazing chakra, Sasuke arches a brow at the familiar looking blades.

Cocking her head slightly, Ermine holds one higher in her ready stance while channeling her chakra through both blades. "They were Asuma-sensei's trench knives. They're on loan from Shikamaru," she replies, answering his unasked question.

"Fitting. Considering you'll be next to die while using them."

Sasuke charges again, striking down, but is surprised when she puts her raised forearms together with the point of the knives downward and blocks his sword.

"I'm obligated to avenge Itachi for his forced sacrifice for the village and sparing my life," he grinds out, taking advantage of their close proximity and immobility as he presses down on her blades. "Itachi wanted me to grow stronger to kill him, making him pay restitution for his sins against the clan on behalf of the village."

Ermine shifts so their blades are locked tighter together. "Then Itachi really killed the clan to protect and preserve the village. Think about it, teme. Why would he care if the Uchihas initiated a civil war? If he hadn't wished to get caught in the middle, he could've easily taken off with you and let things play out without feeling guilty enough to have you make him atone for his sins. You say he sacrificed everything for Konoha, then would Itachi really want you to destroy it? That's obviously what he didn't want. And if Itachi was a hero, then why let himself be painted the villain?" Ermine studies Sasuke's eyes, seeing the confusion and turmoil swirling through his mind. "There are too many questions and not enough answers. We need to find the truth."

Sasuke looks like he's caving before snarling and shoving her off of him with his foot.

Shaking her head, Ermine watches as he attacks again. It's time to end this. Using a Kawarimi to switch with another log to put some distance between them, she slices her thumb with one of the knives and slams her hands down on the ground as Sasuke charges. He barely maintains his footing as the ground suddenly becomes pink and sticky.

"This is the Toad Mouth Bind. We're trapped in the stomach of the great fire-breathing toad of Mount Myoboku. You were unconscious when Ero-sennin first used this around us, so you won't remember it. I've gotta point out there's no escape," Ermine explains cheerfully from her crouched position a couple of yards in front of Sasuke.

Glaring hard, Sasuke cuts his feet free, somersaulting forward to slice downward into a surprised Ermine. He swears up a storm when she poofs out again.

Ermine and several of her clones patiently wait outside the stomach. She remembers Sasuke had gotten the full story of how Itachi broke out of the stomach after Baa-chan healed him. She knows he can do a lot of the same things Itachi could and figures he'll probably use the Amaterasu to break out. Her theory is proven correct when black flames blow open a hole in the sidewall.

Shadow clones instantly surround Sasuke the moment he steps clear of the stomach. "Some things never change, dobe. Figures you'd resort to old, tired tricks," he laughs mockingly, wiping the blood from his eyes.

"Even old dogs learn new tricks, teme. If ya want to learn my new trick the hard way, then go ahead and move. Otherwise freeze where you are and surrender," Ermine calls back pleasantly.

Sasuke smirks back, not taking the threat seriously. In a blur he shoots forward to engage the nearest clones. He figures Naruto has been battling him for over an hour now and is likely fatigued, which will also affect her clones. Unfortunately for him, the moment he makes contact with the clones, they explode. It's all he can do to maneuver to keep from getting killed. Through a pain filled daze he realizes moments later he's flat on his back several yards away.

A shadow falls across him and he blinks several times to focus on Ermine standing over him. "Iruka taught me his Capture Perimeter Barrier Jutsu. Nifty little trick. The target enters an area filled with explosive tags and when the signs are activated the target is contained. They try taking off and boom! Buh-bye and it was nice knowing ya!" she explains gleefully. "I just added my own twist, combining it with my clones. So, you might seriously consider surrendering, teme, or I WILL shove a Rasengan up your ass and it won't be like you remembered."

Tsunade, Jiraiya and half of the ANBU close in to surround the pair. Ignoring them, Sasuke frowns in confusion as he stares through the eyeholes at those familiar blue eyes. "Why do you try so hard?" he rasps. "Why not kill me? Anyone else in your shoes would."

"Do you want to die, Sasuke?" Ermine asks instead without missing a beat.

He doesn't answer and looks away.

She sighs before continuing. "Dying is easy, but won't change a damn thing. However, alive you still have a chance."

Sasuke's black eyes snap back to her. "What do you mean I still have a chance?"

"You still have a chance to make a difference, to change things whether it's in your life or someone else's. Or even just to right a wrong. You can't do that dead. Besides," Ermine's gaze intensifies, "you of all people should remember what it's like for those left behind. Whether you admit it or not, there are some, besides me, that still give a shit about your ass. That's why I'll keep trying so hard."

A tense silence falls over the clearing as the two Sannin and ANBU wait for his answer to Ermine's question. For a moment a brief flicker of defiance flares across Sasuke's face, but it disappears quickly as he closes his eyes, quietly saying, "I surrender."

"Squad 13, Hare and Squirrel. Take Uchiha Sasuke into custody. Security ward at the hospital and notify Ibiki," Tsunade promptly orders.

"Hai," the ANBU answer before moving forward to secure Sasuke with chakra restraints. One pulls out a black cloth and secures it around his eyes. Once ready they leave immediately for the hospital.

"Condition alert is dropped to Code Yellow. Squads 1 and 5 patrol the area and check for any traveling companions. The rest step up patrols in the village until we have confirmed the threat has passed. Ermine, Hound, remain here. Dismissed."

The rest of the ANBU disappear immediately, leaving only four people in the clearing.

Tsunade eyes Ermine and Hound for a moment before speaking. "Get in regular uniform and report to my office in the next thirty minutes." Her eyes narrow dangerously at the silver haired ANBU. "On the dot, Hound."

Hound sighs and nods answering, "Hai."

"Hai," Ermine acknowledges before both disappear.

Turning to look out at the catastrophic damage done to the clearing, Tsunade sighs wearily. "This area certainly isn't going to be the same. That crater is probably going to turn into a shallow lake when it rains again."

"Neither will the village," Jiraiya mutters dryly. Glancing over at Tsunade, he answers her questioning gaze. "If anything Sasuke said is true about Itachi, the battle has only just begun and may trigger a holocaust."

With another heavy sigh Tsunade nods, leaving with him to return back to her office.

Ermine-A short tailed weasel naturally found in artic and sub-artic regions.

Senbei-A type of rice cracker.

Self-Incrimination Addendum-equivalent to citing the fifth amendment.

Fifteen kilometers is about nine and a quarter miles.

A/N: This is an epic and won't end any time soon. It's complicated and will take me time to tell it. Don't worry, been working on it for over a year and got the plot all worked out. No danger of it stopping because of a writer's block.

There are a couple things in here I have to advise some reader discretion on. This is rated 'M' because at times it'll go beyond dropping the F-bomb. It's mostly because of mature themes and violence. Like I make references to past molestation and rape. I don't plan on going into great detail because I doubt I could successfully make them come off as the disgusting, horrible acts they are. Hence, only references. There will also be a couple of explicit sex scenes. This isn't a sex showcase, so there won't be that many. I've got a romance going on that leads to sex at times. I feel this enhances the story, but it's not the focus. I promise to warn at the start of the chapter if there's anything questionable in it or if you are liking the rest of the story, but don't like sex scenes. I'll write it where you can skip it without missing anything.

I'm also not strict to canon. I use a lot of canon, but I won't be following the storyline exactly. When I started this, Pein hadn't even looked in Konoha's direction. It's just too hard to stay strict with canon when the story is still in progress. Besides, for personal reasons, I haven't read the manga after a certain point. So I really don't know everything that's happening currently.

I will be hooking up Kakashi and Naruto. No surprises there. Buuuuuut, it doesn't happen until MUCH later. They are dedicated shinobi good at what they do, but they're horribly oblivious when it comes to their personal lives.

Anyway, thank you for taking the time to check out my story. I hope you enjoyed it and if you stick with me I hope you'll continue to enjoy it.