"I don't know what's going on with him, Shino, but I don't like it."

"You should not be so hasty, Kiba. While I am as worried about Hinata's well being as you are, jumping to the wrong conclusion will not help anyone."

Kiba shook his head as he walked next to his teammate, Akamaru at his heels. The pair was heading for a mission assignment, and Kiba was being his normal bullheaded self. Shino for his part was still the usual, incredibly hard to read man he always was, his face almost completely obscured by dark sunglasses, a high collar and a hood. Kiba rolled his eyes at his teammate.

"She's been spending a lot of time with him, even more than usual. I understand that he is her student's adoptive parent, but don't you think it's a bit strange how much time they were spending together before the attack? Seriously, you don't see something wrong with that? He goes from avoiding Hinata like the plague to being all buddy buddy with her? I don't like it. And there's something about that kid that bothers me."

Shino's head turned slightly and he focused his gaze on his teammate, his expression unreadable, as always. The stoic man's stare unnerved Kiba, and it was a few moments before Shino replied.
"We have already discussed Ayame in detail before, Kiba. The large amount of time she spends in the presence of either can explain her scent's resemblance. "

"Yeah, that's a possibility. But I just don't buy it. I'm still going to ask him about it."

Shino shook his head slightly as he walked beside his teammate.

"While I share the same concerns for Hinata that you and Kurenai-sensei do, I must insist on a tactful approach. Pressing Naruto with such questions while Ayame is still comatose would be unwise. Now is not the time."

Kiba sulked for a bit as they approached the tower, before agreeing with Shino.

"Fine. Let's hurry up and get our assignment."

Checking in with the guards outside Tsunade's office, the two quickly entered and stopped before the Hokage's desk, each giving a small bow before examining their leader. Tsunade was leaning forward in her chair, her eyes blood shot as she worked on completing some paperwork.

"Greetings, Lady Hokage. We have reported as instructed."

Tsunade looked up at Shino's words, before quickly finishing what she was working on and turning her attention to the two shinobi before her.

"Good, I have a fairly simple task for you two."

The blonde woman shuffled through the mess on her desk for a few moments before lofting a pair of scrolls toward the two men, which Kiba deftly caught. The feral shinobi immediately had a bad feeling as he examined them. Both were sealed with the standard courier type seal, meant to show it had not been tampered with, and were most likely booby trapped with the standard issue genjutsu. Aw man, not this.

"I need you two to deliver those scrolls to the Daimyo and to Ebisu."

Seeing Kiba rolling his eyes, Tsunade flicked a pencil at him, which imbedded itself into the wall behind him after he barely managed to dodge it.

"Don't give me that, Kiba. With the confirmed threat and the border incursions we have been fighting off, I cannot afford to send this any other way. Normally this would be a genin team's job. But they are all currently assigned other missions, and the two of you should be able to cover each other's backs and get there and back quickly."

Kiba shot Shino a look, but stayed quiet as they listened to Tsunade complete the brief. It was just a report run, with a check in with Ebisu, who was acting as a Liaison to the Daimyo, of what was going on. Not exactly what Kiba had in mind, but they would get it done and get back quickly.

"I want you two to leave as soon as possible. And keep an eye out for anything unusual out there. Dismissed."

The two young men, and one large dog, acknowledged their orders before quickly moving off to prepare. It would only take a few minutes for them to gather up what supplies they needed before moving quickly for the gate. Shino made no mention of their being sent on a simple courier mission. Kiba, on the other hand, couldn't keep from complaining as the two left through one of the villages main gates.

"Aw man, courier missions freaking suck. Let's get going so we can get back and get a real mission. Nothing exciting ever happens on these dumb things."

Tsunade sighed as she watched the two young men leave. She still had one more briefing to go, and she wasn't particularly looking forward to this one. Naruto could be incredibly stubborn, especially where Ayame was concerned. She had yet to awaken from her coma, and though Tsunade was sure it was only a matter of time, Hinata and Naruto were still worried. The pair was constantly together, watching over the young girl, and while Tsunade thought it was sweet that the young man had finally figured out how he felt about the Hyuuga girl, it was causing other problems. Hiashi had not said anything about the pair's relationship, but there had been a few awkward questions being asked by other parties. They had enough problems with the incursions and attacks by Akatsuki, though it would only be a matter of time.

Turning her attention back to the reports in front of her, Tsunade busied herself as she waited for the two Shinobi to arrive for their briefing. She was not waiting long.

Sakura arrived first. The young woman's pink hair was tied back by her forehead protector as always, a small smile on her face as she greeted her teacher. While they exchanged pleasantries as they waited for the final shinobi to arrive, Tsunade's thoughts were on how far the young people had all come. When Sakura had first approached her, she had been...well, she had come a long way. Sakura was a powerhouse in combat, able to crush almost anything with a single blow. She was nimble, able to dodge aside from nearly anything. Tsunade smiled slightly as she thought about her student. She was an amazing shinobi, and a fine medic. The last Senju was proud to call Sakura her student. She had surpassed all her expectations.

"Um, sensei, who are we waiting for? I understand you had a mission for me, but you didn't mention sending someone with me."
Tsunade rolled her eyes as she shrugged her shoulders.

"The mission is for something the both of you have been involved with in the past, and if the reports are true, sending you two is necessary. Naruto should be here soon."

Sakura nodded once, a thoughtful expression on her face as they went back to waiting. Tsunade couldn't help but be a bit melancholy as she thought about Naruto. Jiraiya's student had surpassed everything she had expected as well. He was most likely the strongest shinobi in the village. But he didn't act like it. Naruto didn't let his power go to his head, or color his views of his friends. Few things did. Naruto had a heart the size of the Hokage monument. He was the perfect definition of a true friend. Earn his trust, and he would walk through hellfire and back for you. The expression she had seen on his face when Hinata was nearby only reinforced the kind of person he was. If he would walk through fire for his friends, Tsunade could only guess what he would do for someone he loved.

Minato and Kushina would be proud. Tsunade had been one of the few people Naruto had told what had occurred when the seal had nearly failed that day. The fact that Minato had put such a failsafe into his son was just like him. He found a way to do anything. Even cheat death in some form so he could see his son, if only for a few minutes. Tsunade sighed to herself. If only Kushina could see him now. Or Ayame, for that matter. She could only imagine the look on the fiery redhead's face if she knew she had a granddaughter that was part Hyuuga. She had always said the Hyuuga had sticks shoved up their asses so far they could taste woodchips. Well, other than Hinata's mother.

Sakura was thinking about something else. That night she had spent at Naruto and Ayame's home with Hinata had been rather surprising. She had still been a bit surprised that Naruto of all people had adopted a twelve year old girl. He was so dense, he hadn't known Hinata loved him until she nearly died telling him. How could he possibly handle Ayame?

But he did, and watching his and Hinata's interactions with the girl, it had surprised her even more. Ayame looked at Hinata like she couldn't believe she was there. When she didn't think anyone was looking, the girl would stare. Around Naruto, it was even stranger. She genuinely loved him like a father. She didn't see him as a stranger who had pulled her out of a horrible situation and given her a home. Sakura could tell that first and foremost, Ayame saw him as "Dad". Every time he appeared, Ayame would perk up and smile broadly, like he was someone she hadn't seen for years. Sakura couldn't help but feel a bit out of place that night. True to his word, Naruto had slept on the couch, staying out of the way most of the night. But there was just something that made her feel like she was intruding on something. And her own interactions gave her the strangest feeling Ayame had already known more about her than even Naruto or Hinata's descriptions of her could provide.

The door finally opened, revealing the scowling form of Naruto. He obviously wasn't happy about being here, and wasted no time voicing that opinion.

"So I'm here. Let's get this over with, Granny. The sooner this mission is done, the sooner I'm back. I want to be here when Ayame wakes up. I don't want her to be alone."

"Why do you think I've only been sending either you or Hinata out at one time, Naruto? I'm not so evil that I'd force you to leave her alone. Now stop being an ass and pay attention."

Naruto's scowl deepened slightly before it disappeared. He seemed to accept that explanation, and apologized after taking a deep breath.

"Sorry. Hinata and I are just worried about her, and it's hard not to get nasty about it."

Sakura gave her teammate a reassuring smile, her eyes soft.

"Don't worry about it, Naruto. It's nice to know Ayame has plenty of people who care so much about her."

Naruto nodded, a small smile on his face before he moved to stand next to Sakura, facing Tsunade.
"So, what do you need, Granny?"

Tsunade scowled a bit at the "Granny" but ignored it. She doubted he would ever stop calling her that, no matter how many concussions she gave him. The blonde haired woman slid a small map across the table to the two.

"You remember the mission your team preformed under Captain Yamato several years ago?"

Naruto stiffened slightly, before nodding along with Sakura.

"We were going to capture a spy Sasori had in Orochimaru's ranks."

Tsunade nodded, before continuing on, explaining what had happened.

"Yes. The base you found has stood abandoned ever since then. With the damage that had been done to it, there was not much left to examine after Orochimaru cleared out of there. Once the joint team from Kusa and Konoha that was sent afterwards to examine the remains cleared out, monitor seals were placed. There has been no activity since then."

Sakura spoke up first, her expression concerned as she took in this information.

"Something tripped the seals, then?"

Tsunade nodded once again, her face serious as she replied.

"Yes. Two days ago the monitors were tripped by an unknown force. Kusa has sent a request for another joint team to check it out."

Naruto's face hardened as he questioned Tsunade, his thoughts plain.


"We aren't sure. But whoever they are, we need to deal with it. While we are mostly sure there is nothing left of the snake bastard's work for them to use, we can't afford for anyone to use that base. You two and the team from Kusa should be able to handle most anything you run across. So, your mission is this. Recons the base, determine who or what is there, and deal with them as you see fit. Gather your things and leave as soon as possible."

Sakura was quiet as she processed the information. It had been a long time since that ill fated mission to Kusa. Sai and Yamato had had other assignments for some time, since Sakura and Naruto had made jonin. Sai had joined the ANBU as an official agent in the wake of Danzo's death, and as far as she knew, he had been working with Yamato. But thinking about those two brought memories rushing back. Watching Sasuke wound Yamato. Drawing his sword as he prepared to run Naruto through. Sakura quickly squelched those thoughts before they could affect her anymore. Shaking her head, she and Naruto exchanged glances, a grim expression on Naruto's face. Nodding, they both moved to leave, Naruto pausing and addressing Sakura before leaping out the window.

"Meet you at the gate, Sakura. I gotta go get some stuff and let Hinata know I'm gonna be gone."

Tsunade picked up an empty bottle at hand and expertly winged it out the window after the blond haired jonin. A few seconds passed before a crash, followed by a faint cry of pain drifted in through the open window. Getting up and quickly leaning out the window, Tsunade shouted after Naruto.


Sakura gave a short laugh before she moved to leave in the more conventional manner. At least that much hadn't changed.


That one thought was all that kept its owner from attacking the man standing across from him. It was all that was keeping Sasuke from destroying the entire mess and taking his vengeance now. But Madara kept delaying.

"My patience is running thin, Madara."

"You must hold your anger, Sasuke. It is only a matter of time until Konoha falls."

Sasuke turned away from the masked figure, his hatred boiling forth at his ancestor's nonchalance. His voice dripped with anger as he spat at Madara.

"Konoha has gone unpunished too long, Madara. Do not expect me to keep waiting much longer. I will have my revenge against them, and even you cannot stop me."

The younger Uchiha, facing away, missed the flash of anger in his ancestor's single visible eye. Madara warped out of existence, and before the younger man could react, he felt a sharp point pressed against the back of his neck. Sasuke froze as Madara quietly spoke, his voice a low hiss of cold anger.

"You would do well to cultivate your patience more, boy. I have been waiting for the opportune moment since before you were even a thought. You know nothing of the path of revenge compared to me. I was one of the founders of that accursed place. I stood against the Senju before the villages even existed, and fought Hashirama at the Valley of the End and was defeated. When the time comes, I will have my own vengeance. Do not be stupid. Attacking a foe such as Konoha head on would be a fool's errand."

Sasuke remained silent as Madara was speaking, before he pulled away, turning to face the much older Uchiha.

"Hmph. Even they cannot stand against the power of my eyes."

"Your arrogance will be your undoing. True, you possess more raw power. But you lack experience. I have not had my full power since The First Hokage defeated me. But I easily use your overconfidence against you. A simple flash bomb and kunai. You are dead. A fistful of dirt used at an opportune moment. You are blinded. Dozens of Uchiha have fallen to tactics such as these and that was at the hands of simpletons compared to the enemies you face. You will have the container of the most powerful of the Bijuu, as well as Konoha's elite standing between you and your goal. What makes you think you will be any different? Were it not for my interference, you would be dead at the hands of the Raikage. We are fortunate the majority of the villages believe us destroyed by Danzo and the farce they called raids, or we would stand no chance against their forces now."

Madara stalked forward, moving closer to the man standing across from him, speaking as if explaining something to a child, a note of disappointment coloring his words.

"We are shinobi, Sasuke. We must fight as such. We may have them outnumbered, but they are well prepared. They are better trained. We must strike their weak points; force them to fight on multiple fronts. We will destabilize them. Knock them off their footing, and they will fall all the sooner. Then you shall have your precious revenge."

"Fine. What are you planning?"

"You will stay here."

Anger flashed once more in the young man's eyes, but before the outburst that was brewing could happen, he was cut off.

"Be silent. You will stay here and prepare for what we discussed earlier, and assure that Konoha remains cut off from their allies. Suna and Ame must not be allowed to know what is happening until it is too late. I will be taking care of the next step personally."

"Yosh, they are coming, my friends; let us move out!"

A green blur bolted across the landscape, moving quickly toward the group of enemies coming their way, followed by a small force made up of two four men chuunin teams. Lee had been assigned to work with the ambush squads along one stretch of the border, and destroy any forces they encountered. This was the first target that Lee had set his sights on. The bushy browed shinobi and his teams had been observing them over the border for some time, and they were sure this group was up to something.
At first, they hadn't given the small group of enemy shinobi moving on the other side of the border much thought, other than to keep a close eye on them in case they decided to make a move. But as they watched, the group gradually began to grow in number. It had grown from a small team of genin and chuunin level shinobi, into a small force that if left alone could give their border stations issues. They were going to do something about that, before they lost any more of their men.

Lee circled wide around the group of enemies, doing his best to keep quiet. The teams he was working with were still amazed at how quickly and quietly the strangely dress teen could move. Against this large a group, Lee would have to rely upon inhuman speed and the element of surprise to win the day. As one of Konoha's heaviest hitters, the taijutsu master would probably be able to handle most anything. Moving quietly, it took Lee several minutes to get into position, on one side of the formation of enemies, his team taking up position just out of detection on the opposite side. They would only have a few seconds to sow as much chaos as they could while the enemy was off guard. But now, they were ready.

The small force, which appeared to be made up of four four man squads and a Jonin, had begun moving quietly toward the border. For the most part, they seemed to believe they were unobserved at the moment. The faceless forces were all dressed similarly in an attempt to blend in with their surroundings. A group of civilians would probably never notice them. Lee and his men, however, were the farthest thing from civilians.

The first indication that the Akatsuki forces had that something was happening was a flash of green along their right flank, followed by a series of screams as men were hurled bodily through trees, slamming to a halt with a sickening crunch and falling still. A second flash and on the opposite side of the formation, another series of sickening crunches as bones were shattered echoed through the trees. As if a signal had been given, the teams who had been following Lee began to bombard the enemy with kunai and copious amounts of exploding tags. A third of the Akatsuki's men fell quickly, taken out by Lee's opening sweeps, or downed by the chuunin's explosives.

The leader of the force, a taller, burly looking man, was quick to react, calling out to his fighters before they could break, and formed a series of hand signs.

"Damn it, you bastards, get it together and attack! Doton: Doryūheki!"

The man opened his mouth wide, and a stream of mud erupted forth and formed a wall to block a large portion of the incoming projectiles and explosives. That was enough to break his forces out of their shock, and they took to the trees and began clashing with the Konoha shinobi. The sound of ringing steel, detonations and screams of agony filled the air as the fight began in earnest. The earth user who had broken the Konoha-nin's initial attack threw himself into the fray.

"Doton: Doryūsō"

The man slammed his palm against the ground, and a short distance away, a portion of the ground condensed into a sharpened spear and slammed upward. A Konoha-nin was caught unaware by the attack and was unable to dodge completely. The sharpened tip slammed its way into his leg, shattering bone and tissue. A grim smile spread across the man's face as he tore into Konoha forces like a whirlwind and another shinobi fell to his attacks.


The shinobi was suddenly cut off by a fist slamming into his face with incredible force, sending him flying across the newly formed battle field. With a crunch, he slammed into one of his own men, snapping the unfortunate fighter's neck as the much larger man slammed the two of them into a tree. With a groan, the unknown earth user untangled himself from the now lifeless body and stood up, spitting out blood and most of his teeth.

"Ugh, what the hell was that?"

Before he could even look around, a second strike slammed into his gut, doubling him over and causing him to cough up even more blood.

"Surrender now, my foe, lest you force me to do something most unyouthful!"

The Akatsuki jonin straightened up, and caught sight of his opponent for the first time. He was not expecting the figure clad in green spandex that stood a short distance away. Lee had a hard expression on his normally bright face as he stared down the battered jonin. Coughing, the man spat out a glob of blood onto the ground between them.

"If you actually think I'm going to give up, you're sadly mistaken. Doton: Domu."

The man quickly formed hand seal and his skin darkened, taking on a stony appearance as he slid into a fighting stance. Lee shook his head at the man's refusal to give up. From what he had seen, each and every one of the attacking forces refused to willingly surrender. Whether that was due to loyalty or something more sinister had yet to be determined. But Lee had other things to worry about right now. He had his orders, and this wasn't a friendly spar. While the man released his technique, Lee quickly bent down and released the catch on one of his leg weights.

Lee had been wearing his weights for so long he was unaware how far beyond heavy they were to normal shinobi. Gai had always warned him to be very careful how and when he removed them. But he had also given him some other advice, pertaining to this kind of situation in particular.

His opponent began to move, and in a single fluid motion, Lee hopped upward and with a swinging kick hurled his weights directly toward the man as hard as he cold. The earth user, having no prior knowledge of Lee's insane training practices, simply saw an average sized set of training weights rushing at him, and made no effort to dodge, confident his armored skin would shrug off the blow. That would be his last mistake.

The insanely heavy set of weights slammed into the man with an unholy amount of force. He was thrown backward and ploughed through multiple trees before he struck the ground, churning up the ground behind him for some distance. Not even his opponent's earth technique could stop the chakra enhanced training implement from crushing his ribcage. Lee quickly retrieved his weights from the now motionless figure, before turning to take in the scene around him. The Akatsuki shinobi had been decimated. None were left standing. Unfortunately, the larger number of enemies had allowed them to overwhelm several of Konoha's number.

The intact members of the squad dropped out of the trees directly beside Lee, awaiting his orders. They had lost one of their number outright to the enemies counterattack, and one was seriously injured. The medics back at the outpost would most likely be able to stabilize him enough to return him to Konoha. Lee spoke, his voice subdued as he watched his forces move to retrieve their comrade's body. The normally exuberant young man couldn't help but feel the loss deeply. But they were shinobi, and this was always a possibility.

"Let us return to rest and prepare. I shall take our wounded comrade ahead so he may be treated. Let us not let the others' sacrifice be in vain."

Shikamaru couldn't help be a bit pissed at himself as he looked over what information they had about the enemy. The lazy jonin was not actually saying anything as he ran his eyes over a map of the continent that was pinned against one wall of a briefing room he was working out of. But for those that knew him, it was plain to see he was deep in thought. I had to say something. I just had to notice the holes in Naruto's story. Why did I have to take such a troublesome course of action? Naruto and Hinata obviously knew what was going on. I didn't need to worry about it.

Shikamaru heaved a sigh as he continued examining the map. It wasn't like he didn't have enough to do right now. As if his genin weren't bad enough. But, he did have a promise to keep, and if Tsunade insisted he take a team before he had an apprentice he would have to deal with it, no matter how troublesome it was. Besides, it would be years before Kimiko was old enough to start shinobi training.
The map before him had pins laid out on it in a seemingly random pattern. Near the northwestern border was a series of marks corresponding to known incursions, where the enemy had either been captured or wiped out. Spaced out across the borders were another series of pins, and there were more there than Shikamaru liked.

Those pins were the last know location of missing or destroyed teams. Shikamaru understood that losses were inevitable in this kind of situation. But they were under attack by an enemy they knew little about, other than their reasons behind their attack. They were still uncertain what Akatsuki wanted to use the Bijuu for, or even how. The information they had received after the meeting between the Kages was rather sketchy. Supposedly, Sasuke had attacked the convention to get to Danzo, and Madara had interfered to prevent the younger Uchiha's death before they had both disappeared without a word. The young Nara sighed to himself. I supposed it would be a bit much to expect them to just tell us their plan out right. And while Danzo's death had most likely prevented some serious issues, it had also caused several more.

Shikamaru numbered their forces in his head and did a quick calculation. Even with the additional forces Danzo's ROOT division provided after his death and the program's take over by the village proper, they couldn't continue fighting like this. Konoha's shinobi were superior fighters, and had some of the best tacticians in the world, but in the face of their enemy's superior numbers, things were going to get difficult.

Konoha had one serious disadvantage. They had multiple objectives to protect from attack. While they had multiple heavy hitters that could act individually, such as Naruto, Kakashi, and Gai, there was only so much those people could do at a time. Naruto could literally be a one man army with his prodigious use of Shadow Clones, but even a stamina freak like him would tire after too long. While their opponents seemed content to simple try and wear their border patrol and ambush squads down at the moment, Konoha had to be ready for them to attack elsewhere. If the fight went on too long, they wouldn't be able to defend everything.

The Daimyo won't like that at all. Troublesome.

But there wasn't a lot they could do about it. Since they were as of yet unable to pin down the exact location of the Akatsuki's base of operations, and their efforts to identify their information network hadn't borne fruit yet, they were stuck playing the waiting game until they either pinned down the location or the enemy attacked. The most logical thing to do would be to withdraw all of their forces back to Konoha and make the enemy come to them. But that would be a hard sell. The enemy could try to draw them out by attacking a civilian target, or by some other means, and that would not go over well with the Daimyo. Shikamaru sighed to himself before he began contemplating how best to argue that course of action. It was going to be troublesome.

The road to Kusa brought back a lot of memories for Naruto. It had been a long time since Sakura's defeat of the puppet master Sasori, and the subsequent mission to capture his spy in Oorochimaru's ranks. The blonde haired teen shifted the oversized scroll hanging over his shoulder as he and Sakura moved through the trees toward their destination as quickly as possible. The two of them, along with Sai and Captain Yamato, had done their best for that mission, but despite everything, they had still failed.
Naruto shivered as he thought about that mission. The whole fight with Orochimaru was nothing but a blank to him. At most, he remembered some flashes of anger and hatred and an intense desire to wreak havoc on his enemy.

Naruto shook his head. He had been thinking about that mission the entire two days they had been traveling toward the remains of the base, and it made the time with Sakura kind of awkward. As the young man glance sideways at his pink haired teammate, a familiar sense of self loathing threatened to overwhelm him. He still carried a large amount of guilt over the fact he had injured her that day. If Yamato hadn't been there, it could have been much, much worse. Naruto dreaded to think what might have happened if the fox's power hadn't been suppressed. And Naruto had taken Yamato's advice to heart. He refused to rely on the Kyuubi for power. He would stand on his own strength to protect everyone, not just from their enemies but from himself as well. His Sage training had provided exactly what he was looking for, and he had run with that.

Thankfully, since the seal had been restored, the bastard trapped inside him had been silent. His anger didn't allow the fox's chakra to seep into him as easily. The flood of power he had experienced at the hospital that day had been the first time since the day of the invasion and it had caught him unaware. He hadn't realized it was happening until Hinata and Tsunade had forced him to calm down and that reminded him of the first time he had subconsciously called on the fox's power. He grimaced as he thought about that. He didn't like that feeling at all.

"Something wrong, Naruto?"

Naruto started slightly at Sakura's voice, snapped out of his reverie. Shaking his head, Naruto gave Sakura a tight smile as she examined him curiously.

"Just thinking about the first time we came out here. We were so sure we would get Sasuke back."

Sakura's expression fell as she thought about their teammate. Part of her still felt something for the Uchiha. He had been her first crush, and that had turned into something else as they worked and trained together, something more. After Itachi had been killed, they had both hoped Sasuke would return. But he hadn't, and as things got progressively worse, they had both gradually been forced to accept that he would never be able to return to Konoha.

That realization hurt Sakura deeply. But she still had hope that he would turn away from the path he was walking. Naruto never gave up hope, but something had seemed to change in him, and it wasn't until she had walked into Ayame's hospital room a while back that the reason had fully hit her. He had always seemed so focused on finding and helping Sasuke. Even after the news that he had fought and killed Danzo, he still held out some hope that he would at least give up on his misguided desire for revenge if he could find him. But that had gradually changed.

Sakura, being Tsunade's student, spent a lot of time working at the hospital to keep her abilities sharp, so it wasn't strange for her to be checking in on the young girl. She had walked into the room, and been a bit taken aback by what she had seen.

Naruto and Hinata had been sitting side by side next to the girl's bed. Hinata was asleep, the Hyuuga's head resting against Naruto's shoulder. But one other thing caught the pink haired girl's attention. Hinata's right hand was intertwined with Naruto's left, and the usually hyperactive shinobi was simply sitting there holding the girl's hand. He turned bright red when he realized she was watching him, but made no effort to disengage himself from Hinata or make any excuses. That told Sakura more than any words could.

Sakura was happy for him. She had suspected he was starting to realize what was going on ever since the day she had first met Ayame. But seeing him decide he returned her affections left his teammate with mixed feelings. Naruto had always had a thing for her. Through a lot of the academy, he had constantly pestered her for dates, much to her chagrin.

She did feel guilty about how she had treated him back then. In hindsight, she had been a complete bitch to Naruto, choosing to beat and harangue him over it rather than being a bit gentler about it. But then, Naruto had been an oblivious idiot back then and eventually as things with their teammate had gone over a cliff, he had given up. He still cared about her, that much was certain. But she doubted he looked at her the same way he used to. There were too many painful memories and events between them for that. And as much as it hurt her to admit it, she could understand that. So seeing him look at Hinata the way she could only wish Sasuke had at her was painful, but at the same time it made her happy for her team mate. The young woman shook her head and returned her focus to the present. A mission was not the time to be worrying about this kind of thing.

"Things will be different next time we find him, Naruto. Even if we have to beat it into his head to get him to stop what he's doing, we will. But we should get moving so we can catch whoever is in the base by surprise."

Naruto nodded and the two picked up the pace. They had been traveling for some time now, and had to be getting close to the rendezvous point. As they were moving, a sudden shift in the wind pulled Naruto up short. Sakura stopped behind him, her expression curious as she quietly spoke to him.

"What's up, Naruto? "

The blond teen turned his head slightly before whispering to her, his expression suddenly serious.

"I smell blood."

Sakura's eyes widens slightly at this, but nodded as Naruto motioned to begin moving slowly through the trees toward the meeting place. Something felt off to both of them, and they needed to be cautious. Dropping to the forest floor, the two began moving forward. The stench of blood continued to grow stronger as they grew closer to their destination. Both Naruto and Sakura came to a halt when the clearing was in view, neither making a sound as they took in the sight before them.

The team they were meeting was dead, spread over the field as if they had been fighting something. The ground was torn up in several areas. Whatever had done this was strong. The sound of a snapping branch caused the two of them to freeze as something stepped out of the trees across the field. The person, or whatever it was, stood there for a few moments, its head lifted up in the air, almost as if it were smelling for something.

It almost looks like one of the Old Man's summons. Only…ugly. Really ugly.

Before he could examine it more closely, the thing's head snapped to the side and it looked straight at where the pair of them was hiding. The two shinobi quickly exchanged "Oh Shit" looks, before feral howls of rage echoed through the trees as the thing charged across the clearing at them. Sakura and Naruto immediately dodged in opposite directions, Naruto drawing the thing's attention with a few hastily thrown kunai before moving to put a bit of space between him and the attacker.

Dodging backward through the trees, Naruto got a clearer look at his attacker, and was shocked for a moment when he did. It was bipedal, and looked mostly human. Two arms, two legs, the same basic setup as your normal human being. But the arms were much longer than normal, and heavily muscled, its skin an unhealthy dark grey color, its eyes shining in an almost animalistic rage. The face was flattened, its enlarged teeth protruding from its mouth. But most unnerving was the way it was moving as it chased him, using its elongated arms to swing its body forward.

Naruto swore as the thing suddenly rocketed toward him, dodging aside just in time to see Sakura behind it with her arm extended forward.

"Damn it, Sakura! Watch it; you nearly slammed that thing right into me!"

Their attacker slammed to a halt nearby, before slowly getting back up on two legs and howling in rage at them. Naruto scowled at the thing, and with a hand sign created 10 shadow clones that circled around it and began harrying it. What the hell is this? The feeling of power radiating it feels really familiar…

"Is that what I think it is, Naruto? It feels just like-"

"I don't know, but let's worry about it later. We need to take it down first."

Almost as if a signal had been given, all of the Naruto's present dog piled the thing, obscuring its form underneath a pile of black and orange. The pile was motionless for a few seconds before the clones were thrown upward, the creature standing upright as clones were dispelled in clouds of smoke around them. It thrashed around for a few seconds, bellowing as he destroyed clone after clone, before its vocalizations were cut short.

Using the distraction of the clones, the real Naruto used the opportunity to circle around to the side of the creature opposite Sakura, and as soon as it broke free from the dog pile, the pair of them made their move. Naruto with a Rasengan in one hand, and Sakura with her fist cocked back, rocketed toward their target. Both slammed their attacks home, Naruto's Rasengan digging its way into the thing's back in a shower of gore, while Sakura's enhanced punch slammed into its chest. Caught by surprise, the thing let out a long, screeching cry of pain and anger before falling to the ground between them, dead.

"What the hell is this thing, Naruto?"

Naruto shook his head, a serious expression on his face as the two of them watched the thing slowly begin to transform, until lying on the ground between them was an apparently normal human, albeit missing a large portion of his back and with his chest stove in. Sakura stared; her eyes wide before her gaze shot up and met Naruto's.

"Is that?"

"Yeah, looks like it. But what the hell is someone with Orochimaru's curse seal on him doing here?"
Sakura shook her head as she bent down to examine the form between them. Forming a few hand signs, she activated a diagnostic technique and began waving her hand over the body, while Naruto looked on.
"He wasn't acting right. You saw the way he was attacking us, it was more like a rabid animal than a person. What's going on?"

"I don't know, Sakura, but I've got a feeling whoever is in the base knows we're here now."

Yay another chapter complete. Thanks to Gman391 and Bookworm702 for their continued excellent beta work. Yes, it has been sometime since I last posted a chapter. Sorry about that. But as most of you are familiar with, RL takes precedence over anything else, and a lack of motivation made that a bit worse. I do want to thank everyone who has posted a review, and/or added this story to their alerts/favorites. Reviews are awesome, and help me get my butt going and writing more. So please, let me know if there is something you liked, something that caught your eye, or something that confused you, and I will most likely answer your questions to the best of my ability (So long as there are no spoilers in said answer :P) Writing is a new hobby for me, and all the encouragement is great! Anyway, keep the reviews coming, and I will see you next time!