Disclaimer: The Naruto Franchise belongs to Masashi Kishimoto, 'Shounen Jump' and other affiliated companies with intellectual property rights over the franchise.


1) Greetings and Salutations to you, welcome to 'Ripples of Destiny', the sequel to my previous story 'The Point of Divergence'. I know it's long since overdue but real life, university work and tests have kept me preoccupied and insomnia-stricken so I hope this humble piece will be to your liking.

I will try to update as often as possible, but I can't promise anything in terms of deadlines as my senior year is very demanding and writing will happen in break breaks of lulls in work which are rare.

2) Special thanks to DarkHeroOrion for helping me by beta-testing this chapter and tweaking my rusty writing.

3) Just a note: the story will be shorter than the previous story and will revolve heavily around Naruto on one hand but will also scrutinize how the other ninja villages and our various villains (and Sakura) are preparing for the inevitable war on the horizon.

4) I've learned from your reviews and I will make sure there are sizable portions of Naruto in each chapter and for those who feel I didn't delve into the repercussions of the war in Konoha in Kumo, Iwa and Kiri as I said, I will eventually show the internal intrigues chapter by chapter.

In particular, note that his chapter is but the preview for things to come, so what is introduced here for the most part will be elaborated upon over time.

Read, Review & Enjoy!

Japanese Word Glossary:

Shinigami – The Death God
Shingappei no In - Seal of Soul Fusion
Nami no Kuni – Wave Country
Ta no Kuni – Rice Fields Country
Taki no Kuni – Waterfall Country
Takigakure – Hidden Waterfall
Iwagakure – Hidden Rock
Iwa - Rock
Konohagakure – Hidden Leaf
Konoha – Leaf
Kaze no Kuni – Wind Country
Sunagakure – Hidden Sound
Suna – Sand
Kumogakure – Hidden Cloud
Kirigakure – Hidden Mist
Mizu no Kuni – Water Country
Mizukage – Water Shadow
Youki – Evil/Demonic Energy
Kekkei Genkai – Bloodline Limit
Fuuinjutsu – Sealing Technique/s
Godaime – The Fifth
Yondaime – The Fourth
Raikage – Lightning Shadow
Hokage – Fire Shadow
Jinchuuriki – Power of Human Sacrifice - The nickname for tailed beast containers
Ichibi – One Tails
Gobi – Five-Tails
Hachibi – Eight Tails
Kyuubi no Youko – Nine Tailed Demon Fox
Rokubi – Six Tails

(One month since the invasion of Konoha and the Destruction of Suna)

Kirabi yawned in an exaggerated fashion as he stretched against the tree trunk by which he propped himself. He loved the silence and peace of nature. Nobody bossed him around or bugged him out here. He had waited for his brother to come back from battle before he took off for some much needed vacation.

It was only fair, since the whole village was buzzing about nervously while his big brother was away and they kept on coming to him for answers and help. He was a bit more alert when his 'tenant' spoke in his mind with slight exasperation, "Are you sure taking this vacation—now, of all times—is a good idea, Bee?"

He stood up and dusted off his pants, stretching his arms and legs. "Sure is, Eight-o! I've had enough of forms and requests, and it's about time I got away from those pests! Ooh yeah!"

The Hachibi snorted in his mind and sighed. "Really? How many times have I told you? I hate it when you rap when you talk with me! Keep your façades and quirks for those 'pests', you idiot!"

He shrugged and prepared to go look for breakfast before a particular scent filled his nostrils and the sound of breathing invaded his senses. He heaved a sigh and turned to glance at the branch above him. "Yo, Darui, stop your spying! Come down here and talk before I send ya flying!"

The silver haired ninja chose to remain perched on the branch, ignoring Kirabi and slightly glared at him. "Kirabi-sama, why did you take off like that? Do you have any idea how upset Raikage-sama is?"

Kirabi faintly tensed, his chakra rushing through his limbs as he prepared for just about everything. Usually, his brother sent one of his disciples or sensors to collect Bee. If he sent someone as powerful as Darui, then…"Hey, don't look so glum like you're gonna cry! I always take a vacation on the fly!"

Darui leaped off the branch and landed in front of him, his eyes narrowed and cold. "You just don't understand how bad this looks, do you? The Daimyo took the Raikage's initiative very badly and leveled financial sanctions on the village. A lot of the younger ninja are still shell-shocked and scared of the necessary brutality we used to remove Sunagakure, and then, you, one of our national icons and heroes, take off in the middle of the night!"

Kirabi mulled over his words but ultimately decided he could not return just quite yet. He had a bad feeling something bad was going to happen; he kept on feeling like someone watched him when he was home. Normally, when people spied on him, it was one of two things: fan-girl or assassin, and both sounded just as bad.

"Look, I don't know what to say. I didn't think they'd act this way. But, it ain't my problem if they're yellow. I'm just a simple fellow! I did what I had to do, so I'll be back in a month or two."

Darui's body tensed as he lifted his hand, and more figures appeared around him, previously concealed by being positioned against the wind and hidden amongst the vegetation around them. "This isn't a request. This is serious. Your brother is afraid that there is dissent among the ranks, and intelligence warns us of possible terrorist acts of reprisal from former ninja of Sunagakure…"

Kirabi sighed and shook his head. "You know, tell my bro this isn't cool, and we ain't little kids who go to school. I'm no traitor I did not defect; I still love the village that I protect. But if he can't cut me some slack, I just might take my time until I come back!"

The Hachibi pleaded with him to see reason. "C'mon, Bee. It looks like things are really bad. You know Ei will be furious if you do this. We can always take leave later…"

Kirabi adjusted his sunglasses and suddenly leaped backwards, preparing for battle. 'I've got my reasons to pack off and go. I feel a danger will come in tow. I won't let it blow up in Ei's face. For now, let him think that I'm a disgrace! 'Sides, once I'm sure my stalker's gone, I'll have time to have some fun!'

The Hachibi mumbled about being stuck with the only human more stubborn than an ox as his container prepared to fight his way out of this mess, though, as usual, it would have to make sure he didn't go overboard and injure or kill his peers.

(Several Hours later, ANBU holding facility, Konohagakure)

He yawned as slowly opened his eyes, piercing green almost seeming to glow in the darkness. His hand ran through his tousled crimson hair as he sat up. The Ichibi's Jinchuuriki looked around and his lips twisted into a grin. It was liberating; this…feeling of clarity borne from sleep. He looked down up the softly glowing symbol engraved onto his torso and reverently ran his fingertips over its contours.

The complex geometric construct pulsed with a blend of youki and chakra. He had never heard of such seal work being possible, but the toad sage, Jiraiya, had barged into his cell in the middle of the night, and by the time dawn broke, his nightmarish insomnia was at long last broken. He no longer heard the high pitched sound of his tenant's voice, nor did he feel its maniacal presence crawling within his skull.

He stood up and walked over to the window of his cell, gazing into the moonlight. Tonight was the final night of his probation. He had patiently waited in captivity until the Godaime Hokage deemed him stable. That was an understatement if there was ever such a thing. He had never felt at peace…as controlled as he did during the last couple of weeks.

He wasn't expecting to truly be loyal to Konoha, but now, after they granted him such a boon, he was hard pressed not to accept being their tool or blade if they asked him to. It wasn't as if the art of murder was foreign to him; what matter was it if he served one master or another.

Though, if he was honest with himself, he doubted his new benefactors would be as satisfied with his performance as their predecessors. With the Shukaku's presence severed and partitioned from his own, he no longer had his automatic ultimate defense, nor did his sand obey him with the same ease he had become accustomed to.

His power was more similar to a kekkei genkai now; limited and flawed, but with great potential if honed. He remembered one of Yashamaru's lessons from his childhood clearly in the current situation: "For every prize, there is a price, be it hidden or be it visible.'

He deeply inhaled and concentrated, trying to grasp the grains of sand around him. He could feel them, almost like they were a part of his own flesh, but it wasn't as easy as flicking a finger as it had been before.

The former Suna-nin was getting better at it; however, when he first tried calling upon his gift two weeks ago, he was sorrowfully disappointed. Now, he felt somewhat able in comparison as he had learned to actively feel his chakra's drain and limits as trained by manipulating the golden mineral into a sphere and controlling its motions.

"Gaara," he heard his name from behind the door. He dispersed the sand and turned to face his visitor. He bowed slightly, giving respect where it was required as he was fully aware he was but a mouse in the face of a lion…or lioness, in this particular case.

"Godaime-sama," he greeted and took a step back as the last of the Senju stepped into his cell. The blonde's piercing brown eyes surveyed him neutrally and fairly. She turned to the door and waved her hand in a dismissive manner, and in mere moments, Gaara both heard and felt the guards leave.

Pleasantries seemed to not be on the Hokage's agenda as her voice snapped like crisp air, "Is the seal working, Gaara? Is the Shukaku dormant, even when you attempt to control the sand around you?"

He softly sighed. "I can feel it when I sleep. It keeps on trying to bypass the seal, but it can't," Gaara affirmed.

The slug summoner rubbed her chin softly. "Good," she started pacing slightly. "We weren't sure if the seal array we used on you would work with one of the Bijuu. Luckily, it would seem that since the Shukaku is the weakest of the nine, it's holding just fine."

He peered at her curiously, confused by her offhanded comment but waiting for her to either enlighten him or allow him to question her himself.

She didn't disappoint with her explication. "The ancient Uzumaki developed what they called the 'Shingappei no In'. It was until now considered a lost art, rumored to be the most efficient ways to manufacture bloodlines in the pre-village era."

Her slender digit poked at his seal, her warm skin causing his own to tingle. "Basically, your own village merged your soul with the Shukaku at birth, but never knew how to finish the process with the secondary Uzumaki seal meant to partition you from it. The application of the secondary seal consequently granted you some manifestation of its power as your DNA gradually mutates to accommodate a new 'kekkei genkai.'"

Gaara's eyes widened a fraction, realization slapping into his face with resounding force. His mind raced with the implications, and for the first time in many years, he felt a tremulous, treacherous emotion that both scared and elated him – hope.

The Hokage paid him no heed as his mind wandered and he heard her heels click as she approached the door. When she spoke his eyes snapped towards her, watching her place one hand on the door. "Your siblings are waiting outside; they will escort you to your joint home. While you are in Konoha, your former sensei, Baki, will train you along with Sarutobi Asuma. Both are now your escorts and protectors."

Gaara simply nodded. 'It's only to be expected. I am a human weapon…or monster. I shouldn't be surprised they don't trust me…' the redhead reasoned, though logic did little to help the bitterness that welled inside him. He inhaled softly through his nose right until he blinked at the words that left his new Kage's lips and his eyes whirled to look upon Tsunade's smile.

"One last thing: we have reason to believe you may be targeted because of the Shukaku, so do listen to your sensei and guardian. I don't like losing my ninja if I can avoid it." With that, she pushed open the door, and with it, he felt his eyes sting and a bizarre twitching, clenching feeling in his chest.

She faintly smirked as she stood at the threshold. "Konoha is your home now, Gaara. Do try to make the best of it, so we don't regret trusting you and you don't regret helping us."

"Home…" he murmured, the world around him out of focus in his daze. He felt his lips tugging upwards right until he felt something collide gently against him and then warmth and something flowery invaded his nostrils.

Temari was hugging him; she was touching him and no sand hurt her. He could sleep, he had a home, and he had a family. It wasn't a dream; for the first time in his life, Sabaku no Gaara was human in every meaning of the world.

(In the morning, Gates of Konohagakure)

Naruto sighed for the umpteenth time and openly yawned, popping his shoulder as he stretched. When he got promoted to chuunin, this wasn't exactly the illustrious career he envisioned for himself. He fiddled with the many pockets of his flak jacket.

He was leaning against the guard booth in which he sat, in front of the gates of Konoha and lazily watching the scenery. Apparently, there were chores even worse than D-ranked missions in a ninja's existence, and this was one of them.

For the last two weeks, he pulled a twelve hour shift every day, two three-hour training sessions with Kakashi or sparring with his peers, followed by three hours of politics, etiquette, math, literature and tactics theory with Hinata and Neji, whom picked up the slack in Iruka's stead. All in all, he spent only four to five hours of sleep in average per day.

The wash, rinse and repeat monotony almost drove the Jinchuuriki to the brink of insanity. He massaged his temple and slightly jumped when Neji's voice spoke through the microphone in his ear. "Our relief should be arriving soon, so try to look busy, Naruto. It wouldn't look well to find the last of the Uzumaki sleeping on the job…"

"I was yawning, not sleeping!" Naruto hissed and muttered something about white-eyed jackasses and their attitude. He decided to be productive and continue one of his newest hobbies – flipping through the newest edition of the bingo book.

Kakashi-sensei had ordered him to read and memorize every ninja from B-rank and above from Iwa, Kiri and Kumo in the next couple of weeks. If he was going to see C- and B-ranked missions, he needed to be prepared if unexpected enemies popped up in his path.

Naruto didn't mind much if he was honest with himself. It was rather fascinating to read about their most infamous missions and even their abilities. It really made him realize how diverse and dangerous his line of profession was, and just why Kakashi kept on pushing him so hard. Some of these ninja were frighteningly powerful.

He flipped through the pages and found his latest entry, "Let's see…Utakata: Jinchuuriki of the Rokubi. Status and village affiliation: missing-nin from Kirigakure. Blah, blah, blah…Huh? Bubble ninjutsu? What the hell?"

Naruto held back a snort before his eyes widened. "Recently devolved into a cannibalistic madness and eats his victims as well as evolving his ninjutsu to a sound based ninjutsu. Sheesh! Why are all the S-rank ninja so freaking crazy?"

He sighed and flipped to the next page and his eyes almost grew to the size of saucers. He whistled and looked more closely at the photo. He shook his head and hummed lowly, and, though he knew it wasn't very healthy for his person or useful for his village, he couldn't help but grin widely. "I'm in the badass book! I'm in the badass book!" he chanted to himself and pumped his fist.

"Hey, hey, stop shouting in my ear, Naruto!" Neji's voice cracked like a whip. "What are you babbling about anyway? Don't tell me you're actually happy about being written in the bingo book, Naruto…" he added in exasperation.

Naruto ignored the muttering confirmation that he was happy about it and spoke out loud, "Uzumaki Naruto, age thirteen to fourteen; last of the Uzumaki clan and son of the Yellow Flash. Jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Youko; Rank: A; Bounty: three million ryou from Iwa and two million from Kumo. Additional Information: Known abilities consist of wind, water and fire ninjutsu, toad summoning, mass shadow-clone manipulation and the Yellow Flash's Rasengan ninjutsu. Noticeable feats: Assisting in the defeat of the Demon of the Mist and defeating Iwa's Heavenly Judicator!"

Neji sighed heavily in his ear and Naruto laughed lightly and ignored his muttering about blondes and stupidity. "Get this: Student of Kakashi of the Sharingan and theorized student of Jiraiya of the Sannin. Fuuinjutsu proficiency unknown, beware possible use of Hiraishin no Jutsu. Eye color may vary due to Jinchuuriki status."

"How troublesome…You know, I don't think Godaime-sama would approve of you slacking off, Naruto." A different voice startled him and he dropped his book in surprise. He glared at Shikamaru whom replied with a bemused smirk.

"I wasn't slacking off…I was…uh…preoccupied!" Naruto replied cheekily and practically shoved the bingo book into Shikamaru's face. He was so excited, he didn't mind or notice how loud or childish he sounded. "Look! Look! I'm an A-rank ninja. Ha! Shows all those bastards who said I'd never be a ninja, don't it?"

Shikamaru shook his head and flicked over his picture. "You know, you're not this buff, tall or menacing in real life. I think Iwa needs to replace their illustrators."

Naruto growled and stood up, wincing as he bumped his head on his way out of the booth. He glared at his fellow chuunin and spoke rapidly with a twitching eyebrow. "Oi! Are you calling me short? I'll have you know I've grown an inch and a half in the last six months!"

"You're still a pipsqueak, Naruto," Izumo chimed in from beside Shikamaru and his eyes crinkled happily.

Naruto mumbled under his breath before snorting. "Feh…Whatever. I don't have to be as tall to kick ass! Speaking of which, I should get going. Kakashi-sensei's been a real pain about me being late ever since I got promoted. So…if we could maybe speed things up, I'd be …really grateful."

Neji hid away a snort between a cough but smiled begrudgingly and waved him off. "It's fine, Naruto. You can go. I'll brief them."

"Thanks, Neji! I'll see you and Hinata later, then." The other three all showed various levels of amusement as Naruto broke into a sprint while waving. 'Irony is just the story of my life, isn't it? The tardiest ninja in Konoha becomes a stickler for punctuality the moment he becomes MY sensei!'

He hopped onto the rooftop of the first building low enough and started traversing his way toward the Ichiraku Ramen Bar for lunch. But, he never reached his destination as Kakashi met him halfway there. The copy ninja was flanked by a Hyuuga he recognized from his many visits to the Hyuuga estates (but didn't know by name), Inuzuka Hana and her massive dog familar.

"Yo, Naruto!" Kakashi greeted and the other two nodded at him politely though Naruto noticed Hana was eyeing him slight disdain.

'Well, of course people are skeptical about me. I'm a short, nearly fourteen year old A-rank. Well, I guess I'll have to show'em why I'm Uzumaki Naruto, Ninja Extraordinaire!'

"Are you heading out for another mission, eh, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked with a sigh. He was too tired and too disappointed to remember that wishy-washy politeness. It wasn't like Kakashi-sensei minded him acting a bit more like himself around him.

Kakashi shook his head. "No, we're going on a mission. I packed your gear and some rations. Yamato is off on a mission, so you're stuck with me, it would seem. I'm off on a B-rank mission to Taki no Kuni. You up for a little challenge?"

Naruto's eyes widened a fraction, but before he could grin and bask in the hype of going on his second high ranked mission, Hana interrupted with a cough. "Don't get the shrimp all riled up, Hatake-senpai. It's just a standard extraction and protection mission."

The Hyuuga clicked his tongue and eyed the kunoichi coolly and beat Naruto's angry response to the punch. He knew he was still a greenhorn, but he deserved the benefit of the doubt for crying out loud. "Inuzuka-san, please don't belittle our mission. Namikaze-san is right to show enthusiasm, though it would be best if it was tempered with caution. Our mission is not entirely standard…"

"Enough. We don't have time for this." Kakashi interrupted sharply and moved close to Naruto, whispering in his ear, "To make things short, we're meeting an asset; one of the only surviving ninja of Takigakure no Sato that was outside the hidden village during the mysterious massacre. He's agreed to show up where the fabled hero water is, in exchange for asylum, citizenship, and a hefty bonus."

Naruto nodded and Kakashi spoke crisply before taking off, "Hana, take point. Naruto and I will follow with Usagi-san here taking the rear."

Naruto followed close beside him, pushing some chakra into legs.

'Well, Neji, looks like dinner will have to wait 'til I get back. Let's hope this mission isn't nothing like the last escort mission I took back then…'

(At the same time, in a Secluded Roots Safe House at the edge of the village)

He sat in a lavish chair in the center of a study. There was a fire crackling in the fireplace in that chased away the shadows in the otherwise dimly illuminated room. Danzou's bandaged form was facing the wall in front of the door, his single visible eye scanning over a map of the ninja continent.

Two weeks had passed since the invasion; two weeks since he just barely dodged the shinigami's grasp. Itachi was most likely on the prowl now, and it was anyone's guess what his next step was. The former ANBU commander knew he would have to be far more careful from now on, though he doubted the last of the Uchiha would take direct action…at least, not yet.

He could call Senju Tsunade many things, but a fool, she was not. Ever since the invasion, she pushed for repairing the ancient detection barrier, in addition to having its range and gaps modified, implementing sensors or bloodline ninja who had the ability to man every one of the internal patrols lines and checkpoints, and all training regimes were being reevaluated and reformed appropriately to the new era in the ninja world – the quiet before the storm.

Alas, these measures were not just activated externally. Danzou was aware of the level of scrutiny under which Tsunade put him. He had to remove all the seals from his operatives and replace the 'condemning' symbols with cyanide pills and suicide jackets.

He smirked to himself and rubbed his fingers over his concealed Sharingan eye. 'Let her investigate all she wants. She'll never find anything and realize she's stretching her resources thin soon enough…'

He glanced over Mizu no Kuni. He still had some deep cover agents burrowed deep within Kirigakure's infrastructure. He had planted them early in the Yondaime Mizukage Yagura's era, right before the hidden village's internal strife erupted fully.

Luckily, the notoriously xenophobic nation was probably still too delicate to begin internal purges for spies and foreign agents by the laxness of their internal security. That was not the situation his agents in Iwa and Kumo shared; their reports had become scattered and sporadic with warnings of internal investigations and inquisitions being wide-spread within Iwa.

Ishimaru was becoming somewhat paranoid, it would seem by what his spies reported. The Gobi's container was missing and the crushing defeat had left him in a tenuous political position that made him see shadows and unseen enemies everywhere. It was also delightful to hear from his agents in Kumo that discord and dissatisfaction were beginning to spread within Kumo's ranks.

For all their zealous nationalism, there were reports that many ninja were shaken from the genocidal attack on Kaze no Kuni and from fear of reprisal from their Daimyo and the surviving Suna-ninja whom they had no idea had entered Konoha's fold. Ninja, nowadays, were so delicate; nobody would have blinked in the old days when a ninja force razed and murdered many civilians to keep them quiet. So what if they had to pave a crimson stained path straight to the capital? They won spectacularly!

The juiciest rumor they reported was the supposed defection of Kirabi, their ultimate weapon the moment their army returned to the capital. 'Such a unique opportunity…if we can destroy it while it's isolated…Ei will be crushed…both emotionally and militarily…'

His musings were interrupted by a presence entering the room. His voice pierced the silence as he heard one of his elite agents shift in the doorway. "Report, Torune."

"Uzumaki Naruto's house is impenetrable to my Kikaichuu, Danzou-sama. It would seem Jiraiya erected some fuuinjutsu barriers before he left which prevented them from crossing into the house, itself. Otherwise, Uzumaki Naruto is only unprotected when he is fulfilling guard duty or another menial tasks. His training is personally supervised by Hatake Kakashi, whom I've been unable to fool or approach, as of yet. When it isn't officiated by Hatake, it is undertaken within the Hyuuga compound."

Danzou was silent for a while as he pondered his options. "Where is he, now?"

"He and Hatake have left for an extended mission," his subordinate quietly replied.

"Excellent. I want his place bugged and cameras planted there. I have no doubts Tsunade suspects I will take this step, so remain unseen and undetected. Also, use the foreign equipment, so there can be no clues which lead back to us..." Danzou ordered and dismissed his loyal subject.

'He is Kushina's heir, after all; I have no doubt that woman left him the lost Uzumaki seals, somehow. I cannot believe how powerful the boy is becoming. Damn my oversight in his youth! I should've gone behind Sarutobi's back and trained him…he would've been such an essential tool in my plan…'

He was interrupted from his reminiscing by another presence approaching from behind him. His visible eyebrow furrowed.

"Danzou-sama, I apologize but he…" one of his agents apologized, only to be silenced by a gesture from his master.

"It's okay. Leave us." He fully turned in his seat to glance at the interloper which forced his way into his abode. He nodded in response to a humble bow and the sound of the voice he hadn't heard in many years.

"Shimura-dono, I apologize for barging in like this, but you're a very difficult man to find nowadays…more so to talk to in private."

"Haru-dono, it's been quite a while since I've seen you outside the Hyuuga compound," he commented evenly. It was not surprising the elder main branch member managed to locate him. In his prime, he was one of the premier scouts in Konoha's arsenal.

"Indeed. I would like to share something with you," the elder offered and Danzou sighed inwardly. It was always a hassle negotiating with the Hyuuga, their mastery over apathy and neutrality legendarily vexing. He gestured for his 'guest' to continue and listened intently.

"You see, we of the elder Hyuuga feel our current leadership has become…a bit too progressive to our liking. However, unfortunately, Godaime-sama refuses to see reason and has refused our polite requests repeatedly. So, we would like your help in helping us manage this 'problem'; preferably before Hinata reaches her age of majority and is still salvageable."

Danzou's eye narrowed a fraction and he carefully guarded himself to not reveal how convenient this opportunity was. "I see. Hypothetically, should I agree to look into this 'problem' of yours, would you be willing to 'look' after one of your frequent 'guests' for me?"

Haru creased a slender brow. "I don't see any problem. We all want 'him' to be well protected and taken care of. We might as well keep our 'eye' on him, just in case."

"Excellent. Then, it's only fair that I begin looking into your 'problem' and see how I can help 'realign' your leadership back to your esteemed traditions," the last of the Shimura line replied evenly.

The Hyuuga bowed his head slightly. "Thank you for freeing some of your time, Danzou-dono. I'm sure you're busy, and I've taken enough of your time already. Shall I send word ahead, next time?"

Danzou nodded in acquiescence. "That is acceptable. Until next time, Haru-dono." With that, the Hyuuga left, with Roots agents shadowing him, no doubt. Danzou, however, paid his departure little mind. His mind raced with the possible implications.

'Now I shall know everything about your abilities and training, Uzumaki Naruto. Soon enough, with planning and preparation, you, too, shall become a part of my plan…you and your 'tenant.''

(The following morning, Underground Research Compound, Ta no Kuni)

Orochimaru frowned thoughtfully over his clipboard. His lips twisted into a grin and his amber eyes flickered with glee. He put down it down and his cool hand smoothed over the naked flesh of his former apprentice, caressing her neck and cheek.

'Excellent. The transplant was successful.'

The woman jerked and her eyes snapped open. She thrashed weakly against her constraints, teeth gnashed and golden violet eyes wide and wild. "You'll…never break me…you fucking bas-…Ahh!"

Her swearing was cut short by screaming as her skin started crawling, something slithering against it from within her body. She thrashed and cried in agony, her voice only muted to an extent when his hand painfully grasped her face, his eyes boring deeply into her own.

"Tsk, tsk…" Orochimaru began as he clucked his teeth in the process. "Save your strength, Anko-chan. I'm not quite done testing the limits of your regeneration, yet."

He reached for a syringe, and was about to inject her with the next necessary DNA concoction he synthesized, when he felt Karin and Kimimaro's presence approach his lab. The two sets of footsteps were rushed and she was out of breath as she barged into his lab with Kimimaro in tow.


He shifted his glance over them, the impatience gleaming in his eerie yellow eyes.

She gulped before explaining. "We've evacuated the facility as you ordered, b-but two incredibly powerful chakra signatures are approaching from the north!"

Orochimaru laughed out loud and placed two fingers on Anko's forehead, knocking her out with a numbing burst of chakra before popping the needle into her shoulder and pushing the bubbling content into her bloodstream. He turned to Karin and pointed at her. "Keep her restrained with the seal-enhanced chains and cuffs at all times. Take her with you through the tunnel…I'll be with your shortly.

The snake sannin chuckled softly and rushed out of the room. Around him, he felt tremors and the distant sound of explosions. His former associates were no doubt demolishing the sentinels he stationed outside to stall them.

'Sssssssssasori…you never did disappoint me with your punctuality!'

He ran through the hand seals necessary for his most deadly kinjutsu, the infamous Edo Tensei, and watched with delight as the two coffins burst from within the bowels of the earth. He watched the gray and decaying forms of the Sandaime Kazekage and the recently deceased Sandaime Tsuchikage, Oonoki.

One of his many projects over the years back when he served as a Konoha ninja (and later, when he traveled before he founded Otogakure) was to collect DNA samples off bodies of powerful ninja, infiltrate hidden villages and pillage graves and break into homes of famous ninja and steal DNA samples. It had taken him over a two-and-a-half decades, but he now had a quite extensive sample base for his various experiments.

He procured the personality suppression seals, modified by his own design to retain their memories and personalities on one hand, but suppressed their free will on the other. The last and newest modification was to time their presence in the material realm; he had invested just enough chakra to keep them here for three hours, enough time for him to be long gone.

He finished the ritual and spoke softly, "Have fun with your old acquaintances, but do not kill them. Jusssst scare and humiliate them. I need them alive. Tell them Orochimaru sends his regards and asks them to kindly leave him alone. You may injure them in any non-fatal manner of your choosing…oh, and procure some DNA samples for me…just in casssse."

With that, he turned toward the escape tunnel while his tools marched onwards to battle. Everything had gone according to plan. Sasori would never live down the humiliation and would continue to pursue him. He would never report such a failure to Pein so only he and whomever he partnered would chase him in vain until the time was ripe for him to make his move.

His mind raced with the next phase of his master plan. 'Soon…once everything is ready, I shall finally land a blow against your cause, Pein. A blow you will never be able to contend with, and while you scatter to prepare yourself, I will finally achieve the final phase of my ambition and embark on the path of becoming the perfect being!'

(The Following Morning, Somewhere near the former Takigakure, Taki no Kuni)

Naruto panted softly when Kakashi ordered them to come to a full stop. They had traveled at a very high pace for repeated hours. His muscles were sore and he only imagined his companions were just as weary as he was. Being a Jinchuuriki involved quite a number of cons, but, fortunately, some significant perks balanced the negative; physical resilience and stamina were just some of them.

Kakashi put a hand on his shoulder, helping to steady him on the branch and spoke softly, in an authoritative manner, "Everyone, take a soldier pill and drink some water. We're at the rendezvous point. We haven't sensed any enemies until now, but it stands to reason some may be lurking about, so stay sharp. Naruto, send some Kage Bunshin to scout outside the perimeter of Usagi-san's Byakugan."

Naruto complied, conjuring five doppelgangers before nimbly catching a half-full water bottle from Hana. He consumed it before pushing it into one of the pockets in his flak jacket. He could sense the soft tingling borne of the slivers of the Kyuubi's youki mixing with his own chakra, and in mere moments, the ache and weariness began melting away.

"Kakashi-senpai, I recognize the target you spoke of, but he is not alone," Usagi announced grimly. "I count three ninja in his immediate vicinity as well. All four of them seem to be nuke-nin by the looks of their forehead protectors; three from Ame with our asset being from the former Takigakure."

Hana bared her teeth, her sharp canines pronounced as her dark eyes narrowed when her familar growled deeply. "I don't like this, Kakashi-senpai. If they have a squad, why do they need our assistance in retrieving the hero water?"

The Copy ninja nodded his head and answered quietly, "Tsunade-sama anticipated such a possible scenario, and the team makeup is all part of the plan. Naruto, I want you to impersonate Usagi and Hana with your Kage Bunshin and approach the enemy with me. We will draw their initial attack if a trap is sprung. Between my Sharingan and Naruto's regeneration abilities, we should expose them to a flank attack from the rear by you two."

"With all due respect, Kakashi-senpai, Naruto-san is still a rookie chuunin. I'm not sure…" the Inuzuka heiress interjected coolly and ignored her companion's whining as it nuzzled its nose into her hand. Naruto frowned and bit his lower lip to hold back his snarky retort. While he was not surprised by her hesitation or doubt in his abilities, it was only natural that he was upset that she dismissed him so easily. But, he didn't want to upset Kakashi-sensei, so he huffed quietly as he summoned two shadow clones.

The copies wordlessly assumed the forms of his teammates via the Henge technique. Kakashi brushed passed him and whispered something he didn't quite catch to Hana and covered a small snicker when her eyes widened a bit and she glared at the copy ninja.

"Tch, it's your funeral…" the Inuzuka murmured inaudibly as Naruto and Kakashi approached their contact. Naruto scanned over the man, noting that he had long spiky hair, dark eyes and a goatee. He wore a dark blue jacket, gray pants, sandals and a bandana that held his hair out of his face.

They landed on the rocky, moist soil and walked towards the man in question. "The man's name is Suien," Kakashi whispered to the blond while keeping his vision straight ahead, "and he is a B-rank nuke-nin. He's a primarily water-based ninjutsu user. I'm not sure whether he already collected the hero water or not. If he turns out to be hostile and has the water with him, then you deal with his allies and let me deal with him, and by no means are you to assist me. Understood?

Naruto nodded and inhaled deeply through his nose. "Oh, and keep your clones from before at the ready. They might come in handy if we're in a pinch."

He grinned faintly and shut his eyes for a brief moment. He repeated the calming exercise the elder toad Fukusaku had taught him and focused his chakra in the center of his chest and let it expand equally through his limbs.

'I can do this, I can do this…' he chanted within his mind and ignored the soft rumbling of the fox's laughter in his mind.

"Hatake Kakashi," Suien greeted in a deep baritone, bowing his head slightly.

Kakashi returned the gesture, lifting one of his hands in greeting. "Suien-san, I trust you haven't been waiting for too long."

"Let's get this over with. These are dangerous times..." he barked gruffly and then led them through the long stony path until they reached an area where many tree roots burst the ground. "The tunnel is through there, so hold your breath and stay close to me…"

Naruto eyed Kakashi uncertainly, 'If he wants to kill us…wouldn't this be the perfect opportunity…?' he wondered inwardly.

His sensei didn't disappoint. "I've been to Takigakure before, so why don't you head on in, and we'll follow you shortly. We'll make sure nobody's following us…"

Naruto caught a very brief twitch in the nuke-nin's cheek and recognized it as what Neji had taught him was a sign of contempt. He caught the slight timbre of scorn in his tone and tensed. "As you wish, Hatake-san, but don't' dawdle. My former country has become a dangerous place, and I'm not the only nuke-nin seeking refuge in these badlands…"

He then slipped between the branches and a splash was heard. Kakashi eyed him seriously the moment they were alone and whispered so only he could hear. "Naruto, stay alert. I feel chakra signatures around us, and I have the feeling we may have even more company on the other side of that tunnel. Stay close to me…"

Naruto complied and tailed Kakashi through the branches and nervously licked his lips as they walked toward the dark, freezing waters. He inwardly reached toward the seal, his chakra brushing against the Kyuubi's cage. 'I have a bad feeling about this...Maybe being in the bingo book wasn't such a good thing, after all…'

He inhaled deeply and took the plunge, shivering as he was devoured by the nearly black water around him, all sound around him numbed except the sinister laughter of his demonic passenger, lurking just beneath his skin in waiting.

(At the same time, Underground Prison Compound, Kirigakure no Sato)

The first thing that filtered in her mind was pain, unbearable amounts of agony. Her body was sore and bleeding all over, courtesy to her 'hosts'. They had managed to apprehend and capture her on the ferry to Mizu no Kuni from Nami no Kuni and she had been in her cell ever since.

She was chained to a metallic chair, right under a stalagmite, water drops drizzling down her. The silence was maddening; the only sound around her was that of the dripping water. Worse, it was pitch dark and freezing cold. They kept her in wet clothing so she wouldn't be able to sleep and would constantly remain weak, but they kept her healthy enough to withstand their endless torrent of questions with medical ninjutsu.

'Damn it…maybe we should've stayed in Konoha…'her alter ego pitifully moaned in her mind. Sakura bit her lips and held back the tears of frustration and despair. She would've lost her sanity a long time ago if she didn't have her alter self to converse with, or perhaps she was already off her rocker…it was so hard to think.

The door of her cell shifted; the sound of metal brushing against metal hurting her ears, her eyes burning when her irises saw light for the first time in who knew how long…

She had lost all sense of time in her captivity.

She was surprised to hear a sharp female voice speak up. Up until now, all her interrogators were men – oily, meticulously cruel…men. She couldn't quite catch what was exchanged between the woman and her guard, but in moments, she felt her chains loosen and her body hoisted from the chair.

Her blurry vision caught the sight of a dark red color, and then, the pain became nearly unbearable as they dragged her into the blinding light. She tried to cover her eyes, but her arms were too sore and her muscles didn't respond properly after such a long period of inactivity.

'Where are they taking us? Is this…is this the end?' she wondered with morbid fascination mingled with depressed resignation. She was being dragged somewhere but she felt too tired and too weak to glance around her and try to discern her surroundings.

Eventually, her trip was cut short when she was tossed onto a hard, wooden floor. Her vision had finally adjusted to the light and she discreetly scanned her surroundings, noticing the lavishness of furniture, paintings and the prominent wooden throne in front of her.

"Haruno Sakura…" a cool, female voice spoke to her. She looked up and glanced upon a strikingly impressive and exquisite woman. The woman appeared in her thirties, if Sakura guessed correctly, with ankle-length, auburn hair styled into a herringbone pattern at the back, a top-knot tied with a dark-blue band, and four bangs dangling at the front.

The woman's eyes were a bone-chilling light green as she glanced at her with equally callous indifference. Her garb consisted of a long-sleeved, dark-blue dress that fell just below the knees. It seemed to be closed at the front with a zip and was kept open on the front-right side, from the waist down. The dress only covered up to the upper part of her upper arms and the underside of her breasts.

Underneath her skimpy clothing, she wore a mesh shirt that covered more of her upper body than her dress, but stopped short of covering her shoulders and still left a sizable cleavage. She also wore shorts in the same color as her dress and, underneath those, tightly-fitted, mesh leggings reaching down over her knees. Around her waist, she wore a belt with a pouch attached to the back on the left-hand side.

"I am the Godaime Mizukage, Terumi Mei," she declared and her blue colored lips twisted from a mirthless smile into a frown. "I have reviewed and have recently authenticated the documents you supplied us. I find it very 'interesting' that you managed to lay your hands on such sensitive material."

Sakura gulped and glanced away from the imposing woman, her mere presence suffocating. The woman obviously stretched her chakra purposefully to that end. "You told your interrogators that you stole these from Shimura Danzou. I find that highly improbable…so, convince me, otherwise."

'Careful…Don't lie to this one. She seems even more dangerous than Tsunade or Danzou…and that man with the eye patch beside her must be a sensor specializing in body language…' her alter ego cautioned her softly.

She cursed her shaking voice. She wanted to blame the cold, but it was more so the woman's piercing eyes and violating chakra that made it hard to think…hard to breathe. "D-Danzou had plans for me. He couldn't indoctrinate me…I was too old, so he…he blackmailed me. B-but, unforeseen circumstances made him lose his collateral and then I-I had help when…"

Mei silenced her by lifting a hand. "Help, you say? Who helped you infiltrate and steal from the infamous Danzou?"

Sakura exhaled shakily before she continued. "He called himself Kabuto. He had silver hair and glasses and impersonated a genin to take part in the Chuunin Exams. H-he said he wanted to take me back with him to Otogakure, b-but then turned on me when the documents didn't suit his needs…"

Mei made a contemplative humming sound and then shrugged her shoulders. "We've managed to cross-reference that name you told your interrogators. It seems you've been in contact with the right-hand man of the infamous Orochimaru, himself. Intriguing…Now, tell me…did this Kabuto say he would contact you again?"

Sakura strained her memory and hesitantly nodded. "He said t-that if I survived, I'd suit him more as an agent than as an apprentice and left me there…he left me there…to die…"

Mei glanced at the older man beside her and he nodded lightly. "We shall be able to use that when the times comes. I would very much like to meet with this…Kabuto, one day. Anyway, what I really want to know is why you chose my village to seek asylum out of all the possible and closer options you had…"

She was about to talk when her darker side hissed in her mind. 'Careful, Sakura-chan. This is a test of some sort. I can tell it by the gleam in her eyes…It's just like Danzou's when he…you know…'

"I-I knew, of all the hidden villages, Kiri is the one they're least likely to search. Everyone knows you Kiri-nin are notoriously xenophobic and violent, and nobody wants to become your common enemy. T-that's why nobody involved you in the Third Great Ninja war…everybody knows…"

"Do not lie to me!" Mei sharply exclaimed and her eyes seemed to glow with power.

"I-it's true! Your country's been a mess for so many years that Konoha ninja don't want to be caught in your internal struggles and become a scapegoat for you all to unite against. I-It's well known much of the stability in the last two decades is because of your country's civil wars! A-and I had acquaintances in N-Nami no Kuni, so it was e-easy to…"

Mei's nostrils flared and her fingertips dug into the wood, causing deep cracks to form. She turned to the man beside her and whispered furiously under her breath. Sakura couldn't hear what was exchanged between the two but she did catch a name 'Yagura' being spat out venomously.

"She wasn't lying…" the man beside her evenly stated loud enough for Sakura to hear as well. The Mizukage exhaled sharply and began drumming her fingers on the chair.

'She seems visibly disturbed by the frankness or our admission, Sakura-chan. Most likely on how the other Great Four used their misery and strife to benefit and grow stronger…Oh this is good…' Sakura observed before her darker ego, inwardly grinning.

Mei cupped a hand over her mouth and inhaled deeply, seeming to have settled down and then turned to Sakura as she let loose a shaky sigh. "You've been honest and forthcoming, it would seem, but that means nothing to me. I still don't trust you. You betrayed your home to save your own skin. So, you'll have to work if you want to become one of my kunoichi…" Sakura gulped and nodded, grimly beginning to fear what was coming next. "Your former master has spies here or will send more spies here most likely. They will report of your presence here, and they will come for you, eventually...You will help me capture them when they do."

Sakura's eyes widened marginally. That wasn't what she had in mind when she sought asylum. Kabuto had said the documents would buy her passage.

"You will receive an apartment in the civil district and will remain under our supervision as a freelance consultant."

'This is…this is bad!' Sakura grimaced and her alter-ego growled in impotent rage.

Mei's smile grew terrible, full of grim satisfaction and superiority. "You will help me, Haruno Sakura, whether you like it or not. You will help me thwart Danzou and Konoha. You will tell me all you know, and I will protect you; possibly even help you train and grow as a ninja. If, in one year's time, you prove yourself worthy, then I will instate you as one of my kunoichi, but, if you fail me or betray me…"

Sakura's eyes shut tightly, 'No…I can't do this again…I can't become someone's slave and scapegoat again…'

The Mizukage's words sent fear lancing down Sakura's spine and she could only nod numbly. Her alter ego soothed her with sweet lies and reassurances, no doubt.

'No! Don't despair, darling Sakura-chan. She's giving you…us…a chance. We can use it to stick it to Danzou-teme and prove our worth in a way we never could back there…Don't forget that Kiri can't afford to be a picky hidden village, anymore. Besides…we can do this! Don't give up so easily…!'

Somehow, between the bitterness and fear she realized her alter ego—or was it her common sense echoing behind her words? Whoever it was, it was right; there was, for the first time in almost a year, a tangible thread of hope dangling at the edge of the abyss.

Haruno Sakura was no quitter; she would do anything it took to make sure she succeeded. And when the time was right, she would take advantage of the situation to her benefit and get her revenge…against Konoha, against Danzou and maybe…against the crimson eyes, as well!