One Hundred Weeks
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 3: The Invisible Hand

Disclaimer: Contrary to its status in several improbable alternate universes, Naruto does not belong to me. It belongs to Kishimoto Masashi; I'm just borrowing it without permission. However, the blame for the actual text of this fanfiction is mine. Also, squash.

Week Six

In most towns or cities in the world, it would have been an unusual sight. That a young man might stand on the roof of a low building was not strange, particularly in the Wind Country where most houses were built with rooftop access. It was somewhat weirder that he stood with a massive bird of prey perched on his arm, and it gained the full measure of oddness when one realized that the bird was mechanical, a puppet. Such a creation was something the average peasant might live their entire life without seeing.

In the Hidden Village of Sand, famed across the world for its unique puppetry techniques, it was a sight hardly worth noticing. However, even there, it was odd that the man was holding a conversation with the device. Puppeteers did not talk to their puppets - or at least did not talk and expect an answer - unless they were extremely disturbed. If an observer knew that this man was Yuura, one of the youngest members of the Sand's ruling council and not a master of puppetry, the strange conversation would have become interesting indeed.

There was no one to listen in, however, as Yuura spoke. "Chiyo-sama immediately petitioned again to perform the extraction, of course. Otokaze and Satetsu are blocking her, though. Neither of them wants that, and almost no one else is backing the motion. Even Ebizou-sama is against it." The Sand ninja chuckled darkly. "It seems that with less than two years of good behavior Gaara-kun's already gotten us to forget that we hated and feared him. He's subtler than he appears."

The mechanical bird's head turned, one painted, unmoving eye staring at the man. Its mouth did not open, but a quiet voice emerged despite that. "You did well arranging this incident, Yuura. This may work out better than if you'd succeeded in getting the container sent out after my partner," the bird said. "If the extraction is performed, I can steal and replace the vessel at my convenience, and it could be a decade or more before anyone knows Shukaku is lost."

"Chiyo-sama has vowed never to perform the sealing again," Yuura agreed, "and she's taken no apprentice to learn her art." He paused. "I can't switch to support her in this, though, not without raising suspicion from Otokaze. It wouldn't make a difference, in any case, Master."

"What of the Leaf?" the bird asked.

The man made a frustrated sound. "They aren't pushing for anything yet, any more than they retaliated when Gaara nearly attacked them when they first showed up," he said. "They've locked themselves in their guest house and aren't taking visitors. They didn't even take the Hokage's apprentice, the one Gaara-kun has the grudge against, to the hospital. I'm not sure what to make of it. Gaara-kun has provoked them enough that there should have been a reaction."

"The Rock?" the bird proposed.

"I suppose, Master," Yuura said, "but it isn't like the Leaf to ignore an attack on one of them, even if they are scared of driving us away from the alliance." He paused. "The genin taking the exam returned this evening," he added. "The Toad Hermit was with them. I suppose it was too much to hope that those rumors he spread that he was leaving were true."

"So long as his gaze is focused on his boy, he won't be a concern to me," the bird stated.

"As you say, Master."

The bird was silent for several minutes, but Yuura waited patiently until it was ready. "These are your orders, Yuura. Push the council to approve the extraction by any means necessary. We will arrange to remove the opposition." There was a whirring sound, and the puppet's breast opened up. The exposed innards moved, and slowly a glass vial filled with a dark liquid emerged, held by a metal prong. Several more vials, holding different-colored fluids, were visible inside the bird.

Yuura took the offered vial with his free hand. "Master?"

"Use that on the container if the council still won't move on its own," the bird ordered as its insides moved again and its breast closed. "That poison will take a week or so to kill it. They'll have no choice but to extract before it's too late. The blame will point at the Leaf."

"Yes, Master."

"My partner will come to the village to oversee the operation," the bird continued. "A sacrifice will be required. A jounin preferably, but a strong chuunin will do. You will have one prepared in three days, when I will contact you again."

"Yes, Master." Yuura's voice did not show any sign at discomfort with that order.

"You've done well so far, Yuura," the puppet said. "Continue to serve me well, and the rewards will be great."

"Thank you, Master Sasori." Yuura bowed awkwardly to bird perched on his outstretched arm.

With a faint whirring sound, the puppet bird extended its wings. They began to beat slowly, and the wooden creature took off. An instant later, a transformation occurred, the puppet taking on the semblance of a living bird, no different than the messengers used by the Sand ninja.

Yuura bowed again, more deeply, as he watched the disguised puppet fly off. Then he straightened, and vanished in a swirl of sand. He had much work to do.

The Hidden Village of Sand was situated in an immense bowl, surrounded by high cliffs which descended just as steeply down to the surrounding desert a few hundred yards further out. The formation was not natural, having been created to protect the new village by the First Kazekage, whose mastery of earth element ninjutsu was second only to his unrivaled wind techniques. In the generations since then, the Sand had improved on their founder's gift. They dug secret caves and passages and carved massive terraces on both sides of the mountainous wall. On the outer terraces, they built defensive fortifications. The village expanded to use the space provided on the inner face.

Uzumaki Naruto ran straight up the side of one of those terraces, a small one which contained a medium-sized training ground. He made no attempt at stealth, but no one stopped him until he reached the top of the terrace. There, a man in the uniform of a Sand chuunin waited, standing by a flickering electric lamp atop a post. Naruto paused after climbing over the guard rail.

"Sorry, but you don't want to use this area tonight," the chuunin said. "It's being used by -"

"Out of my way," the boy growled. For just an instant, there was a barest flash of red chakra in the air around him.

The Sand ninja's eyes widened. "You're Leaf!" he exclaimed, his eyes focusing on Naruto's forehead protector. "You aren't cleared for this area!"

"I don't care," Naruto said. He didn't move forward, but his body shook with contained energy. The man started to form a seal with one hand, and in an instant Naruto was inside his guard, his smaller hand closing around the half-formed seal. "No alarms." Something flashed in his eyes. "I'm here to have a talk with him." A sense of pressure and power filled the air around him.

"I can't just let you in," the Sand ninja stammered.

In the shadows on the edge of the lamp's reach, something stirred. Sand rose up into an approximation of human shape. "It's fine," a soft voice said from the darkness. "He can take care of himself." The sand crumbled into small pile.

"All… all right," the Sand ninja said nervously. After a moment, Naruto released his grip on the man's hand. He backed away, turning and breaking into a run once he was out of Naruto's reach.

The Leaf genin ignored the fleeing ninja, stalking into the training ground. His eyes quickly adjusted the darkness. The dim moonlight was enough for him to see his target.

In the middle of the training ground, Gaara of the Desert sat cross-legged in a small bowl of sand that floated several feet off the ground. As Naruto approached, the sand sank back down to the earth, and the other boy stood. "Naruto-kun," Gaara stated calmly in greeting.

Naruto didn't reply, stalking forward until he stood within arm's reach of Gaara. Then Naruto punched him in the face. Sand blocked the strike. In a blur of motion, Naruto was behind Gaara, spinning into a powerful kick. More sand stopped him, inches from Gaara's back.

"The sand defends me without my will," Gaara said, not turning to face his attacker. "I'm sorry."

At that, Naruto calmed somewhat. He fell back into a ready stance, and now Gaara turned around. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but for just a moment Naruto's eyes flashed red and turned inhuman. "You hurt Sakura-chan," he said. This time, the crimson chakra that flared around him hung in the air for several seconds.

"I did," Gaara agreed. "It will not happen again."

"No, it won't," Naruto said, the promise of violence heavy in his simple statement.

"Threats are unnecessary," Gaara said. "I had no desire to hurt anyone yesterday."

"Didn't seem to stop you," Naruto replied. One of his fists clenched, lengthening nails almost drawing blood. With visible effort, he forced the hand open.

Gaara's green eyes flickered closed. "I will not make excuses," he declared as his eyes reopened. "It is my power, and my responsibility to control it." He paused. "You are making it… difficult."

Naruto glanced down, and saw the sand under his feet roiling. The blond took a deep breath. "You didn't want to hurt anyone," he said.

"Yes." Gaara's voice was still calm.

Naruto breathed again, closing his own eyes briefly. The wind stirred, and when his eyes reopened the air felt different. A terrible, heavy pressure was lifted. The moving sand stilled.

Gaara nodded. "We both know it is never easy," he said. "Even as we must make it appear so."

Naruto's mouth quirked into a slight smile. "At least I can get a decent night's sleep," he said, his voice forcibly light.

Gaara seemed to accept the change of topic. "On occasion, with appropriate preparations, I sleep. There are dreams. It is… unpleasant."

"Dreams," Naruto said. "I've had a few of those kind," he admitted. For just a moment, images filled his head, of a labyrinthine, humid sewer, where every path ultimately lead to the same terrible destination. He forced them away.

"It is never easy," Gaara repeated himself. "It is an existence fated for darkness. But you showed me a better way. Thank you."

Naruto winced. "I was just trying to protect my friends," he said. "If I'd had to, I would have killed you."

"I know," Gaara said, "but I would have killed you even if I didn't have to, for a foolish reason." He paused. "Because of you, I have a brother and a sister." He glanced out past Naruto, over the village that spread out below the small terrace they stood on. "It is never easy," he said again, "but even this village is now more than a collection of buildings to me. Even if you did not intend it, it was your example that gave me all this.

"I am sorry I repaid you in such poor fashion yesterday."

Naruto grimaced, but the terrible power did not return. "What happened?" he asked. One of his hands went to his stomach. "If you don't mind."

"The sand priests," Gaara answered slowly, "exerted their power where they should not have, and woke Mother. I was unprepared, and she struck at them. Sakura-san and others tried to protect them, rousing her further, and I was not able to regain control."

"Why do you call… it your mother?" Naruto asked. "I saw it, when we fought."

Gaara hesitated. "Do not tell my sister or my brother," he said. "They believe it an old delusion of mine, a cruel trick of the demon, and I see no purpose in disturbing their belief."

Naruto swallowed. "What do you mean?"

"I do not know what you know of my seal," Gaara said. "I myself do not know if it was required or an accident, but a sacrifice was made in the sealing." His eyes closed. "My mother died birthing me, and her hatred, her pain, and her rage live on inside of me, between me and the demon. Perhaps she is part of it now."

"I," Naruto began, but his voice faltered. "That's just… fucked up," he said. "I'm sorry I asked."

"Do not be," Gaara said. He smiled slightly. "Even when she rages, it is her will that powers the shield of sand. I did not understand, for a long time, but now I choose to believe that her love lives on as well."

Naruto turned away, and for a moment the two looked out over the Sand Village in silence. "You're really amazing, Gaara." The other boy shook his head, but Naruto pressed on. "I'm not… I don't know if I'm as strong as you think I am," he said. "I grew up… I was alone, and it hurt. I thought it hurt worse than anything, and I didn't know why I was alone.

"But you were worse than alone, weren't you? And you were told why from the start. I don't know, if I had grown up like you, and if I had met someone like me… I don't know if I could have turned from that path the way you have." His hands clenched. "There have been times when I've lost control too," he said. "I've been training with Ero-sennin, working on meditation techniques and more, but even after that, if I have to call upon that power…" Naruto trailed off.

"It is never easy," Gaara said one more time.

"It never is," Naruto agreed. He paused. "I need to apologize to your sister," he said. "I had to threaten her a little to find out where you were."

Gaara shrugged. "She is used to it," he said simply.

Naruto let out a laugh. "They'll never believe me back home if I tell them you make jokes now." His face turned serious. "There was something else I needed to talk to you about, Gaara," he said.

"What is it?"

"There's a girl, taking the exams," Naruto said. "Hinata-chan - do you remember her?" Gaara nodded, and Naruto continued, "She can see things with her eyes." He snorted. "You know what I mean."

"I do." Gaara paused. "What did she see about this girl?"

"Hinata-chan thinks she… thinks she's like us," Naruto said.

Gaara stiffened. "Who?" he said, his voice tight.

"From Waterfall," Naruto said. "Her name is Fuu, and she's maybe three or four years younger than we are."

"I have not met her," Gaara said.

"I tried to talk to her," Naruto said, "but she wouldn't let me. I think… I think she sees herself as a weapon, and nothing more." His eyes closed as he remembered another ninja he had met, years ago in Wave Country, who had felt that way and died for it. "She almost killed a ninja from Snow Country," he said, "in the preliminaries. She thought he had hurt her teammate."

"There are worse reasons," Gaara said.

Whatever Naruto might have said to that was lost as someone coughed behind them. They turned around. "You shouldn't be here, Naruto-kun," Otokaze of the Explosion said. "Gaara-kun is in isolation following yesterday's incident."

Naruto shrugged. "I needed to talk to him."

Another man appeared beside Otokaze. His eyes glanced between the two boys. "I was afraid I was going to have to break up a fight," Baki said. "That's the last thing we need now, with Chiyo on the warpath."

"We are not going to fight, Baki-sensei." Gaara said calmly. "Our discussion was productive."

Baki grunted. "Then good," he said. His gaze turned to Naruto again. "You should get out of here, boy," he said, "before she shows up."

"Who's Chiyo?" Naruto asked.

"A member of the Sand's council," Otokaze explained. "An enemy of your village."

"She wishes to perform an extraction on me," Gaara stated simply.

It took Naruto a moment to understand what Gaara meant. "She can do that?" he asked, a little awed. He had never imagined that was possible. "Then why not…"

"The extraction," Baki interjected dryly, "invariably results in the destruction of the container."

Naruto blinked. "Oh."

Otokaze glanced between the Leaf ninja and Baki. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you know about Gaara, all things considered."

Naruto stilled. Otokaze seemed nice enough, and Jiraiya seemed to trust him, but Naruto was never comfortable when someone he didn't really know hinted at knowing his secret. "I should go, then," he said after a moment.

"Thank you," Gaara whispered, "for talking with me."

"It's nothing," Naruto said awkwardly, and then he left, this time taking the long stairs down to the village.

Jiraiya of the Legendary Sannin was not amused. Under ordinary circumstances, he quite enjoyed having unrestricted access to a young woman's sleeping chambers. These were not those circumstances, not when the woman in question was in truth still a girl, nor when she was Tsunade's apprentice and his apprentice's teammate, and particularly not when the reason for that access was that she was injured and Jiraiya was the closest thing available to a medical ninja that could be trusted.

Right now, at six in the morning after a night of no sleep, he was waiting for the girl lying in her bed to wake up from the induced sleep he had been keeping her in. He wasn't a fully trained medic, but he hadn't been Tsunade's teammate for more than a decade without picking up more than his fair share of medical ninjutsu. Her cracked and broken ribs, he could set on the path to healing in a week or so of bedrest. It was the rest of the damage that was beyond him, and left him needing to find out just what had caused it.

He didn't breathe a sigh of relief when Haruno Sakura's eyes opened. Her gaze was unfocused as she looked about. "My head feels funny," she said slowly, slurring the words. "And I can't feel my arm."

"Both of those would be my fault," Jiraiya said. "Give me a moment."

Sakura looked at him. "What're… you doing in my room, pervert?" she asked.

Jiraiya sighed, forming seals and then laying one hand on the girl's forehead. When he withdrew his hand, Sakura shook her head, blinking rapidly. Then she looked at Jiraiya, her eyes now clear. "Jiraiya-sama?" she asked. "What happened?"

"I was hoping you could tell me the details," Jiraiya said. He offered her a crooked smile that probably didn't seem forced. "Just because all these Sand think you've fought Gaara doesn't mean you had to go and do it."

"He… his demon was going to hurt Aya-san and Hiroto-san." Sakura shrugged one shoulder - the arm Jiraiya hadn't numbed. "You said to watch out for them."

"I didn't mean for you to get yourself killed," Jiraiya said. "Tsunade-hime would kill me." His face darkened. "Trust me, I'm going to have a long talk with those two idiots." And probably ship them back to Nori as soon as he could.

"Is everyone okay?" Sakura asked.

Jiraiya nodded. "You did good," he said, as comfortingly as he could. "Nobody died, and your injuries were the worst." He smiled again. "I think that reputation of yours probably grew another two sizes. The Sand rumor mill is saying that you forced Gaara down single-handedly."

Sakura winced in her bed. "I wasn't alone," she said. "Temari-san, and that Rock jounin…"

"I know," Jiraiya said. "Sarutobi-san told me what he could." He knew his face hardened at the mention of that name. At least the sand priests had the excuse of being children. Sarutobi Asuma was an elite jounin and should have been more than capable of ensuring that Sakura had never been in a position to get hurt like this.

Sakura glanced around her bedroom again. "Not the hospital," she said. "Security?"

Jiraiya nodded. "I'm not going to trust the Sand with your life," he told her. "We still think someone tried to kill you, after all."

"How long was I out?"

"Only a day," Jiraiya said. "Naruto and I returned earlier this… well, yesterday evening now."

Sakura winced again. "Naruto didn't do anything… rash, did he?"

"Not too rash," Jiraiya said. "Before I call everyone in and tell them you're okay, though…" He trailed off, then tapped the heavily bandaged arm that lay numb and useless at Sakura's side. Sakura glanced at it, and winced again. "What rash thing did you do, Sakura-chan?"

"I…" Sakura hesitated. "I needed something to penetrate his defense," she said.

"And?" Jiraiya prompted.

"You're familiar with Shishou's strength enhancement technique?"

Jiraiya nodded. "Use precise chakra control to flood your limb with chakra and bolster your strength at the moment of impact," he said, "without undo strain on the muscles." He stressed the last words.

"I… haven't quite mastered that part," Sakura said weakly.

Jiraiya snorted. "That might explain the torn muscle and broken bones, but it wasn't what burned your arm and damaged the chakra coils in it."

"Fire Dragon Fist Style," Sakura said after a moment.

Jiraiya searched his memory. "Anko-chan's taijutsu style, right?" he asked. Sakura nodded. "I don't recall the details," Jiraiya admitted.

"It utilizes a secret fire element ninjutsu," Sakura said. "To take the natural flow of chakra in the lower arms, automatically aspect it to fire element, and use it to generate an aura of flame." She paused before continuing. "I combined the two."

"That was stupid." Jiraiya sighed. That would explain the pattern of damage, though. Anko's technique wouldn't be designed to handle the sudden, massive flow of chakra. The aura of fire would become a firestorm focused on the user's arm. Unsafe amounts of fire-natured chakra would be left pooling in the chakra coils of the arm. There maybe were the basics of a technique there, with a lot of work, but improvised and unpracticed… "That was really stupid," he said, "to try something like that on the fly."

"I didn't see a lot of options," Sakura said, "and I was pretty sure it would work." She paused. "I'd practiced with lower power a little."

"I'm surprised Tsunade let you."

"She… err… didn't," Sakura said weakly. "When I explained the idea to her she said it was too dangerous."

Jiraiya sighed, but he didn't bother to ask the kunoichi why she'd disobeyed. He didn't know the pink-haired girl particularly well, but he knew enough to guess at the reason. Naruto had the Rasengan, and Sasuke had Kakashi's Raikiri. It probably wouldn't do any more good for him to tell her to stop working on it than it had Tsunade. "I suppose you have a name for this… technique?" he asked.

"Not really," Sakura said. "Everything I thought of just sounded stupid. I figured maybe I'd come up with something once I completed the technique."

There was a light tapping on the door, and Jiraiya glanced at it. "I guess you can come in, Sarutobi-san," he said sourly.

His teacher's son slipped inside, shutting the door quietly behind him. "Are you okay, Sakura-chan?" Asuma asked.

Sakura just glanced at Jiraiya. "I think you'll be fine," Jiraiya said carefully, "eventually. I'm doing what I can. Once Shizune-chan gets here, she can take a look at that arm."

"Shizune-sama is coming here?" Sakura asked.

"I've sent a message asking Tsunade for her," Jiraiya answered. "I expect she'll be on her way as soon as possible." He paused. "What do you want, Sarutobi-san?"

"I need to make my report to my commander," the jounin said.

Jiraiya could feel the sheer force of the girl's embarrassment without even having to look at her. "Is this really necessary right now?" he asked Asuma, letting a little more of his irritation at the other man into his voice.

"I think it is," Asuma said.

Jiraiya heard Sakura take a deep breath, and he glanced at her. "All right," she said. "Report."

"Two of our teams passed the second exam," he said. "Suzume Namida's team and Yuuhi Kurenai's." Jiraiya deliberately let out an annoyed grunt, but Asuma didn't respond, continuing his pointless report. "Namiashi Honzo from Uzuki Yuugao's team was injured in the second exam. Uzuki-san requested to be released from her mission here to return home with her team. Yuuhi-san was willing to replace her, so I took the liberty of allowing it."

Jiraiya could tell that the jounin was hiding something there, but he doubted Sakura could and honestly he didn't care what it was. "What's the point of this?" Jiraiya snapped. He was tired and he did not have time for Asuma to get around to whatever he was actually trying to do. "If all you're going to do is play act at being her subordinate, Sarutobi, we all have better things to be doing."

Sakura raised her good hand to her forehead. "This is about why you sent a shadow replication with me, isn't it, Asuma-sensei?"

The jounin hesitated, then answered. "Ah, damn it. Yes, it is. I'm sorry, Sakura-chan. I took a stupid risk and messed up, and you paid for it."

Sakura shook her head. "There wasn't any reason to expect any trouble your replication couldn't handle." Jiraiya decided not to comment that she was being too kind. At least Asuma did seem to realize just how badly he'd failed. Given that, there was no need to pile on the guilt.

"Yes there was," Asuma replied. "We knew someone had tried before to set up a fatal confrontation between you and Gaara. I'm not convinced this wasn't a second attempt. That would explain why it took the Sand so long to intervene."

"I'm sure whatever you were up to was important," Sakura said. Asuma opened his mouth, but the girl stopped him with a weak gesture of her good arm. "I'm also sure I shouldn't know what it was," she said.

"You're probably right," Asuma agreed after a second's hesitation.

The door to Sakura's bedroom swung open widely, banging loudly against the wall. "Is Sakura-chan awake?" Naruto asked.

The girl averted her eyes. "Yes, Naruto," she said.

Jiraiya hid his smirk by scratching his chin. "Maybe you should have put some pants on first, brat," he offered. He'd certainly found that showing up in a young girl's sleeping chambers in your boxers, while efficient, was not always appreciated.

Naruto glanced downward, then scratched the back of his head. "Sorry, Sakura-chan," he said. "I just heard talking and wanted to make sure you were okay."

"I thought you went to bed," Asuma stated.

The boy shrugged. "Couldn't sleep."

Jiraiya could hear people stirring about the guest house. "And now no one can with the racket you're making."

"Sorry," the boy muttered, stepping inside and shutting the door behind him. He looked at Sakura. "You're going to be okay, right?" he asked.

Sakura glanced at Jiraiya. "I guess it looks that way?"

"You'll probably be stuck in this bed until Shizune gets here to finish the job," Jiraiya said, standing, "but it doesn't look like you did any serious damage." He looked between his student and his teammate. "I think I'll let you two talk a bit," he said, "and get myself some food. Then I'll have to put you under again while I do some work on your arm, now that I know what you did to it."

Sakura nodded. "Okay."

Jiraiya turned to leave. As he passed Naruto, he reached out and ruffled the boy's hair, ignoring his futile effort to dodge. "Once you're done talking, you should get some sleep, boy. When I'm done working on her, we'll start training again." He glanced at Asuma. "Come with me, Sarutobi," he ordered. "I think we need to have a talk while I eat."

"Yes, sir."

Hinata found herself idly wondering if anyone in the Hyuuga Clan had considered asking an Akimichi or two to serve as training dummies for children learning the Gentle Fist. Even with the Byakugan, tenketsu were small and hard to target in the heat of combat. With Chouji swollen to almost three times his natural size, though, Hinata almost felt like she could see his tenketsu with her eyes relaxed.

The kunoichi forced herself to rein in her wandering thoughts as Kurenai said, "Begin." A spar wasn't real combat, but not paying attention during one was still a good way to get hurt.

One of Chouji's arms grew further, until his hand was larger than Hinata. It came at her quickly, but she danced out of the way, her own hands darting out to touch the tenketsu on the back of the boys hand before it shrunk. She frowned to herself, realizing that they were only partially closed. It must take more chakra to affect them when they were so huge, she decided.

Even as the first shrank back, Chouji's other arm rocketed toward her. This time, Hinata jumped backward, her hands forming seals in midair. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" she announced, breathing out a ball of fire that grew to be twice the size of her head. She put enough chakra in the attack to singe, but not enough to hurt even if he took the full force. That was a lesson Kurenai had forced into her team before she'd let them use any elemental ninjutsu in spars.

Chouji sunk into the ground before the attack reached him. Hinata landed and immediately jumped into the air a second time. She refocused all her perception on the ground of the training area, until she spotted her opponent moving through the sandy earth, back to his normal size. Could he not maintain the Multi-Size Technique while underground?

Hinata landed on top of one of the boulders scattered about the training ground, next to Kurenai. The jounin smiled at her, then vanished in a swirl of wind to reappear on a more distant boulder. Hinata kept her attention on Chouji, but for the moment he seemed content to stay underground, slowly spiraling in on her new position. How was he tracking her? Vibrations through the earth?

She was going to need to force him back to the surface. She knew Naruto could do the same thing, and probably would when they fought in the finals. Something quivered inside her at the thought, but she ruthlessly forced it back. Even if her opponent was him, Naruto would want her to do her best and never give up. Maybe that would even be enough for her to pass, and her father couldn't complain, not when even Neji had also -

Hinata snarled at herself, jumping to another boulder seconds before Chouji used the Fire Blossom Technique Kurenai had taught him to strike where she'd been perched with a jet of flame. Hadn't she just been reminding herself to keep her attention on the fight?

The Hyuuga heiress took a moment to search her pack for the right equipment and grab a soldier pill. Kurenai would scold her for using one in a spar, but she still needed it for this technique. As she jumped again, ahead of Chouji's next attack, she formed seals, summoning a shadow replication beneath her. She kicked off of her clone to change direction, sending it down to the ground while she headed for another boulder.

They both landed, and she took a breath of relief when Chouji took the bait, heading for her shadow replication. It was all out of her hands, now. When Chouji drew nearer the surface to use the Fire Blossom Technique, Hinata's replication detonated the dud explosive tags she was carrying, and dismissed itself. Chouji stopped, doubtless wondering what the loud noise had been.

An instant later, Kurenai landed where the clone had stood, kneeling down and tapping the ground with one finger. "Come on out, Chouji-kun," she ordered, and the boy obeyed. At a gesture from her teacher, Hinata joined them in the center of the training ground. Before relaxing her eyes, she spared a bit of attention for the guest house where the remaining Leaf ninja were staying. Naruto was in Sakura's room again, talking with the other girl. Hinata wondered whether she could learn to read lips through walls.

"Shadow replication?" Chouji asked. When Hinata nodded, he continued. "You must have made it in midair." She just nodded again.

"That was clever," Kurenai said, "but you need to stop using those soldier pills when you don't really need them." Hinata smiled faintly. After two years, her teacher really was predictable sometimes.

Chouji grunted in agreement. "There's always a price," he said.

Hinata knew she'd be feeling it in a couple hours, but it wasn't like she had anything better to do than rest then. Sharing a single training ground with another team and your first round opponent meant a lot of downtime. "I didn't have anything else to hit you underground," she said in explanation.

"I'm thinking about that," Kurenai told her. "The best ways are all earth element, though." Hinata wasn't very good with that element, even compared to her limited talent with fire manipulation.

"Do you know whether we've heard from the village about whether our families will be able to send someone to help us train?" Chouji asked. "Not that you and Asuma-sensei aren't excellent teachers, but…" He trailed off.

"Nothing yet," Kurenai said. "But if they don't I'll work with both of you the whole month, since Asuma's usually busy," she promised. "You're on opposite sides of the bracket, so it isn't much of a conflict of interest."

The boy nodded. "Thank you."

"We've got to give up the training ground now," Kurenai continued, "so Jiraiya-sama and Naruto-kun can use it. Get some rest and some food, and then we'll meet up and I'll tell you what I've spied out about the other teams." She smiled slyly. "And if you want to do some of your own spying and take a few looks back here while you eat, Hinata-chan, I won't tell."

Hinata's cheeks warmed. "I w-wouldn't," she began.

"You should," Chouji rumbled. "If the Rock weren't… well, the Rock, I'd be spying on this Mako girl I'm fighting first all I could."

"Information-gathering is part of being a ninja," Kurenai reminded her student.

Hinata just shrugged, and the three of them headed back into the house. The other team was lounging in the kitchen over the remnants of their lunch, discussing strategy.

"If you can close quickly with that fan user, Ami-chan," Inuzuka Shinta was saying, but he trailed off as Hinata, Chouji, and Kurenai came inside.

Seated beside him, Uzuki Ami grunted. "I know that," she said irritably. "You don't need to tell me the obvious fifteen times."

Her female teammate, Mitokado Fuki, muttered under her breath, "Except for when he does."

"I heard that," Ami complained.

Hinata tried to remember who the three were fighting while everyone exchanged pleasantries. Fuki and Ami were both going up against Sand ninja, she thought. She remembered Shinta was fighting the kunoichi from Waterfall who wasn't Fuu. Maya, that was her name.

"Hinata-chan?" Kurenai asked. "Could you go tell Naruto-kun and Jiraiya-sama that we're done with the training ground?"

Hinata nodded, and started heading for the stairs. Chouji followed her. She glanced at him, and he shrugged. "I want to see how Sakura is doing," he said, a slight hint of worry in his voice. The pink-haired girl was still bedridden and spent most of the time asleep, even half a week after her injury. Jiraiya had reassured everyone that she wasn't in any real danger, but it was still a little concerning.

Then again, if she'd really fought Gaara, she'd gotten off easy, Hinata thought. She remembered him from her first Chuunin Exams, and it wasn't a pleasant memory. He might have been like Naruto in one way, but in others he was nothing like him. Behind her and Chouji, someone stood.

"Ami-chan," Shinta said warningly. Hinata glanced back at the purple-haired girl

"I'm not going to challenge her to a fight," Ami said sourly to her teammate. "You two don't mind if I tag along, do you?" Hinata did, actually - even if she hadn't caught the bulk of it, she remembered Ami's bullying in the academy well enough - but she wasn't rude enough to say so.

"Why do you want to come?" Chouji asked suspiciously, apparently less concerned with politeness.

"That idiot Naruto won't let me in when I come by myself," Ami replied. Hinata almost reflexively protested, but decided it wasn't worth it. "And I want to remind forehead girl that she has to get better so she can see me kick ass in the finals."

Chouji snorted in amusement, and Hinata glanced at him. "It's nothing," he said. Ami looked puzzled for a moment, then turned bright red. Hinata frowned, and Chouji made the sign for "later" with one hand where the other girl couldn't see. "You might as well come up, then," he stated. "But if you do something stupid…"

"I won't," Ami promised, and the three of them headed up the stairs.

They met Jiraiya in the upstairs hallway. "Done with the training ground?" he asked. Hinata nodded. "Let's go get the brat then." He turned around and headed for Sakura's bedroom, throwing the door open. Everyone else followed him inside.

Naruto was sitting in a chair by Sakura's bed, but he stood up as they entered. "Time for training?" he asked Jiraiya after nodding to Hinata and Chouji. He ignored Ami, and Hinata guessed that he must remember her from the academy also, though it wasn't like him to hold a grudge.

"Hello, everyone," Sakura said, waving weakly with her good arm. Hinata quietly activated her eyes, studying her injured arm. Chakra was still not flowing normally through it.

"Are you doing okay?" Chouji asked her, stepping forward. Ami followed him, but Hinata stayed by the door.

Jiraiya glanced at her. "Do you see something?" he asked quietly as Sakura answered Chouji.

Hinata shrugged and relaxed her eyes. "I'm not a medical ninja," she said.

Naruto came over to them. "Are you training hard, Hinata-chan?" he asked.

"Y-yes," she stammered out.

Naruto grinned widely. "I'm looking forward to seeing what you can do," he said. Then he glanced backward, "I'll talk to you more later, Sakura-chan!" he said with a wave, interrupting her conversation with Chouji. Then he slipped past Hinata and Jiraiya.

The Sannin chuckled. "I guess I'd better go with him," he said. "Sakura-chan, if you can I want you to try pushing chakra through your arm a few times before you take your afternoon nap. Stop when it starts to hurt."

"Yes, sir," the pink-haired girl said, and Jiraiya left.

"We should probably go get lunch," Chouji said.

Ami, who had stayed quiet, suddenly spoke. "You really fought that kid with all the sand, from the exams before the invasion?"

Sakura glanced at her. "Yes."

Ami's face took on an expression that Hinata was sure even Neji wouldn't have claimed to be able to interpret, and she was silent for a moment. "Get better soon, forehead girl," she finally said, and then turned for the exit. Sakura frowned, but she didn't say anything, and after a minute more Hinata and Chouji left her to rest.

Week Seven

Over the past week, life in the Leaf ninja's guest house had settled into something approximating a routine. The cycle of the day was, so far as Sakura could tell from her relatively constrained perspective, built around the schedule Jiraiya, Kurenai, and Namida - the jounin of Ami and Fuki's team - had worked out for the training ground behind the house. Sakura understood that Asuma, who had taken over her duties interfacing with the Sand, had turned down their hosts' offer of the use of other training grounds. Sakura thought he might be overly paranoid, but better safe than sorry.

The sand priests had left yesterday, escorted back to their tribe by a Sand team Jiraiya had hired. Both of them had largely avoided Sakura, although Hiroto had actually stopped by to thank her for saving him and apologize for provoking Gaara. He hadn't used those words, of course, but the attempt had been clear enough even if the young boy wasn't quite capable of admitting it out loud.

"If you're feeling up to it," Jiraiya said, finishing his daily examination of her, "it might be a good idea for you to get a little exercise."

Sakura couldn't stop her grin at that. "I'm sick of this stupid room anyway," she said, "and I've already read all the books Naruto bought for me twice."

Jiraiya chuckled. "I could use someone to go over the latest draft of my next book if you're bored," he offered. "Ice-Cold Icha Icha."

The pink-haired girl flushed. "No, thank you," she murmured.

"Come on," the legendary ninja pleaded. "It's got a new set of characters, so you don't need to have read the earlier books! And my editor is after me to appeal to the female demographic!"

Sakura blinked. "You're kidding."

"I wish," Jiraiya said sourly. "Apparently that 'For Girls' spinoff I let them hire some hack to do a few years back finally came out in Earth Country and sold really well there. Now they want me to bring those readers into the main series. Somehow." He sighed. "I asked Tsunade-hime for advice and she just sent me back a voucher good for one full-strength punch the next time I was back in the Leaf Village."

Sakura laughed, then winced as that caused her still-healing injury to her side to ache. "Ow," she said. "Stop being funny, Jiraiya-sama."

He smiled. "Here," he said, "let me help you up," he said, and for the next several minutes he helped Sakura walk around the upstairs, before bringing her back to her room and settling her into a comfortable armchair. "Sitting up for a while will be good for you, too."

"Probably," Sakura agreed. "Could you fetch me that history of the Sand's founding over by the bed?"

Jiraiya wandered over and found the hardcover book, frowning as he flipped through it. "This looks like a propagandistic piece of trash," he said.

"I know," Sakura said. "But it's entertainingly written trash."

Jiraiya tossed the book at her, and she caught it with her good hand. Then the door opened, and Naruto came inside. "It's our turn for the training ground, Ero-sennin," he said. He glanced toward the bed, then found Sakura seated in the chair. "You're moving around, Sakura-chan? That's great!"

"A little," Sakura said. She grimaced. "Not enough."

Jiraiya frowned. "I wish Shizune would get here. I'm sure she could have you up and moving in no time at all, and I was actually hoping to have some training time with you too this month."

"Huh?" Naruto asked.

Sakura blinked. "With me?"

Jiraiya sighed. "It isn't like you really need more of my training for these exams, Naruto," he explained. "We're just doing mostly the same things we'd be doing anyway." He frowned, his eyes suddenly distant. "I don't really care what happens in the finals in a few weeks. I'm concerned with what happens in a year and a half or so."

Sakura paled. "Oh," she said. It was so easy, to… well not to forget, but to get used to the ultimate goal that hung over them, the reason for all her struggles. Weeks would go by without her giving it a single active thought.

"Sasuke," Naruto breathed, apparently just as struck by the reminder.

"And it would help if we had a chance to train together some before we try again, wouldn't it?" Sakura asked. Damn it, she had picked an awful time to get injured, hadn't she?

Naruto smiled weakly. "Don't worry, Sakura-chan. It worked out pretty well last time, didn't it?" he said. "We just need to work on the part where that bastard Kabuto shows up."

Sakura forced herself to smile back at him. "I could do without the part where we get caught in a genjutsu and Ino and Anko-sensei have to rescue us, too." She couldn't stop from shuddering as she remembered the nightmare Sasuke had plunged her into. She'd never bothered to ask Naruto what he had seen; she didn't want to share her experience and didn't imagine he felt any differently.

Jiraiya snorted. "Don't worry about it. By the time Tsunade-hime and I are done with you two, that little Uchiha won't know what hit him." He put one hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Let's get going, brat."

Sakura frowned as a thought occurred to her. "Wait," she said. "Is it safe for me to use a ninjutsu?"

Jiraiya frowned. "So long as it isn't fire… ah, I see. Yes, that should be fine."

"Huh?" Naruto said.

"Just a moment," Sakura said, clumsily forcing her hands through seals. "Shadow Replication Technique," she said.

And then Sakura's clone was standing in front of the real her. A brief shudder ran through her at the sudden sense of vertigo. She hated this moment, when she realized she was just a copy. The real Sakura smiled up at her. "Have fun," she said, a trace of irrational jealousy that she couldn't hide from herself in her voice.

"You've got it," the clone replied, stretching what would have been her bad arm. The real Sakura hadn't been certain whether the injury would be replicated on the clone, but fortunately she didn't feel any weakness.

"I wish you'd mentioned you knew that technique earlier," Jiraiya groaned. He grinned. "You should probably change, though."

Sakura's clone glanced down at her nightgown. "Probably," she agreed, forming a seal. "Transform!" There was a puff of smoke, and she was wearing one of her normal training outfits, and red shirt and black shorts, complete with practice weapons hidden about her person, just as real as she was. Tsunade had once tried to explain to her the theory behind how the Transformation Technique and the Shadow Replication Technique interacted. That had been one of the few times in her life that Sakura had felt too stupid to understand something.

Jiraiya was staring at something, and both Sakura followed his eyes to the dark snake tattoo winding around the clone's arm. The clone reflexively covered it with her other hand. "Sorry," the Sannin said. "That mark just brings back… bad memories."

Naruto let out a short laugh. "I think it looks cool," he said. "Not really your thing, Sakura-chan, but still cool."

Jiraiya smiled, whatever demons that haunted him apparently vanished. "I'm surprised Anko-chan didn't suffer any permanent injury when Tsunade-hime found out about that, though," he said.

Sakura's clone shrugged, and the real one answered. "I don't know," Sakura said. "Tsunade-shishou's never really complained about it to me. I'm actually sort of glad, though." The real Sakura shuddered theatrically. "Slugs?" she stage-whispered. "Don't tell Shishou, but they're kind of gross."

Naruto laughed again, and Jiraiya grinned. "They're nicer than the snakes, though," the old ninja offered.

Sakura's clone glanced at the real her to see if she'd had the same reaction. Stupid, since there was only a minute or so's difference between them. "Don't insult my summons," the real Sakura said. "They're all perfectly nice."

"Really?" Jiraiya asked curiously. "Even back… before, the ones I met were kind of unpleasant. And Anko-chan's complained often enough."

The real Sakura let the clone respond to that. "I think that's because I might be the first snake summoner to know the words 'please' and 'thank you,'" she said.

Jiraiya stared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. "I almost wish you had the chakra to summon Manda, girl," he said. "Just to see that old snake's reaction to that." He shook his head. "Come on, you two," he said, gesturing at Naruto and Sakura's clone. "We're wasting time."

A few minutes later, the three of them were out on the training ground. "So what's Tsunade been teaching you, Sakura-chan, that left her too busy to pound the sense to not pick a fight with someone like Gaara into you?"

"Umm… lots?" Sakura's clone - now that they were separated it was probably simpler for her to think of herself as just Sakura - answered. "Battle tactics, strength enhancement, a lot of work building up my chakra reserves and stamina." She paused. "Shizune-sama works with me on first aid and basic medical techniques. Anko-sensei teaches me fire element ninjutsu, and I've been working with Shimura-sensei on genjutsu."

Jiraiya blinked. "Shimura-sensei? You don't mean Shimura Danzo, do you?"

Sakura nodded. "That's him."

"Who's he?" Naruto asked curiously.

"An old bastard." Jiraiya snorted. "He and that crone Chiyo would make quite a pair." He shook his head. "I don't know what is more surprising, that he came out of retirement or that Tsunade let him get his claws into her apprentice."

"His claws?" Sakura asked, a little irritated. "Don't be so rude."

Jiraiya sighed. "I guess if Tsunade is trusting him, I'll just have to trust her judgment. Maybe he's turned over a new leaf in retirement." He let out a grunt. "Maybe Shizune-chan's pet will learn to fly, too."

"So what are we going to do?" Naruto asked.

"Hmm." Jiraiya rubbed as his chin. "Normally I'd start you two off with a spar, but Sakura-chan might get a little annoyed if she has to keep making new replications."

Sakura smiled at that. "Probably. I… she can only make a few before we run out of chakra, too."

"How many are you up to?" Jiraiya asked.

"Only three replications at once," Sakura said, "and one is really the maximum if I want to be using any other techniques."

"Only three?" Jiraiya asked, stressing the first word. "I think your scale is a little off thanks to this freak of nature over here." He waved a hand at Naruto, who made a not particularly sincere-seeming pout. "Three shadow replications is really impressive for a chuunin."

Sakura smiled at the praise, but then her face darkened. "Really impressive for a chuunin isn't going to be good enough, though. Is it, Jiraiya-sama?"

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan," Naruto said. "We'll get him back." He stated the words as though they were a simple, inevitable fact.

Sakura almost believed that he could make it so through sheer force of will, sometimes, but that wasn't good enough. It had been her promise to Naruto, and to herself, after Sasuke had… left. Next time, they'd do it together. She wasn't ever going to be left behind or a burden again.

Jiraiya glanced between the two of them, then about the training ground. "I guess this is big enough, if Naruto can keep things under control," he said, half to himself.

"Big enough for what?" Naruto asked.

Jiraiya smiled widely. "You two are going to learn what can happen a wind element user and a fire element user cooperate," he said.

Sakura thought back to her lessons on elemental ninjutsu, and then she smiled as well. This should be interesting.

Matsuri of the Bleeding Crow sent her weapon flying away to the left of the three targets set up a half-dozen paces ahead of her. The hooks of the metal dart passed inches from the closest target, tantalizing close to a hit. She imagined a taunting smirk on her opponent's face at the near miss.

She smiled herself as her hand gently twitched, channeling chakra through the long handle. At the far end of the metal-braided rope, the pronged dart changed direction, swinging around with a sudden burst of speed to strike the rightmost target from behind. Instants before the moment of impact, her free hand formed a seal. "Raiton: Shocking Strike," she whispered, a pulse of lightning-natured chakra speeding down the rope. When her weapon struck, electricity arced around the target, knocking it from its perch.

Her smile widening, Matsuri twitched her hand again, recalling her weapon. Fresh out of the academy, she had chosen the jouhyou to specialize in due to its suitability for non-lethal restraint. A three-month tour of duty in Rain Country had changed her mind about the reasons, but not her appreciation of the unusual weapon.

Her father clapped twice behind her. "Very good, Matsuri-chan," he said.

The girl was proud that she didn't flush at the praise, but she did take a moment to smile a bit more widely before smoothing her expression and turning to face her father. "Thank you," she said calmly.

"You've come so far in the past year," her father continued. "I'm proud of you, no matter what happens in two weeks."

Matsuri just bowed quietly. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted her mother leaning out the back window of their house a moment before the woman spoke. "You're supposed to save that for the end of the month, Satetsu," she said. "Now she's just going to slack off when I'm training her tomorrow."

"I won't!" Matsuri protested, but she was drowned out by her father's deep laugh.

"Don't be cruel to her, Kanon," Satetsu said lightly. "She's been working hard. That Leaf girl won't be any match for her." Matsuri wished she were so confident. Mitokado Fuki hadn't fought in the preliminaries, and they hadn't met in the second exam. She had no idea what her abilities were, and direct spying was out of the question for political reasons.

Matsuri's mother smirked. "I know," she said. "By the way, you're going to be late for that joint training you arranged with Kurotsuchi-san."

Satetsu glanced up at the sun, and his mouth twitched. "You're right," he said.

"I always am."

Satetsu shook his head with another laugh, then turned to Matsuri. "Come along," he ordered, jumping on top of the rear fence of their backyard, and Matsuri followed him over the fence and through the streets of her home village. She frowned slightly. Hopefully the Rock team wouldn't have a grudge over the outcome of the preliminary round.

Only a few minutes before they would have indeed been late, they arrived at the training ground near the academy. Matsuri was familiar with it, as the academy classes used it quite often. It was split in two by a shallow, if steep and wide, fissure. Most of the time, a trio wooden boards crossed it, although Matsuri noted that today one was missing. Likely it had broken during the Rock ninja's earlier training.

The jounin, Kurotsuchi, was the only one of the Rock apparent when Matsuri and her father arrived. She stood to one side of the training ground, intent on a stopwatch held in one hand. She didn't turn to meet the two Sand, instead just giving a wave with her other hand. "Howdy, Satetsu," she said easily.

Matsuri stiffened, but tried not to show her burst of anger any other way. Her father was a member of the Sand's Council of Elders, the leading candidate to become the next Kazekage. He deserved respect.

"Kurotsuchi," her father said just as informally. Then his face hardened. "I apologize again for the unpleasantness with Gaara-kun last week."

"No apology needed," the Rock woman replied. "It was fun, and I got to see Haruno-san in action. Tell him we should do it again sometime." Matsuri blinked. She wasn't… terrified of Gaara, at least not after her time in Rain, but that was a level of casualness she couldn't even begin to comprehend.

"All right," Satetsu said. He glanced at the ground. "You trying to kill your team?"

The jounin shrugged, hitting the button on her stopwatch and kicking at the ground. "You three can come on out now."

The Rock genin melted out of the ground. The kunoichi - Akiyama Mako, Matsuri reminded herself - almost instantly collapsed, lying down on her back. "Man, it's hard staying under that long, Kurotsuchi-sensei."

The jounin shrugged. "Builds character, Mako-chan," she said.

One of the boys - the one Matsuri had knocked out of the preliminary round, Gonkuro - helped his teammate stand. Matsuri glanced at the bandages still wrapped on his shoulder. "I hope you are healing well, Gonkuro-san," she offered.

The other boy - Yamakita Akira - slapped him on the back, right next to the injured shoulder. Matsuri wasn't able to completely hide her sympathetic wince. "He's fine," Akira said. "Aren't you?"

Gonkuro rolled his eyes. "I am well, Matsuri-san. Thank you for your concern." He bowed slightly.

Matsuri returned the gesture, and Akira laughed. "You two make a cute pair," he said. Mako just giggled.

Matsuri could feel her cheeks heat. "Don't be stupid," Gonkuro told his teammate, shaking his hand from his shoulder.

"Hey," Akira said. "Who you calling stupid? At least I made it to the final round!" Gonkuro just grunted, rolling his eyes again.

Matsuri glanced at her father, not sure what to make of the display, to find him deep in whispered conversation with Kurotsuchi. The two adults noticed her attention, and looked up at the genin. "I suppose we should get them started," Satetsu said.

"I suppose," Kurotsuchi said. She waved one hand. "Have fun; knock yourselves out," she declared. "Don't do anything permanent, and if you hit me I'll hit you back." Matsuri's father snorted, but he let himself be drawn back into his conversation with her.

Matsuri just stared at the three Rock genin for a moment. Mako giggled again. "Kurotsuchi-sensei is always like that," she said.

"Hey," Akira said, as though something had just occurred to him. "Do you know anything about this Yahiko of the White Stone I'm supposed to fight?" Both Rock in the finals were on the opposite side of the bracket from Matsuri.

She shrugged. "Not a lot," she said. "We were in different classes."

"Oh, okay," Akira said. "You want to spar or something?"

"Idiot," Gonkuro said. "That's what she's here for."

"The Leaf are still isolating themselves," Temari reported. "Otokaze-sama offered again to send them a trusted medic to look at Sakura-san, and Sarutobi-san refused again." She tapped her fingers on her teacher's desk. "Sorry, Baki-sensei, but it is making it really hard to do my job."

"Sakura-san is recovering well," Gaara interjected from where he stood, leaning on the wall next to door to Baki's office. "They expect she will be fully recovered once the medic the Hokage is sending arrives. Naruto-kun has been training with Jiraiya-sama for the exam finals."

Perched on a stool next to Temari, Kankuro looked back at his younger brother. "How'd you find that out?"

"I talked with Naruto-kun," Gaara stated simply.

Temari sighed. "You're making me look bad, Gaara," she complained. Then she shrugged. "I'd probably be able to get something out of Sakura-san if I could talk to her, but she isn't going anywhere for the obvious reasons."

"She has started using shadow replications to train with Naruto-kun," Gaara commented.

"Oh." That was that weird solid clone technique Naruto used, wasn't it? They could operate that independently? That was kind of creepy.

Kankuro chuckled. "Too bad that lazy kid isn't here," he said. "I'm sure you could get plenty out of him."

Temari stared at him. "Don't be stupid."

Baki leaned forward, folding his hands in front of his face. "That's enough of that," he said firmly. "What about the Rock, Kankuro?"

The puppet user sighed, giving Temari a look that she knew meant further teasing later. Seriously, where had he gotten the idea that she and that annoying Shikamaru kid were in any sort of relationship? Did he think she secretly had some sort of messenger weasel summon ferrying love letters back and forth?

"Nothing new on that front," Kankuro began his report. "Kurotsuchi-san is training the two on her team in the finals hard. They had a joint training session with Satetsu's kid a couple days ago. That's about the most interesting thing they've been up to. Fortunately, she doesn't seem to care one way or another what happens to Gaara."

The younger boy didn't say anything, so Temari asked for him. "Has Chiyo-sama budged at all, Baki-sensei?"

"No," Baki said sourly. "She's a stubborn old bitch, and we have to humor her on this because she is our best sealing expert."

"I will not allow the extraction," Gaara said, "on her whim alone."

Kankuro grunted. "We weren't about to let her get close enough to try," he said.

"It's not something we need to worry about," Baki said, "at least so long as there aren't any more… incidents. Otokaze and Satetsu are both against it, neither the Rock or the Leaf are pushing, and Chiyo can't even get her own brother to commit to supporting her on an extraction."

Temari grimaced. "Not because he's on our side, I'm sure."

"I suspect that Ebizou's objection, and that of the rest of Chiyo's faction, is that they want Gaara's power available in case the war expands," Baki said. "Even if Chiyo was willing to perform another sealing, it would be a decade before the new container was usable."

Temari frowned. "That's a person you're talking about, not a weapon," she complained. "Well, a hypothetical person."

Baki sighed. "You know I don't feel that way, Temari, but they do."

There was silence. "We need a Kazekage," Gaara said after a while.

"That would help," Baki said, "but the council is still deadlocked."

Temari grunted. "After all this mess, I wouldn't want any of those three to take the job."

"I was feeling like that half a year ago," Kankuro said with a snort.

"Who else?" Gaara asked simply.

Temari glanced at her other brother, then the two of them turned to look at Baki. "No," their teacher replied. "I'm not interested or qualified."

"If you say so," Kankuro said. Before anyone else could say anything, the whole building shook. "An explosion?" Kankuro asked.

Temari almost leaped from her stool, racing over to the window opposite the door, beside Baki's desk. A pillar of smoke rose over the Sand Village, only a few blocks away from the council building, and Temari tried to figure out the source.

Baki cursed. "That's Satetsu's house!"

"I'm going," Gaara said. Temari glanced back just in time to see the swirl of sand dissipating. There was a gust of wind, and Baki was gone also. It was disgusting how much chakra those two had.

"Come on," she snapped at her other brother, jumping out of the window. She landed in a crouch on the street and broke into a run, not bothering to see if Kankuro followed.

She reached the pile of rubble that had been Satetsu's home only a minute later, in time to catch the tail end of the fight. Gaara stood with his arms crossed in the middle of the street, sending sand crashing down from all directions at a cloaked figure.

There was a loud band, and the sand scattered, freeing the man, who jumped up onto a nearby rooftop. Temari wasn't able to stop from gasping. "Otokaze-sama?" she asked in disbelief. She wasn't sure he'd be a good Kazekage, but she couldn't imagine him stooping to this. She readied her fan.

Before she could strike, her teacher appeared behind the other man. "Blade of Wind," he intoned. His hand chopped at Otokaze's neck.

Otokaze laughed. "You're too late, Baki," he said, and then his form wavered for an instant before vanishing completely.

"Genjutsu," Baki snarled, jumping down to stand beside Gaara. Temari walked up to them, followed a second later by Kankuro.

"After he escaped my sand," Gaara said, then he turned his attention to the smoldering ruin, sending sand pouring into it, displacing piles of rubble. A few moments later, he pulled out a still form.

Temari paled as she saw the broken remains of Satetsu. This was incredibly bad. Baki knelt down as Gaara gently deposited the corpse on the ground, reaching out to close the eyes. "Ancestors watch over you," he whispered, then he stood. "Are there any survivors trapped in there, Gaara?" he asked loudly.

More ninja were starting to gather, attracted by the commotion.

"I am looking," Gaara said. Sand continued to pour through the rubble, snuffing out the small fires.

There was a slight thud, and Temari looked back to see Yuura landing behind her and Kankuro. "What happened, Baki?" the young council member asked. Then he seemed to notice Satetsu. "Ancestors, no," he said, his voice sick.

"I'm afraid so." Baki frowned, but before he could say anything, Gaara spoke.

"There." A hand of sand formed, lifting and pushing aside a large section of roof.

A woman stood, cradling a smaller form. More sand wrapped around her, picking the two up and bringing them out safely to the street.

"Kanon!" Yuura exclaimed. "You're safe!" The dark-haired woman nodded.

"Is Matsuri-chan," Baki began, looking at the girl in her arms.

"I put her to sleep with a genjutsu," Kanon said softly. "To help hide from him."

"I'm so sorry, Kanon," Yuura said. "I… Otokaze had said some things, but I didn't think… I'm sorry." Temari swallowed. He'd been Otokaze's biggest supporter on the council, hadn't he?

Kanon glanced down at her husband's body, visibly steeling herself. "I'm sure you would have stopped him if you'd known."

Baki nodded firmly. "Yuura," he said commandingly. "Get to the gates and seal them. Send teams to all the secret entrances. We don't want Otokaze getting away."

"Of course," Yuura said, and then he was gone.

Kanon placed her daughter on the ground, then knelt beside her husband, her eyes wet with unshed tears. "Why?" she asked.

"Damn," Kankuro said quietly.

"I don't know," Baki said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Kanon stood, her eyes suddenly dry. "I don't understand why Yuura would be working to frame Otokaze."

Temari blinked. "Wait, what?"

The woman gave her a look like this was the academy and Temari was a slow student. "Otokaze and Satetsu are…" She paused for a moment, and Temari winced in sympathy. "They were close friends. He would never have done this. Even if things had secretly gotten that bad, he's far too smart to do something this counterproductive." She paused again. "And he would never have tried to kill me or Matsuri. Never."

"I know," Baki rumbled. "Damn it, what's Yuura up to?"

"Umm… not to doubt your expertise," Kankuro said, "but those sure looked like Otokaze's techniques."

Kanon grimaced. "That I can't explain," she said. "But it wasn't him."

Baki nodded to himself. "I think I know who. Temari, Kankuro, Gaara."

"Sir?" Temari asked, standing up straighter.

"One of you get to Otokaze's apartment. Quickly, before anyone else thinks to look there. Chiyo is going to play stupid and push this for all its worth, damn her. Find him, get him hidden. I don't care where. Then get me Jiraiya. I don't care what Sarutobi-san says, get him. And someone get a protective detail on the Rock in case someone decides to stir up more trouble."

"Yes, sir," Kankuro said, breaking into a run. "I'll hit the Rock."

"Otokaze," Gaara said, vanishing in a whirl of sand.

Temari took a deep breath before racing off in the direction of the Leaf's guest house. When she took a look back, she saw Kanon breaking down, Baki awkwardly placing a hand on her shoulder. Temari's face hardened, and she increased her speed. She wanted some answers herself.

Week Eight

Sakura was woken from her morning nap by a loud knocking on the door to her bedroom. Yawning, she rubbed at her eyes with her good hand, then said, "Come in!"

The door opened and Shizune stepped inside. "Hello, Sakura-chan," she said calmly as Hinata followed her into the room. "I hear you got into a bit of trouble."

"Shizune-sama!" Sakura exclaimed. "I didn't know you were coming today." She nodded her head at Hinata. "Hinata-san." The Hyuuga heiress nodded back.

"I just arrived not ten minutes ago. Sorry for taking so long," Shizune said. "I was on a mission when Jiraiya-sama's message arrived, and it took a while longer to arrange everything." She walked up to Sakura's bedside and pulled the covers aside.

"Did Hokage-sama say whether… my father would be able to come?" Hinata asked as Shizune started to examine Sakura.

"With the situation as it is, he didn't feel that was wise," Shizune answered. She probed Sakura's stomach, and the younger woman barely flinched. "Jiraiya-sama did a good job with this," Shizune said, "but let's finish it up, shall we?" Her hands glowed green for a moment.

Sakura shivered, then took a deep, pain free breath. She had almost forgotten what that felt like. "Thank you, Shizune-sama," she said.

Shizune smiled and lightly hit the top of her head. "I've told you before, there's no need to call me that. We're both Tsunade-sama's students."

Sakura flushed. "Yes, Shizune-sempai," she said, and Shizune's smile widened a moment before vanishing.

"Now the arm," she said, lifting up Sakura's injured arm. "Hinata-chan, if you don't mind."

The other girl formed a seal. "Byakugan!" She paused. "It… it looks better than before, I think. Maybe it is healing on its own?" She fiddled with her hands. "I'm not a medical ninja."

"So long as you don't see any fire chakra still pooled in it," Shizune said. "That would be bad." Hinata shook her head, and Shizune laid Sakura's bad arm back down on the bed. She pointed at a spot on Sakura's forearm. "Is this where the damage is worst?"

Hinata hesitated. "I… think so?"

Shizune nodded. "This is going to hurt, Sakura-chan," she stated. Sakura steeled herself, then gave Shizune a slight nod. The older woman placed her hands on Sakura's arm. They began to glow a deep, bright green that hurt to look at.

Then Sakura was biting back a scream, and her vision wavered from pain. It hurt worse than she'd hurt injuring her arm in the first place, and it seemed to last forever. Then Shizune briefly flooded the arm with cool, soothing chakra, before removing her hands. "There," she said, wiping sweat from her brow. "Hinata-chan, if you'd confirm for me?"

"It… it looks normal now, Shizune-sama," Hinata said, a little awe in her voice. She relaxed her eyes.

Sakura flexed the arm, making a fist. She felt a little sore, but otherwise normal. "Thank you, Shizune-sempai," she said.

Shizune smiled. "You won't be thanking me once I pass on Tsunade-sama's lecture," she warned. "Hold off on using fire element techniques for another day or so, but you're otherwise good to go. It was already healed most of the way, thanks to time and Jiraiya-sama."

Sakura nodded, but the mention of Tsunade's reaction made her pale. Her teacher was not going to pleased that Sakura had kept trying to develop a technique she had rejected as too dangerous, much less that Sakura had actually tried to use it in combat. Maybe her anger would die down before Sakura made it back to the Leaf Village. Maybe.

"All right," Shizune said. "We're going to leave you to get dressed. Join us downstairs as soon as you can; we've got a lot to talk about."

Sakura nodded again, and as soon as Shizune and Hinata left she almost leaped out of bed. She had the blurry, fragmented memories of the shadow replications she'd made to train with Naruto, but that was different than actually getting to move about on her own. She found her uniform neatly folded away in her dresser and quickly clothed herself. When she stepped out the door, putting on her fingerless gloves, she found Naruto waiting outside in the hallway.

He grinned at her. "Now we can really get started with training," he said.

Sakura snorted. "Give me a little while first, idiot. I still need to take it kind of easy."

"Come on," Naruto said, heading for the stairs. "Everyone's waiting."

Everyone was indeed gathered in the front room. Jiraiya glanced up at Sakura as she came down the stairs. "I told you Shizune-chan would have you fixed in no time," he said cheerfully.

Chouji smiled at her from where he sat on the couch next to Asuma, who snuffed out his cigarette. "Good to see you well, Sakura-chan," he said. Leaning on the wall, Kurenai just gave her a slight nod.

Someone had pulled the chairs from the kitchen into the room, and Sakura and Naruto sat down on two of them. Unfortunately, this put Sakura next to Ami, but the purple-haired girl thankfully didn't say anything.

Standing at the front of the room, Shizune coughed, getting everyone's attention. "First things first," she said briskly. "By order of Hokage-sama, I am taking over as her representative for the Chuunin Exams and taking command of this mission." She paused, glancing at Sakura. "This isn't any sort of judgment on you, Sakura-chan," she said, "it's just that -"

Sakura cut her off with a wave of her healed hand, a slight thrill passing through her at the easy movement. "I understand, Shizune-sama," she said. "The situation is much more volatile than we expected."

"Yes, about that," Shizune said. "Anyone want to explain why the Sand have the whole village on lock-down and wouldn't let my ANBU escorts into the country? I didn't think things were that bad."

Everyone shifted, and Sakura realized they were all looking at her. "Damn it," she said, "I was in bed when it happened, even if I was technically in command. You report it, Asuma-sensei. I'm not taking responsibility for this mess."

Kurenai chuckled, and Asuma sighed. "This doesn't sound good," Shizune said worriedly.

Jiraiya stood. "I'll explain," he said shortly. He ignored Asuma's muttered thanks. "You're familiar with what we've reported regarding the three factions at work here, Shizune-chan?"

"Of course," Shizune said. "Otokaze of the Explosion leads a faction favoring a strengthening of the Sand's alliance with us. Satetsu of the Bleeding Crow favors an alliance with the Rock. And Chiyo of the Red Sand opposes both alliances."

"Good enough," Jiraiya said. "Until a few days ago."

"What happened?" Shizune asked.

"Satetsu of the Bleeding Crow was assassinated," Jiraiya said shortly, "by a man witnesses identified as Otokaze of the Explosion."

Shizune cursed. "Why was he so stupid?"

Jiraiya sighed. "Come on out," he commanded. There was suddenly a new presence in the kitchen that Sakura hadn't felt before, and Otokaze walked into the front room.

"I apologize for the inconvenience," he said, bowing slightly to Shizune. "I am Otokaze."

Shizune stared at him. "I can see why no one wanted to take responsibility," she said angrily. "Why the hell are you idiots hiding him?"

"Easy, easy, Shizune-chan," Jiraiya began.

"It was not me that killed Satetsu," Otokaze explained. "He was my friend."

"It doesn't matter," Shizune snapped. "If you're found here -"

"Nothing will happen," Jiraiya said. "We're keeping him here at the request of the head of the Sand's Council of Elders. I agreed to it under my authority."

"Why?" Shizune asked. Sakura leaned forward curiously. She hadn't gotten a straight answer from him about that.

Jiraiya glanced around. "There's too many people here," he said. "Let's deal with anything else public first."

Shizune nodded. "That's all for now, unless someone else has some bombshells to drop on me."

Suzume Namida stood from where she had been sitting quietly. "Ami-chan, Fuki-chan, Shinta-kun," she said to her team. "We have the training ground this morning. Let's go use it."

As they trooped out, Jiraiya looked around. "Okay," he said. "Akimichi-kun, Hyuuga-kun," he said. "I'm afraid I need to ask you to leave us for a few minutes. This isn't something you need to know about."

Kurenai stood away from the wall. "Asuma-san will inform me if you say anything new," she said. "Hinata-chan, Chouji-kun. We can't use the training ground, but I can work with you on genjutsu defenses upstairs." She led the two genin out of the room.

Jiraiya sighed as he looked around, then sat on the couch next to Asuma. Otokaze gave Naruto and Sakura a look. "Should those two be here?" he asked

"Naruto deserves to know, and he'd just tell Sakura-chan," Jiraiya explained. He glanced at Shizune and the Sand ninja. "Have a seat, you two." He smiled suddenly. "There's another reason for Sakura-chan to be here, anyway. If you don't mind?" he asked the pink-haired girl. It took her a moment to figure out what he meant, then she formed seals and activated her anti-eavesdropping genjutsu.

"All right," Shizune said as she sat down next to Sakura. "What's this about? It isn't like you to get unnecessarily involved in this kind of mess, Jiraiya-sama."

"I don't think this assassination was about Sand politics," Jiraiya said simply. "It was probably Akatsuki."

Naruto stirred. "What?"

"Why do you think that?" Shizune asked.

Otokaze answered her. "The assassin was able to imitate my distinctive explosive techniques," he said. "Jiraiya-sama and I briefly fought a member of that organization who used similar techniques."

"I was there too," Naruto interjected. "That guy… Deidara?"

Otokaze nodded. "Indeed."

Shizune buried her face in her hand. "That's just what I need," she said. She looked at Naruto, then at Jiraiya.

"If Otokaze-kun doesn't know by now, he's stupid," Jiraiya said.

Otokaze glanced at Naruto. "I assume I am in the presence of the host of the demon fox Kyuubi."

Naruto shifted uncomfortably, and unthinkingly Sakura reached out and grabbed his hand. He gave her a weak smile before answering. "Right," he said.

"Why are you still here?" Shizune asked Jiraiya bluntly. "If they're poking around looking for Naruto, you should never have entered these exams in the first place."

"Because I don't think they are after Naruto this time," Jiraiya answered. "At least not this Deidara." He glanced at Sakura. "You look like you want to say something."

Sakura hesitated before asking her question. "I… I haven't been fully briefed on… on Akatsuki," she said. "I know they're after… they're after Naruto, but not much else. What motive would they have to get involved in the power struggle here?" she asked.

Otokaze nodded to her. "I suspect that the target this time is Gaara of the Desert," he said. "Or rather, Shukaku."

At Sakura's blank look, Naruto whispered to her, "That's the name of… the demon," he said. Sakura nodded in understanding.

Otokaze continued. "Thanks to… certain incidents, Chiyo has been advocating extracting the demon from Gaara-kun," he said, "but Satetsu and I had been blocking her." He grimaced. "Now we are both out of the picture," he continued. "I expect that Akatsuki plans to take the demon once it is extracted and stored in its vessel."

"Vessel?" Naruto asked.

Jiraiya sighed. "A tea kettle," he said simply. "Don't ask."

"Is there any immediate danger to Gaara-kun?" Shizune asked.

Otokaze shook his head. "Baki tells me Chiyo's backed off some," he said. "She isn't interested in dancing to anyone's tune, and she's too smart not to realize a new player is manipulating things."

Shizune frowned. "It sounds like it's still Akatsuki's move," she said unhappily. "You're keeping Otokaze hidden so they won't realize we're on to them, but we don't have any leads."

"We know, or at least suspect," Jiraiya said, "that this Deidara is active in the Sand Village," he said, "and we have a lead on someone we think is their agent on the Sand's council."

Otokaze grimaced. "I can't believe Yuura would be a traitor."

"You'll have to explain how you know that later," Shizune said. "I begged off to see to Sakura-chan, but I need to go meet with the council myself as soon as possible to formally take over as Tsunade-sama's representative for the exams."

Jiraiya nodded. "Have fun, Shizune-chan," he said cheerfully.

"Watch out for Chiyo, Shizune-sempai," Sakura added. "She's holding some sort of grudge against Shishou."

"Thanks for the warning," Shizune said, standing. She sighed. "I can already tell I'm going to have to earn this A-rank pay, aren't I?"

"Did we really just do that?" Sakura asked Naruto, her voice shaking a little.

Naruto laughed. "That's not even the biggest one we've made," he said happily. "Don't you remember the time we almost hit Ero-sennin?" Jiraiya had made him spend the whole next day working on reducing the strength of his wind techniques, but it had totally been worth it.

"Oh yeah," Sakura said. "I guess I do." She shook her head. "Shadow replications are weird. How did you wind up learning a technique like that before we were genin, anyway?"

Naruto blinked. He never had told anyone about what had happened with Mizuki after he'd failed the graduation exam, had he? "Eh, it's sort of a long story," he said. "I'll tell you some other time."

"Okay," Sakura said easily. "Again?" she asked Jiraiya, watching them safely from behind.

The legendary ninja frowned. "It took you two four tries to get the timing right," he said, "and we're not really making much progress on control. I was hoping more of the training we did with your replications would carry over."

"Sorry," Sakura said. "It's… I remember, but it's not the same."

"Don't worry about it, Sakura-chan," Naruto said. "We'll have this down again in no time."

"It's fine," Jiraiya agreed. "Like you said, Sakura-chan, shadow replications are weird. Useful, but weird." He smirked. "You should have seen this idiot when he tried to use them to train on five different things in one day."

"Ero-sennin!" Naruto protested, wincing at the reminder of that. Thanks to mixed-up memories, he'd tried performing the Fireball Technique with earth-natured chakra, which turned out to fail in a particularly embarrassing way. Sometimes he thought that incident was why he'd never really succeeded in learning fire element ninjutsu.

The back door to the guest house creaked open, and Asuma stuck his head through. "Is it safe to come out?" he asked. "Or are they still making uncontrolled firestorms?"

"What do you want, Sarutobi?" Jiraiya asked bluntly.

"We have… guests, Jiraiya-sama," Asuma said. "I would have turned them away, but they mentioned a certain organization and said they had word for you."

"Who?" Jiraiya asked.

"Kitakami Ichizo and Rui," Asuma replied. "From Snow Country." Naruto blinked. He'd almost forgotten they were in the Sand Village for the exams, with everything that had been going on since the second exam. Why were they talking to Jiraiya about Akatsuki?

"Send them on back here," Jiraiya said.

Asuma nodded and left, and a few minutes later the two ninja from the Snow Country entered the training ground. Naruto waved at them. "Ichizo-san, Rui-san!"

The girl nodded back at Naruto, but her brother had eyes only for Jiraiya. "I've received word back from the clan, Jiraiya-sama," he said without any introduction. "We've confirmed that it isn't just an agent. There's an Akatsuki member active in Snow Country, or at least someone wearing their cloak."

"Either way, someone to be concerned about," Jiraiya said. "Who?"

"We don't know," Ichizo said with a grimace. "He's not one of the three we met; second-hand reports are that he wears a marred Rain forehead protector. We don't have a good description yet, unfortunately."

"Do you have any description at all?" Jiraiya asked. "You must have something if you know what sign he wears."

Ichizo pulled out a scroll and handed it to Jiraiya, but Naruto was distracted from his initial impulse to go over for a look when Rui walked up to him and Sakura. He smiled at the girl in the white kimono, and she smiled back. "Naruto-san, it's good to see you again." She nodded to Sakura. "You too, Sakura-san." Sakura gave the other girl a polite smile, but didn't say anything.

"Are you training hard for the finals?" Naruto asked her. "Who are you fighting anyway? I forgot."

Rui smirked. "I am somehow unsurprised," she said, drawing a glower from Naruto. She laughed. "I am fighting Tomari-san from the Sand, and then either you or Hyuuga-san from your village in the second round."

"We do have plenty of copies of the tournament bracket, Naruto," Sakura reminded him.

"Eh, whatever," Naruto said with a shrug.

"So, what kind of training have you been doing?" Rui asked.

"Sakura-chan and I have been working on using my wind element ninjutsu to power up her fire element," Naruto explained happily. "You should have seen it!"

Sakura sighed. "You realize that she's trying to get an advantage if you fight," she said.

Naruto looked her. "Well, yeah," he said. "But our training really doesn't matter for that. It's not like you can fight with me in the finals."

"I suppose not," Sakura said. She suddenly snickered. "Unless I transformed my shadow replication into a dog and we convinced them you were secretly an Inuzuka."

Naruto laughed. "That'd be hilarious!"

Rui smiled slightly, but then her face turned serious. "So you use wind element techniques?" When Naruto nodded, she continued. "I seem to recall that your uncle… err, Jiraiya-sama, was teaching you water element techniques when you traveled with us."

"That's right," Naruto said with another nod. "I'm not super-good at them, but I know a couple."

Rui nodded herself, glancing back at where her brother and Jiraiya were talking quietly. "I'm guessing that there is a chance that you and Jiraiya-sama may be returning with us to Snow Country after the exams," she said. "If that is so… I, we owe you a great debt, Naruto-san. If you are interested, I may be able to arrange for you to receive training in ice element techniques while you are in our country."

Naruto's eyes widened. "That'd be awesome!" he said. "Thanks!"

He suddenly stumbled forward as Sakura lightly punched the back of his head. "Be more polite," she said. "That's an extremely generous offer." She looked at Rui. "Exceedingly generous."

"I owe Naruto-san a lot," Rui said weakly. "Our whole country does."

Naruto could feel his cheeks heating. "It wasn't that big a deal," he muttered. "I was just trying to get back together with Ero-sennin."

"And in the process you helped me defeat the missing ninja who destroyed the Snow Village," Rui stated. Naruto just shuffled his feet at that. Anyone would have done that.

"Rui-san," Sakura said, "speaking of ice element techniques… there's a question that's been bothering me for a while, since I learned more about elemental ninjutsu." She paused. "Don't feel like you have to answer."

"I understand," Rui said. "Ask. I won't be offended."

"From what I've read," Sakura said, "elements beyond the common five are extremely difficult to master, barring special cases like Bloodline Limits. It takes jounin-level stamina and chakra control. But from my understanding of the history, the entire Snow Village was specialized in ice element techniques." She paused. "Based on Naruto's story," she said quietly, "you must have been extremely skilled."

"Rui-san's ice techniques are awesome!" Naruto exclaimed.

"They were," Rui said darkly.

Naruto blinked. "Rui-san?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

She sighed. "I suppose Jiraiya-sama never told you what I explained to him," she said. "I can no longer use ice element techniques."

Naruto swallowed. "Why not?"

"It is… tied up in the answer to Sakura-san's question," Rui answered hesitatingly, "which is… was… will be a secret of the Hidden Snow Village."

"I apologize for asking, then," Sakura said.

Rui shook her head. "Do not," she said. "And Naruto-san already knows the answer, anyway."

"I do?" Naruto searched his memory. "Oh, the thing with the snow maidens."

"The thing?" Sakura asked.

Rui snickered. "The Snow Village signed a contract with the snow maidens," she said. "Under that, they granted all of the Snow ninja the ability to easily use ice element ninjutsu." Her face turned dark. "When that contract was broken, so was the strength of the Snow Village."

"I see," Sakura said.

"To answer your question, Naruto-san," Rui continued. "Part of the price of my own contract with the snow maidens was that, once my grandmother was dead, I would lose all ability to use ice element techniques."

"Oh," Naruto said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Rui replied. "I made the contract with both eyes open."

Jiraiya and Ichizo seemed to be finishing their discussion. "Those are the things I think he might be looking for," Jiraiya was saying, "and all of them are troublesome."

"Tell me about it," Ichizo said. "Any help I can provide, I will give." His hand went up to brush the hilt of the massive sword strapped to his back. "You may recall that the Kitakami are good at holding grudges."

Jiraiya nodded. "You know how dangerous this organization is, Ichizo-san. Don't take stupid risks."

Ichizo nodded. "Thank you for seeing me, and sharing what you know."

"Likewise," Jiraiya replied.

Rui smiled at Naruto and Sakura. "I should be going, then," she said. "Good luck with your training."

"You too!" Naruto replied.

"I'll see you two out," Jiraiya said, and he lead the two ninja from Snow back into the guest house.

"Should we try that technique again?" Sakura asked Naruto.

His mind was on something else. "You know, Sakura-chan," he said, "I hadn't really thought about it, since I've been busy, but there's a lot of people we know in the exams that I haven't really had a chance to talk to." He paused. "Like the team from Rock," he said. "You met them in Rice Field Country, right? And we both know the team from Waterfall too."

"A little, I guess," Sakura said.

Naruto paused, then said. "I'd like to go talk to them. The Waterfall in particular, although the Rock also."


"The third member of their team," Naruto said. "Fuu."

Sakura shuddered. "I talked to her a little. She was… creepy. And she hurt Rui-san's teammate, didn't she?"

"Yes," Naruto said. He hesitated, then added. "I think she's like me," he said. "Or Gaara."

Sakura's eyes widened. "Oh."

"I need to talk to her," Naruto said. "We should go out to see them, once we're done training. And we can go see the Rock too." He grinned. "I want to see if Akira has a chance of making it far enough that I can beat him up."

"That's a really, really bad idea," Sakura told Naruto firmly. "We can't just go running all over the Sand Village. Even if Jiraiya-sama went crazy and let you go, Asuma-sensei would have a heart attack about me."

Naruto shrugged. "Shizune-neechan took over, didn't she? There's no reason for anyone to try to kill you any more." Right? "And if anyone tries I'll beat them up too!"

"Idiot," Sakura replied. "Just because… look, there's still at least three different reasons why whoever it is might still try to get me. And you…" she trailed off, glancing around.

"So what?" Naruto asked. "I can't stay locked away for the rest of my life. I'm not going to be scared of them."

There was a puff of smoke, and Jiraiya appeared perched on top of one of the training ground's abused boulders. "What are you two arguing about?" he asked.

"Naruto wants us to go visit his friends in the Rock team," Sakura answered, "and the Waterfall."

"Fuu, huh?" Jiraiya asked. Naruto nodded, and the legendary ninja looked thoughtful for a minute. "Good idea, Naruto," he said. "I approve."

Beside him, Sakura twitched. "What?" she asked loudly. "It's dangerous! There are… people after him! He can't just -"

"And you too," Jiraiya agreed easily with a smile. "But don't worry about it. I'll guard you, and then we can only hope that our enemies are dumb enough to try something in broad daylight in the heart of a Hidden Village." His grin turned nasty. "And I won't be dumb enough to just send a shadow replication either."

"Asuma-sensei," Sakura protested weakly, but Jiraiya interrupted her again.

"I'll handle Sarutobi," he replied. "That young fool is over-reacting because he wasn't paranoid enough before. At this point, he's almost endangering the mission by offending our hosts."

Less than half an hour later, Naruto was walking with Sakura down the streets of the Sand Village, heading for the guest house where the Rock team was staying first, on Jiraiya's advice. He couldn't feel his teacher's presence, but he trusted him when he said that he would follow them.

Someone came running out of a side street, and it took Naruto half an instant to recognize her. "Temari-san," Sakura said in greeting, and Naruto echoed her a moment later.

"Uzumaki-san, Sakura-san," the fan user said as she fell in beside them. "Is something wrong?" Her eyes went to the direction they were traveling in.

"No," Sakura said.

"We're just seeing some friends," Naruto added.

"Friends? The Rock?" Temari asked.

"Sure," Naruto replied.

The Sand kunoichi looked at Sakura. She sighed. "It's true," the pink-haired girl said. "Naruto trained with that genin team in Earth Country."

"Really?" Temari asked, giving Naruto a strange look. "That's unusual."

"Ero-sennin has lots of friends," Naruto replied. "I've trained in Earth Country, and in the Cloud Village, and here in Wind Country with the Howling Moon Tribe. And lots of other places too."

"Somehow I won't be surprised if it turns out you trained with the Mist too," Temari muttered.

Naruto shook his head. "Ero-sennin said that the Mist were paranoid, xenophobic idiots."

"Not idiotic enough," Sakura said darkly.

Temari suddenly slapped her fingers. "That reminds me," she said. "I'd been meaning to ask you, Sakura-san. After that bingo book entry from the Rock for you got spread around -" She paused as Sakura groaned, and Temari grinned. "Sorry, but I took a look at ours for you also."

"Hey," Naruto interjected, "have you got an entry for me?"

"Nope," Temari said cheerfully. Then her face stilled, and she added more seriously. "Gaara didn't… we didn't spread the details of your fight."

Naruto frowned as he considered this. "I understand," he said after a moment. "Thanks." He felt Sakura place a hand on his shoulder, and he smiled at her.

She smiled back and released him. "You said you had a question for me?"

"Yeah," Temari said. "Your entry referenced the exams where you passed, and I took a look at those to see who else I know from the… you know, passed. The finals had another Haruno in them, listed as from the Mist. Was that a mistake, or what?"

Sakura's face fell, and Naruto winced. "Haruno Midori. Not a mistake," she said simply.

"Oh," Temari said. "Missing ninja's kid?"

Sakura clenched her fists, and now it was Naruto's turn to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. "That would be me. Sort of," she said bluntly. Naruto knew her mother hadn't been a missing ninja, but a Mist spy. He could more than understand why Sakura didn't want to go into that, though.

"Oh," Temari said. She opened her mouth as though she was about to say something, then shook her head and shut it.

They traveled the rest of the distance in silence, and when they reached the Rock's guest house, Kankuro was sitting in front of the door. "They're training down the street," he said as he stood, leaning on the head of his wrapped puppet for a moment before slinging it onto his back. "I'll lead the way."

The route passed by the Sand's academy, where Naruto had taken the first exam, and a short distance away they found the Rock team at a training ground. Inside, Gonkuro was sparring with a grim-faced Sand kunoichi Naruto vaguely remembered from the preliminary fights. Hadn't she been the one to eliminate him?

The Rock jounin was standing with the rest of her team, watching the fight and conversing with a tall woman wearing a Sand forehead protector.

Temari paled as she saw the Sand woman. "Maybe this wasn't a great idea," she said, but before anyone else could say anything, one of the Rock genin turned to see them.

"Hey, it's Leaf boy," Akira said. He raised a fist. "Come to lose to me?" Naruto grimaced. Akira was really, really annoying.

The Rock jounin nodded to the two Sand escorting Naruto and Sakura, then turned to the Leaf ninja. "Haruno-san," she said. "I'm glad to see you healed."

"Thank you," Sakura murmured. "Your assistance was appreciated." In the distance, the spar came to a sudden halt.

She laughed. "It was nothing." She turned to Naruto. "Uzumaki Naruto, huh? I don't think we've formally met, but I think I spied you a couple times at Hojo's estate, and I've certainly heard enough stories about you." She smiled. "I am Kazu Kurotsuchi."

"Leaf boy," Mako, the kunoichi on her team," said suddenly. "You owe me a jacket."

"Huh?" Naruto asked.

"My favorite jacket," Mako explained. "You stole it from me when you left Hojo-sensei's place, remember?"

Naruto flushed. Was everyone going to remind him of that stupid disguise Jiraiya had made him use? "Sorry," he muttered.

The third member of their team walked up behind her and grunted. "Be polite, Mako-chan," Gonkuro chided, then favored Naruto with a nod. He'd always been the one paired with Naruto when they'd sparred in two person teams. They'd won almost every time, too.

The Sand woman who had been talking with Kurotsuchi frowned at Naruto and Sakura. "What are you doing here?" she asked.

Sakura stepped forward, glancing at Naruto. "Naruto is friends with the Rock genin," she said, "and he wished to visit with them."

The woman nodded. "I am Kanon of the Bleeding Crow," she said simply.

Sakura winced. "I am sorry for your loss," she said.

The woman just shook her head slightly. "Matsuri and I will be going," she said to Kurotsuchi, and without further word she lead the Sand girl who'd been fighting Gonkuro from the training ground.

Kurotsuchi pulled out a stop watch. "You all have five minutes to catch up," she told her team. "If Uzumaki wants to stay longer, he'll have to join in the training."

Sakura gave Naruto a slight shake of her head, and he nodded back at her. He wasn't that stupid. He wound up chatting with the three Rock genin while Sakura talked about something with Kurotsuchi, and five minutes later Temari was leading them away, toward where the Waterfall team was staying.

"You look upset, Sakura-chan," Naruto commented.

She looked at him and sighed. "I guess," she said. "I just wish I knew whether that woman really thinks I am some sort of powerful jounin or is just mocking me." Temari laughed, and Sakura glared at her.

The Waterfall were staying in an apartment on the top floor of a building a fair distance from the center of the village, which Naruto didn't really think was fair when the Rock and Leaf had been given guest houses. What was up with that? Temari spoke briefly with a masked Sand ninja, then lead them to another training ground, smaller than the one Naruto had been using or the one where they'd just met the Rock.

The Waterfall team was taking a break, Maya and Ikkei sitting together and drinking water, but Naruto didn't pay attention to them, seeking out the third member of their team. The green-haired girl was seated, curled up into a ball, in one corner of the small training ground, staring at her teammates. Naruto took a step forward, but before he could go further a man in a Waterfall uniform appeared in front of them.

"I believe I recognize you two," he told Naruto and Sakura, "but I don't recall your names." It took Naruto a few moments to place him as the commander of the fort in Waterfall Country he and Jiraiya had briefly stayed at. "I am Matsuyo Nissho, jounin of the Hidden Waterfall."

Sakura introduced them, and asked, "Have we met?"

"I don't believe I've been introduced to you, Haruno-san," he said. "I was acting as jounin commander for Arata, Maya, and Ikkei in the exams where Arata-kun and you passed." He paused. "What do you two want?"

"We just wanted to stop by and say hello," Sakura replied.

The man nodded and stepped aside. Maya and Ikkei had stood and come over, and exchanged greetings with Naruto and Sakura. "Thanks for your help in the second exam, Naruto-san," Ikkei said. "I wonder what the real way to get those fangs was supposed to be."

Naruto shrugged. "Doesn't really matter," he said. Then he looked over at where Fuu still sat. Their eyes met for a moment. "Hey, Fuu-san," he called out. "Come over so I can say hello!" He didn't miss the nervous look that passed between Maya and Ikkei, and he guessed Sakura didn't either, because she took a step closer to him.

Fuu didn't move, instead looking over Naruto's shoulder. He glanced backward in time to see Nissho finishing a short nod. Fuu stood and walked over to join the conversation. "Hello, Fuu-san," Naruto said, smiling widely.

Fuu stared at him impassively. "Hello, Naruto-san," she said in reply. Naruto wondered if he should be feeling something from her. Then again, Gaara really didn't really feel any different from anyone when he was being… not evil.

Beside him, Sakura smiled too. "It is good to see you again, Fuu-san," she said, although Naruto thought it sounded a little forced.

A searching expression appeared on Fuu's face. "Sakura-san," she said finally. "Hello." She glanced past them again at Nissho. "They are still allies?"

"Yes," Maya answered quickly before her teacher could say anything.

Fuu nodded and turned to leave. "Hey, wait," Naruto protested. She paused.

"It's fine, Fuu," Nissho said. "Maya, Ikkei, take her back to the apartment."

"What?" Ikkei asked. "We're still supposed to be training until -"

"Go!" Nissho snapped. Naruto started to say something, but a look from Sakura stopped him. When the Waterfall team was gone, Nissho stepped in front of Naruto and Sakura again. He could feel Temari stir from where she'd been waiting outside the training ground. "Why are you so interested in Fuu… Jiraiya-sama?" he asked.

There was a puff of smoke, and Jiraiya appeared next to Naruto. "Hmm," he said. "You're more observant then you were when we met, I think," he said easily.

"You let me see you," Nissho said. "Now, answer me."

"If she is what I think she is," Jiraiya said, "there are things in motion you need to know about."

"I have no idea what you are talking about, Jiraiya-sama," the Waterfall jounin said firmly, "and I must rejoin my team." He formed a seal, and then he was gone.

"Damn it," Jiraiya said.

"I barely even got to talk to her," Naruto complained.

"She doesn't like to talk," Sakura said. "And they don't seem inclined to let her learn how to."

"It's not right," Naruto said.

"It isn't," Jiraiya agreed. "Remember that if you ever wonder why the Third made the decisions he did." Naruto stared at his feet for a moment. Jiraiya sighed. "I'm sorry, brat," he said. "It was clear from the start they weren't going to let you talk to her alone. I was hoping maybe I could at least warn them about you know who."

"You think… they are after her too?" Sakura asked, her voice sick.

"It's possible," Jiraiya said.

"Who are you talking about?" Temari asked as she joined them.

"Ask your teacher. Or your brother," Jiraiya said. "They'll tell you if you need to know." He sighed. "Let's head on back."

Naruto grimaced as they started to leave. The whole point of this trip had been to get to talk to Fuu, and it had failed. He knew that she was like him, like he could have been. She maybe wasn't as bad as Gaara had been, but she was hurting. He wanted to help her. Jiraiya wanted to help her too. Why wouldn't they let him?

He could feel Sakura looking at him, and then she spoke. "Temari-san," she asked, "before we go back… is there anywhere nearby that sells ramen?"

Naruto looked up, and she smiled weakly at him. He forced a smile back at her. Ramen, that was always the answer. "It better be a good place," he said, forcing Fuu from his mind for the moment. "You won't believe how awful the stuff they call ramen up north is."

At Jiraiya's urging, Shizune allowed Suzume Namida's team to utilize one of the other training grounds offered by the Sand. This greatly improved Sakura's mood, as the mousy-looking jounin kept her team, and most importantly Ami, out of the guest house almost all day long. The training ground attached to the house was still shared between Jiraiya and Kurenai. The legendary Sannin used it to train Sakura and Naruto in the mornings, before he headed off into the village to do whatever else it was he did. Sakura preferred not to think about that.

Now that Shizune had taken over, Asuma worked with Chouji in the afternoon. Kurenai had her turn with Hinata after an early dinner. Tonight though, she and Asuma were away, guarding Shizune while she dined with someone it probably would have been Sakura's job to deal with before. It really was a relief, not having to worry about the politics anymore. Once she was done dealing with the dishes - it was her turn this evening - Sakura settled down with a biography of the First Kazekage that Otokaze had recommended, and made her way through a couple chapters before she thought to wonder what Hinata was doing, since Kurenai wasn't around to train with her.

She found Hinata out on the training ground, or rather, she found two of the Hyuuga heiress there. One of them stood behind a line of kunai, plunged into the ground, and was throwing them in a constant stream at the second. The target deflected each weapon with an open-palmed strike, and Sakura thought that she could see flashes of chakra in the gathering darkness as the second Hinata blocked the first's attacks. A variant on the Heavenly Spin?

Sakura waited at the edge of the training ground, knowing that the two Hinata could see her even if the other girls didn't turn to face her. After a moment, the Hinata that was attacking vanished in a puff of smoke. The real Hinata fell to her knees, panting heavily. "Sakura-san," she acknowledged once she had caught her breath, though she still didn't look directly at Sakura.

"Hinata-san," Sakura replied, stepping into the training ground. "You're training hard." Hinata didn't reply. "What were you working on?"

The other girl didn't answer at first, then said shortly, "Endurance training." She paused, then added, "I want to be able to use Shadow Replication Technique well without a soldier pill."

"It looked like you were working on some sort of defense too," Sakura commented.

Now Hinata turned her head to look at Sakura, her silver eyes hard. "N… Naruto-kun doesn't need… your help to beat me."

Sakura winced. She'd always felt that Hinata didn't like her very much, but she didn't think she deserved that sort of suspicion. "I wasn't trying to spy on you," Sakura replied, struggling a little to keep her voice calm.

"Then what do you want, Sakura-san? I don't have time to waste."

"I just wanted to see if you wanted someone to spar with or anything," Sakura answered. "Since Kurenai-sensei had to go with Shizune-sama this evening."

Hinata looked away. "I don't have time to waste getting beaten up either."

Sakura blinked. "What the hell are you talking about?" she asked. "I'm not some sort of bully. I just want to help, if I can." She paused. "Besides, the last time we sparred, you trounced me." That was not an experience she fondly remembered.

"And a month later, you almost beat Neji-niisan in the exam finals," Hinata said quietly. "And you've kept getting stronger and stronger since then. I've watched you train with Jiraiya-sama and Naruto-kun.

"I'm not like you, Sakura-san," Hinata continued before Sakura could reply. "You managed to change yourself. You've become so strong, you train with the Sannin, and… and… Naruto-kun sees you and… I'm not… I can't…" She trailed off, and Sakura tried to think of something to say to that, but before she could Hinata spoke again. "My… my father asks after you sometimes."

"What? Why?" Sakura asked, surprised at both the sudden change of subject and Hinata's words. Had she ever even met Hinata's father? She supposed she must have seen him about the Hokage's office from time to time, but she didn't think they'd ever been formally introduced.

"You… you're the Hokage's apprentice," Hinata said, "and unattached to any clan, and father knows you get along with Neji-niisan when you work together." She slowly stood, her fists clenched, but she still didn't face Sakura. "You… you are probably someone he would not mind becoming part of the Hyuuga Clan, if it could be arranged."

Sakura's mind reeled at that. A marriage into the Leaf's most powerful clan? Ridiculous, even if she thought of Neji like that. Hinata kept talking, her voice getting louder as she continued. "But I'm always too weak," she said. "No matter how much I change or how hard I work. I'm never like Neji-niisan, or Hanabi, or you, or… N-Naruto-kun. I'm never good enough. I'm always the failure." She shook. "I have to do better this time. Or -" She cut off.

"This… this isn't just about the exams," Sakura said after a moment. "Is it?"

Hinata bowed her head. "No," she said softly. "You… you know about the branch family," she said, "and their seal?"

"Yes," Sakura replied quietly. She swallowed. "If… if you don't pass this time, then…"

"I think so," Hinata said. "I've… I've already failed too many times. Against Neji-niisan the first time. Against you and Ino-san the second. Against Shino-kun last time, in Grass." Even though she didn't turn around, Sakura could almost feel Hinata grimace. "To fail as a rookie, against the greatest prodigy the Hyuuga have produced in generations, is acceptable." Her voice had changed, and Sakura thought she might be quoting her father. "To fail a second time can be understood. To fail, publicly, a third time, is a disappointment. To fail a fourth time, is unacceptable for the heir to the Hyuuga." The last words were almost spat out, an anger alien to Sakura's usual perception of Hinata as a quiet, polite girl filling them.

"Hinata-san," Sakura began, but she couldn't find any more words to say.

"That's why I have to do better this time," Hinata said. "I have to show him that I'm not a failure. I have to -" She cut off, her head snapping up.

Sakura tensed. "What is it?"

"They're back," Hinata said. "Baki-san is with them. He's very upset. Something is going on." She paused. "You should go."

"Hinata-san, I…" Sakura wasn't sure what she should say.

"Go," Hinata insisted, and Sakura took the excuse and went. A few minutes later, the awkward conversation was driven from her mind when Baki explained what had happened.

"Gaara's been poisoned," he stated bluntly once the group concerned with Akatsuki had gathered in the kitchen and Sakura had used her anti-eavesdropping technique. "With a fatal Leaf poison, according to Chiyo-sama. She's moving to extract immediately, and I'm not going to be able to hold her off for much longer."

"What?" Naruto asked. Leaning against a wall in the corner of the room next to him, Jiraiya just cursed.

Otokaze, seated next to Sakura, looked like he wanted to kill someone. "She wouldn't go that far, would she? To force an extraction?"

"I don't know if it was her," Baki said, "or Yuura. Or this Deidara." He paused. "Technically, I don't know if it was any of you, either."

"What the hell are you saying?" Naruto demanded. "Gaara's my friend. We wouldn't -"

"Easy, brat," Jiraiya said, and Naruto calmed himself.

A thought occurred to Sakura. "Did… did Chiyo say what the poison was?"

"Night lotus extract," Baki answered. "Why?"

Asuma snuffed out a cigarette on the countertop. "That's the one she asked you about, isn't it, Sakura-chan?" he asked. "At that party before the exams started." Sakura nodded.

"Night lotus extract?" Shizune asked. "We haven't used that for decades."

"Well, someone is using it," Baki said sourly. "Do you know the antidote?"

"There isn't one," Shizune said. "At least, not an effective simple one. That's part of why we stopped using it. Too many accidents on our side that the medical ninja couldn't get to quickly enough. But this isn't a battlefield. If it's night lotus extract, I know the treatment."

"Will you help him?" Baki asked.

"Of course," Shizune said, standing.

"Good. Chiyo will bark at us, but I'll handle her. If you can save Gaara-kun, it'll shut her up for a while. I'll take you to where we're keeping him."

"There's no time to waste," Shizune said. "Sakura-chan, with me."

The pink-haired girl stood. "Yes, Shizune-sempai."

Chiyo stared at the ruin of what had been her surgical puppet with mild annoyance. It would be the work of weeks to repair the device, and longer if she decided to reinforce it to better withstand dangers like the uncontrolled sandstorm raging around the fallen container. The sample she'd sacrificed her tool to get was almost as useless as the wreckage, too, except for identifying the primary poison. Damn that slug woman and all her work, and that cursed extract most of all. She hated that poison enough that she'd sabotage her own desires and save the container if she could.

Was that why the Leaf had done this? She couldn't very well save its life and then demand that the council let her destroy it a week later. Even with Otokaze and Satetsu out of the picture, that would make her a laughingstock on the council. A ninja, a Kage, should be ruthless enough to do what had to be done, even if it meant letting a patient die, and the container was no innocent patient. She should never have let her interest in this poison show to the pink-haired slug girl.

She ignored the hiss as the sand struck the sickly green light of the barrier surrounding the bed that the container was secured on and the grunts of exertion from the six chuunin maintaining it. This room and its seal-work were over a century old, designed by the Second Kazekage to provide a place where Shukaku's host could safely sleep. She had no worries that it would suddenly fail.

What did worry the old woman was sorting out the Leaf's motives. It didn't make any sense. They should be eager for the container who had so provoked them to be out of the picture, and for Shukaku to be unavailable for years. The poison was too slow-acting to be an honest attempt to destroy the container with the demon still inside it. Either they were trying to force her to save the container, or they had chosen a particularly stupid way of helping her muster the votes for the extraction. They could have just leaned on Otokaze after the container had tried to kill the slug girl and she would have held her nose and cooperated with them to do it. So that probably wasn't the motive.

But if they wanted to save the container, why? They had no reason to wish that. Unless… the old Kazekage's children had always been somewhat evasive about how the container had been defeated during the failed invasion of the Leaf Village. Had the Leaf somehow suborned the container?

Chiyo glanced through the barrier at the container's shaking form, horror gnawing at her gut. If it was obedient to the Leaf, if the rivalry with the slug girl was a sham or an artifact of some hold she held over the container… then the Leaf had been keeping the deadliest of weapons right over the Sand Village's heart for over a year, patiently waiting for the Sand to try to assert their independence. If that was the case, if the container was compromised, the demon had to be extracted immediately.

The doors to the chamber opened, and Chiyo felt her face harden as Baki stormed inside, followed closely behind by the two slug girls. The young one looked about in a decent imitation of awe. Chiyo ignored her, focusing her ire on the temporary head of the council. "What's the meaning of this, Baki?" she demanded.

"Shizune-dono knows the treatment for this night lotus extract," Baki answered. "She has agreed to help Gaara-kun." His eyes narrowed. "As the boy's guardian," he said, "and as the head of the Council of Elders, I have accepted her aid. Do not interfere."

"She can tell me the treatment," Chiyo answered, keeping her voice calm, but her mind was racing. If the slug girls cured the container, it would save it for now, but it wouldn't tie her hands like it would if she was the one to cure it. What was the meaning of this? Might the Leaf not be behind the poisoning? Were they honestly just trying to save the container? Nonsense!

"I am afraid the treatment is too complex to be taught quickly, Chiyo-dono," the older, dark-haired slug girl answered. "And it involves several secret medical techniques of the Leaf Village. Night lotus extract is not a trivial poison to treat."

"I'm well aware of that," Chiyo snapped. "Do you even know how many of our ninja I watched die under my care thanks to your master?" Her only son and his wife, dead before their time, leaving her with her young grandson. Her greatest failure.

"That was then," Shizune replied calmly. "This is now. I will save his life, if I can. Hokage-sama would do the same if she were here." Chiyo let out a disbelieving grunt, but Shizune ignored that. "Do you have an analysis of the poison?" she asked. "It has been many years since the Leaf used night lotus extract, and I am not sure how age might have effected it." Implying that it was someone with a captured sample from the war that did the poisoning. The slug girl was clever, to reflect suspicion back on Chiyo.

The old woman grunted, and gestured at the rickety wooden desk in a corner of the room, where she'd left her notes. The slug girls bowed to her - what arrogant mockery - and walked over to inspect them. Chiyo grunted and turned back to her ruined puppet. Let them think she was ignoring them.

"Was this you?" Baki asked her sharply, but softly enough that the Leaf would not hear.

"Don't be ridiculous," Chiyo replied. "Unlike some on our council, it seems, I am no traitor."

"What do you imply?"

Chiyo laughed. "You know my thoughts on Otokaze and Satetsu. You've warned me about Yuura-kun." She favored the slug girls with a glare. "Sometimes I'm not too sure about you, either."

Baki grunted. "We disagree about the best path for Gaara-kun." His eyes were hard, she noted with approval. "We do not disagree in our love for this village, and I'll ask you not to insult me in such a manner again."

Chiyo laughed. "As you wish," she said, and then she returned her apparent attention to the puppet, and her real attention to the Leaf pair.

The pink-haired girl was just watching and asking questions, while the older one did the work. Maybe she really didn't know about night lotus extract, then. How soft was the slug woman with her apprentice if she hadn't mastered antidotes to all the Leaf's poisons by now?

The older woman straightened and turned back to them. "Chiyo-dono," she said, her voice respectful. "It seems as though the night lotus extract has been modified from the formula my master developed, and combined with at least one other poison."

Chiyo looked up from her puppet. "I suppose so," she said. "What of it?"

"Did you identify the other poison?"

"Not enough sample remained," Chiyo answered, for the moment almost forgetting she wasn't working with one of her own students in the Sand's hospital, "and acquiring another is non-trivial."

Shizune nodded. "I believe I have a hunch," she said. She glanced at the younger Leaf. "Do you have the chakra for a summon, Sakura-chan?"

The girl nodded. "I thought that composition looked a little familiar. Yes, Shizune-sempai."

The older woman stepped forward, walking over to Chiyo and Baki. "With your permission, I will obtain an additional sample. Will the wards interfere with a summoning?"

"If I had my way," Chiyo said, "this whole village would be warded against your slugs." The pink-haired girl made an odd face, and Chiyo frowned.

"Which means no, it won't," Baki translated.

Shizune stepped up to the flickering green barrier, watching the sand beat against it. "Is this one way?" she asked the chuunin seated cross-legged next to her.

He glanced at Baki, who nodded, then answered. "It's keyed to Sh… to Gaara-kun's power, ma'am. It should not affect you or any of your techniques."

"Very well." Shizune straightened, visibly steeling herself. "This will take just a moment, then." Chiyo abandoned her pretense of poking in her surgical puppet's insides to watch, curious what the slug girl was about to do.

The woman formed a rapid set of seals, too fast for even Chiyo to follow, then stuck out one open hand, almost touching the light of the barrier. A wound opened on her palm, blood oozing out, slowly at first, then flying away. Ribbons of blood danced through the air, encircling the barrier. "First-Level Emergency Field Sealing Method," Shizune grunted. "Demon-Banishing Procedure!"

The blood encircling the barrier formed glowing characters which pulsed like a heartbeat, then rapidly flew through the sandstorm and formed chains to bind the container. There was a pulse of malign power, then another, weaker one, and then the sand dropped to the ground, still. Chiyo's eyes widened slightly, but that was the only sign she made that she was impressed.

Shizune wavered, but then stood straight. She held out a hand. "Sakura-chan, syringe." The pink-haired girl pulled one out of a pack she was wearing on her back, and after taking it Shizune calmly walked into the barrier, stepping over the sand. She reached Gaara, took his blood, and exited the barrier in less than a minute.

That was almost too long, as mere instants after she passed through the green light again, a new wave of killing intent leaked from the container, and the sand resumed its attack on the barrier with redoubled fury. Shizune looked almost like she wanted the collapse for a moment before she hid her weariness. "Your turn, Sakura-chan," she said lightly. Chiyo grimaced. She hated those damn slugs almost as much as she hated the slug woman.

The pink-haired girl nodded, pushing aside the bandages she wore on her arms to reveal a dark marking. Chiyo grunted in surprise. That couldn't be what it looked like, could it? The girl bit at her thumb and smeared blood over the marking, pressing that arm to the stone floor. "Summoning Technique."

She was surrounded by smoke for an instant, and then a large, gray snake was coiled about her. A snake summoner? Tsunade's new apprentice was a snake summoner? What madness was this? Surely the slug woman hadn't reconciled with her old teammate!

The snake wore a Leaf forehead protector around its neck like a collar, and its tongue flicked out once before it spoke in a feminine voice. "What is your bidding, my mistress?" it asked.

Chiyo's eyes widened. Who was this girl, to have dominated a member of that notoriously independent spirit court so thoroughly? The girl just laughed. "I've told you a hundred times not to call me that, Seseki."

The snake laughed back at its summoner. "But it makes Anko squirm so nicely, Sakura," it said lightly.

"She's upset enough that you agreed to become my personal summon after you'd been working with her for years," Sakura replied.

The snake laughed again. "She never asked," it replied, "and you said please!" Chiyo shook her head. Either this was the strangest snake spirit ever, or Manda had been letting his standards slip over the last decades.

Shizune just chuckled. "We need your help, Seseki-san," she said. "I have a blood sample from a boy that's been poisoned with an elaborate cocktail. We think it might be partly snake venom."

Seseki glanced at the contained sandstorm. "Him? Interesting. Give me a taste." Shizune handed Sakura the syringe, and she squeezed a drop of tainted blood onto her summon's outstretched tongue. The snake closed its mouth and let out a happy, disturbing noise, before speaking. "I see," it said. "There's a lot of other stuff in there, but I think I recognize the venom." It hesitated. "Yes, that's Nure-sama's taste, all right."

"Nure-sama?" Sakura asked.

"She's a nasty old snake, one of Manda's consorts," Seseki replied. "I'm not powerful enough to make an anti-venom for her." The snake paused, then added, "The only one I know who she has let summon her is Orochimaru."

The whole room went silent at that revelation, except for the hiss of sand beating on the barrier. Shizune cursed softly. "That last thing we need is another player in this game," she said, and Chiyo didn't think she knew she spoke out loud.

"Do you need me for anything else? Maybe to bite someone?" Seseki asked, and when Sakura shook her head, the snake turned and licked the girl's cheek with its forked tongue, then vanished in a cloud of gray smoke.

Everyone was silent for a moment longer, then Baki spoke. "Can… can you still help him?" he asked, letting an unseemly amount of desperation into his voice.

"I don't know," Shizune said softly. "Even the night lotus extract has been modified, without accounting for the other poisons. I can definitely prolong his life, and try to develop a treatment, but… it won't be easy. I'll need to send the composition of the poison back to Hokage-sama."

"You'll have every aid we can give -"

Chiyo cut Baki off. "No, she won't."

"Chiyo," the man almost growled.

"You've let your attachment to the container consume you, Baki," Chiyo said. "If we don't intend to lose the demon, we need to start the extraction before the container's chakra coils weaken too much. We don't have time to let the slug girl waste weeks failing, even if I trusted the Leaf enough to let them do that."

Baki's eyes were hard. "You don't have the votes."

Chiyo knew her gaze matched his. "We shall see."

"She had the votes," Baki said grimly. "That cold-hearted bitch called in favors I thought she would save for the final vote to nominate the next Kazekage, the threat of losing the demon permanently scared her followers into line, and Yuura swung enough of your faction to support her, Otokaze."

"Damn it," the nominal fugitive cursed. "Maybe I should have showed up after all."

"Chiyo would have had you arrested before you could say 'hello,'" Baki said sourly. "It wouldn't have done any good."

The kitchen of the Leaf's guest house was once again home to a meeting that would have been unusual were they not unfortunately becoming routine. This time Baki had brought Temari and Kankuro along, but the two siblings had been quiet, immersed in their own thoughts.

On the Leaf's side of the room, Shizune cursed loudly. "I've been working on a treatment," she said, "but it isn't going to be something I can just slip in and give Gaara-kun."

"She's going to kill him?" Naruto asked softly.

Baki bowed his head. "I'm afraid so."

Naruto slammed a fist into the kitchen table. "I won't let that happen. Who do I need to beat up?"

"Naruto!" Sakura said. "We can't solve this like that."

Asuma wasn't smoking for once, as he stood by the door leading out to the training ground. "We can't afford to act openly either. We have to prioritize preserving the alliance over the boy."

"Ninja who don't take care of their friends are worse than trash," Naruto countered angrily. Sakura looked conflicted for a moment, but then nodded firmly.

"It isn't always that simple," Shizune said sadly. "We have to think about our friends back home too."

Jiraiya, who had been quietly watching the conversation, leaning against the wall opposite Asuma, spoke. "This isn't our decision," he said.

"Ero-sennin!" Naruto protested.

"Shut up, Naruto," Jiraiya said sharply. "The boy is your friend, but he's their brother," he gestured at Temari and Kankuro, "and Baki-san's student. This is their village. If you want to be Hokage, you have to realize that your desires don't always come first."

"This isn't about what I want," Naruto protested. "Gaara doesn't deserve to die." He glared at Baki and Otokaze. "You have to do something."

Baki bowed his head. "I want to," he said softly. "But I cannot."

"Baki-sensei!" Kankuro shouted. "The annoying brat is right! We can't just let that bitch kill Gaara. I'll fucking kill her first."

"And what will you do then?" Otokaze asked. "Become missing ninja? Defect to the Leaf and restart the war your father wanted?"

"If this village will let her kill my brother," Temari started, but then she trailed off. "But you wouldn't take us, would you?" she asked Shizune. "That would start a war between the Sand and Leaf. As missing ninja, we'd be killed within a month, or these Akatsuki would get Gaara anyway."

Shizune looked away. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Let's not get too depressed," Jiraiya said lightly. "I have no intention of letting that old crone play right into Akatsuki's hands. Gaara-kun can defend himself. A tea kettle is a sitting duck just waiting for some bastard in a red and black cloak to pick it up, and a baby would be even worse." He stepped away from the wall, and for a moment every vestige of the harmless, playful old pervert he usually acted as was gone, and the man feared throughout the world as one of the legendary Sannin shone through. "Shizune-chan," he said, his voice soft but no less commanding for the tone. "What would you need to cure the boy? And what are the odds?"

"I… I'd need a hospital, or at least a well-equipped medical facility. I'd need at least a week, possibly more, uninterrupted. I'd need access to the Sand's herb gardens for materials." Shizune hesitated. "The odds… no worse than three in five."

"Better than I feared," Jiraiya said. His gaze turned to Baki and Otokaze. "This is not my decision," he said. "But if you ask it, if you can provide Shizune-chan what she needs, we will try to save him." None of the Leaf protested. "I won't tell you the details. You don't need to know.

"But be warned. My aid does not come without a price." Naruto started to protest, but a glare from Jiraiya actually silenced the boy. "I want full access to every report you have on Akatsuki," he said. "I want full copies of every record that crone made of the seal she put on Gaara and any previous seals that were used on the previous successful hosts. I want every bit of research the Sand have on the demon and its containers."

"You don't come cheaply," Baki said softly.

"I'm not done," Jiraiya said. "I don't intend to have to come back here every time that boy stubs his toes. If Chiyo isn't neutralized to my satisfaction at the end of this, I am taking the boy with me."

"Jiraiya-sama," Shizune protested. "You can't… it would be an act of war."

"You're the boy's guardian and the head of this damn village's council," Jiraiya said to Baki, ignoring Shizune. "If it comes to that, you'll approve it as a long-term mission, and make sure that it stays approved." He paused. "And one of you two will be with us when we rescue the boy to take the fall if things go to hell."

Baki bowed his head. "Baki-sensei," Temari said.

He looked up. "Otokaze," he said.

The younger Sand ninja nodded once. "I'm already wanted for treason," he said. "I might as well do something to earn it."

"Thank you," Baki murmured. He stood. "It's a shame the council does not trust me on to handle this matter, or I would have informed them that the orders for the extra guards on Gaara's sleeping chambers expire in two days. The council might also be concerned that the secret exit in the reservoir caves will be manned exclusively by ninja still loyal to Otokaze that same evening. Or that the medical safe-house in Sector Three-D outside the village is unmanned, since the guards have been called away for exam security. But my hands are tied.

"Shizune-dono, I regret to inform you that all diplomatic functions between now and the exam finals have been canceled due to the situation. My apologies." He stood, and without further word stalked out of the room. A moment later, they heard the front door of the guest house slam shut behind him.

The was silence for a moment, and then Temari bowed deeply to Jiraiya. "Please, Jiraiya-sama. Save Gaara. Anything I can do…"

"Anything?" the old ninja asked lecherously, relaxing as he leaned against the wall.

"Ero-sennin!" Naruto roared. Beside him, Sakura buried her face in her hands.

Temari looked angry for a moment, but then she laughed. "Thank you, Jiraiya-sama," she said. "The medical safe-house will need to be prepared," she continued. "I can take you there as soon as you're ready, Shizune-sama." The woman nodded.

Kankuro grunted. "I've got access to the herb gardens, to make my poisons," he said. "Tell me what you will need."

"I have a list," Shizune said.

The puppet-user nodded. "As for the rest of you, if you happen to get a chance to kill that old bitch while you're doing this, feel free." He smiled angrily. "Just save any puppets you can and give them to me."

"Kankuro," Temari said warningly.

Jiraiya clapped his hands. "All right," he said. "I have a plan. I'm going to need four volunteers. Well, three and Otokaze." He smirked. "If Baki had been stupid and offered to come himself, I'd have needed to insist on you." Otokaze nodded slowly.

"I'm coming," Naruto said.

Jiraiya sighed. "I knew it," he said. "Fine. You've actually got more relevant experience than anyone else here." He glanced at Asuma.

The jounin nodded once. "All right."

"We'll want a genjutsu user," Jiraiya said. "I suppose we can call in Yuuhi-san -"

"If Naruto is going, I'm going." Sakura's voice was firm.

Jiraiya scratched at his head. "I haven't had time to test you on genjutsu, girl. How good does Danzo say you are?"

Sakura smiled grimly. "I'm not totally incompetent, on my good days."

Jiraiya laughed. "That's good enough for me, then. We'll see if you can learn the genjutsu you need in two days."

"I might already know it, or a similar one," Sakura asked. "What do you need?"

"Something to beef up everyone's chakra presence, so they'll seem too dangerous to mess with."

Sakura's hands moved through seals. "Demonic Illusion - Murderous Purpose," she intoned, and a wave of obscenely powerful killing intent swept the room for just an instant.

Jiraiya nodded. "You're in, girl," he said.

"What will you be doing, Jiraiya-sama?" Shizune asked quietly.

"I'm going to be keeping that old crone busy," he answered. "She's been aching to get her hands on a copy of Naruto's seal since I started talking with her." He smiled grimly. "I've got some partial drafts that will keep us talking for a week."

"So, what's the plan?" Naruto asked.

"Do you remember how that Kabuto kid lured you away from Hojo's estate?" Jiraiya asked. Naruto thought for a moment, and then he grinned. "We're going to pin the blame on someone who deserves it, and maybe focus the Sand council's attention where it needs to go," Jiraiya continued, and then he began to go over the plan in detail.

Author's Random Rambling

1) Originally this chapter was going to cover Week Nine also, letting the next chapter start with the exam finals. Then I got a look at the size of this thing (23,000 words!), and I decided this was a good stopping point. It'll help me shore up some problems I was having with the next chapter, too.

2) Oddly enough, I believe Satetsu may be the first canonical character I've killed in One Hundred Days/Weeks. (Yep, he's actually nominally canonical. So is Otokaze. Hooray for bit characters with names.) I suppose I did technically kill poor Oonoki, but he wasn't canonical when I killed him, so I don't think that counts.

3) As always, thanks go to everyone who commented on the draft of this story on The Fanfiction Forum.

4) Next time, in One Hundred Weeks, Chapter 4: For A Friend, Jiraiya's plan goes into action. The fate of Gaara of the Desert and the Hidden Village of Sand hangs in the balance, and neither Chiyo nor Akatsuki are going to give up without a fight. And speaking of fights, the Chuunin Exam finals are only a week away!

5) And with that out of the way, I would like to announce that I've recently (foolishly?) started another Naruto fanfiction, entitled Dead Garden and available on this site. If you've enjoyed One Hundred Days and One Hundred Weeks, I imagine there is a decent shot you'll enjoy this one too, so I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think!

Draft Started: June 14, 2011
Draft Finished: July 10, 2011
Draft Released: July 11, 2011
Final Released: July 14, 2011