A/N: Here's the second-to-last chapter in this arc, and then everything will begin to converge in Konoha. I know my updates are slowing up, but please be patient – come summer, I'll be focusing only on writing, which means updates almost every other day. Until then, I hope this will tide you over. Also, if you haven't already, I urge you to check out some of my other stories, many of which I think are coming out just as good or better than Rise of the Uchiha.

That's it for now, so please read and review!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 30

Contrary to what many people believed, Might Guy was not a fool. He was a highly capable jounin, and his skills of observation were as finely developed as his taijutsu… or close to, anyway. Therefore, when he encountered something that he didn't understand, it usually meant that there was something important going on underneath the surface.

Guy knew that his own appearance was one of his greatest weapons, as it usually caused other shinobi to write him off as an oddity, someone who could be overlooked. Sometimes that made him angry, especially when it was his Eternal Rival, Kakashi – Guy cut off his thought there, not wanting to think about his absent friend and rival.

The point was, Guy knew a mystery when he saw one, and Naruto was a mystery. The boy housing the Kyuubi was Madara's adopted son, and so no matter what his real parentage – and Guy had his suspicions on that score – Uchiha Naruto was an enemy to the Rebellion. What with the demon inside of him, he was probably their most dangerous enemy except for Madara himself. But Guy simply could not reconcile Naruto's status with the way the young man had been acting on this mission. He had stopped General Fugaku from torturing Guy, standing up to Madara's right-hand man as if he hadn't been the least bit scared. If Guy's instincts could be trusted, Naruto might have Flames of Youth to rival even Lee's!

However, this sneaking suspicion was by no means justified. To make an informed decision, Guy would need more opportunities to observe young Naruto and gather appropriate intelligence.

That was why Guy had been waiting so patiently for an opportunity to talk to Neji alone. The Hyuuga branch member, though psychologically damaged and not as youthful as Lee, was nevertheless a keen observer. If anyone could offer useful observations on the Hokage's heir, it would be Neji.

That afternoon provided the first opportunity since the two teams had departed from Konoha. They were close to the border with Amegakure, and General Fugaku decided to take Naruto on a scouting trip, leaving Guy behind to watch the genin.

Akemi and Tenten had immediately begun sparring, followed seconds later by Rock Lee and Takeshi. The two kunoichi appeared to have quite the rivalry, as they were fighting full-speed with razor-sharp katana. Guy applauded their youth even as he hoped that neither would seriously injure the other… but he had to say, Tenten's ability to keep up with a chuunin-level sharingan user brought joy to his heart. He had taught her well!

Guy spared a second to watch Lee as well. The boy he had raised and trained was smiling more widely than Guy could remember seeing in a while. He was matching his nunchaku against Takeshi's fascinating chakra-fueled claws, and the two of them were coming dangerously close to destroying their campsite.

All in all, the atmosphere was completely different from what Guy had expected in the beginning of the mission. While certainly not friendly, his young students were displaying a surprising eagerness to fight the Uchiha. Guy had a feeling that Naruto was behind the transformation, and he was determined to find out how.

Guy approached Neji, who was in charge of preparing dinner that evening. The Hyuuga genius was using his byakugan to keep an eye on the covered pot of water hung over their fire – he would be able to tell when it was about to boil. Guy stretched with exaggerated enthusiasm before taking a seat next to his pupil.

"Ah, Neji!" he said, his booming tone disguising his interest. "I see you are preparing a delicious meal for us tonight!"

Neji spared a moment to stare at him drily. Guy coughed, embarrassed. Neji never seemed to want to exchange pleasantries. Well, then… straight to business it was.

"I have been meaning to ask you," Guy said, lowering his voice considerably, "about-"

"About Naruto?" Neji replied before he could finish. Ah – his student had always been sharp, Guy thought ruefully.

"That's right. He is… not what I expected. I was wondering if you might share any observations that you've been able to make. General Fugaku has been keeping too close an eye on me for there to be much time for independent assessment."

Neji watched the pot for a few seconds, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Well," he said at last, "he claims he wants to get rid of the Seals."

Guy rocked back on his heels. Whatever he'd been expecting, it certainly wasn't that.

"He's been attempting to create camaraderie between us and his team, although his teammates, particularly Akemi, don't necessarily agree with him. Recently, he… convinced us to spar all-out, although at first I instructed Lee and Tenten to hold back."

"How did he convince you?" Guy was intrigued. Neji was not one to be manipulated into giving away any information he wanted to keep secret. After years of suffering under the Uchiha, he was capable of withstanding almost any torture without cracking. Guy would know – he had been training his squad in secret for many years, determined that they would be as prepared as he could make them when the inevitable showdown between the Uchiha and the Sealed shinobi came to a head.

"He… took me by surprise," Neji admitted bitterly. "I lost my cool when we were sparring, and attacked with a lethal Jyuuken strike. It hit him in the midsection, lacerating several organs and entirely shredding his stomach. I was watching with my byakugan, and I could see the organs begin to knit themselves back up in less than a second. Red chakra began flowing around inside his body, and before I knew it he was at full fighting capacity again. Instead of punishing me for the attack, he merely demanded that I get Lee and Tenten to fight to their full ability."

Guy could only stare at Neji. How could Neji, the boy who had ice in his veins, have lost his cool to the extent that he sent a lethal strike at the Hokage's son? It could have cost him his life, not to mention Guy's and the rest of their team's lives, too. Naruto must have provoked him extremely effectively, which meant his skill with psychological manipulation was something to be reckoned with.

Then there was the physical regeneration. For Naruto to come back from a blow that should have killed him, and to do it so quickly and apparently effortlessly, meant that he had control over his demon to a degree that spelled bad news for any of his enemies. If Naruto was an Uchiha in his soul, then the Rebellion had a second obstacle every bit as unpredictable as Madara.

But then, Neji said that Naruto wanted to get rid of the Seals. Guy couldn't take that on faith, of course, but the possibilities were fascinating. Guy desperately wanted this mission to be over, so that he could send a message to Jiraiya. This was something the Toad Sage needed to know.

For now, however, there was nothing to do but continue to observe, and to make sure that everyone made it back to the village in one piece. Amegakure had an unsettling reputation, for all that no one really knew what was going on in the village, or even who its leader was. Guy would lead his team, and continue to watch Naruto and evaluate him. Anything else was a problem for another day, and Guy did not remain as youthful as he was by worrying about what he couldn't change.

Later, when Fugaku returned to the campsite with Naruto, the General gathered both teams together. He looked around at all of them, lingering on Guy just a fraction longer.

"We'll be at the border in two days," he told them. "I don't know what reception we are to expect, but we must be ready for anything. Naruto will give the orders for the duration of our mission, and the chain of command is me, and then Guy. Let's do this right, and forge another alliance for Konoha."

"Yes, sir," Guy chorused along with the genin, and with an effort he kept from betraying his hatred by any twitch of his face or hands. He had a duty to perform, and it wouldn't happen if he threw himself headlong at the man who had tortured his Eternal Rival.

Patience, Guy told himself, for the millionth time. I'll kill this bastard for you, Kakashi, but only when the time is right. In fact, I hope you're there to watch while I do.

oOoOo

When Hinata awoke, her head was ringing like a bell tower. She tried to bring her hand up to her forehead, but she found that both her arms were strapped to her sides with thick leather strips. She was lying on a flat wooden surface, which felt warm against her back. Hinata tensed, preparing to lash out with a blast of chakra from her tenketsu points.

"Hold it!" came a voice from behind her, sounding feminine and vaguely annoyed. "There's no need for that. I was just trying to make sure you didn't start thrashing around while I healed you."

Hinata knew that voice… she fought the foggy feeling inside her head, trying to connect that voice with a face. Then a woman's face framed with blond hair loomed overhead, rendering her efforts unnecessary.

"You!" Hinata gasped, recognizing Tsunade.

"I'm afraid so," Tsunade replied drily. "Now, if I release your arms, will you lie still like a good girl or will I have to knock you out again?"

Hinata was too startled to respond, but Tsunade cut her loose anyway. Hinata flexed her arms, then rubbed her wrists to try and restore full circulation.

"I thought… I thought you killed me," she said at last. She forced herself upright, fighting against the urge to activate your byakugan.

There was an unreadable expression in Tsunade's eyes. "I decided not to… for now. I also decided to take a look at that seal on your forehead… you can thank me later. For now, just eat and restore your strength. We've got a long night ahead of us."

Hinata's brain raced to catch up with her situation, which seemed much less bleak than it had only moments ago. Tsunade hadn't killed her, and even appeared to be willing to help… Hinata didn't know if it was her own words that had convinced the Sannin, or if Jiraiya had come through, but either way she was grateful.

Speaking of Jiraiya, where was the lecherous old man? Hinata looked around, taking in her surroundings. They were in a small, one-room hut, with a tiny stove and kitchen area, a cot, and a few chairs ringing the table on which Hinata was currently sitting. Jiraiya was standing at the stove, his back to the two kunoichi, and even as Hinata began to watch him he started humming a silly little tune.

"Jiraiya's on kitchen duty," Tsunade said drily, "so be careful. He's been known to burn water, you know."

"I strongly protest that accusation!" Jiraiya called out without turning around. "I am the Great Toad Sage, master of the thousand culinary arts of Mount Myoboku – just be happy that I'm not serving stewed blisterfly tonight. That one always goes over great with Gamabunta…"

Hinata still felt as though she had wandered into someone else's dream, and fresh waves of pain continued to flood her skull, but her stomach decided to take a stand. It let out a huge growl, alerting everyone to the fact that Hinata was, indeed, extremely hungry.

Tsunade stifled a snort, and shooed Hinata off of the table. "Move it, girl, you're sitting where our food needs to go."

Hinata jumped away, instinctively placing the table between herself and Tsunade. There came a quiet creak, and the front door of the cabin swung open. Shizune entered, carrying a load of wood. Behind her was Tonton the pig, proudly clutching a small twig with his curly tail.

Shizune smiled widely at Hinata, and gave her a reassuring wink. "So you're awake! I'm so glad to make your acquaintance, you know… officially. I'm Shizune, Tsunade's apprentice."

"Pleased to meet you," Hinata responded automatically. "I'm Hinata."

"Enough with the pleasantries," Tsunade snapped. "Let's eat. I want to get back to examining that Seal before night falls."

Startled, Hinata brought her hand up to her forehead, where her Seal burned at her touch.

"Don't fiddle with it," Tsunade barked. "I've been delving it with chakra while you were unconscious. I had to wait until you woke up to do anything serious, because I need you to have full control over your chakra. Don't want any surges from your tenketsu disrupting my jutsu, now, do we?"

"Dinner's ready!" Jiraiya interrupted happily, and in a few seconds the table was set for four, and a meal that smelled surprisingly tasty was laid out before them.

All four of them were ravenous, and they fell on their meal right away. Jiraiya managed to talk even while eating, so the burden of sustaining the conversation fell mostly on him. Tsunade was gruff and terse, only responding with one-word answers and the occasional swift slap to the back of Jiraiya's head. Shizune seemed to sense Hinata's confusion, because she made a point of smiling at her from time to time, but made no attempt to draw her into conversation.

Near the end of the meal, Tsunade fixed her attention on Hinata. The intensity of her focus was enough to trigger Hinata's mental alarms, but beyond tensing her muscles, she stayed still.

"You're probably confused," Tsunade said abruptly, "and I know why. You're asking yourself, 'why is this talented, smart kunoichi helping me when she was so adamantly opposed to the idea earlier?' Well, the answer is this: stupidity is contagious."

Jiraiya laughed uproariously, drawing a glare from Tsunade that seemed to lack much venom. She continued, "I have agreed to help remove your Seal. I don't know what you're going to do after I've freed you, and I don't much care. Jiraiya will look after you, and I doubt our paths will cross again."

Hinata noticed the shadow of a frown cross Shizune's face, which changed to a stubborn expression that Hinata didn't think Tsunade saw. Hinata bowed her head to Tsunade.

"I am deeply grateful, Tsunade-sama, on behalf of myself and the village."

Tsunade snorted. "Damn right you're grateful! I'm doing this out of the kindness of my heart, when I should really pound your face into the dirt for being an uppity little snot. Nevertheless, what's done is done, and so I'm going to do my best with that damned Seal. All I want to hear from you is 'Yes ma'am' and 'No ma'am.' Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, ma'am," Hinata said meekly. Tsunade nodded approvingly.

"That's more like it. Now, clean up these dishes and afterwards, I'll figure out what exactly makes this Seal work."

Once the table had been cleared, Tsunade directed Hinata to the chair nearest the stove. Shizune and Jiraiya stood back, out of Tsunade's line of sight, while the Slug Sannin pushed back Hinata's bangs and secured them with a hair tie.

"I need you tell me if you feel any sudden pain," Tsunade told her seriously, "and whatever you do, keep a tight hold of your chakra. The Curse Seal may react in strange ways, and I need you to remain in control."

Hinata could only nod, her throat too tight for speech. Tsunade clasped her hands together, and they began to glow with an eerie green light.

Then began the longest hours of Hinata's life. Tsunade applied her medical ninjutsu again and again, cutting off the chakra the minute Hinata reported any pain. Before long, Hinata's headache had progressed to a constant ache, but still Tsunade insisted on trying again. The Sannin's face grew wearier, and at the same time angry, as if the Curse Seal was personally offending her.

She began muttering under her breath, and several times Hinata even caught small bursts of killing intent. Shizune was like a ghostly butler, arriving with glasses of water and towels to wipe the sweat from both Tsunade and Hinata.

Finally, long after the sun had set and the only light in the cabin came from a brace of candles on the table, Tsunade stepped back with a sound close to a snarl. The light around her hands winked out like a popped soap bubble.

"Damn it!" she said, her voice on the verge of exhaustion. "It's worse than I thought."

"What is?" Hinata asked nervously. "This just the start, right? A few more sessions, days… you'll be able to break the Seal, won't you?"

Tssunade gave a might sigh, and she sank into the chair next to Hinata. "I'm afraid not. I can't break the Seal – not alone. It's not a question of chakra control. I have the best chakra control on this continent, and I couldn't remove the Seal without killing you first. It's like a parasite, latching on to the chakra coils in your brain and digging in tight. The Hyuuga ancestors wanted to make sure that none of the branch members could break free."

"So that's it, then?" Hinata said quietly, her heart sinking. "There's no hope?"

"I didn't say that," Tsunade answered, the determination in her voice surprising Hinata. "I may have good chakra control, but I'm not an expert on Curse Seals. I know someone who is."

"Let me stop you there." Jiraiya had been so quiet during Tsunade's examination that Hinata had almost forgotten he was there. Now he appeared before them, and Hinata didn't think she had ever seen him so serious. There was no trace of the girl-chasing, sake-drinking goofball – here was a shinobi who radiated danger like heat waves in the desert. "I know what you're thinking, and it's not going to happen, Tsunade."

Tsunade set her chin obstinately. "Why not, Jiraiya? Do you disagree that he's the foremost expert on Curse Seals? What about all you said to me before, about doing everything in your power to free Konoha? Isn't this in your power?"

Jiraiya's voice was a whip-crack that echoed in the enclosed space. "I won't expose this girl to the whims of that sadistic bastard! He only cares about power, you know that!"

"Can you honestly say that Orochimaru is worse than Madara?" Tsunade demanded. "Better the demon you know than the one you don't! Madara has kept himself alive for over seventy years, by a means we don't know, and he killed Sarutobi-sensei without blinking. No matter what twisted, devious schemes Orochimaru may be plotting, he doesn't pose nearly the same threat to us that Madara does!"

Hinata had no idea who they were yelling about, but she couldn't help noticing that Tsunade had said "us." She had a slight suspicion that the Slug Sannin was beginning to forget what she'd said before about "only" getting rid of Hinata's Seal. If that was the case, Hinata definitely wouldn't be the one to remind her.

"It's too dangerous," Jiraiya declared, crossing his arms.

"Shouldn't that be for her to decide?" Tsunade asked pointedly, gesturing at Hinata. "After all, who's at risk here? Not the two of us – together, Orochimaru can't defeat us. You're just worried that you can't protect her, and shouldn't that be her decision? She's already made it quite clear that she doesn't value her own life if it can serve the village."

"She's right," Hinata said quickly, cutting off Jiraiya as he opened his mouth. "I don't know who you're talking about, Jiraiya-sensei, or why you're hesitating, but if there's someone who might be able to get rid of this Seal, we should visit him. No matter what the danger is."

"It's not the danger I'm worried about," Jiraiya answered. "It's his price. Orochimaru won't lift a finger if he doesn't stand to gain something."

"But we can figure out something," Tsunade insisted. "You've heard the saying, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Well, Orochimaru must hate Madara as much as we do, right? He's always wanted a pair of sharingan eyes, and with Madara running Konoha, there's absolutely no chance of that."

"You have a point," Jiraiya said reluctantly. "And I know that Orochimaru has already been in contact with the Kazekage about an alliance against Konoha."

"He has?!" Tsunade squawked. "Why didn't you say so before? You mean he's already an ally?"

"Look," Jiraiya sighed, "no matter what Orochimaru says, he only ever plans for his own advancement. He may be an ally today, but the moment he has a chance to stab his allies in the back, he'll take it. It's my belief that the moment Madara is defeated, Orochimaru will attempt to take out the leadership of the Rebellion and institute his own Empire."

"That's a completely natural thing for him to plan," Tsunade said, nodding, "but it doesn't change the fact that he has the knowledge we lack. We need his ability with Curse Seals, and if your information is accurate, he needs your allies to stand any chance of defeating Madara and gaining access to the Uchiha. We can use him. We just need to be alert for the inevitable betrayal. But we're shinobi, after all… betrayal isn't exactly unexpected in our line of work."

"I just… I don't like it, that's all," Jiraiya said, looking harried. "I didn't save Hinata just so that the murdering, snake-kissing bastard could run experiments on her."

"Let's do it," Hinata said, drawing the attention of both Sannin. "I don't care what I have to suffer, if this man can neutralize the Seal. I'll gladly give my life. That was the reason I was saved in the first place – so I could sacrifice for my village."

She held Jiraiya's gaze, and it was the older shinobi who looked away first. Tsunade spoke into the silence, her voice brisk and business-like. "So that's settled. We'll find Orochimaru, and make him an offer he can't refuse. With my chakra control and his knowledge of Curse Seals, we'll be able to find a solution. We have to."

"Just who is this man?" Hinata asked. "How do you know so much about him, and yet have so little trust for him?"

Jiraiya turned away, walking out of the cabin and closing the door with a resounding crash.

Tsunade sighed and shook her head sadly. "Because he was our teammate."

oOoOo

It was clear to them all that Amegakure was growing closer from the heavy storm clouds in the distance. They could hear the boom of thunder, and tall metallic structures came into view at the edges of their vision.

"That storm doesn't look natural," Naruto mused. General Fugaku, who was leading them quietly along a dirt road headed straight into the heart of the storm, snorted derisively.

"That's because it's not. It rains almost constantly in Amegakure. We're not sure why, but several of our spies believe it's a security measure of sorts. Given the village's name, it's not unreasonable to assume that there are shinobi living there capable of sustaining such a rainstorm."

"Fighting on the enemy's ground would be a most youthful challenge," Guy said, though his voice was somber. "Neji, please keep your eyes peeled as we approach. If there is some hidden property to this rain, it would be best for us to be aware of it."

Although the heavy clouds reduced visibility, the village of Amegakure soon came into full view, outlined against the night sky and illuminated by intermittent flashes of lightning. The village was smaller than Konoha, but seemingly much more industrialized – most of the buildings they could see were giant metal skyscrapers, seeming to pierce the sky in counterpoint to the lightning streaking down to meet them. A net of power lines ringed the outskirts of the village and laid a metallic lattice through the heart of the skyscrapers, generating what must be massive amounts of electricity. Naruto couldn't help feeling a little intimidated; looking at this village, he didn't doubt that it was home to mysterious and powerful shinobi.

"Don't worry, Naruto," Takeshi whispered, drawing close enough to put one hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Whatever's waiting in there, I know you'll lead us wisely."

Akemi merely stuck her tongue out at him. "Scaredy-cat."

Naruto laughed brightly, drawing a furious glare from General Fugaku. "Are you on a picnic in the park?" he hissed at them. "Try to treat this mission with the attention it deserves."

"Now, now," Guy boomed in a voice like a thunderclap. "They are merely testing their Flames of Youth! Burn brightly, young ones, and no amount of rain can bring you down!"

Akemi and Tenten met each other's eyes and groaned, then looked embarrassed about agreeing on even that much. Naruto and Lee, however, were nodding excitedly, as if Guy's speech made sense to them.

"The entrance is near," Neji said quietly, his byakugan activated and the veins standing out in stark relief around his eyes. "There is a kunoichi standing there – I believe she is waiting for us."

The group fell silent, their imminent arrival putting an end to all bantering. As if to reinforce the true beginning of their mission, they entered the range of the storm hovering over the village like a protective barrier.

Eventually they approached a main gate that reached far higher than Konoha's, made of solid metal and adorned with sinister-looking gargoyles. The mouth of the gate stood open, and a small figure stood in front, dwarfed by the monstrous metal construct around her. Naruto's eyes were sharp, and he could see that the figure was a woman in a cloak. More detail appeared as they drew closer, and he could see that she had purple hair and a flower of the same color threaded in her hair. She had a metal stud under her lower lip, and dark purple eye shadow that creeped Naruto out just a bit.

She stepped forward to meet them, holding out her arms in greeting. "Welcome to Amegakure," she began, and though she spoke quietly her voice seemed to echo around them. "I am Konan, humble servant of Pain, who rules this village. Am I correct in assuming you are the envoys of Madara, the Godaime Hokage?"

Naruto stepped forward at a nod from General Fugaku. "That's right – I'm Uchiha Naruto, son of the Hokage, and these are two of Konoha's most trusted jounin: Might Guy and General Uchiha Fugaku."

Naruto noticed that Fugaku's lip curled just a bit when he described Guy as a "trusted jounin," but there was nothing Naruto could do about that.

"If you will follow me, I will lead you to the Audience Chamber," Konan said. "Lord Pain is most interested to meet you."

They began walking through the streets of Ame, ringed on every side by the towering skyscrapers. With each step the rain hammered at them, and Naruto was soon soaked inside and outside his outfit. He couldn't help but notice that Konan didn't seem the least bit wet – it was as if the water slid off of her somehow. Naruto shivered slightly. Everything about this village was creepy. If Madara wasn't so adamant about forming an alliance with them, Naruto would be out of here in a second.

Konan didn't seem inclined to talk, and no one wanted to converse where she might overhear, so their procession went along in silence. Naruto wondered where all the people were – the streets were completely empty, although he supposed the rain would do a good job of keeping people inside. As they went deeper into the city, the buildings grew taller and more imposing. They came at last to a cleared area covered with white cobblestones. Facing them was the largest building they had seen yet, a veritable palace with a grand white staircase thirty yards across, and a quartet of spires that seemed to pierce the heavens.

The silent kunoichi led them up the stairs, the hem of her black cloak gliding along weightlessly. "Pain awaits you in the Audience Chamber," she said, looking over her shoulder. "It is right through the main door."

As the eight shinobi approached, they could see that the entrance to the structure was fully twenty feet tall, built of a black metal that drank in all excess light. It swung open as they drew near, revealing a chamber with a ceiling that stretched far overhead.

They filed into the Audience Chamber, Naruto and General Fugaku in the lead, and got their first look at the mysterious leader of Amegakure. Pain was sitting in a throne, though it was unadorned and made of wood, positioned on a raised dais directly in front of them. The dais was higher than Guy's head, and could be reached by a set of stairs reaching around to the right side of the chamber. Below the dais and in front were four men in cloaks similar to Konan's – from the calm, collected way they held themselves, and the aura of danger they emitted, Naruto guessed that they were Lord Pain's elite guard.

The first on the left stood a head taller than Naruto, with slicked-back silver hair and purple eyes. He held a triple-bladed scythe casually over his shoulder, and something in his eyes made Naruto pause. He looked… almost feral. As he met Naruto's gaze, the man grinned maliciously, and a crazed light entered his eyes.

Next to him was the tallest of the four, an imposing man with a white hood and black mask. He radiated a tightly restrained menace, and his eyes were his strangest feature – they were a ghostly green.

Second from the right stood a shinobi who looked to Naruto to be the youngest of the guards. He had longish blond hair swept over to cover his left eye. He seemed more relaxed than his compatriots, and he wore a small smirk.

Lastly, there was a hunched-over figure who gave the impression of old age, and extreme malice. His body was extremely bulky, and his face was hidden by a gray cloth.

As strange as these four were, they didn't worry Naruto nearly as much as their leader. High in his stark throne, Pain appeared almost superhuman. He had spiky orange hair, but most striking about him were his eyes. They had interlocking violet rings instead of pupils, and as the collar of Pain's coat was pulled up to cover the rest of his face, those eyes drew Naruto with an almost magnetic power.

Konan stepped forward to join the four waiting shinobi, and her voice resounded in the gigantic chamber. "Lord Pain, may I present Uchiha Naruto, the son of the Godaime Hokage, and his escort, led by General Fugaku and Might Guy."

Pain spoke in a dead voice that sent shivers down Naruto's spine. "Welcome. You have come a long way."

Naruto swallowed, then took one more step forward and bowed his head slightly. "Thank you for receiving us. We are honored that you would allow us into your village."

"Not at all," Pain replied. "Any envoy of the famous Uchiha Madara must be treated with proper respect. Allow me to introduce you to several of my confederates. They are named Hidan, Kakuzu, Deidara, and Sasori. You have already met Konan. Together we form a federation dedicated to pursuing peace in this world."

"Then we're sure glad to meet you!" Naruto said, wincing afterward about how unprofessional that sounded. "Peace is… um… always a good thing…"

The hunched-back shinobi snorted, and spoke in a rough, gravelly voice. "Madara sends a kid to do his dirty work? What's he playing at?"

General Fugaku started forward, but Naruto waved him off. He glared at the shinobi, wishing he stood a few inches taller. "You're Sasori, right? Well, that's Mr. Kid to you! Madara sent me to meet with your boss, and that's how it's gonna be. If you don't like it, you can kiss my-"

"What our Hokage's son means to say," Fugaku cut in smoothly, "is that Naruto leading this mission is a token of our leader's respect for you. But I find it curious, Lord Pain, that you allow your subordinates to speak so freely in this type of meeting."

Hidan, the scythe-wielder, snorted derisively. "Subordinates? Seems like you little shits don't understand the situation. We're partners, you see. Don't let the fancy chair fool you."

"It is true that I do not command these shinobi," Pain agreed, "though I would consider myself first among equals. Together we work towards a brighter future for all of mankind – for peace, and an end to pointless war. Our purpose here today is to ascertain if we can work with Konoha towards that goal."

"That's your purpose," Hidan said loudly, "and we're with you, but first Jashin-sama wants his sacrifice."

The taller man beside him looked annoyed. "Hidan, don't start. This isn't exactly the right moment."

"Shut up, Kakuzu," Hidan shouted, suddenly inordinately angry. "You know you can't kill me, so stop trying to cheat me of my fun! Jashin-sama's getting hungry!"

To Naruto's surprise, Hidan began cackling like a madman – and in fact, Naruto wasn't sure that wasn't the right description for the silver-haired shinobi. The crazed light in his eyes was only intensifying.

Then, so suddenly Naruto couldn't react, Hidan disappeared. He reappeared behind them, and only Guy was fast enough to try and intercept him. But even as Guy leapt forward, Hidan's scythe swept around and caught the spandex-clad jounin a glancing blow that sent him skidding backwards. The next thing Naruto knew, Hidan had grabbed Tenten and held her close, the triple blades of his scythe practically drawing blood.

Tenten immediately drew two kunai and stabbed behind her, impaling Hidan in his stomach. Naruto suppressed a cheer, which turned into a gasp of horror as Hidan merely laughed. "Hahahaha, oh, that tickled! You're a feisty one, aren't you! I'm going to enjoy killing you!"

With no apparent regard for the two kunai sticking out of his stomach, Hidan moved at high speed back to the other four Amegakure shinobi. They were watching him with various degrees of distaste, but none made a move to stop him.

Naruto was still coming to grips with what was happening, but he had to act fast to keep this situation from devolving into an all-out slugfest. Lee and Takeshi had their weapons drawn, and Guy was about to spring. For that matter, Naruto himself was on the verge of manifesting one of the Kyuubi's tails. He was not about to let some religious psychopath kill one of his teammates – he would take on this entire crazy-ass village before he let that happen.

"Lord Pain!" he yelled out, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. "Tell your friend to release her! The second one drop of her blood is shed, I'm declaring war against your village and beginning it right here and now. Tell me – do you want this big, fancy building to come crashing down around your ears?"

Pain watched him impassively. "I told you before, I do not command these men. Hidan in particular likes to assert his independence – he has even threatened me on occasion. Are you determined that this young woman is indispensable? She bears a Seal with which I am somewhat familiar… does it not mean that she is a second-class citizen in Konoha? Is an alliance with us not worth the life of one person?"

"You bet your ass it isn't worth it!" Naruto snarled, feeling his canines grow larger as he spoke. The Kyuubi's chakra was gathering, and he wanted nothing more than to let it out. "Let me say this again – if you or any of yours hurts my people, I won't stop until you're a greasy smear on the pavement. And if my teammate isn't returned unharmed in three seconds, I will personally tear that bastard's scythe from his hands and use it to separate his head from his shoulders."

"Hey, shitface!" Hidan yelled, chuckling. "Why don't you back that up? Come to think of it, you look like you'd make a better sacrifice than this girl! Come and get her!"

"That's fine with me," Naruto snarled.

Fugaku started forward. "Naruto, you must not put yourself at risk!" he whispered urgently. "We can leave – we'll tell the Hokage what happened here, and he'll send us back with a full contingent of Uchiha."

"That would be too late," Naruto replied, never taking his eyes off of Hidan. "You ready to die, asshole?"

"Hahahaha! Death waits only for those who fail to embrace Jashin-sama!" Hidan shoved Tenten unceremoniously towards Kakuzu. "Hold this one!" he cackled. "I want to fight the blonde one now! My scythe will drink his blood!"

Kakuzu didn't move, but dark gray threads shot from beneath his cloak and wrapped around Tenten from head to toe.

"Tenten!" Rock Lee cried out, but Neji stopped him from advancing.

"Don't!" he whispered to the bushy-browed genin. "You'll only put her in danger. Naruto's the only one who can resolve this now."

Pain held up his hand, bringing silence to the room. "I think this is an excellent way of testing your worth," he said, perfectly monotone. "If you defeat my compatriot, I will acknowledge that you and your village will be valuable partners on the road to peace. If not… well, I suppose conflict is always inevitable when people fail to understand the peace that comes from pain."

"I'll get to you later!" Naruto snarled, pointing at Pain. "But first, I'm going to have a few words with this punk who thinks he can go around killing anyone he wants."

Hidan cackled, and swung his scythe through the air. "Come on, little boy! Embrace your death, and serve Jashin-sama!"

Still restrained by Neji, Rock Lee let out a fierce yell. "Yosh! Naruto, defeat him with the flames of your Youth!"

For answer, Naruto literally exploded with chakra. A raging red cloak covered him from head to toe, and a giant tail emerged and began waving overhead. His teammates gasped, and even Pain looked slightly taken aback. Naruto turned to Lee, and his smile was positively deadly. "Flames, huh? I can do that. What do you say, Bushy Brow? Do you want him crispy, or well-done?"

oOoOo

Several weeks after joining with Tsunade, Hinata found herself deep in Grass Country with two Sannin, a medical apprentice, and an abnormally cute pig, looking for one of the most dangerous criminals in the history of the Elemental Nations.

Jiraiya claimed to know the general whereabouts of one of Orochimaru's headquarters, but actually finding the place easier said than done. They tramped around the country endlessly, questioning Jiraiya's informants and hoping to gain more specific locations. The only good thing from Hinata's point of view was that more time meant more training – since they left Tanzaku Town, Hinata had been receiving training not only from Jiraiya, but from Tsunade as well.

The Slug Sannin had watched her practice sessions for a few nights, and then one night, without comment, she asked Hinata if she knew any advanced chakra control exercises. Just like that, Hinata began double sessions with both Sannin, in which she pushed herself to her limit in improving her chakra control and learning more destructive jutsu. If it weren't for her all-consuming desire to get rid of the Seal, Hinata thought she would have been happy to travel like this forever.

But that was nothing more than fantasy, and the most important part of their journey was never far from her mind. They had to find the elusive Snake Sannin, or else all her hopes would crumble into dust.

One day, while exploring a region of Grass Country with many rock formations and natural caves, Hinata's byakugan found evidence of shinobi presence underground.

"Over here," she called, calling her companions over. She pointed towards a large boulder, which her eyes told her was actually the entrance to a cave. Situated off a ways to the right, in the middle of a field, was also a trapdoor hidden by a tuft of tall grass. "I think we've found it," Hinata said. "There are underground tunnels spreading out from these two access points."

"This looks like Orochimaru's handiwork," Jiraiya agreed grimly. "So we've found him at last."

"What do we do now?" Hinata asked nervously.

Jiraiya frowned. "We wait. Knowing Orochimaru, he was aware of us long before you found the entrance to his stronghold."

"Kukukuku." The slithering voice came out of nowhere, and it chilled Hinata to her core. It was the sound of crumbling snakeskin, dry and yet oozing malice. "How right you are, Jiraiya."

Hinata's byakugan somehow did not warn her of the person who had been concealed beyond the boulder. But now she saw him, as the newcomer melted out of the solid rock and assumed a human form. Hinata didn't know which was stranger: the man's pale skin, almost white, or his yellow eyes with slitted, diamond-shaped pupils.

Jiraiya and Tsunade advanced as one, putting themselves between Orochimaru and the younger kunoichi. "Orochimaru," Jiraiya said.

"How nice to see old friends," Orochimaru chuckled. "I've been expecting you."