Ninjagate

Ripples: Part I

By: MikeJV37/Obakeinu.9-11

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Author's Note:Happy New Year everyone! Only about a month and a half from the last update, and if I'm right, the next update of this fic will be even faster (explained at the end) Some of the good stuff is starting, that I hope you enjoy, along with some reviewer comments.

On an unrelated point, there's a new poll on my profile about my other fics, please check it and vote.

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Editor/Co-author's forward: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers. Just so you know, there are several AU points in this chapter that Mike and I have agreed upon. The biggest one yet to come is this AU's fanon on Bloodline Limits (BlL's).

Once again, I strongly encourage all the new readers out there to leave a review, and give us your thoughts on NinjaGate; it's always good to hear from you. BTW... the Favs (428) out-number the Follows (425), what's up with that?

And a personal thank you to bub23453 (me mate down under...), thanks for info on Russian.

Also, a special shout-out to all those brave souls currently outside the wire... you are not forgotten, not by me. Stay safe and keep your butts down.

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===April 16, 9:51 PM, Hokage's Residence===

Jiraiya raised his right hand and waved. "I couldn't bear to stay away... did I miss all the fun?"

Tsunade gave him a quick head-to-toe visual scan, sighed in exasperation and motioned Jiraiya to come inside. "You look like shit... sit down before you fall down." Tsunade pointed at a long couch as she crossed the room and touched a door pillar, activating one of several security seals the house had. This particular seal did two things: alert the ANBU watching her quarters that she didn't want to be disturbed, and secured the exterior doors and windows against eavesdropping.

Jiraiya eyed the bottle of top-shelf sake. "Do you have another cup?"

She frowned at the Toad Sage and replied, "I think you need food more than drink." Tsunade nodded at the bottle on the low table. "Use my cup while I fix you something to eat."

"Dinner from the gentle hands of the mighty Slug Princess... I'm honored, and I humbly accept your offer." He poured himself a drink and bowed his head in thanks.

Tsunade snorted in amusement. "Don't get too excited, baka... it's just leftovers." She watched him closely as he took a drink. "So what was so important that you had to run yourself to the edge... again." She pointed at the random twitching in his hands. "Your muscles are obviously stressed from prolonged chakra saturation,..." A stern frown set her eyebrows. "...and here I thought that Hiruzen-sensei had drilled the results of a stunt like that into your thick head years ago."

Jiraiya downed his second cup and smiled weakly. "Give it a rest, Hime... I had a damn good reason for rushing back here." He tapped his forehead protector. "I have the final report from my contact in Akatsuki."

Tsunade froze in surprise; she knew about his contact, but had never asked for the identity of the agent. "What happened... why?" She watched him set his trademark hitai-ite, horns-down on the table, and unseal a thin stack of papers. "Is your contact..."

Jiraiya smiled grimly. "No... He's not dead." He picked up the papers, her cup, the bottle of sake, and slowly stood up. "I suggest we retire to the kitchen. I need to eat, you need to hear what I've learned, and we're both going to need a drink before I'm done."

===9:55 PM, Danzo's Secret Lair===

Danzo knelt in the center of his private chamber, staring at the flickering candle before him, pondering the day's events... until he noted the presence of Fuu outside a solid, connecting door. "Enter, and give me your report."

The hinges let out a distinctive squeak as the door initially opened, then moved as silently, and smoothly, as Fuu's entrance into the sparsely appointed room. Fuu knelt, bowed his head and replied, "I regret to inform you that all my inquires have learned nothing further than Sayuri's report. Everyone connected with that particular store have disappeared... and I've found no mention of them leaving by any of the village's gates."

The corners of Danzo's mouth twitched. 'Well played, Tsunade... you managed to shut the door in my face... this time.' He stared further into the candle flame for a bit before replying, "Inform Sayuri that she has a new task. She is to remain above ground, and watch the streets of Konoha for the stranger she saw. If she sees him again, I want her to observe him at close range, and note anything of significance... then write a coded report to me."

Danzo scratched his chin thoughtfully and added, "Tell Sayuri to use cover story number 6, and stay at... the Red Apartment, until further notice. An appropriate weekly stipend will be delivered at Dead Drop 27, and any reports, after she makes contact, will go to Dead Drop 13."

Fuu lifted his head slightly. "Who will be assigned to watch her, Danzo-sama?"

"For the moment, no one. I've learned that the ROOT agents lost today arrived at ANBU HQ without their cloaks... I'll regard that as a warning that a stratagem against us is probably being formulated." Danzo nodded to himself. "Until I say otherwise, all covert ROOT operations will cease within Konoha, and half of all the teams will displace to Base C... do it tonight Fuu. If nothing else, I'll deny the Hokage any opportunity to net all my hard work so easily."

He noted a questioning look flash over Fuu's face. "Yes, I realize that they've hunted in vain for this base, but the Hokage's recent stroke against 3 different Village networks warns me that my previous equations are no longer valid... something has changed the balance... something that I am unaware of." Danzo's eyes narrowed. "While I'm not displeased that Konoha's hand has strengthened as of late... the loss of the Jinchuuriki aside, it is not my intention to fall, or be diminished by that strength."

Danzo stood and allowed himself a smile. "I intend to make that strength, and whatever Tsunade has been up to, mine. I will not falter after all that I have done, and plan to do... the game is far from over." He pointed at Fuu. "See to all the arrangements at once." Danzo added silently, 'I'll venture my second-most valuable piece to advance my hand... I deem it worth the risk.'

"Hai, Danzo-sama." Fuu bowed and left Danzo to his thoughts.

===10:25 PM, Kitchen, Hokage's Residence===

With the sound of her downstairs shower running in the background, Tsunade read the succinct report a second time... the same range of emotions, mirroring Jiraiya's reaction when he had first read it, now raced through her. Thus far, dread was leading the pack. 'Madara is still alive..." She knocked back her cup of sake and gripped it tightly. '...and behind all the attempts to capture Naruto, in order to obtain the Nine-Tails.' She whispered softly, "Kami help us."

Tsunade released her grip on the cup as her stomach churned. That singular piece of news alone had set her mind racing. Upon accepting the Hokage's Hat, she'd read all the Third's summaries covering the period she had been absent from Konoha. Of all of them, the accounts of the Uchiha Massacre, and the Kyuubi attack had been the hardest to read. The latter... the sheer scope of that event... Biwako, Kushina, Minato, and Taji... the staggering losses by many of the Clans, and a fair portion of Konoha in ruins.

Even though the Third had written the report in neutral, concise language, she could still sense the sadness in the strokes of his pen. Equally bad was the sum of all that being heaped onto a new-born child... Naruto. Tsunade took a deep breath and let it out slowly, she had long since mastered the anger at herself, and select others. And, the near-crushing guilt directed at herself for being absent... for her godson Naruto, and her Sensei, the Third Hokage.

Her mind turned to the other dark event for Konoha. The massacre of the Uchiha's, now cast in an entirely new light by the news that Madara Uchiha was... improbable as it seemed to be, very much alive, though now gripped by madness over the loss of the Kyuubi.

That single bit of intelligence altered the accepted, until now, unshakable suspicion that the Uchiha Clan had been behind the Kyuubi's rampage against Konoha. One of the indisputable facts of that event... that a solitary figure, with the Sharingan, had authored all the blood, death, and destruction of that singular night. That fact alone became the pivot-point that slowly diminished the Uchiha Clan's standing in Konoha.

All the influence they had earned by allying themselves, at no less than Madara's insistence, with Hashirama Senju, her grandfather, and the founder of the first of the great Hidden Villages, Konoha... faded with each passing year.

'The declaration of loyalty by the Uchiha's, and their protestation of innocence, was all true... only one Uchiha had displayed the power needed to enslave the Kyuubi... and everyone thought him dead after that epic battle with grandfather. The contest of might between them that caused the Valley of the End to be.' Tsunade covered her face with her hands as she rested her elbows on the table. Her heart sank as she admitted to herself the harsh truth... Naruto could not openly come back to Konoha until a plan, and enough power to back it up, could be worked out to defeat Madara.

As much as she longed for the brat to return, Tsunade was certain that the moment Madara learned that his KIA status was a lie, he'd head straight for Konoha... Even if Naruto was absent, that wouldn't matter a wit. Madara would bet that an attack on Konoha would draw Naruto out, where ever he was. And Tsunade was under no illusions that she could stop, let alone defeat the legendary Uchiha. Even with Jiraiya at her side, the outcome was far from certain... anyone below them in power joining the fray, would simply add to the death toll.

And that was the best-case scenario; if Madara brought even half of the remaining members of Akatsuki with him, they could handily achieve what the Kyuubi had almost done, totally devastate Konoha. Kami knows how few of them would be left to rebuild Konoha, and the thought of Orochimaru, taking advantage of the situation to pay a call on the survivors, gave her the shivers.

One of the important unknowns was Konoha's newest ally, SGC. What they could bring to Konoha was still a question mark, when weighed against the power of 5 S-Ranked Missing Nins, and Madara. 'They may well have weapons capable of stopping them... but what would the cost of using them be?' Then there was the other unknown, yet to be added to the scales... Von Krieger, an unknown Kekkei Genkai, and a formerly extinct ninja built around it.

His disassociation aside, she suspected he knew far more than he was willing to admit. She easily understood his hesitation to share any significant details of his clan. Tsunade smirked at the memory of his retreat at her casual attempt to charm him; she glanced down at her epic chest. 'That's the first time anybody's reacted the way he did... maybe I'm losing my touch.'

No... any reluctance to discuss the hidden facts of one's own clan, and their jutsus, was a common enough trait by her reckoning. Like every other clan, she had her fair share of secrets about the Senju's that she was hardly willing to talk about. 'It was a bit much for me to think Von Krieger would be any different.' As she poured herself another drink, Tsunade finally noticed Jiraiya standing in a doorway, wearing a thoughtful look, a towel, and little else.

Before she comment on his appearance, he spoke up. "From the look on your face, I gather that you've come to the same conclusions I have."

Tsunade resisted the urge to relieve her dark mood by berating him, and simply nodded in reply.

"Cheer up, Hime. In a week or so, you'll give Naruto a big hug and tell him you miss him." He replied with a sunny smile. "And, I'll have an opportunity to find out why he's stopped complaining about his... companion."

Tsunade gave him a puzzled look. "I don't think Naruto's ever said a bad word about Hinata." Jiraiya gave her an askance look, and tapped his stomach with his left hand. She sighed and nodded in agreement. "You're right. I've been wondering about that myself, but..." Tsunade spread her hands. "...I've been preoccupied with all the things that have been going on." She frowned and patted the papers on the table. "And that was before you dropped this on me."

Jiraiya nodded and smiled agreeably. "Understandable, I was in shock myself when I read the report." As he turned to go back to the bath he added, "Now that we know what we're facing, concocting a scheme to permit Naruto to come back for visits will be easier than just confining him to the 'gate chamber." He gave her an encouraging smile. "And I'm sure that you'll find a way to free up some time to go visit him in the future, right?"

Tsunade gave him a crooked smile. "Stop trying to cheer me up, you pervert... go get dressed, we still have to figure out how to deal with..." She tapped the papers. "...him."

===April 16, 10:55 PM, Tsuchikage's Residence, Iwagakure===

Onoki hovered near the center of his private study. Slowly circling his desk, he repeatedly glanced at the report laying on his desk. Try as he might, Onoki couldn't put the contents out of his mind... in a single day, over 40 years of careful, patient work had disappeared like a plate of Rock mochi left within reach of his granddaughter, Kurotsuchi.

While all but a few of the agents were low-value operatives, the stream of information they regularly sent to Iwa, was assembled into a comprehensive mosaic of Konoha's shinobi activity. But more importantly, it apprised Iwa of any changes in Leaf's mission mode. While the quality, and power of the Leaf nins was the main reason why Konoha was a dangerous opponent; their ability, and capacity, to rapidly shift from normal operations to war-level status, made them difficult to over-power.

Onoki sighed as he recalled his last major campaign against Konoha; he almost had them defeated until he showed up... the scourge of Iwa, the dreaded Yellow Flash... Minato Namikaze. What would have been Iwa's greatest triumph, the gutting of Konoha as the central power of the Five Elemental Nations, morphed into a near-disaster in less than a fortnight.

Everyone in Iwagakure had breathed a sigh of relief when the news of the Fourth Hokage's death, during the Kyuubi's rampage on Konoha, reached Iwa. They took further solace in the fact that a potential heir, from his Uzumaki mistress, was amongst the dead... One Yellow Flash was enough of a calamity for Iwa's tastes.

Onoki's face turned sullen as his eyes passed over the other report on his desk... the current analysis of Konoha's newest Hokage, barely a half a year into her tenure. When he had first heard of the remaining Senju's appointment, he had laughed so hard that his back ached for a week.

That Konoha was so desperate, after the death of the Third Hokage, to hunt down and bring back a debt-ridden, lush of a kunoichi who had deserted her duty was beyond belief. His eyes passed over all the reports on his desk... as prideful as he was, Onoki was forced to admit that he had been wrong. He hadn't a clue as to what, or who, had roused her so... but he cursed whatever had done it.

Drifting down slowly, Onoki canceled the flight jutsu and settled into his comfy chair. 'I can't let this stand, something is happening in Konoha... I'd bet my Kage's hat on that.' He fixed his gaze on a locked bottom desk drawer. 'At least one thing is going my way,...' Onoki smiled a nasty smile. '...the investment, and the effort I spent to harm Fire's trade with the Eastern Continent, and feast on Water's chaos, is paying handsome dividends.'

He let out a nasty snicker. 'I've even managed to hamstring those pesky sand lizards in the bargain. Konoha's sole ally will soon need an oryoki... the Fourth Kazekage was a fool to alienate his Daimyo by scheming with someone as dangerous as Orochimaru.' Onoki smiled as he recalled the reports from his best agent in Wind.

Turning the greedy, vain Wind Daimyo against his own Hidden Village had been child's play... and playing to his poorly concealed sybaritic tastes had been equally effortless. All it took was a minor diversion of his profits, among other things, from a steady stream of goods... of spurious origin, crossing through Wind to Earth Country, to get the Wind Daimyo to focus on all the wrong things.

"No... I shan't let this opportunity pass." Onoki nodded to himself. 'However serious this setback in Konoha may be, I still have the better of them. I no longer have the Five-Tails... thanks to those ungrateful bastards in Akatsuki, and the Four-Tails may be beyond my reach, but Konoha is equally naked now.' He pondered his options for several minutes before stirring, then opened a drawer and pulled out a scroll. 'First things first, I need to get someone back into Konoha. Whatever else may happen, I'll not go in blind... however... perhaps it's time to prod them a bit, and get a better measure of their new Hokage.'

===Thursday, April 17, 9:30 AM, Cafeteria, SGC===

Jack looked up from his coffee and smiled. "Ahh... here comes the lovebirds."

Sam added, "It's about time you showed up." After a sip from her mug, she added, "You don't happen to know where Hinata is, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do." Ric replied as he sat down with Irina. "I overheard her yesterday asking Naruto if she could join him, and Jeri this morning."

Daniel asked, "I thought Sergeant Major Hayes wanted closed sessions with Naruto."

Ric set his tray aside and replied, "Yes he did, but I also heard her ask for some advice from Jeri." He added with an impish smile. "And I suspect she wanted to work off some of those buns she ate yesterday."

Teal'c added, "They were quite good." There was a round of chuckles at both comments.

Jack smiled. "How could you possibly tell, Teal'c? You were inhaling them in one bite."

"Actually, it was 3 bites, Colonel O'Neill." Teal'c replied in a matter-of-fact voice.

Jack looked at Ric's plate and grinned. "So are you in a competition with Naruto and Teal'c now? That's a heck of a lot of chow there."

Ric shrugged in reply. "Yeah, I know... but for some reason, I'm really hungry this morning." He got a thoughtful look on his face and added in a quiet voice, "Actually, ever since she got me acquainted with my... inner friend, my appetite has gone up. especially since yesterday."

Jack glanced about before replying, "So when are you going back... there?"

Before Ric could reply, Teal'c announced, "They've arrived." He pointed with his spoon at the late-arriving trio.

A few minutes later, after Naruto, Hinata, and Jeri had settled in, Jack asked, "So how did you do with the test?"

Naruto smiled a foxy smile and replied, "I passed, and Jeri-sensei started me on some new stuff."

Ric spooned some sausage gray onto his scrambled eggs and asked, "Did you find my input helpful, Jeri?"

Hayes nodded, smiled and looked at Naruto. "Yup. Your questions to Naruto's old Sensei were quite helpful... I'm looking forward to meeting him."

Jeri noted the pensive look on Naruto's face and ruffled his hair. "I'll have none of that, Naruto... 'cept as a lesson, what was ain't as important as what is, and what will be."

Sam smiled and gave Hinata a nudge. "That's good advice for you as well." She added a covert wink.

Hinata gave Sam a shy smile, then gave Ric a thoughtful look. "By the way, Ric-dono, I'm still surprised that you recognized my imoutou so easily."

Ric chuckled. "You shouldn't be, I suspect there aren't that many Hyuuga's that fit the description you gave me... besides, her eyes were a dead-on match to yours."

Hinata froze in mid-bite of her hash browns. "Ano, Ric-dono... Hanabi-chan's eyes are pure white, like all the Hyuuga."

Ric stared at Hinata's eyes and replied. "No. I have my far share of flaws, but color blindness isn't one of them... her eyes had the same..." He looked closer at Hinata. "...pale lavender tint as you. I'd bet my colonelcy, and my next paycheck on that."

Hinata's breath caught in her throat. 'That's impossible... unless... I need to send a message to Hakumei as soon as possible.' Everyone at the table noted the look on Hinata's face.

Sam gently rubbed Hinata's back and asked Ric, "Are you sure it wasn't a trick of the light?"

Ric briefly pondered the source of Hinata's apprehension, then shook his head. "Not a chance, I scored 100% on the Ishihara test... on all the 38 plates."

Sam blinked in surprise. "That's impossible... some of those plates can only be seen if you have defective color vision."

"I realize that... now. When I took the test, many years ago, the technician who gave it to me just shrugged it off as a prank, and scribbled some notes in my med file." Ric set down his fork and pointed at his eyes. "A number of things have gotten me to re-think what I thought I knew." He nodded at Hinata. "Having additional points of reference, and yesterday's trip, helped considerably."

Ric lowered his voice in spite of the empty tables surrounding them. "Yesterday, I saw 2 examples of people with no discernable pupils, among other things."

Daniel spoke up. "You mean like Anko-san?"

"Don't forget the slitted eyes of the young man with the dog." Irina added.

Naruto nodded. "All the Inuzuka's are like that." Jack's eyebrows went up at both comments.

Hinata shook her head. "That's not so, Naruto. I've met Kiba's sister, Hana; her eyes are quite normal."

Ric muttered. "That's interesting."

Teal'c spoke up. "Have you mentioned this to Dr. Fraiser?"

"It's all in my report." Ric replied blandly. "Besides, I'm not giving her an excuse to extract another half-liter of blood from me." Jack snorted... biting back the urge to laugh at Ric's comment.

Partially glad for the distraction, Hinata asked, "Ano... Ric-dono? Who was the other example?"

Ric paused for a moment before answering. "I made the acquaintance of some Yamanaka's, an older woman, a Jonin named Kouseki if I remember correctly, and a girl... Kakashi said her name was Ino. I noted that both of them had solid blue, pupil-less irises, surrounded by a black border... I thought it rather striking."

Ric's observation earned him a poke in the ribs from Irina. The humorous gleam in her eyes didn't match the growling tone in her voice. "Do I need to keep an eye on you? First a princess, and now another woman."

Jack snickered and waved his spoon at Ric. "Get used to it Irina, he's a magnet for mayhem... among other things."

"Actually, Ino Yamanaka is also a Clan Heir, and the Hime of her Clan." Hinata unhelpfully supplied. This secured Ric a second poke from Irina... which he skillfully deflected with an elbow.

Naruto piled on with his own comment, after giving Hinata a sly wink. "And she was one of the prettiest girls in our Academy class."

Irina's reaction was to playfully grab his ear. "No more trips alone to strange places without me, Darling." She added in low, sultry voice, "I bolshe ne trahay strannih princess bez moevo razreshenia."

Jeri snorted, shook his head, and held his tongue... which Naruto and Hinata took note of.

Then they focused their attention on Daniel... who manfully strove to ignore their pointed stares... not to mention Jack's amused gaze, Teal'c's bland curiosity, and Sam's frown for several seconds, until he finally commented, "It's an adult thing." And left it at that.

Naruto and Hinata traded looks, with the latter replying, "But we are adults, Daniel-san."

Jeri give the young nins a gimlet eye and muttered, "Hopefully not that adult... at least not yet."

===Sunday, April 20, 10:20 AM, Outside Konoha===

Adopting a quick, but measured pace, the party of Suna-nins finally had the walls of Konoha in sight. Temari gave the 2 kunoichi a covert glance. 'They've both bore up remarkably well, given the pace Gaara set.' Her youngest brother had surprised everyone by declaring that they would leave a day earlier than planned, not long after she'd announced that the escorts had been selected.

After they cleared the gate of Sunagakure, a couple of hours before sunrise, Temari had quietly asked why they had left early, even though she suspected the reason why. Gaara's reply confirmed her suspicions. "...because I chose to do the unexpected." She easily understood the motive of Gaara's ploy; that there were agents of all stripes in Suna was a given. So saying one thing, then doing another naturally followed.

The four-day journey to Konoha was neither a casual pace, nor a foot-race; by midnight of the first day, they were well over the border into River Country. The day after that, Gaara's party stopped at a small town near the River-Fire border, and spent the night in a small, modest inn.

Shortly after they'd entered the town, the Suna nins had an encounter in the street with a well-dressed trio of young men, sons of what passed for wealthy and influential families in that minor town. Temari hadn't said anything to Gaara at the time, but as they neared the gate of Konoha, she finally remarked, "Gaara you didn't have to do what you did in that town back in River Country; I could've handled those idiots... he just said I have a great figure." Her escorts, Sari and Matsuri, nodded in agreement. Temari added with a slight frown, "It's not everyday I get compliments."

Gaara stopped and turned to face her. "A mere civilian made sexual remarks about the Sebaku Clan heir; he will not do it again... and I didn't kill him."

Temari sighed in frustration. "Gaara, you crushed his right hand, hung him by his neck with your sand 'til his face turned purple, then threw him through a wall!"

A small, cold smile briefly curled his lips. "I showed him mercy... I could of done much worse."

"I agree with Gaara-san... and it did scare the others away." Matsuri added.

Sari nodded, a small smile on her face. She wasn't quite as polite, or reserved as her friend, and thought what Gaara did to that preening dolt was funny as hell... and beyond the smile she let out, masked her amusement. In her mind, it was yet another reason why she was a better match for Gaara-kun.

'I do have great breasts... I just wish the first guy to tell me that had been someone else.' Temari thought, then sighed in defeat. "Fine... just make an effort to show the people of Konoha you have changed, and they don't need to fear you... please. Your last visit to Konoha didn't go so well..." Temari said, then briefly bit her bottom lip. "...except for Naruto-san."

Gaara's old expression returned. "I will not dishonor myself by harming the home of my friend." Gaara said in a dead voice, turned and resumed walking toward Konoha, now just a few hundred yards away.

Temari gave her companions a meaningful glance and whispered, "Remember that look on his face. No matter what you may hear about Naruto once we enter Konoha, keep your comments to yourself... and if I tell you to go get help, or to run away, do it without hesitation. If Gaara's control slips, let me handle him." With that bit of advice passed along, she motioned for them to follow Gaara.

Matsuri and Sari nodded. There were damn few people in Suna ignorant of the pre-invasion version of Gaara. Even so, Temari had fully discussed with them the Gaara that was, versus the new version, after they had been selected as her escorts. They (and all of Suna) definitely preferred the new Gaara, and quietly grateful they hadn't taken part in the Chuunin Exam invasion.

===10:40 AM, Near Konoha Stadium===

After registering their presence at the main gate's guard station, all of them followed Gaara towards the Tower. Temari let a smile show as she watched her escorts reactions to the green splendor that was Konoha. "We're coming up on Konoha Stadium to the right." Temari said, pointing at the imposing structure coming up on their right.

Both girls looked, and gasped in shock. "It's bigger than anything we have in Suna." Matsuri exclaimed.

"It's impressive, I guess..." Temari said casually, then smiled as she said, "...but I prefer the Shopping District."

Both girls heads whipped around toward Temari, eyes big as saucers. "Shopping District?"

"You did remember to bring some money?" Temari asked, then held in her laughter as both girls immediately checked their pouches to be sure they hadn't forgotten their wallets. "Good." She added after they nodded.

===April 20, 11:52 AM, Konoha Business District===

After a brief meeting with Shizune, who set their meeting for the next morning, to Gaara's annoyance... She stated that the Hokage had to prepare some things first, and that they'd been given accommodations in the Gold Leaf Hotel.

Sensing Gaara's simmering mood, Temari attempted to distract him by heading straight for Konoha's finest hotel. It was an impressive sight, consisting of two wide, cylindrical, 8-story green and yellow towers, joined together by covered walkways, and boasted of having one of the few elevators in Konoha.

Temari was given the same suite she'd had before, but shared it with the Genin. Gaara received a slightly smaller suite next door. As the kunoichi's marveled at all the comforts and features of their rooms, Temari got an idea... She suggested that they all change into more casual outfits, and make the wearing of their Suna hitai-ite's less prominent.

During her previous visit to Konoha, even though no one was rude, or openly hostile to her, Temari could easily sense a rise in tension where ever she went, and a politely muted hostility from the Leaf shinobi she encountered. Not that she really blamed them... Suna had dishonored their alliance with Konoha without a formal repudiation of it first, and partnered with of their worst enemy, Orochimaru. That they permitted anyone from Sunagakure entry into Konoha, and let them leave alive and unharmed, said more about the Hokage than anything else.

After they had changed, and Temari had checked on Gaara... who had decided to spend his time meditating in his room, the trio of Suna kunoichi left the hotel. Since it was past noon, Temari decided next destination would be the Matsumachi Bakery. After several minutes of looking over the bakery's selection, and sampling several items, they made their purchases and went on their way. Temari asked, "Like the buns?"

"Suna has cinnamon buns, but ours aren't much better than eating sand compared to these!" Matsuri exclaimed.

Sari stuffed the remaining half into her mouth and nodded vigorously as she chewed it. She'd only had one bun and some samples, but was quickly realizing she was getting addicted to Konoha's sweets. 'Now I understand how mom got her figure, avoids anything too sweet and did the same to me... not that I'd mind having her big boobs, but I better be careful or I'll ruin my slim figure. If I'm like mom, I'll gain a lot of my weight in my chest.'

Matsuri swallowed her last bite as she pulled a cherry bun from her bag. "I'll do anything you want Temari-san... even go on a date with Kankuro-san, if you get me assigned as your escort permanently."

Temari and Sari stopped and stared at her a moment. "Lets just see how this trip goes first okay. Besides... I'd hate to see you ruin your shot at Gaara." Temari replied casually.

Sari coughed as she suddenly swallowed her mouthful, Matsuri turned bright red.

"Why do you think I picked a pair of new Genin over seasoned Chuunin... and if either of you say a word to anyone about my girlfriend test... you'll both get assigned to guard duty at the Hospital morgue... the graveyard shift." Temari whispered sternly, making sure she looked them in the eyes.

Both girls paled, it was one of the worst assignments in Suna, any kunoichi assigned there could kiss her social life good bye forever. After a week there, even the hardcore perverts wouldn't touch you, male or female. Both nodded and swore to say nothing.

Temari smiled. "Good, now that we understand each other, lets forget this little chat ever happened and have some fun, I assume you both remember what fun is?" They relaxed, smiled and nodded. "We have just enough time to finish our treats before we get to our first stop... you won't believe the things you can get here in Konoha."

===1:06 PM, Konoha Shopping District===

"Where are we heading Temari-san?" Sari asked, a large bag of various beauty products in her left hand.

Temari smiled, she'd been waiting for this. "Someplace special. Every shinobi in Konoha from new Genin to Tsunade shop here... and for kunoichi, this is one of the elite social hubs of Konoha." Temari explained with a smile then started towards their next destination, her escorts bubbling with curiosity. In Suna, kunoichi generally weren't able to be feminine, for many reasons, so for them this was a very special treat just to be able to come here.

===The Iron Kimono===

Ino leaned forward in her chair and set her elbows on the counter, across from Hotaru. "It feels good getting to just sit and chat with you again..." Ino said, then with her elbows set, interlaced her fingers and cracked her knuckles. "...I'm getting pretty good at the basic healing jutsus, but doing them for 3 or 4 hours straight is tiring."

Hotaru giggled softly. "It still beats training with Kouseki-chan, I'll wager."

Ino laughed. "I love her dearly... but as a Sensei she's an A-Ranked bitch." Ino replied with a smile.

Hotaru glanced at Ino's arms. "It seems to agree with you though. Most may not see it yet, but I can, your body is starting to change. You're getting stronger too, you aren't as tired as you were when you first started."

Ino smiled as she straightened proudly. "Really? Thank you Hotaru-chan..." Ino paused and glanced down. "...I just hope all this training doesn't cost me my boobs." Ino pouted. "I want to be strong... but not if I look like a boy."

Hotaru's expression stayed light, despite how hard she was laughing inside. She leaned forward. "Does Kouseki look like a man?" Hotaru asked casually.

Ino laughed. "Not on her worst day... did you forget how she's built?" Ino stated as she held her hands in front of her chest, palms in, about 6 inches away.

"No, but apparently you did." Hotaru said casually, then smiled when Ino sighed and put her face in her hands. "And Inomi-chan isn't exactly flat-chested herself. You'll be fine Ino-chan... just follow Kouseki's advice on training, eat right, and within... 3 years, you'll have a chest that rivals or surpasses Kouseki's and your mother's. Trust me. I'm not a med-nin, but I've been a kunoichi tailor long enough to know good breeding when I see it."

Ino blushed slightly then turned to the front of the store when the little bell rang. "Welcome to... sorry, reflex. This is your shop, you do it."

Hotaru nodded, and headed for the front of the store to greet her customers.

Ino softly laughed to herself. "She's right... and big boobs do run in the family." 'Most of the women I saw while Gossip Hunting were E cups at most. There's maybe 20 women in Konoha that are F cup or bigger, and maybe 6 of those are H cup or bigger. Hmm, this might be useful information, I'll have to talk to Hotaru about it... later.'

x

After entering, her 2 younger companions stopped at her side... their jaws, and bags, dropped. Temari smiled.

"Welcome to the Iron Kimono, how may I help you?" Hotaru stated as she came into view; her business smile became a genuine smile. "Temari-san, welcome back." Hotaru noted the expressions, and bags at their feet, and knew what was going on. She clasped her hands together in front of her chest. "First time?" She inquired softly.

Temari nodded, then searched her memory for the term Hotaru had used when she first came here. "Suna just isn't the best place to be... feminine... poor girls are shopping virgins when it comes to such things." She waved her hand about; the store's well-stocked shelves and racks of his and her ninjawear, and accessories, practical and stylish, beckoned.

A few seconds later Ino skidded to a halt next to Hotaru, a big smile on her face. "Did you say shopping virgins?"

Matsuri and Sari suddenly snapped out of their daze and into casual defensive stances, facing the blonde girl.

"Relax." Temari stated firmly, making the hand-sign to stand down. "Ino Yamanaka, right?"

Ino nodded. "You're the... Suna kunoichi that lost to my lazy bum of a teammate, Shikamaru... and put my good friend Tenten in the Hospital for a week." Ino said, proudly at first, then with a chilly tone.

"And more... all of which I deeply regret, but I had no choice." Temari replied then bowed, Matsuri and Sari immediately matched her. "Tenten also forgave me... which you know. This isn't how I wanted our first meeting to go, but you know I'm trustworthy. I'll answer any questions if you'll show my escorts how to be properly dressed kunoichi." Temari added, with a playful smile and wink.

"You paying?" Ino asked, then smiled when Temari nodded. "Then I hope you brought your checkbook... I'm in need of a new outfit, this look doesn't suit me anymore. Hotaru-chan, you have 2 new customers to show around, I'll handle Temari if that's okay."

Hotaru looked at the trio of Suna nins then turned to Ino. "You know the store as well as I do... I could use a temporary assistant. I think an hour's work is worth a new outfit for my best customer."

"Hotaru-san, this is Matsuri... and Sari, newly-minted Genin, and our escorts." Temari replied.

"Our?" Ino asked curiously.

"Gaara is here for a meeting with Tsunade-sama in the morning." Temari replied, her countenance had a hint of sadness to it.

Via Sakura's account of Gaara's last visit to Konoha Ino immediately grasped the reason for his return. "It's a shame that he's returning for the wrong reason." With that bit of protective deception done, there was the other issue... Ino was equally aware of what could happen if Gaara lost control. As Ino considered what to say on that matter, she realized that Tsunade would never permit his return if she thought Gaara was a threat to the village.

Temari, an adept kunoichi, sensed Ino's thoughts and quietly stated, "No, he promised me... and he's changed, Gaara is not the same person you saw at the Chuunin Exams." She detected the unease of her Genin escorts, and added quietly, "Could we please not discuss this now, I don't want to spoil the good mood."

"I agree, Matsuri, Sari... please follow me to the back, let's get you both measured first." Hotaru said, then turned and headed for the fitting room in the back.

Temari motioned to the Genin. "Go on, relax and enjoy it." They grabbed their bags and followed Hotaru. Temari looked at Ino and could almost hear the question coming. She whispered, "We're just escorting Gaara, he's here to find out for himself what happened to Naruto, and if needed... avenge him. No one in Suna could of stopped him from coming."

After a moment of studying her, Ino nodded. "Okay, you've been interrogated enough..." She smiled briefly. "...since Tsunade didn't smash you like an empty sake bottle the first time you came to Konoha, I'll give you a chance. You've been here a few times so I have to ask... have you been in the back room?" Ino glanced at the red silk curtain, smiled slyly and winked.

Temari blushed slightly at the memory of what lay beyond the curtain, nodded, then changed the subject. "You mentioned a new outfit... would you mind if I helped you?"

Temari took a silent, deep breath and decided to reach out to the Konoha nin. "I could use some girlfriends... or any friends. You can't imagine how hard it is to make even a single friend when you have a brother with a reputation like his. And dating... that's a fantasy." Temari said and laughed softly.

"That explains your visit to the back room... come on, you can tell me how you keep sand out of your underwear." Ino said, enjoying Temari's reactions.

"I don't wear any." Temari said with a straight face, even after Ino's eyes widened, at least for a few seconds, then mostly suppressed her laughter. "I had to do that... just between us, I have a great sense of humor, but I had to hide it, among other things, my entire life." Temari added with a serious tone, "In Suna, you're either tough, or dead. Desert life doesn't give you any other options. That's why I love coming to Konoha. So... care to help a fellow blonde out?"

"Only if you're a real blonde." Ino whispered and smiled pervertedly. Temari blushed slightly and nodded. "Then let's have some fun." Ino gave a short sadistic laugh that would of made Anko proud. Temari winced. "Just keep it under 24,000 okay, that's all I have left in my budget. I... I can't go over that." Temari said seriously, but nervously.

Ino noted the way Temari said can't, and knew from experience what it was like to be on a financial leash, and what would happen if she broke it. "If you agree to owe me a major favor, of my choosing... then as long as you're with me, I'll pay for everything from my personal account, something I rarely do, so make it worthwhile for me."

Temari was a little shocked Ino would do this for her, especially considering they just met. "Agreed, since your friends let me in on... it." Temari whispered.

Ino gave a small nod, smiled and put her left arm around Temari's shoulders. "Then let's go blow some brunette girls minds."

Temari laughed softly, smiled and nodded agreeably.

===Sunday, April 20, 1:35 PM, SG1 Team Room, SGC===

'thunk'... Sam's eyes went from the shuriken sticking in the wall, 2 feet from her head, to an improvised target, 8 feet away, set up in the corner of the room, studded with kunais and shurikens, then to Daniel... with an 'oops' expression on his face.

Jeri rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe you should stick to firearms, Professor."

The telephone on Jack's desk rang, breaking the silence. Jack leaned over an picked up the receiver. "SG1, Colonel O'Neill speaking." He listened with a neutral face.

Sam closed her laptop and muttered, "Saved by the bell." She scooted to the far end of the couch, further away from the plywood target.

Irina leaned down and gave Daniel a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Stick with shakhmaty, Daniil... with that, you are good."

Jack hung up the phone and turned about in his chair. "Happy days everybody, some of us have a meeting with the General at 2 PM."

Sam raised an eyebrow. "What about?"

Jack grinned in reply and pointed at Ric. "He said he wanted to follow up on the mission report you guys filed."

Ric's response was to fling his kunai at the corner target... and burying it to the handle, hitting the crudely drawn man-shaped outline in the crotch. "Good. I have some questions of my own to ask."

Daniel's eyebrow twitched, one of many different reactions in the room, as he marked Ric's throw, then looked at Jeri and asked, "Is he usually like this?"

Jeri gave Daniel an unreadable face. "You have no idea."

===3:15 PM, Iron Kimono===

Ino sat in the chair by the back counter, still softly laughing. "I loved the looks on their faces, but I had to let Temari have some fun too..." She said to Hotaru, then her expression shifted to confusion at how Hotaru was studying her. "What...?" She narrowed her eyes. "Why are you staring at me that way?"

Hotaru leaned in close from behind the counter. "Nothing is wrong, but I've noticed your wardrobe isn't up to your new training..." Hotaru explained, then smiled. "How'd you like to test something for me?" She asked softly.

Ino's face lit up. "You have a new fabric?"

"Yes. It's tougher than anything else I'm using... for general use anyway. As you're my best customer, I've noticed your clothes weren't standing up to Kouseki's training, and knowing you like I do, I decided to plan ahead. I made an outfit to your measurements, and in your style. I also got a little help from Tsukamu-san for the armor." Hotaru explained.

Ino thought a moment. "That's Tenten's dad, right?"

Hotaru nodded. "Yes, but Tenten doesn't know about this project... follow me into the back."

x

"What do you think?" Hotaru asked Ino, admiring herself in the full length mirror.

After a final half turn to the left, and then to the right, Ino gave herself a final once over from the floor up. Knee length shinobi boots, with built-in shin guards; new shorts that went almost to her knees, with small armor plates on the front of her thighs; and, a short, split skirt covering the front and back.

Her new top was similar to the old one, sleeveless, and it stopped a few inches below her chest, now covered by a single, molded plate that fit her curves exactly, and linked to a back plate by a pair of curved shoulder guards. Her top was fastened to her shorts with closely-woven armored mesh, protecting her stomach and lower back.

The final touch, fingerless elbow-length gloves, with forearm plates built in. All the plates were dark, almost black, but they weren't metal, and all the cloth was her standard dark purple. Ino tapped her chest plate. "What are these made of? They almost feel metallic, but they aren't metal. I love the design though, Kouseki-sensei will too, she wanted me to get a more functional outfit anyway. It'll work for when I'm on duty, serious but still sexy."

Hotaru smiled. "The plates are reinforced plastic. Tsukamu and I collaborated to make them strong, but light. The fabric is made of several thin layers of material, combined with 2 layers of my finest armored mesh, to protect the wearer from senbon, shuriken, and kunai, and it's very resistant to penetration from those types of lighter edged weapons... unless there's chakra enhancement involved." Hotaru frowned thoughtfully. "In that circumstance, no armor I know of will be of much value."

"The plates will resist strikes from a katana... up to a point, but I'd avoid taking a blow like that, if possible... a skilled attacker will probably have a sword to match them. This composite isn't meant to be the equal of steel plate, so bear that in mind if you use your forearm guards to block or deflect attacks. It's specifically designed for kunoichi to take advantage of our speed and agility, while protecting our important areas." Hotaru said with a smile.

Ino replied after pondering what she had heard. "Med nin could use this too, that's something Tsunade-sama drilled into the older shinobi at the Hospital. Med nin don't engage in battle, we're to avoid it, if possible, and keep our allies healthy. I ran into her 2 days ago during a training session at the hospital... she made sure that I had all that memorized, in case I ever took that role on a mission."

Hotaru held in her laughter. "Did you get, the look?"

Ino shuddered as a chill ran down her spine.

"I'll take that as a yes. I was around back then, Ino. Trust me, you're seeing a far mellower version of Tsunade; she wasn't so... polite, when she was younger." Hotaru stated.

Ino just nodded, she'd heard some stories of her own at the hospital. But, based on how Tsunade had acted when she thought Naruto was dead, Ino was glad she was too young to of known that Tsunade. "I heard from the older kunoichi med nins that Tsunade created many of the policies that are standard now."

"She did... we lost a lot of good shinobi back when med nins were an uncommon asset amongst the field teams. I'd be careful about bringing this up to him... but Kakashi owes his Sharingan eye to Tsunade being a forceful advocate for more med nins." Hotaru replied, her mind drifting back to her active days; she lost her first, and only, team for that very reason. Only experience allowed Hotaru to fully suppress her emotions.

Ino filed that information away for later, she'd ask Kakashi about that part of his past, when she thought it appropriate to do so.

"Enough of this gloomy talk, let's get you out of here and showing off your new outfit... just keep the details of the cloth, and the armor, to yourself. You can tell Kouseki, she'll keep the details confidential, and it'll help her evaluate this test outfit."

Ino nodded and smiled. "Hai... besides, it makes my boobs look bigger." Ino giggled, poked one of Hotaru's Kage size breasts then turned and headed for the door to the store.

Hotaru smiled in amusement at Ino's friendly shot at her chest, then began closing the shop for the day.

===Sunday, April 20, 4:55 PM, Cafeteria, SGC===

"As meetings go, that one wasn't so bad." Daniel commented. "Besides, it seemed like Janet was asking most of the questions."

"Indeed. Doctor Fraiser's and Colonel Von Krieger's discussion about our friend's world was most stimulating."

Hinata glanced at Ric, his opinions about Doujutsu's were unexpectedly astute. And Janet-sensei's contributions showed that she had been ruminating over the subject of Bloodline Limits very seriously, She'd even pulled Hinata aside after the meeting, and reassured her that the subject of the Byakuugan was still a private matter between them.

"So how do you know so much about genetics, and genetic selection?" Sam asked.

Ric shrugged. "I don't know that much about it. But, I did write a final term paper on the subject when I was a firstie at the Point. It took me most of the academic year to research it." He chuckled at the looks on Naruto and Hinata's faces. "A firstie is the nickname for forth-year cadets at West Point. Anyway... our professor gave us a choice of subjects to write a final term paper on. I chose that particular topic, and got an A on it."

"Even so, your insights indicate some degree of familiarity on the matter." Daniel proffered.

"You can blame my family for that. My mother is a Veterinarian; she raises and shows Maine Coon cats. And, I have a sister-in-law who breeds Icelandic horses as a profitable hobby. After many years of holiday table-talk, you pick a few things up... whether it be animals, or people, breeding is breeding.

Jack asked Sam, "What was your final Academy paper on?"

Sam grinned. "I did mine on the Kaluza—Klein Theory, and it's relationship to five-dimensional physics."

Jack paused in mid-bite of his fried chicken. "That makes my head hurt just hearing the title."

Sam smirked and turned her attention to Irina. "So what did you study in your service school?"

"Courses at the FSB Academy are state secret... but I can say that I learned many useful things." Irina smiled playfully. "I drive very well, and I am excellent helicopter pilot."

"What kind, and how many hours?" Jack asked.

Irina smiled proudly, "Many different models, both Russian and... others. As to how long,..." She thought for a few moments. "...I started 9 years ago. I think I have over 3,000 hours now."

She noted the questioning look on Ric's face and added in Russian, "Grandfather trusted very few people in Moscow when he sent me here, so he forbade me from flying." She added with a wry smile, "Besides, I was hung over that morning. I never drink and fly... bad combination."

"Ano, Irina-san... could you fly the kind of machine that Naruto and I were in?" Hinata asked.

Irina let out a sly smile. "Perhaps... or something like it."

Ric saw the looks on Jack and Sam's faces and sighed. "Don't ask... just roll with it."

===April 21, 6:31 AM, Hyuuga Compound===

As they crossed the front grounds, on their way to the main gate, Neji covertly glanced at his cousin, Hanabi. While he didn't know the details, what he did know was that his elder cousin was alive, somewhere... it tore at his heart that he couldn't tell Hanabi her sister wasn't dead.

Recently he had noticed 2 subtle changes in her. Since the incident with the stranger, when no elders were about her, he could sense brief moments of cheerfulness, peeking out from behind the neutral mask Hanabi constantly wore. It was much like the mood Hinata projected whenever she had activities outside the clan compound.

Something else he'd noticed, that no one had mentioned... A day or two after Hanabi was informed that Hinata had been declared 'missing', her eyes had taken on the same hue as her (supposedly) dead sister. An event that no one had openly remarked upon. For whatever reason Neji could imagine, the subject of the pale lavender tint in Hinata's, or Hannah-sama, her late mother's eyes, was a forbidden topic.

In part, Neji could understand the silence surrounding Hinata's mother... any discussion of deceased clan members, was limited by etiquette to specific occasions. However, it was generally known that several of the Elders had displayed a muted, lingering hostility towards Hannah-sama, even after her passing, 8 years hence. And, those same Elders had transferred their animus to Hinata... especially Hachiuma.

As they neared the compound's main gate, he signaled the inside guards to open the smaller pedestrian gate. Thinking about Hinata gave him an idea; once they were on the street, Neji made sure they were well away from compound before he spoke. "Tell me what really happened with the stranger."

"You know what happened." Hanabi replied emotionlessly.

Neji stopped, turned to her and kneeled. "Not the story the Clan's being told... the whole truth..." Neji glanced around quickly then smiled. "..for Hinata, please trust me... Hanabi-chan."

Hanabi barely managed to suppress her reaction. Looking at his face, her instincts told her what she'd seen and heard since the Chuunin Exams was true... but there was one test she could give him that he could only pass if he truly did want to honor Hinata's memory. "Take me to Matsumachi's on the way to Academy, and I'll tell you."

Neji's smile subtly widened. "Agreed... but we'll have to hurry if you want to eat them there."

Hanabi nodded, suppressing her emotions for the moment.

===April 21, 8:14 AM, Outside Tsunade's Office===

Temari, Matsuri and Sari stood from their bench seat as Kurenai approached them, coming out of Tsunade's office. Temari gave her a small bow, which the Genin matched a moment later. "Kurenai-san, I didn't expect you here... is there a problem?" Temari asked calmly, glancing at Gaara, standing close by... and the gourd on his back, specifically the cork.

Kurenai smiled, obviously amused. "No, not in the least. I was summoned to show your escorts about the village during the meeting. It appears that it's going to take longer than expected, but I wasn't told why." She gestured politely towards the door to the Hokage's office. "You may both go in now."

"Wait... both? I thought the Hokage only wanted to speak to Gaara?" Temari asked, slightly confused.

"Tsunade-sama will explain everything. I'll make sure the girls have a good time." Kurenai replied, and smiled.

"You'll obey Kurenai-san. Temari, come." Gaara said matter-of-factly, then headed for the door.

The girls nodded. Temari gave Kurenai a shrug and followed Gaara, he'd been like that all morning. She didn't show it, but she hoped she was about to learn the full truth about Naruto and the Hyuuga Princess. Just the thought of being able to thank Naruto for giving her a real family gave her a very warm feeling, and tingles, that she ignored.

===Tsunade's Office===

"Good morning, Tsunade-dono." Temari said as she crossed the room to a pair of waiting chairs, following Gaara in.

"Please, have a seat." Tsunade offered. Temari nodded and took her normal seat... Gaara didn't so much as blink. "Or stand if you prefer." Tsunade added and gave Temari a subtle smirk that Temari returned. Without another word Tsunade activated one of the office's built in seals, which would alert Shizune to do her part.

"Tell me what happened to Naruto,..." Gaara asked abruptly, followed by the cork on his gourd popping off. "...now." Gaara stated in his old dead voice, staring straight into Tsunade's eyes.

Temari tensed up, prepared to leap to her feet at a second's notice.

Tsunade noted Temari's reaction, but didn't react to her, or Gaara's threat, which didn't surprise her. He was just as protective of his precious people as Naruto. She couldn't fault Gaara for that; she would have had a similar reaction. "Alright, I'll skip the usual crap and get right to it. What you're about to learn is beyond an S-Rank secret, if there's even the smallest breach in security..." Tsunade said emotionlessly and cracked her knuckles. "...I'll personally wipe Suna off the map. Are we clear on this point?"

Temari paled, Tsunade just confirmed her theory. Gaara nodded once, but otherwise didn't react.

Tsunade focused her mind; Temari was easy, but she had to handle Gaara a different way. Her experience with her favorite brat, and the secret report on his battle with Gaara during the invasion, had taught her how to proceed. "If I were talking to anyone else, you'd get the same story everyone else has, but you aren't just anyone. I'm willing to trust you Gaara; you've just shown me the depth of your tie to Naruto. He and Hinata aren't dead... they're on another planet."

Temari's jaw dropped, she was expecting anything but what Tsunade had just stated.

Gaara studied Tsunade's face a long moment before he spoke. "How is this possible? Temari has told me you care for Naruto, as I do, but you have just stated an impossibility... yet I know it is not a lie." Gaara replied emotionlessly, though his mind was struggling to understand what he'd just learned, including his own observations since coming to Konoha.

Tsunade stood and walked around her desk to them. "Recent experience has taught me that telling you won't be enough, so I'm going to cut to the chase, and just show you the truth... if you'll allow me to touch you Gaara. I know your sand normally doesn't allow that."

"If you have no intention of harming me, I'll permit you to touch me." Gaara stated.

"I'm just going to Shunshin you and Temari to a secret location." Tsunade explained. After Gaara nodded, and Temari stood, she stepped in front of them, placed a hand on their shoulders and disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

===Monday, April 21, 8:00 AM, SGC===

"I guess this'll do for a first trip." Ric inspected the warehouse dolly that Jeri had borrowed. On it was some of his, and Jeri's, neatly packed clothing, possessions, and several boxes of equipment and supplies they'd need to get organized once they set up an office in Konoha.

Jeri looked over the dolly's contents. "What, no party favors?"

Ric shook his head. "For the moment, I'll stick to carrying my SIG and various blades." He looked at Jeri with a cocked eyebrow. "It's going to be enough of a trial getting all of your gear, and toys, not to mention whatever was kept of my stuff, over to Konoha. Hammond did give us the word during that meeting yesterday, that our equipment from Okinawa would be arriving this coming Thursday."

Jeri grinned sheepishly. "Sorry about that, sir."

Ric gave Jeri a crooked smile. "Don't be. Some of your collection could come in handy at our new post... Lord knows, outside of a Spec Ops armory, the BATF would be on your ass like white on rice."

"Shucks, 'tain't that bad Colonel." Jeri replied with an almost straight face.

"Jeezus..." Ric sighed and crooked his finger at Jeri. "Stow it and help me push this dolly to the 'gate room."

Jeri paused and asked, "Shouldn't we have Naruto send a message to tell them we're coming to call?"

Ric shrugged with his face. "The Hokage said we were welcome any time... we may as well take her up on that offer."

===April 21, 8:20 AM, Stargate Room, SGC===

"So what are we waiting on now?" Jeri asked.

Ric flicked an annoyed glance at the control room. "Apparently they have to call the General and confirm that we have unrestricted access for 'gate transits to Konoha... looks like the memo hasn't gotten around to everybody yet."

"Hurry up and wait." Jeri replied. "I'm sure it's engraved in stone somewhere."

"No doubt." Ric looked about the room and frowned. "Ya know... this place could be laid out a whole lot smarter. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that they hadn't planned for growth when they set this place up."

Jeri nodded in agreement. "Yup. They got those fifty-cals way too close to that alien gizmo,..." He looked about. "...and there isn't a Claymore in sight, anywhere."

Ric snorted. "You expect propeller-heads to know how to set up a decent defense? They don't even have hard cover for the SP's to get behind, in case something really nasty comes strolling thru that thing." He smiled to himself as he sensed some of the SP's on duty stir at their comments.

Jeri scratched his chin in thought. "Yer right, most of them would be goners if it weren't for that iris-thingie... lessen somebody spoofed them into opening it up." After a moment of thought, he added, "The ramp could be a tad wider as well." Jeri eyeballed the 'gate and did some visualizing. "That thing is just wide enough for a Humvee to get thru."

Ric stared at the 'gate... then snapped his fingers. "Shit. Why didn't I notice that earlier."

"What'cha mean, boss?" Jeri asked.

"Their Stargate... it's bigger than the one in front of us." Ric replied. "Your comment about the Humvee got me to picture their 'gate in my head." He glanced at one the boxes on the dolly. "Perfect. I've a tape measure in that one box, we'll check it out after we get over there."

Jeri looked back at the control room and muttered, "When we get there."

===8:25 AM, Stargate Chamber, KSC===

Tsunade stood back and let the Suna siblings approach the 'gate on their own. She gave an amused glance at Sakura and Shikamaru, who were talking quietly to each other, and staring at Temari and Gaara.

x

"I'm not one to question the Hokage... but what in the name of Kami's asshole are they doing here?" Shikamaru asked in a whisper.

Sakura thought about for a moment and replied, "You weren't there for the fight between Naruto and Gaara... and what happened after that. If you had, you wouldn't be asking that question."

Shikamaru put his arms across his chest. "Then the story about Naruto defeating the One-Tail is true."

Sakura nodded and quietly asked, "You threw the match with her, didn't you?" Shikamaru nodded in reply... confirming what she suspected for a while now. "Ino knew you weren't at your limit yet; she told me that she apologized for all the things she yelled at you after you quit, and gave Temari the win."

Shikamaru's mind drifted back to that day... he shook his head to clear it. Part of him couldn't forget though, that was the day he made his first kill... and then some.

x

The last thing Temari wanted to do was utter aloud the words... what next. Nothing in her training, or her life of 15 years, had prepared her for this moment. She knew with complete certainty that her baby brother was willing to go through that... thing, to wherever Naruto was, and that she would have to follow.

Temari tore her eyes away from the strange metal ring and covertly glanced about... this setting was all recently created, that much she was sure of. After they had walked far enough into the chamber, she'd immediately spotted the changes, the computers and other such things. She always knew there as a difference between Suna and Konoha... The end result of their invasion with Sound against Konoha, had highlighted that difference in the worst possible way, with a humiliating defeat.

The shinobi of Suna had always taken pride in knowing that they were strong, resolute, and unique in their own way... but in this chamber, Temari could sense that Konoha was quietly gathering further strength, and power... beyond anything that Suna, or the other hidden villages, could dare hope for. She closed her eyes and silently thanked Kami that Suna had humbled itself, and chosen the hard path of regaining Konoha's trust and goodwill.

Better that they find themselves behind the wind gathering here, than in its path.

x

As Gaara, standing at the top of the ramp, reached out and touched the gray metal of the ring, his gourd uncorked and the sand within began to spread over the Stargate.

x

"Aanooo... Tsunade-sama... is that a good idea?" A wide-eyed Sakura asked, while slowly moving backwards.

"Okay, you go over there and tell him to stop what he's doing." Shikamaru muttered... and matched her slow retreat.

"No thanks... I've already done my one act of reckless bravery for this year." Sakura replied, recalling her stopping an angry, frustrated Tsunade from smashing the DHD.

Tsunade looked back with a stern eye. "Both of you... hush. I want to see what happens next."

===8:28 AM, Stargate Room, SGC===

Ric asked quietly, "So where have you been working out, and testing out the new ... you?"

Jeri glanced back at the room's heavily-armed security, and the control room above them. "The same warehouse that I got this dolly from. It's stuffed full of crates and storage containers, with nicely uneven heights... and no prying eyes. Naruto's been giving me tips... sorta, by having me follow him around the warehouse." He checked the magazine of his Auto-Ordinance .45, re-seated it and put it back in its holster. "Where have you been working out?"

"I found a nice, private little spot. Storage Area L-5, it's not unlike your warehouse, but the interior lighting is mostly shut down... lots of darkness and shadows, so it suits my particular needs quite well." Ric looked back at the control room again... still no okay from Hammond. He whispered, "It's also given me an opportunity to work out the kinks between me and Mr. Chakra now that we're, after a fashion, on speaking terms... things are a little different now, it's not quite like the old days."

Jeri withheld any reply. The old version of Von Krieger had been scary enough... he and their old A Team had sworn a blood oath of silence over what they had seen, while he lead them. Jeri stared at the Stargate and wondered, 'Maybe it's better that he goes there... at least he'll seem less out of place there... I hope.'

===8:26 AM, Stargate Chamber, KSC===

As the sand spread over the ring, Gaara reached out with his senses via the chakra-infused sand... and closed his dark-rimmed eyes. As the sand encompassed the Stargate, he perceived two distinct things; firstly, the residue of an odd, but still potent chakra; and secondly, he discerned an incongruous, growing unease in Shukaku... to the point where Gaara began to struggle for control of the normally obedient, and protective sand.

And then... Gaara's one constant, the voice in his mind, went silent.

That one point alone was beyond his reckoning; for as long as he could remember, a solitary, whispering voice was his incessant companion. At first, it offered him solace when he was lonely, and consoled Gaara when his cold and indifferent father turned away from him. Then later, when the unceasing attempts on his life began... the voice promised to protect him, always.

After a time, Gaara decided that it was the voice of the mother he never knew, but had seen in pictures, and the recollections of his siblings.

Then the turning point came; an attempt on his life by his mother's own brother, Yashamaru... and his final, callous explanation of his very existence, before his own fiery death. From that point on, the voice that whispered to him changed... the voice, and the words were the same, but the tone, and spirit behind them were not. Worse still, the whispering never ceased, becoming a relentless drumbeat inside his head... ever demanding proof of his affection, with the blood, and lives of others... and reassurance that the actions demanded of him, confirmed his existence.

The silence in Gaara's mind unnerved him; he withdrew his sand from the ring... it returned to the gourd with atypical rapidity; that done, he stepped back from the ring.

Nearby, Temari watched her brother closely... as did everyone else in the 'gate chamber.

===8:30 AM, Stargate Room, SGC===

"Finally." Jeri muttered after his saw one of the control room operators give them the thumbs-up sign. He turned to Ric and asked, "What's this place like?"

Ric watched the Stargate light up and begin cycling. As the first glyph locked into place he replied, "Hmm... a pleasant, well-ordered little town full of nice, and dangerous people."

Jeri chuckled. "That's a welcome change. Most of the places they've sent us to were chaotic shit-holes, chock full of homicidal crazies, two-faced opportunists, bandits, drug lords, and thieves moonlighting as government officials."

Ric sighed. "Ah yes... the good old days." The second chevron locked into place.

As the final chevron locked into place, the Stargate came alive, the predictable gout of energy 'kawooshed' outward, covering two-thirds of ramp's length. After a few seconds, the shimmering energy stabilized, allowing for a safe approach. Ric looked at Jeri as he began pushing the dolly towards the base of the ramp. "Let's get this show on the road."

Jeri, a few of steps behind him, replied, "And meet our new neighbors."

===8:31 AM, Stargate Chamber, KSC===

The silence was broken as the Stargate lit up, a low hum filling the chamber... Tsunade spun towards Sakura, now standing by her computer. "Do we know who's coming through?"

Sakura frowned in thought for a moment, then replied, "Only if they send an ID code." Her eyes flashed towards the siblings from Suna and called out, "TEMARI! Get Gaara away from the 'gate..." She looked at the indicators on her monitor. "Get him outside the yellow line... NOW!"

Temari blinked and looked at Gaara, who was standing squarely in front of the alien ring, now lit at 6 points... and squarely in the center of the ramp. Given his reaction to the ring, she didn't dare touch him, regardless of their tie of blood. Temari did the only thing she could think of... she yanked her trademark, giant iron war fan off her back, opened it to the second moon... 'Forgive me, Gaa-chan.' ...and swept it at him.

"Futon: Dust Wind!" She fired off the jutsu below its usual power level... a powerful blast of wind struck a motionless, and unaware Gaara, tumbling him a couple of dozen feet before he gained his footing. Seconds later, the Stargate 'kawooshed'... the trademark gout of shimmering energy shot outward, sweeping over the spot where Gaara had been standing.

x

Blinking away the effects of the wormhole transit, Jeri had described it as... the 'cosmic roller-coaster ride', Ric stepped out of the event horizon and was immediately assailed by a powerful wave of murderous chakra. He immediately ID 'd the source of the chakra... a young, short, red-haired male standing less than 25 feet away from him. At the same time, he also noted several sandy-looking tendrils, with very sharp tips, heading in his general direction. At this point, his long years of experience, training, and Mr. Chakra instantly kicked into gear...

x

Tsunade's sigh of relief after Temari's quick thinking had saved Gaara's life was very short-lived... Gaara had not taken his sister's life-saving gambit well; the sand in his gourd came boiling out, formed into tendrils, and headed straight for her. Then it got worse... out of the watery energy filling the 'gate came a low, flat cart being pushed by Von Krieger, right into the path of Gaara's unthinking attack. Tsunade did the only thing that came to mind... she charged straight towards Gaara.

x

"What's your reason for coming today, Jiraiya-dono?" Kakashi asked as they neared the bottom of the ramp.

"Reason?" Jiraiya grinned playfully. "I'm the Legendary Toad Sage of Konoha; I don't need such things. Wherever I go, and whatever I do, just being there is reason enough."

"So you're not here to check out the Sebaku Clan Heir, or trying to grope Tsunade-sama?" Anko asked with a wry smile.

Jiraiya put on his best indignant face. "Nonsense... I've got plenty of willing, beautiful ladies for that kind of..." He fell silent as the chakra of an enraged Gaara sweep over them. All of them broke into a sprint... with Jiraiya clearly in the lead.

x

Without conscious direction, Ric's core mass of chakra saturated his limbs, assisting him in flinging the heavily-laden dolly directly at his chief threat, Gaara... and blocking his direct view of Ric. That done, his hands went to his upper vest, grabbed an M-84, and with practiced hands, thumbed the safety wire free and pulled the pin. Even with the sudden rush of danger, Ric had seen enough of his attacker to know it was Naruto's friend he was reacting against... lethal force wasn't an option here.

Ducking into a crouch, released his grip on the spoon on the flash-bang. He heard the 'pop' of the striker hitting the fuse and muttered... "One-potato, two-potato..." And threw the grenade under the still-airborne dolly, towards Gaara's known location. As the black cylinder contacted the smooth stone floor, it skittered and rolled... and disappeared from his sight. That done, Ric rolled backwards, landing in a four-point crouch with the ramp between him and Gaara, wincing at the sound of the dolly and its cargo, being destroyed.

x

Gaara struggled to regain control of the sand... or at least half of him did. In his mind, he heard two voices, one he was all too familiar with... the voice that demanded blood, and death against anything that upset, or threatened him. The second voice, he vaguely remembered from his early childhood... the one that comforted him when he was sad and lonely, begging him to stop his attack on his sister, and the stranger that had appeared out of the ring. At the moment, the former voice was dominating his actions.

The raging Gaara smiled as his sand penetrated, and rent apart the strange cart and its cargo... 'Such a foolish, futile attempt at defense.' Suddenly, a small black object, appeared from beneath it, rolling towards him along the floor. As it was not a weapon he recognized, Gaara paid it no heed until it got close enough for him to sense the chakra within it... an added bonus that the thrower was unaware of.

As Tsunade and Jiraiya closed on Gaara, both of them saw, and wondered about, the black object sliding towards him... less than 5 feet away from its target, the chakra-augmented grenade went off... the resulting flash, and simultaneous, flame-tinged, concussive blast was quite... impressive.

x

Jeri, holding a large envelope, given to him at the very last moment and the cause for his delay, stepped out of the event horizon and onto Naruto's world. His announcement, "Sorry I'm late..." died as he looked about him. To his left was the ruined remains of the dolly, its cargo strewn about, along with a bunch of papers fluttering about, slowly coming to rest. To his front, easily over 25 meters away, was a cluster of people, his boss amongst them.

Shaking his head, Jeri started walking towards the small crowd. He muttered to himself, "I told ya we shoulda called first."

===8:45 AM, Stargate Chamber, KSC===

"Is everybody healed now?" A slightly singed Tsunade asked. She and an ANBU with med-nin training had healed anybody who had suffered from the effects of the blast.

Anko playfully asked, "Anybody want a drink?" She produced a bottle of sake from under her coat.

Tsunade glared at an equally mussed-up Jiraiya as he reached for the bottle; he put his hands behind his back and smiled sheepishly. She turned and faced the Suna siblings. "I had hoped your first impression would have gone better. I trust we can put this all behind us now?"

Temari looked briefly at the pair of oddly dressed men that had come through the... Stargate, and replied, "It went well enough for me, and since neither of us suffered any lasting harm,..." She glanced at a slightly scorched and disheveled Gaara, who nodded in agreement. "...I see no reason to worry about it any further."

"Has my visit to see Naruto been approved?" Gaara asked.

Ric held up his comm unit and smiled. "Yes, it has." He looked at Temari and nodded. She had pulled him aside earlier, made a couple of suggestions, and a request. "All the necessary arrangements have been seen to." He turned to Jeri, who was chatting with Kakashi and Jiraiya. "Sergeant Major Hayes, would you mind hanging out here while I escort Gaara-san and his sister over to SGC?"

"Not at all, boss." Jeri smiled affably. "I'll find something to do while I'm waiting around."

"I'll make sure that your possessions... what's left of them, are gathered up." Tsunade said, then turned to Neko with a frown. "You may as well make your people useful since..."

"We'll take care of Ric-dono's things, Tsunade-sama." Sakura stepped forward, with Shikamaru in tow... by his collar. "I'm to blame for Gaara-san being inside the danger area... I should have said something earlier on about it. Besides, the entire incident took less than 6 seconds." She pointed at her computer.

She continued before Tsunade could respond, "There was nothing the ANBU could have done... except further escalate the situation. I've seen Gaara-san at his worst with my own eyes." She bowed apologetically to him. "If not for Naruto-kun, then only you two Sannin would have a chance of subduing Gaara... and Kami only knows what the damage to this chamber would have been, in either case."

Jiraiya laughed, stepped forward, and affectionately patted Sakura on the head. "You take care of this one, Hime... if not, I will snatch her away from you, and make her my apprentice."

Tsunade took a step forward, put her fists on her hips and growled, "Like hell you will... you old pervert. She's my apprentice."

Sakura's eyebrows went up. "I am?"

"Yes, you are." Tsunade replied, then looked at Kakashi. "Your new job will be to work with, and watch over our new military advisors. If you need Genin for any associated missions, I'll entertain any requests... within reason."

Kakashi raised an bemused eyebrow. "Hai, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade motioned to Jiraiya. "You come with me. We have a number of things that still need to be discussed." Jiraiya sighed and nodded in agreement.

"Pardon me, Hokage-dono." Ric raised his hand. "Will you have time today to meet with me?"

"Possibly. However, I'd rather we talk here... some issues have come up since your last visit." Tsunade replied, then looked at Kakashi and added, "My earlier orders still stand, understood?" Kakashi acknowledged her comment with a nod.

x

Ric approached Gaara and Temari; both of them had moved closer to the Stargate. "Anytime you're ready, we can make the transit over to SGC."

Before Gaara could respond, Temari said, "I'm ready,..." She looked at Gaara. "...but I think you should neaten up a little. I don't think you want to meet Naruto looking like you just had a fight... it might spoil the mood of your reunion."

Ric shrugged in reply. "Sorry about that... it seemed like the best idea at the time." He added with a thoughtful look, "Normally, flash-bangs aren't that potent... I'll need to set that lot number aside."

Gaara shook his head and replied softly, "Don't be... I was able to regain control of the sand because of your actions,..." He bowed slightly to Ric. "...and I thank you for that. I was on the verge of dishonoring my friendship with Naruto by harming Konoha, my sister, and you."

Temari gave Ric a curious look. "That wasn't the normal effect of your weapon?"

Ric scratched his head. "Not at all, we account it as a non-lethal device." He recalled the moment he'd peeked over the ramp, after the bone-rattling explosion, and saw a slightly staggered, and smoldering Gaara... and to his surprise, apparently unharmed by the blast.

"There was chakra added to it." Gaara said matter-of-factly.

Ric blinked with surprise. "Are you sure about that?"

Gaara nodded curtly. "Absolutely. And my sister is correct, I should make myself more presentable for Naruto." At that, he bowed slightly to Ric, turned and walked away.

Temari crooked her head in thought. 'Curious... he's not lying.' She added a frown. 'How could he not be aware that he'd injected chakra into his weapon... that's not possible, not by everything I know.' After mulling it over for a long moment, she utilized an ability she didn't discuss with anyone outside her family circle... she carefully reached out to get a sense of his chakra.

Despite her rigorous training, Temari flinched in surprise when Von Krieger reacted with a sudden glance... looking down at her with narrowed, but amused eyes.

"No peeking." Ric said with a coy smile.

She turned away and made a show of adjusting her sash. 'He must be a sensor too.' Temari didn't get a solid feel for his chakra level, but she knew it was considerable. Composing herself, she decided to draw him out, and turned back to face him. "What is your... world like?"

"Like yours, but not. I've seen a bit of what Konoha has to offer, besides what Naruto has told me. I regard your world as a curiosity... seemingly old-fashioned, yet not." Ric replied.

"Oh really? How old fashioned are we?" Temari asked with an amused smile.

"Hmm... that's honestly difficult to answer. On the one hand, this world is capable of producing simple computers, models we quit using at least 30 years ago. On the other hand, my sense of the average life-style seems a century, or more, behind us." Ric replied blandly.

Temari kept her face neutral. 'He's not lying... nor boasting.' She considered her next question carefully before voicing it. "Why are you here... I mean why are you here in Konoha?"

Ric chuckled. "Me? I guess because I was stupid enough to accept the assignment." He smiled at the irritated look on Temari's face. "I'm sorry, I guess that wasn't a proper answer to a fairly reasonable question."

"No, it wasn't... I watched you confront my brother, you're anything but stupid." Temari replied.

Ric spread his hands. "Okay, I'm busted. Alright, the simple truth is that I'm here because the Stargate is here, and... because of Naruto and Hinata. They were recovered by one of SGC's teams and brought back to my world. There's obviously a lot more to the story, but I'll let somebody else explain that, once we get back to Stargate Command." Before Temari could react, Ric reached out and gently tweaked her nose. "Besides, we have our secrets too... S-Ranked or otherwise."

Temari half-smiled. "I assumed as much." She decided to see how open Von Krieger could be. "The Hokage called you a military advisor, does this mean that Konoha will be acting against its enemies?"

"Sorta." Ric's cheerful mood turned sober. "If you mean thwart and frustrate, then yes. But if you're thinking that I'll give weapons to Konoha capable of annihilating their enemies, and rival Hidden Villages... then no." He gave Temari a discerning look. "What you think you know is only the tip of the iceberg; don't think badly of the Hokage for withholding the whole truth from you."

Ric pointed at the Stargate. "That is what we call a game-changer, its affected my world, and it will affect yours. One of my personal tasks is to insure that your world doesn't fall to pieces, or gets consumed in a world-wide war over who possesses that damned thing."

Temari immediately grasped the magnitude of the situation, and understood why Tsunade had been so cagey about the truth of Naruto's status. "Iwa and Kumo would eagerly start a war to crush Konoha... then turn on each other for control of... that." She nodded at the alien ring.

Ric gave Temari a frank, and thoughtful stare. "And then there's you... and what's to be done with Suna."

Temari's eyes fell. "It's about the invasion... you don't trust us."

Ric sighed loudly. "No, that's in the past as far as I'm concerned. Furthermore, I only know Konoha's viewpoint on that bit of history." He shook his head. "Honestly, I'm no expert on Hidden Village-style statecraft... but I do know something about intrigue... pettiness, or insanity aside, alliances usually aren't broken on a whim." He gave Temari a frank look. "Care to enlighten me on that matter?"

Temari bit her lower lip; her natural instinct to keep her Village's doings, and woes, away from outsiders warred with a need to voice her bottled-up frustrations... and quiet anger. 'He's an outlander, but that also means he has no ties... except to Konoha.' She whispered, "I could, but not here. We'll talk after we go through the Stargate to see Naruto."

"Fair enough, I can wait." He nodded in agreement. "As far as I'm concerned, Suna's starting with a clean slate... just do your best to keep it that way."

Temari blinked in surprise. "Thank you. I only wish that some of the nins in Konoha were as forgiving as Tsunade-sama, and you."

Ric frowned and shook his head. "Yeah... that's just one of my problems... getting your two villages back on the same page. As long as suspicion, anger, and doubt remains a factor, Suna's effectiveness as an active ally will be compromised, and that won't do. Konoha needs in-theater allies, and the list of candidates is pretty damn thin."

Temari frowned at Von Krieger's odd speech; and, his assessment; she found no cause to disagree with him. "Don't you have shinobi, or anything like it to send here?" Despite his neutral face, she readily sensed his unease.

Ric shook his head in reply. "At this stage of our relationship with Konoha... it'll just be an advisory group, and that isn't a whole lot of people. Besides, their existence will have to be managed very carefully; it's critical that our presence here be viewed as benign, and muted."

'He's avoiding the subject of shinobi... yet he is one... why?' She decided to question Tsunade further on that matter, among other things.

x

(Well over 20 yards away...)

Kakashi glanced up from his copy of Icha-Icha at Jeri. "So what are your plans for today?"

Sitting at a table, Jeri looked at the ruined dolly and the mangled boxes surrounding it. "Well... I was gonna unpack my stuff..." He switched his gaze to Kakashi. "...the boss said y'all had a place for us here, right?"

Kakashi eye-smiled and put his book away. "Yes we do; the ANBU technicians finished preparing several suites, and rooms for your needs, a couple of days ago. They're not very fancy, but they are furnished, and definitely roomier than most of the apartments in Konoha."

"Well that's a comfort." Jeri looked about the chamber. "This wouldn't be the first bunker I've lived in, but it is one of the better ones I've ever hung my hat on. By the way, where did the young'uns run off to?"

Neko, sitting on a nearby table replied, "They said something about getting help to clean things up, among other things." She added a shrug. "I suspect they'll be back soon enough."

Shiho came over to Jeri and asked, "Would you like some tea while you're waiting?"

He replied with a smile, "Tea's fine, although coffee would be better."

Shiho gave Jeri a quizzical look. "What is... coffee?"

Jeri raised an eyebrow and sighed. He muttered to himself, "Wonderful... Oh well, something else to put on the list of supplies." Jeri noticed that Shiho was still hovering over him and replied, "It's a hot drink made with ground-up beans, and a necessity. Our world runs on coffee." He softly sighed and gave her a slight nod of the head. "Tea will be fine, thank you."

Shiho smiled and nodded. "Ah, I see... I'll get you your tea, and do some research later to see if such a thing exists on our world."

Anko joined Jeri and looked across the chamber, pointing a kunai at Ric and Temari. "What do you think they're talking about?"

Jeri noted the mischievous smile on Anko's face and replied, "This and that, I suppose."

Anko, remembering her extensive chat with Irina, replied, "Maybe he's flirting with her."

Neko shook her head. "Give it a rest Anko, not everyone is like you."

"And not everyone is as dried-up and solitary like you either." Anko shot back. "She's pretty enough... for a Suna woman, and she's available."

Jeri gave Anko a sideways glance. "The boss already has a woman, and even if he didn't, she'd be off limits."

Neko glanced at Temari and Ric. "Why? She's a clan heiress."

Jeri raised an eyebrow. "I don't how it works here, but the boss would lose his eagle, at the very least, for messing around with a gal that young."

A new voice joined the conservation. "What is wrong with my sister?" Everyone turned to face Gaara... now freshened up, standing nearby with arms crossed, a neutral expression on his face.

"Nuthin I reckon." Jeri cautiously replied. "I'm sure she's a fine ninja and all that, but... she's way too young."

Gaara looked at his sister, the man she was talking to, then looked at Jeri. He asked blandly, "Too young for what? She is the head of the Sebaku Clan, a kunoichi of Suna, and an adult. Are there further requirements on your world?"

Jeri was at a momentary loss for words. After mulling it over, he replied, "All that may be true, but where we come from, the law says your sister is a minor... and that's all that'll matter to a courts-martial. I'm guessing you have similar laws here."

Kakashi scratched head. "Actually... we don't. If I understand your issue correctly, the only pertinent facts are whether or not adults are involved, and the age of consent... which in Fire Country is 12 years. I'm sure that Naruto and Hinata have mentioned our laws to you, and all the other Hidden Villages are, more or less, the same." He pointed at his hitai-ite. "I earned this at the age of 5; from that moment on, I was regarded as a full adult... that is the law in Konoha."

Gaara nodded. "The laws of Suna equally match Konoha's on that particular subject."

Neko, having a better grasp of the situation, and mildly amused by Jeri's confusion, spoke up. "I believe Jeri-san's misreckoning comes from not fully knowing our customs, and rules. I've read the basic information about Jeri-san's nation, and it's not unlike ours... a civilian side, and a military side." Jeri nodded in agreement.

She continued, "However, within the Hidden Villages, shinobi law and customs dominate general society... what's considered normal is decided by the Kage, and the common customs of the Clans. An additional point to bear in mind is the Hokage does not interfere with how the Clans handle their own affairs, or any such customs they have, unless it falls too far outside Fire Country's law. Ultimately, all civilians within a Village exist, and conduct business at the sufferance of their Kage... and likewise with any settlement that has shinobi as its core group."

Jeri mulled that over and nodded. "You're describing military rule over civilians... okay, that's not the way things usually work for us, but that's clear enough."

Deciding to relax her usual demeanor, Yuugao removed her porcelain mask and continued the lecture. "An additional element are the different types of shinobi, and their respective families."

"I got that part straight, Hinata-san talked about the clan ninjas, and the non-clan types... basically two different groups." Jeri answered back.

Yuugao frowned slightly and replied, "That's not quite right. Actually, in Konoha there are three groups: the non-clan nins fall into two different categories. There's the Honshoku-Nins, they're the multi-generation families that send their children to the Academy to become shinobi. The others are the children that come from ordinary civilian families, aspiring to become nins."

Yuugao paused in thought and continued, "Between those two types, the Honshoku's typically adopt the customs and bylaws of the Clan families they admire. They also get a certain amount of forbearance by the Hokage. In either case, relationships between nins isn't quite the same as marriage; most kunoichi's choose to retire upon marrying, or deciding that they want a child. With Genin, and the higher ranks, it's slightly different. Since all nins are adults, relationships are neither encouraged, nor discouraged... although a nin's parents might have something to say about it."

Yuugao stood up. "However, with Genin Teams, the attitude of their particular Jonin-sensei is a deciding factor. There's no common opinion on the subject, but all worthwhile Jonin-sensei's will say something if a Genin couple is focusing more on each other, instead of becoming skilled nins."

Kakashi added, "Or it's harming the group dynamic of the Jonin Team, that's why some Jonin-sensei insist that all their Genin be of the same sex."

Jeri considered all the information, and the term Yuugao had used, recalling the meaning of the word. "That makes sense to me, anything that interferes with professional conduct should be frowned upon. And, we have the exact same tradition; it goes by several different names, military families; or army, navy, and marine families... they can have a tradition of service with one particular branch, or just military service in general." Jeri smiled fondly. "I come from an army family... our service goes back at least 8 generations, that I know of."

Kakashi eye-smiled and nodded in appreciation. "In Konoha, such a family would be accorded great respect, even from the clan nins. In fact, that was one of the reasons why there was no resistance to Minato-sensei becoming the Yondaime Hokage... he was the first non-clan nin to earn the rank of Hokage. He came from a Honshoku family outside of Konoha. They lived in an allied village near Amegakure, run by the Kohaku Clan; his family sent him to here to get an Academy education."

Shiho, walking up with a steaming cup of tea added, "I'm fairly sure that his being a genuine hero, and a brilliant shinobi didn't hurt either." She added a smile, "He inspired me to become a nin..." She frowned slightly. "...even though I wasn't the best field kunoichi to come out of the Academy."

"Ma ma, Shiho-san..." Kakashi waved his hand. "...your job as a code-breaker is just as important as any other nin in Konoha; perhaps more so." She blushed lightly at his praise.

x

Gaara quietly watched the interplay of the Konoha nins... what struck him was the family-like air between them, unlike the cold cohesion of Suna nins. Both Villages had order and discipline, but not the same level of... closeness. He decided to investigate this further, though he wasn't sure how to go about it.

Then there was the matter of the strangers, they also merited further scrutiny. He nodded to himself. 'Going to where Naruto is should gain me more insight.' He covertly watched his sister's give-and-take with the other man for a few moments. Von Krieger sparked his curiosity... learning more about Konoha's newest allies would be a must for Suna.

x

Gaara broke his watchful silence. "I've prepared myself to visit Naruto... I wish to go now."

As everyone turned to face him, Jeri stood up and whistled loudly. After he caught Ric's eye, Jeri made a hand-sign that his boss acknowledged with a nod. After a moment of reflection, Jeri asked, "Don't we have to wait for Sakura-san's return to operate the Stargate?"

Shiho smiled and replied, "Not really, I've learned how to operate the computer program that'll send the proper ID code to SGC, and I know the glyphs for Earth's address by heart. I'll input them into the DHD for you."

Gaara nodded at that, and began walking towards Temari and Ric.

x

End Chapter 14

Author's Notes: I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter. You noticed it's shorter than the others, this is because of an almost last minute decision to split 'Ripples' into 2 chapters so the focus could be sharpened on the main events... in this case, Gaara. Chap 15 will be 'Ripples: Part 2' and focus on Gaara's trip to SGC, and Jeri's visit to Konoha. Both sides are important to the story, as I hope most of you are following along the main plot, and various sub-plots weaving everything together. This is VERY difficult to do and I hope some of you are catching all the hints being dropped throughout the chapters at upcoming events, both large and small.

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Editor/Co-author's Notes: I'm a tad disappointed that nobody took a stab at ID'ing the OC's in chapter 13... oh well, it'll become clearer in the next chapter. And BTW, I've done some hard searching and there is NO Namikaze Clan, that is strictly a fanon invention (...which is okay by me); hence the presenting of my AU version of the origin of the Yondaime Hokage (and the creation of the Honshoku Nins, adding a new layer to Konoha nin social structure).

And for those readers out there who are wondering where the 'age of consent' number came from, the age of 12 was the standard in Japan until the early 20th Century... so that settles the issue of what constitutes 'jail-bait' in this AU. And, just happens to coincide with the typical age of an Academy graduate. I'll let you decide if Kishimoto-sensei had that in mind when he created Naruto's world.

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Replies to our reviewers:

Author Replies:

Adrian Nightshade: I'll put up a pic of the new village emblem sometime this month, linked to my profile.

stalin 44: Thanks, but the bulk of the military stuff (not from SG1) is from my Co-Author, so I'll let him handle this part of the reply.

MWkillkenny84: Again, this is more my Co-Author's area... and he'd give a better answer anyway. LOL

Gespenster Jager: Your clever idea has been duly noted, thanks. Is a good chance this will be used in a future chapter... once we get everything rolling on the Earth visits.

Dany le fou: Um... ya, I have to agree on the nuclear issue. That's in the 'Last Resort' file.

Deathmvp: The bulk of the reply I'll let my Co-Author handle... but I will say that I'm a little offended you'd call chapter 13 'filler', that makes me want to grab a bar of soap and... Anyway, due to its complexity we can't always focus on Naruto and/or Hinata (though they are the stars of the fic) everything needs to be developed, not just them. I'll say this once... this fic has no 'filler' chapters.

ShadowFreddyRaven: Please repeat... in English. *scratches head in confusion*

Kyren: I defer again to my Co-Author.

Co-author's Replies:

zigmas: Hopefully, this chapter will answer your question about Naruto's return... Madara is one scary dude... believe it.

Kyren: I believe my PM to you addressed your thoughtful points. Thanks again for your input.

Albert da Snake: My my... you are an impatient one, ain't ya? Don't worry, everything in its proper time.

And don't worry about the Uzumaki's (or the Senju's), they're out there... somewhere. *Bwahahahahahaha*

zmanjz: As to your one point, prod Mike on that issue... the SG1 side of the story is his baby.

Glad you like the OC's, there's more come about them (as revealed in this chapter). There's a lot of details to bring out, at the proper time & place. And thanks for your other point, everything is in the story for a reason... even if it seems like filler, it ain't.

ShadowFreddyRaven: De nada... y gracias.

Deathmvp: 'filler'...? Evidently you've never watched Meteor Hunters... there's 4 & 5-figure rocks lurking amongst the weeds you're ignoring. Ninja vs SysLords... I've done that dance already. And don't worry about the guns thing... all the choices will marry up well with those Narutoverse characters getting one.

narutorasatard: Glad somebody thinks so... unlike others.

MWkillkenny84: That's a classic question... what are the mooks more afraid of... the enemy, or their boss? (the Kull don't count, they're not scared of anything). As to your one question... wait and see. *Hehehehehehe*

x-marks-the-spot1974: Thanks... my Muse appreciates it.

stalin 44: Thanks... been there, done that (and got the T-shirt). The MP5 & M4SOG are good weapons, but with Naruto, a weapon should compliment him, that's the rub in picking out just the right one for him.

The other thing to bear in mind is that it's 2003 and many of the weapons I really like don't exist yet. Keeping tech in sync with the story time-line is a major aspect of my research when I write.

snowecat: Now that, is a compliment. Thank you very much.

And to everybody else who took the time to review, many thanks... don't be a stranger, put your 2 cents in for this chapter.

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Glossary/Translations:

oryoki - [Jap.] (A monk's) begging bowl

"I bolshe ne trahay strannih princess bez moevo razreshenia." - "Don't fuck any strange princesses without my permission."

shakhmaty - [Russ.] Chess

BATF - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (The 'shine, smokes, and gun police.)

fifty-cals - [slang for] The M2HB .50 caliber heavy machine gun (A time-tested classic from Mr. Browning.)

Honshoku - [Jap.] 'professional' (The 'blue collar' nins of Konoha...)