Chapter 15: The Sting of Defeat

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or HSDK, or any characters or logos associated with either series. This fan story is made for fun, not profit.

Naruto sighed a he stared up at the sky, quietly thinking about last week's battle. Several days had gone by since their crushing defeat at the hands of a former friend, and the disciples of Konoha had been left with no choice but to explain to their masters what had happened that day. It wasn't as if keeping it a secret would make a difference, but Naruto had been reluctant to say anything. He had no desire to relive everything. The look of pure malice in Sasuke's eyes had sent a shiver down his spine, as if their friendship had happened in another lifetime altogether.

The blonde-haired disciple was lying in the dojo yard, relaxing on the grassy hill where Master Guy kept the karate posts. After several more minutes of idle gazing, he stood up and began pounding his fists against the largest target, his entire body burning with frustration as he considered what Sasuke had said to them. It was ridiculous to imagine that he had turned to the Satsujinken, just because he didn't think much of Konoha. It confused even more trying to figure out what his friend meant by saying that they couldn't give him the tools he needed. They were one of the world's greatest dojos and had trained only the most powerful disciples for ages.

"I just don't get it!" he seethed out loud, the force of his fists violently rattling the pole.

His reaction was hardly unique among the students, who were all drastically affected by the new developments. Ino had been unusually interested in gardening lately, staying long hours tending the school's greenhouse away from the dojo. Sakura buried herself in schoolwork when not training, although even when she was forced to continue by Tsunade, her heart no longer appeared to be in it. Although she wasn't affected as much as the others for obvious reasons, Hinata found herself left alone more often due to the moping of her friends.

Shikamaru continued his life as usual in an attempt to ignore the troubles that had arisen, having taken the responsibility to act as the constant in the hopes that he could anchor the others back into their normal routines. The other boys had intensified their training to insane degrees, with Naruto, Lee, and Choji regularly sparring to vent frustration out on each other while keeping their skills sharp at all times. It had gotten so carried away lately that Sarutobi had to put his foot down when they brawled over a bowl of rice at the dinner table.

Konoha's top student exhaled deeply, his eyes lost in the clouds once more. He had never felt so helpless his entire life. Even that Neji guy had been too much for him, and more surprisingly, someone he had defeated had proved a better match. It not only made him wonder about Kenichi, but also about his own skills as a fighter. Doubt wasn't something Naruto experienced often, and he was hating it.

"Why can't I wrap my head around this!?" he screamed towards the sky, throwing his arms in the air.

"Sheesh, and I thought you couldn't be more of a knucklehead." A bored voice spoke from behind him.

Naruto glanced over his shoulder and frowned. "Oh, it's just you." He replied with a note of disappointment. "Something going on, Shikamaru?"

"I just finished training with Asuma when he told me to come find you for something."

"Care to explain what's going on, or do I have to guess?" he asked with a blank expression.

"I'll get to that in a minute, but there's something I wanna say first." The genius cracked his neck and moved so that he was back was facing Naruto. "I noticed how distracted you've been since that mess with Sasuke last week."

"Who wouldn't be? Finding out someone you knew became a murderer isn't exactly easy to swallow, especially since he used to be one of my best friends."

Shikamaru turned to face him his hands in his pockets. "We've all been affected by this new development, but what I'm really trying to say is that you're letting it get the best of you."

The blonde's expression dropped suddenly, his eyes narrowing. "What the Hell are you going on about, now?" He clenched his fist. "For the past week we've been training ten times harder than usual to handle those Team Hebi jerks, but you're talking about is as if I've given up!"

"I never said you weren't." the other teen replied with an indifferent look, taking a moment to pull his hands from his pockets. "I noticed you've been distracted lately. It's not your fault, but you've been letting the news about Sasuke distract you to the point where your techniques have become sloppy and unfocused."

"I've got all I need to handle you!" Naruto stomped the ground with an aggressive scowl.

The genius reluctantly raised his hands in a boxing stance, having guessed it would take more than a few harsh words to convince his thick-skulled friend. Just because he disliked conflict, didn't mean he would shy away so easily when it was necessary. "If you think it'll prove your point, I'm willing to spare a moment."

"That's more than it'll take for me to knock you down." Naruto thrust his right fist forward with an excited expression. "This last week of Hellish training taught me how to increase the power of my punches using my anger. I can perform some real haymakers now that make my old stuff look tame."

Shikamaru effortlessly dodged the flurry of punches that followed, his eyes widening slightly as he felt the force of the blows in the surrounding air. It was true that Naruto's swings had become noticeably stronger than before, although still not much when compared to a master, it was still a sight to behold. Of course at the same time they were woefully predictable and sloppy, making it easy to follow and not particularly threatening.

The dark-haired disciple waited for a moment before finding an opening and thrusting his own fist into it, landing a direct strike on Naruto's forehead. The force of the blow sent him sprawling backwards the wooden post behind him, causing him to stumble over it while landing on his head. Recovering quickly, Konoha's top student comically sprang back to his feet and prepared to continue, the delayed response of the punch causing him to grab his forehead and scream in pain moments later.

"That was a dirty punch!" Naruto shouted with an angry glare. After locking eyes with his visitor for a moment or two, the blonde found himself feeling suddenly calmer. "Sorry!" he began with an irritable wince. "You're right! I guess I have been a little bit distracted by this mess lately."

The lazy disciple took a moment to loosen his wrists before returning his hands to his pockets. "I had a feeling it would take a bump to the head to illustrate my point. Glad you figured it out before we had to go a few rounds, because I really wasn't in the mood to exert myself on the likes of you."

"Don't get cocky! Just because I said you were right, doesn't mean I couldn't beat you down if we kept going."

"Well look who's being cocky now?" Shikamaru raised an eyebrow with a lack of interest, his boredom with the topic becoming more apparent by the second now that it had been resolved. He turned his back to the flustered boy and began walking away.

"Thanks for snapping me out of it. I guess al I needed was a demonstration." Naruto smiled his trademark grin before batting a thumbs-up sign at his fellow disciple.

The other teen sweat dropped as he caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye, guessing that the blonde had been spending too much time with Master Guy. The busy-browed master had made that one of his trademark poses, and at this point it had been done to death. At the same time, Shikamaru was satisfied that he had gotten through to his stubborn friend so easily, but then again it was times like this that was glad for Naruto's simplicity. Not only was Konoha's top student easy to read, but also very easy to manipulate if you knew how to rile him up.

Shikamaru turned again, realizing how close he came to forgetting the other reason he went looking for his friend. "Hey… There's one more thing I needed to tell you."

"You wanna spar again! This time I'll be ready for your fancy footwork!"

"Not even close, knucklehead." He dismissed the notion without a moment's hesitation. "Asuma told me that the old man wanted to talk to you for a minute."

Naruto blinked twice before scratching his head. "Did they explain what this is all about, or was it meant to be some nasty surprise training session?" he paled at the thought.

The genius shrugged his shoulders. "Hell if I know. The masters want you to show up in the main building as soon as possible. Asuma didn't say anything else, and since it wasn't really my concern, I didn't bother asking questions."

"You mean it's not your concern to look out for the well being of your friends?" the blonde reiterated incredulously.

Shikamaru spun around again, choosing to ignore this last comment rather than dignify it with an answer. "Later…" he muttered nonchalantly, not even bothering to spare another glance.

Naruto watched his friend leave with a light-hearted smile, having long gotten used to the genius and his general lack of expression. After dusting off his shorts in an attempt to look somewhat presentable, he headed down the hill towards the main dojo building where the elder usually spent his days practicing and smoking a pipe. Despite his age, Hiruzen trained diligently in solitude everyday in order to keep his skills sharp, something that all of his students and fellow masters couldn't help but admire.

As Konoha's top disciple approached the front doors, he could make out a series of blurred movements so fast that his eyes couldn't completely follow. As if sensing his presence, the elder seemed to materialize directly in front of Naruto, a grandfatherly smile gracing his wizened old features. Sarutobi took a step forward leaning on his staff to support his weight, and nudged open the front doors welcomingly.

"I see you came on time… Please do come in." Hiruzen ushered his student forward in a hospitable manner, prompting the boy to remove his shoes.

Naruto noticed that Sarutobi was carrying himself with a sense of frailty as usual, silently wondering how he could move with such inhuman speed at one moment, while appearing old and brittle seconds later. All of Konoha's students had heard rumors of the old man's legendary strength from their respective teachers, but none of them had ever seen him in battle. Even Guy had once shuddered while recounting the grandmaster's past life, having personally witnessed the event firsthand.

The sound of the elder's staff echoed across the wooden floor as he stepped past Naruto, his demeanor as kind and lighthearted as ever. "If you would be so kind as to follow me, we have some important things to discuss."

"I didn't do anything wrong, did I?" the blonde slumped his shoulders with a grimace.

"If you speak of that battle with the Uchiha boy and his companions, than I digress." Hiruzen replied with a dismissive gesture, his expression becoming much more serious moments later. "One of the more powerful incentives to become stronger is experiencing the sting of defeat. A man like me can understand this even more due to experience."

The younger fighter took a while to let this sink in, but his mind quickly returned to something interesting he had heard about the old man. Although it took him a moment to come up with the courage to ask, he eventually decided to go with it. "I remember hearing from Master Jiraiya that Hayato Furinji never once lost a fight."

"To my knowledge that is most certainly true, but he is only a single person among several billion humans living on this planet. The majority of us have not only experienced defeat, but learned from it as well. I am certain that your friend Lee would be more than happy to testify to this, considering what he was like when we first began his training."

Naruto understood the principle all too well, having struggled himself at times. Master Jiraiya had acknowledged him as a very talented fighter from their first few lessons years ago, although even possessing a strong lineage and natural ability did little to make the training any easier. The perverted sage had seen to that, knowing that the only way to bring out a fighter's true potential was through tough experiences.

As he followed the elder up the stairs, they entered the hallway leading to his workspace. The old master opened the door and took a seat the wooden table, gesturing for Naruto to take the other chair. The blonde disciple couldn't help but admire the portraits positioned on the opposite wall, the faces of the dojo's grandmasters having admired them since he was a toddler. To the far right was the face of his father Minato Namikaze, followed by a young Hiruzen, Tobirama Senju, and his older brother Hashirama Senju.

Hiruzen smiled proudly as he noticed where the boy's attention was. After taking a moment to admire the pictures, the old man let out a hoarse yet cheerful laugh that quickly caught his charge's attention. "You're the same as ever, aren't you?" he began happily. "Even as a child, you couldn't help but feel inspired by the great fighters of the past."

Naruto grinned widely. "I plan on becoming the best one day. I vowed as a child to surpass everyone on that wall, even you and my father."

"You're well on your way, my friend." Watching this boy, the elder silently remembered the distant days of his own youth when he had said the same thing. After all, one of the most precious things to a master was hearing their own words repeated by a student.

"I don't think so… All those guys… I'll never be as good as them." The disciple's expression suddenly dropped as the past battles replayed in his mind, his confidence wavering slightly as the pain of Neji's palm strikes reverberated through his body.

"That's hardly the type of speech I would expect from this institution's top student. What makes you say something like that?"

He grit his teeth and looked down, the feelings of helplessness returning. "I've been talking big for years, but when it came time to fight for real, I couldn't do anything."

Sarutobi took out his pipe and lit it, taking in a breath of smoke to relax his nerves. He could feel the tension emanating from the boy, and it was beginning to spread. "That is precisely the reason why I called you here today."

"Why? To tell me that I'll never become a true martial artist if I can't even save a single friend." Naruto added gloomily.

"A true martial artist stands up upon defeat and continues aiming to become stronger."

"Haven't you been watching us this past week. We've been training up a storm in order to defeat Sasuke and that band of jerks."

The elder nodded once, gently exhaling a mouthful of tobacco-filled smoke. "I admire your spirit, but motivation without proper guidance can sometimes prove more harmful in the wrong situation." He considered the boy for a second before removing the pipe from his mouth. "The day your friends fought with that gang, a strong power awoke within you."

Naruto frowned again, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Sheesh… What on Earth are you going on about now? The only thing I remember happening was getting my face rearranged and my internal organs crushed."

"From the deck of my living quarters, I sensed a powerful explosion of ki rippling across the city like an electric current. Everyone of Konoha's masters felt it."

"Are sure it wasn't Sasuke?" he asked with a look of mild disbelief.

"We have long been aware of your nature as a fighter. There is no doubt in my mind that the power we felt was your inner ki awakening. Dou-type fighters such as yourself rely on emotions to fuel their rage. These strong feelings of passion and aggression are the source of strength for those who walk the path of Dou. Certainly you have come to understand this much through personal experience in the heat of battle."

The young fighter leaned forward interestedly. "Really!? What exactly does that mean?"

"Most people unlock this power at a later age, but the sheer emotional strain you suffered from the pain of loss and the betrayal of a friend has caused this ability to awaken much sooner than any of us had anticipated." Hiruzen set down his pipe and tucked his hands behind his back. "I believe it is best that we adjust your training so that you will learn to exert a level of control over this power."

"If it helps me get stronger, I'm in!" Naruto responded, his face displaying signs of satisfaction for the first time in a while. He crunched his knuckles together. "Next time I see those creeps, it's payback time for what they did to my friends!"

The elder sighed wearily, although he didn't seem entirely upset by the reaction either. "I admire your spirit, but first we must begin by training you to overcome some of your more fundamental shortcomings. Before you master a new power, you must learn how to take full advantage of that which you already possess."

"Just what I that supposed to mean, old man?" the blonde questioned, sounding both insulted and curious at the same time. "I know we got our butts handed to us back there, but learning new moves might give us as edge next time."

"Do not misunderstand… The next phase of your training will be more beneficial if you can overcome that which has held you back." Upon seeing the boy's confused expression, he decided to elaborate with an example his student would certainly understand. "Master Jiraiya said that you defeated Kenichi Shirahama in your sparring match. At the same time, you claimed to have been helpless against an opponent that Ryozanpaku's Disciple was able to combat."

"Yeah I guess… but… … Wait a minute! How did you even find out about that? Master Guy, granny Tsunade, and the old perv said they weren't going to tell you about it!"

"I've known those kids for the majority of their lives and a good portion of my own. You'll find it very difficult to keep secrets from a man like me, especially within the walls of this dojo." The elder replied with a feeling of self-pride. "I've always done well to practice my stealth skills everyday in case the purpose to use it arises."

Naruto blushed slightly as he remembered some of the embarrassing things he had said and done over the years before shaking his head indignantly. "Sheesh old man, sometimes you're even scarier than the weird snake lady."

Sarutobi let out a hoarse laugh before patting the boys shoulder. "Before we wander too far into that territory, I think it would be best to address the main issue at hand. Tell me, do you believe that the Shirahama boy was stronger than you as a martial artist?"

"I guess not, considering I still managed to beat him during our fight. Don't know if he was holding back or not, but even then it was his choice too…" He reasoned shakily while wearing a confounded look. "Come to think of it, you still didn't answer my other question.

"Ah yes, I was hoping you would come back to that. The point I was trying to make earlier is that your skill sets were lacking in an area in which Kenichi Shirahama was more than capable, hence why he was able to match an opponent that you found exceedingly difficult to even touch, let alone defeat."

"Big deal, so what if he can do things that I can't. So long as I keep training, my skills will keep growing and I won't need to worry about people weaker than me."

"Wrong!" the elder suddenly raised a hand, shaking his head grimly. "Becoming overconfident no matter how powerful you are as a fighter can have disastrous consequences. No doubt every master you have trained with up until this point has warned you of these dangers."

Naruto sat back down and sighed with acceptance before resting his hands on his knees. "So what should I do then?"

"You must overcome this hurtle! We gave you your title because every master here saw in you the markings of greatness. The time has come for you to prove yourself worthy of holding the title of Konoha's Number One Disciple!"

"I'm ready for whatever training you guys have for me! Just tell me what we need to do."

He drew himself up to his full height, standing a little straighter despite his age. "The first step is to teach you how to combat opponents who utilize strong defensive tactics. From what you were able to tell us, that Hyuga Prodigy's strong abilities served as a perfect counter to your naturally aggressive fighting style."

Naruto looked down, subconsciously caressing the spot on his chest where he had been struck by Neji's palm. "That guy…" he muttered with a note of bitterness. "I almost lost an arm just to score one lousy hit on the dude, but even then I still couldn't gain the upper hand."

"This is because your most common tactic is to smash through the opponent's guard. When this strategy didn't work, you were forced to take more drastic measures."

"Maybe if I had taken that same chance earlier in the fight, I could've knocked him out with a single punch."

The elder shook his head again, the boy's display of ignorance only providing more evidence as to why he needed their help. "Tenacity is crucial in the martial arts, and I admire your possession of this quality, but technique and strategy is equally important."

"Who says I don't use technique!? Of course I do!" Naruto began with an irritable look.

"You are impatient in the midst of battle, and eager to lash out at your opponents. In order to defeat a member of the Hyuga Family like Hinata's cousin, you must first learn the basic principles behind their abilities." He paused for a moment and inclined his head with a stern expression. "Therefore, you will begin your training with Kurenai tomorrow afternoon."

"I wasn't scheduled to start learning the Baguazhang style until next month!"

"Considering you have been targeted by a prodigy who trains in that style, it has become a necessity for you to understand the movements."

"The basics won't be enough against this guy! He mixes his style with the Seikuken to make an impenetrable area around his body. Even if I know how it works, it'll take too long to learn how to master it to that extent!"

Hiruzen stood up from his seat, his expression unchanged. "Knowing the fundamentals of the Baguazhang style will help you understand your opponent better, and thus aid in your training to counter it. We do not expect you to gain that level of mastery in a short amount of time."

The corners of Naruto's mouth drooped. "Gee… Thanks for the vote of confidence, gramps."

"It is simply unrealistic to believe that you could learn to be as proficient as Neji in such a short period of time. He is a prodigy the likes of which the world rarely sees, and has no doubt trained his entire life in order to reach that level of mastery."

The blonde disciple clenched his fists and scowled. "I'll do whatever it takes to defeat him, that's a promise! The big jerk attacked Hinata and called her useless. I don't know what kind of guy would do that to his own cousin, but no one picks on my friends and gets away with it!"

The scenario replayed itself in Naruto's mind as he remembered the condition he found his friends upon arriving on the battlefield. They had all taken severe beatings from Team Hebi, some of them bleeding or unconscious. According to Sakura, the Sumo wrestler Thor from the Shinpaku Alliance had come close to dying from the internal injuries dealt by the enemy's towering enforcer. Knowing that he had once considered Sasuke his best friend made him sick to the stomach, since it had been the very same boy who ordered this horrific attack.

Sarutobi's words quickly cut through his thoughts, bring the boy back to the present. "Since your battle with the young Hyuga was unresolved, he will no doubt seek you out again to remedy the situation. If I am correct, it will be sooner than later, hence the urgency of this training!"

Naruto jabbed at the air aggressively, his passion returning. "Then let's get this new training regimen started as soon as possible!"

"That is precisely our intentions." The elder replied with a tiny nod, his robes shifting as he shuffled over to the door. "Until then, it's a glorious day outside! You really should go and enjoy yourself for the time being. Take advantage of it while you can… When the next phase of your training begins, you may not have the time to laze about!"

"I'm ready for it! Don't worry, it'll take a lot more than one measly loss to keep someone like me down for the count!"

"Just what I would expect from the son of the Yellow Flash." Hiruzen nodded with a cheerful expression, once again glad to see that his judgment about the boy had been correct. The sound of screams coming from outside quickly caught their attention, causing the old fighter to turn to the window. "Hmmm… I wonder what all that racket could be?"

Naruto joined him, his eye widening as he caught sight of something he never would've expected in a million years. "What the Hell is that!" The bottom of his mouth dropped onto the floor.

On the grounds below Tsunade was angrily pursing someone, her image appearing only for a second as she pursued a blur darting across the dojo grounds. Whenever the second shape tried to escape the grounds, Tsunade would immediately intercept it, causing the mystery intruder to run in the opposite direction. Although Naruto could barely make out what was going on, the elder seemed highly amused by the proceedings.

"What's all that about?" Naruto watched as the chase moved out of sight.

"Some things are better left unsaid, although I would recommend you avoid getting involved at all costs. Heaven knows what happened, but even I have no intention to step into such chaos."

The busty woman paused for a moment shaking her first, her eyes alive with murderous intent. "Taking picture of a naked woman in the privacy of her own home, how much lower can you get?" she screamed, causing her target to slow down.

A man wearing a green Chinese uniform and a bowler hat appeared several meters away, waving his hand profusely. "This isn't what you think!" he blurted out, ducking the side and weaving around as she crossed the gap and began swinging at his head. "I can explain!"

"Go to Hell, you damned pervert!" she screamed, her hand reducing a boulder to rubble as she missed her opponent and struck the rock.

Kensei Ma used his diminutive size to scoot past her again. "I told you it's not my fault!" he moved his head, backing away from her while painstakingly dodging each consecutive blow. "Don't do anything you might regret!" he screamed with a panicked expression before bursting out. "It was all Jiraiya's fault!"

Tsunade froze suddenly, a large vein pulsing on her forehead. She grit her teeth before grabbing the smaller man by the front of his shirt. "Did you just say what I thought you said?" she glared into his eyes.

"I would appreciate it if you let me go first!" she released him, giving the Chinese Master a moment to dust himself off and straighten up.

"Spit it out, you little weasel!" She swallowed her irritation and folded her arms, doing the best to resist the temptation to strike out at him again.

"The truth is, I lost a bet to Jiraiya the other day when that blonde knucklehead defeated my own disciple. It's typically not my style to take pictures of older women, no matter how many rejuvenation techniques they use to preserve their youth." He shook his head, jumping just in time to avoid a kick as she reacted to the insult. "Eek! My apologies, Lady Tsunade."

"Cut the crap! You're seriously trying to tell me that the old toad asked you to take nude pictures of me? That's sounds too low, even for him!"

"Hey Kensei, did you get the pictures?" Jiraiya stepped out from behind a corner, his eyes widening in terror when he caught sight of who was standing there. The shorter man waved his hands as if trying to signal him, but his fellow pervert was too busy babbling incoherently. "Shit, why did I let my guard down?" he cursed himself.

"So this was your doing, Jiraiya!" Tsunade turned on him, the force of her killing intent causing the ground to quake violently.

Jiraiya leaned back defensively like a cornered animal before trying to rationalize things in his favor. "In my defense, I wasn't the one holding the camera. But even so, is it really a crime to admire the beauty of the female form, especially one as perfect as yours?"

"I've prefer someone a little younger. A more genuine beauty unspoiled by the test of time, if you know what I mean?" Kensei added, stroking his mustache with a thoughtful expression while glancing at his old friend. "What do you say to that Jiraiya?"

The other man stroked his chin, as he seized the topic. "Hmmm… You bring up a pretty good point, however I have to disagree. Sometimes age adds a certain level of maturity and self-confidence that can be infinitely more attractive than the young and inexperienced appearance of the typical high school girl."

Tsunade placed a hand on his shoulder, her grip tightening menacingly as her temper began rising again. "Are you two seriously doing this in front of me?"

The two perverts glanced back at her, their eyes alive with bone-chilling fear as the angry woman crunched her knuckles and began stomping towards them. Without warning Kensei Ma vanished in a flash of green, his smaller form bolting through the gates of Konoha in the blink of an eye. Jiraiya leapt backwards to avoid a kick to the gut and followed suit, the two men running like cowards through the streets.

"You ratted me out, didn't you?" Jiraiya screamed, with a look of outrage.

"All you said was that I had to take the pictures and giving them to you! You didn't say anything about me keeping your dirty little secrets."

The older master mentally slapped himself before quickening his pace. "I figured it wouldn't have been a problem for the world's greatest master of Chinese Martial Arts." He glanced over his shoulder, noting the speeding wall of ki falling closely behind. "Crap she's gaining!"

"Why the Hell is she after me? You're the one who came up with this stupid idea!" Kensei smirked as he noticed the camera around his neck, gently giving it a toss towards his companion. He grinned when Jiraiya instinctually caught it. "I'm betting she wants the photos more than my ass. This is where we part ways, old friend!"

"Wait a minute! What are you doing?" Jiraiya fumbled with camera, his expression dropping as he realized the ramifications of what just happened. "You dirty rat!"

"Be certain to stop by Akisame's Clinic once she's finished destroying you!" Kensei tipped his hat like a gentleman before vaulted over a nearby building, smiling with satisfaction as the chase continued on without him. He wiped the sweat from his brow and took off. "Have fun, Jiraiya!"

"You'll pay for this!" the white-haired master called out, his complexion paling as the woman behind him drew closer. With one last spurt of strength, he jumped into the air and seemingly disappeared entirely, leaving her fuming in the streets by herself. He pressed his back against the wall as she ran by, taking a moment to breathe. "Today has to be the second time in my life I ever thought I was going to die…"

Meanwhile…

Loki stood in the middle of Team Hebi's main meeting room, beads of sweat running down his forehead as the others bore down on him. He could feel the tension in the air growing when no one spoke right away, only furthering the lurch of dread in his stomach. Today's meeting was to address last week's event more thoroughly. Although their leader had shrugged off the escape of their two most important prisoners, the marks Loki received from his punishment had yet to fade.

Sasuke sat on the raised dais with his eyes closed and his hands folded as if he were meditating, his underlings standing two separate lines on both sides of the room's crimson carpet. Several torches on the walls of the darkened room flickered as they burned away, casting malevolent shadows over the hooded figures. Karin snickered in amusement from beneath her cloak, but dared not to break the silence of the assembly until their leader was ready.

As if sensing her intentions, the Devil Fist raised his hand and began to speak. "It appears you've been punished enough, Loki… Therefore I am releasing you from house arrest. You are once again free to participate in any gang activities, and will be allowed you to seek medical attention if you deem in necessary."

"That's very generous of you." The former Fourth Fist bowed with a scheming expression, his previous fear evaporating. "I do have some suggestions that might prove quite affective, if you are willing to let me present my prior knowledge of our potential enemies."

The Uchiha acknowledged him with a small nod before shifting his gaze to the other side of the room. "There is still the matter of your punishment, isn't that right, Shino?"

"I already accepted the beating you scheduled. What else could you possibly want from me?"

Sasuke sat back with a relaxed demeanor. "There are a few loose ends that need to tie up before engaging the Shinpaku Alliance, and I believe that you two should be the ones to handle it."

"Shino remained undaunted by the notion. "If I were to guess… You want us to recapture Haku and Kiba. Am I correct?"

"Not exactly what I had in mind." Their leader replied with a sneer, his eyes widening with a sense of madness. "I want them dead!"

"Sounds like an appropriate enough mission, although it's been awhile since those guys ran off." Loki pondered out loud, exchanging a quick glance with the others. "If they had half a brain, the traitors probably would've left town by now. I'm telling you now, there's no way I'm getting involved if we have to search the entire country for those losers!"

Karin placed her hands on her hips and shook her head. "I'm certain the boss has a plan. If you two stooges actually took a moment to listen, maybe you would learn something."

"You both seem to misunderstand the situation." Sasuke replied in an emotionless drawl, his words quickly silencing the others. "The traitors both share a certain dislike of Team Hebi in itself, despite having joined us for different reasons. Due to this, I believe they will remain close by order to interfere with our operations."

Kimimaro exhaled deeply as he assessed the situation in his mind. "I think I understand now. You wish to lure them out of hiding so that we can deal with them one a more permanent basis?"

"Or hunt them down… No matter what approach you choose, the end result is all that matters." The boss replied without an ounce of sympathy. He shifted his attention to the two men standing in the center of the room. "I'm giving you the liberty to accomplish this by any means necessary. You can work with that, right?"

Loki snickered with an evil grin. "No limitation then? That makes things a lot more fun for me!"

Before the other man could answer, Suigetsu stepped forward aggressively. "It's been a while since I've had some fieldwork. Let me in on this action, too!"

"You just want to take the credit for yourself!" the goggled man retorted.

"No, I've just been having too much fun testing my new meddle to say no this opportunity." The shark-like man explained with a merciless expression. "If you kids have a problem with me tagging along, I can always put you down instead."

"That would be the reasoning of a savage…" the Hyuga clansmen commented haughtily.

The swordsman's expression became suddenly hostile as reached for his blade. "Would you rather fight me, Neji?"

"Do not tempt me, for I would like nothing more right now than to silence that tongue."

"That's enough of that." Jugo stepped forward, his hulking presence bringing the others back to their senses. "You know the rules of Team Hebi; fighting is prohibited among the leaders when not authorized by our leader."

Sasuke stood up suddenly, causing the others to return to their places in line. "I approve of your involvement Suigetsu, so long as you do not act independently from the group. As Jugo just said, you will not be forgiven should you disobey orders and attack your own teammates. Am I understood?"

"Yeah, sure thing." The shark-like man waved the notion aside with a bored expression.

"I think it may be best to include you, since our third target is someone you know all too well. Hermit has recently been attacking members of our organization while searching for information concerning our whereabouts."

"Oh yeah, I owe that dude big time!" Suigetsu bared his teeth angrily at the memory of the beating he had received during their last encounter. "He's dead when I catch up to him!"

"He's probably still angry at me after I used him to fight my battles a while back." Loki explained through grit teeth as he remembered the scene at the abandoned church. He had lied in order to force Hermit into helping him, only for Odin to ruin everything. "Damn them!"

"I'm a little surprised you're leaving the task up to them, especially considering that you expressed the desire to kill them all yourself." Karin mused.

The Devil Fist inclined his head slowly. "That reminds me… I actually have some business to handle outside of town, and will be absent for a short period of time."

She straightened her glasses with a knowing expression. "You've been learning martial arts from the Serpent God himself. Does this have anything to do with your training for the syndicate?"

He nodded to affirm that she was correct. "My master wishes to continue our experiments in pushing the boundaries of the human body, and I remain his most successful disciple in this regard." He explained, giving them just enough information without revealing too much. "Due to my time training with the master, I leave Jugo in charge in my absence."

"You mean to have him act as your proxy?" Kagero asked in her neutral tones.

"I have entrusted him with this duty knowing that he will not produce any radical decisions without my approval. Of course, if anyone here has a problem with my decision, they are free to challenge him for the right to lead." He beckoned the group, resulting in a wall of silence.

While the majority of them wouldn't have minded the authority, none were willing to challenge the giant fighter's strength. His power far outclassed the majority of them, and none were willing to risk dying for something so pointless. Although he wasn't a killer by nature, Jugo was more than capable of taking lives so long as their leader gave him the order. Even worse was his rage mode, during which he lost all inhibitions and would kill anything that moved.

"I'm glad to see we have an understanding." Sasuke replied calmly, his gaze shifting to the man standing to his right. "So Neji, I'm a little curious about the abilities of our two largest targets. You fought Kenichi Shirahama and my idiot former friend if I remember correctly. Give me your assessment of their abilities."

"It was unusual…" he began, earning a series of snickers from the others. "Kenichi Shirahama displayed unusual strength for someone with no inherent talent or lineage in the martial arts. In comparison, Naruto Uzumaki comes of noble stock and was severely lacking in his fighting abilities. Neither of them would have measured up had we had continued, of that I am certain."

"I seem to recall you received an injury from the blonde kid." Suigetsu added snarkily, causing the other man's eye to twitch. "If he was so bad at fighting, then you must really be slipping. To think one of Team Hebi's Archdemons would let himself get decked by untalented trash."

Neji refused to take the bait. "He was only able to penetrate my defense by sacrificing a limb. If this is the limitation of his abilities, I am certain even someone like you could defeat him."

"It'll be more than you were able to do." The swordsman retorted, his sharpened teeth showing.

"Having your fight interrupted by another person tends to complicate the situation. Perhaps you are incapable of even comprehending the most simplistic concepts."

Suigetsu scowled at the elitist Hyuga, having had enough of listening to his condescension. At the same time the swordsman knew he had started it, and continuing would have unpleasant consequences whether their leader decided to step in or he was forced to fight Neji. The former option frightened him more than the latter, but even then he wasn't certain whether or not he could defeat the Baguazhang user without drastic measures.

Seeing that neither of them was willing to pursue the conflict, Sasuke addressed the assembly once more. "I have one more piece of information to relay before we adjourn for the today." He paused, causing the others to shift uneasily in anticipation.

"Does this have anything to do with the Great Serpent God?" Neji questioned pensively.

Their leader wore a deathly serious expression. "The master is searching for a new disciple among the ranks of Team Hebi. He is willing to grant this position based on your performances in the battlefield, and my testimony of your abilities as martial artists."

"The chance to be taken on as a disciple by one of the greatest masters of his generation sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. Certain better than being one of his guinea pigs." Karin said.

Loki adjusted his goggles with an amused smirk. "It's a shame those two traitors weren't around to hear that they missed the deal of a lifetime."

"My brother's much stronger than that old snake ever was, even in his prime. I'm already learning from the best there is, so I don't have any interest in this deal you're slapping on the table." Suigetsu replied nonchalantly.

Kimimaro remained unconvinced. "If the choice is entirely up to the master, then we needn't concern ourselves directly. Those of us who desire his favor need only train to the best of our ability and hone our skills in the hopes that we will be chosen."

Sasuke stood up and headed towards the exit, his face impassive. "The rest of you can leave whenever you want, but I have more important things to do." He turned on them, his eyes flashing menacingly "I hope the rest of you can function without my guidance for a week, since I won't be able to contact you until my return."

The shark-like swordsman smirked, showing off his viscously sharpened teeth. "Say boss, you wouldn't be too upset if some of these morons were to have a tragic accident, right?"

"You can take turns killing each other for all I care, just make sure you exterminate the enemy before turning on your own teammates." He replied with a half-serious note.

Sasuke wasn't worried about the possibility of infighting, considering that Jugo had been ordered to prevent such a scenario from happening if the need arose. Even though he possessed this much discretion, the Devil Fist cared very little for the majority of his subordinates and would kill them himself if he deemed it necessary. He hesitated a moment before slipping through the black curtain leading into the next room, disappearing from the view of the others. By the time the others followed his example, their leader had left the building.

Later that Night…

Two figures slid silently through the darkness, knowing full well that if they were caught on enemy territory, it would mean almost certain death. As they traversed the halls of the building, both men remained silent as shadows. The building was owned by an extremely powerful global conglomerate, which was in turn operated by the mysterious worldwide syndicate, Yami. So far they hadn't run into any major trouble during the infiltration, which was good considering their duty was to collect information rather than start a fight with the enemy.

"We've arrived…" the first man warned as they slipped through a door, entering an office like workspace containing several terminals and a number of filing cabinets. "I'm betting the information concerning the enemy's secret experiments is contained somewhere in this room."

His fellow insurgent nodded quickly. "I'll keep watch in case security comes by to make their rounds. See if you can't find anything useful in the meantime." She replied in a lighter tone.

As one of them took a crouching position by the door, the other snuck through the darkness and cracked open one of the cabinets. Since they had disabled the security system on the way in, this side of the building was currently unprotected by the network. In addition to an endless supply of resources, Yami was able to afford the most up to date technology. It had been a challenge for them, with so many people prowling the grounds, and a state-of-the-art system to penetrate.

The man removed his mask, revealing short dark hair, dark eyes, and lines under his eyes that made him look exceedingly tired. Hayate Gekko had been a student of Konoha and remained loyal to them long after he achieved the rank of master for himself. Cracking open a draw, he began searching through several written documents in search of anything that might prove useful in determining the enemy's plans. It had taken them quite some time to discover a location affiliated with the syndicate, and he was determined not to make this trip a waste of time.

"This is going to take some time considering the elder didn't give us any specific information about this facility." His partner whispered.

"Don't complain… You volunteered for this mission." Hayate replied, suppressing a couth with the side of his hand.

The woman removed her mask, revealing shoulder length black hair and dark eyes. "Actually it was Lady Tsunade who volunteered me for this mission. She said I was the best when it came to infiltration and espionage. That's how I was roped into a dangerous mission like this."

He jumped slightly as a noise sounded in the distance. "Hey Shizune! Did you hear that?"

She nodded with an exaggerated frown. "It looks like we're about to have some company!"

As soon as she said this, several men wearing dark outfits similar to their own had surrounded them from all sides, the room's light flickering on as several men wielding swords stepped into the mix. Although the enemy fighters wore masks over their faces, the strong killing intent in the air made it clear why they had come.

"Here we go…" Shizune swallowed nervously, pressing her back against her partner's.

Hayate unsheathed a black-colored katana from his waist, grasping the hilt with both hands. "I don't suppose you fellas would be willing to overlook this little intrusion of ours." He reasoned with an asthmatic cough.

"Kill them!" one of the guards screamed, prompting the others to join the charge.

"Can't say I didn't try…" the weary-looking swordsman raised his blade and charged through the mob of attackers, leaving several of them bleeding and lying unconscious on the floor in the blink of an eye. "I cut some tendons, but you guys should live."

Shizune leapt backwards and pulled back her long sleeve, revealing a needle-shooting weapon concealed underneath. Having trained with someone who specialized in the fields of medicine, she had learned how to make poisons that paralyzed the human body on contact, and coated each of her senbon with them ahead of time. Although most of her attackers quickly succumbed to the assault, a man with a pair of thin spiked blades swatted the needles away and advanced on her.

"Looks like we ran into a master, after all." She reasoned out loud, dodging his swings and countering with striking hand movements.

"Die!" he screamed, thrusting both blades forward in an attempt to impale her.

She opened her mouth and spit a pair of poison-tipped needles, forcing her opponent to block with his own weapons. Seeing his hesitation, Shizune threw him off balance by focusing her kicks at his lower section, forcing her opponent to jump backwards as she began gaining ground. The masked swordsman locked blades with Hayate as he came around from the back, but was struck through the shoulder by a needle coated in muscle relaxant, and rendered unable to move his body.

"Using those gimmicks again, I see." Hayate sheathed his sword with a bored expression.

"I suggest we escape while we still have the chance." Instead of answering him, she opened the window and leapt out rolling briefly before landing on her feet. Her partner followed wordlessly, quickly catching up moments later.

They tore across the grounds, lights flashing overhead as guards began their pursuit. "Looks like the mission was a failure." He stated with a cough, no longer caring whether or not they were heard. "Hiruzen should have sent in some of the others with us, that way we could've taken this place down using force."

Shizune exhaled as she considered the chaos that had quickly unfolded. "That wasn't the point of this and you know it. Our job was gathering information, not taking down one of their bases."

"Just a moment…" Seeing a handful of guards charging towards them, Hayate took the initiative and drew his katana, knocking out as many as he could while holding back just enough to spare their lives. He had always been considered a wizard when it came time to wielding a katana; something his master had commended him on years ago.

His partner planted her hand into the gut of her attackers, tossing the hulking man aside with a movement of her wrist. "At this rate, we might not be able to make to safety before Yami calls in the special response division to pursue us!"

Several men wielding katana seemed to materialize out of nowhere moments later, each of them marginally more skilled than the commonplace guards that had accosted them so far. Shizune tensed up as she sensed their approach, having expected more master-level fighters to show up at some point before they escaped.

"The weapons division…" Hayate muttered with a dismal expression, his hands tightening around the handle of his own weapon.

She felt a drop of sweat drip down her forehead. "Looks like we're outnumbered. What do you suppose we do now?"

Her partner let out a wheeze before answering her. "I say we should fight…" he answered.

Before either of them could raise their weapons, two of the enemy fights were grabbed from behind and slammed into the ground, knocking them both out cold. The sudden attack from the rear caused several of the others to address the situation, only to be knocked out a swift series of hand movements, following by a double palm thrust. The newcomer quickly overwhelmed the guards before removing his mask, revealing spiky gray hair and a mask covering the lower half of his face.

Shizune sighed in relief, although she looked slightly irritated by his sudden entrance. "About time Kakashi, you sure know how to cut it close! A few more seconds and we might've been dead. I thought you were supposed to join us after you finished disabling the security network?"

"Sorry about that!" the masked man replied nonchalantly. "I always did have a tendency to be late, if you know what I mean?"

"At least you showed up before we ran into some real trouble…" Hayate replied with a half smile, looking slightly less detached than usual.

No sooner had she said this then a large shape darted in front of the trio. Although Kakashi and Shizune managed to dodge their attacker's strike, Hayate was not so lucky. The new assailant seized the sickly katana-user by arm, smashing him headfirst into the ground with the force of a collapsing skyscraper. The impact was so powerful that it sent shockwaves across the ground, forcing the others to jump to avoid losing their footing. Shizune let out a frightened squeal as she caught sight of her teammate's body lying motionless on the ground, his face distorted by the sheer amount of blood.

"No… Not now!" Kakashi spoke out loud, his eyes widening in terror as their attacker stepped into the flickering searchlights.

"What's he doing here!?" Shizune shouted, almost swallowing her own tongue in the process.

He was a large muscular man with long dark hair slicked back away from his face, which was covered by a smiling lucha libre mask. He wore a brightly colored spandex wrestling costume, metallic shoulder guards, and a shiny golden belt bearing his insignia. Two vertical stripes ran down the front of his outfit trailing from his shoulders down to his legs, and a pair of heavy boots, making his look like some kind of masked hero. The man raised his leg, stepping on the body of their deceased teammate with a wide smile.

"The Smiling Steel Fist, Diego Carlo; representative of the One Shadow Nine Fists…" Kakashi spoke with a note of disgust, his eyes narrowing with contempt as his glared into eyes of the larger man. "To think we would run into you in a place like this."

"It's an honor you've hear of me, Kakashi Hatake; Master of a Thousand Techniques and the son of Konoha's White Fang." He returned with an unusually cheerful grin, his hands crunching as if he would like nothing more than to snap his opponent's neck. "I've heard a lot about you, and your purportedly legendary father."

The gray-haired master refused to back down. "I've heard quite a bit about you as well. They say you like to turn every fight into a spectacle for the masses."

"Not every fight, just the good ones." The Mexican Wrestler replied, casually stomping his foot into the spine of their companion. "Your friend here wouldn't have put up enough of a challenge for me to thrill an audience. An instant win doesn't please the crowd as much as a grand battle, wouldn't you agree?"

"Don't make light of our friend's death!" Shizune screamed, steeping forward aggressively.

"Shizune!" Kakashi raised a hand to halt her, his neck craning back at her. "You need to get out of here. Stay here and you'll only be in the way."

"You can't fight that monster alone!" she called out, only to receive a glare from her friend.

"I'll be able to fight better without worrying about the safety of my comrades. Get going before you get caught in the middle and up like Hayate."

She swallowed nervously before breaking into a run. "Don't get yourself killed!"

The team's female disappeared over the wall lining the edge of the grounds, moving past the guards with her superior speed. Once she was gone, Kakashi turned to his opponent and frowned, a gesture that was covered by his mask. "Now then, I don't suppose I'm getting out of here without a fight?"

Diego let out a boisterous laugh and pounded the ground with his fist to show off his immense strength. "You probably won't be leaving at all with that attitude!" he bellowed glancing around at the sparse grounds. "Looks like we could use a change of scenery for this battle!"

He muttered something into a communication device in his hand, causing the guards in the tower to position the spotlights so that they were focused completely on the center of the grounds where both men were standing. Kakashi shielded his face from the intense light for a moment while his eyes adjusted, his body automatically dodging as Carlo's attempted to grab him from behind. Although he could see now, it looked as though the wrestler had tried taking advantage of his temporary blindness to gain the upper hand.

"The sunglasses under your mask shield your eyes from the light of those towers." The gray-haired master deduced calmly. "Very clever…"

"I was just trying to create the proper ambience. Since we can't take this into the ring, I figured we could at least cast the proper lighting for a real fight. No sneaking around in the dark for you anymore, Mr. Ninja." He replied mockingly.

Kakashi took a moment to breathe, his eyes sliding towards the body of his fallen comrade. "I think you've defiled my friend's corpse long enough."

"That piece of trash!? You can have him back, so long as you put up a good enough show for the folks at home." He gestured to the men in the control towers, several of which were holding up video cameras. "Once I win, we'll broadcast this fight nationwide!"

"And if I win this fight, you hand over Hayate's body and allow me to leave unharmed."

"If you're able to, then go right ahead!" the wrestler answered, his smile widening considerably. "I wouldn't count on it if I were you!"

"And I wouldn't be so smug if I were you!" Kakashi reached into his pockets, pulling out a pair of gloves lined with metal plating. "All right, let's do this…"

Note to Readers: Phew, this one took me awhile. Guess that's what happens when you start running out of ideas on where to go next with a story. If you guys have anything to offer n that front, please feel free to contribute. I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter, and thanks for sticking with me this long. Sorry for any typos or errors in spelling or grammar, but as usual I write this story pretty late at night.

Until next time, please review. I could use some inspiration to keep this going, and welcome some reader ideas now more than ever. If you have anything at all to contribute, please drop your comment and I might take it into consideration.