Behind the Mask
Rated: T for language and violence
Disclaimer: Naruto characters (c) Masashi Kishimoto
Summary: We all wear masks. But that only makes it harder to tell the difference between truth and lies.

Note: in writing this last chapter, I feel that I got a better understanding of Itachi's character. And to reflect that, I changed most of Itachi's parts in previous chapters. Nothing major, the plotline is still the same, but I wanted to give everyone a heads up in case you want to go back.

Thanks to everyone who reviewed last chapter! This chapter is long and maybe dialogue heavy? I apologize but I'm setting a lot of stuff up for the second half of this story. This chapter concludes the first part.

Please review?

028: 变更

Period of the Warring States
Reign of the 5
th Emperor of Fire
Month 12

He wanted to remember ever part of her.

He wanted to remember the curve of her face, the tilt of her nose, the shape of her lips. But more importantly, he wanted to remember the things he couldn't see before, the things that he would never know again if she were gone. The depths of her green eyes, the warmth of her well-practiced hands, the sound of her voice…

He hadn't realized that he was staring at her with such intensity and sadness in his eyes until her eyes flickered toward him and she cocked her head while setting her tea cup down on the table.

"Naruto, are you ok?" Sakura asked, a smile in her voice.

Naruto didn't respond, instead pulling Sakura into a bone crushing hug; the second hug he was giving upon entering her room a short ten minutes ago.

"You're an idiot." Said Naruto fiercely as he buried his face in her hair. "How could you be so stupid? I'm the one who is supposed to get into trouble, Sakura, not you."

Sakura sighed, relaxing herself into Naruto arms as she slowly wrapped her arms around him, gripping him by the shoulders. "I know." She said softly. "I was only trying to be more like you."

"Don't." Said Naruto fiercely, through gritted teeth. "Our team only has room enough for one impulsive fool."

Sakura chuckled as her fingers smoothed over the fabric of Naruto's vest and she breathed in his scent. He always had a smell all of his own, like fresh air and sunshine mixed with the husky scent of sweat. It was familiar to Sakura and smelling it again made her feel inexplicably safe. "I don't think I've heard you speak in such a self-deprecating manner before."

"You've never come this close to death before." Naruto whispered.

Sakura froze at his words and Naruto could feel her spine stiffen under his touch. Sakura closed her eyes and clenched her hands together, her pale knuckles turning white. She shook her head as Naruto pulled away, still keeping his hands on her upper arms.

Naruto looked at her with concern. "Sakura…" He said finally. "Tell me who did this."

Sakura twisted out of Naruto's grasp and lay back against the pillows on her bed. "I'm sorry." She said, looking away toward the window. "I know how much pain I caused you and Sifu Tsunade and laoshi…" She let out a deep sigh. She had told Tsunade about Uchiha Sasuke, but she knew what telling Naruto would mean. He wasn't exaggerating the truth when he called himself an impulsive fool. The minute she uttered Uchiha Sasuke's name would be the minute that Naruto bolted from the room and vengeance would be the only thing on his mind.

Sakura knew anyone else would be flattered that someone was willing to go through such lengths for them, but Sakura couldn't afford that luxury. Sasuke had likely made it to Orochimaru already and there was no telling what kind of damage was being done. Sakura would be damned if she let Orochimaru get his claws into Naruto.

There was also the issue of Sakura's pride of course. She had told Tsunade that she would finish what she started and she meant it. As soon as she was well enough, Sakura planned on tracking down Uchiha Sasuke herself and dragging him back to Peking whether he liked it or not. This wasn't Naruto's fight.

"Was it Uchiha Sasuke?"

Naruto's words startled Sakura so badly that she jack-knifed into a sitting position so quickly that she hurt her chest. Putting a hand to her chest, Sakura stared at Naruto with wide eyes. "Why would you say that?"

There was pain in Naruto's blue eyes as he looked at her. When Gaara told him his speculations about Uchiha Sasuke, Naruto didn't know what to think. On one hand, he had always suspected the youngest Uchiha of being unstable and murder didn't seem so farfetched. But then there was the kiss he had witnessed between Sasuke and Sakura. If Sasuke had feelings for Sakura, why would he hurt her? For a moment, Naruto thought that maybe Governor Feng's killer and Sakura attacker weren't the same person after all. But in seeing Sakura's reaction, maybe he was right.

Naruto looked down at the bed sheets. "Was it?" He asked softly.

What if Sakura still had feelings for the Uchiha? What if she forbade Naruto from going after him? He would never do anything to ruin Sakura's happiness, but he couldn't exactly back out on his deal with Feng Gaara either.

Sakura licked her lips and slowly nodded her head, confirming Naruto's fears. "How did you know?" She asked, her eyes questioning.

Naruto quickly explained Governor Feng's death and how he had spoken to Gaara. He watched as Sakura's eyes widened in disbelief as she covered her mouth with her hand. Was she surprised the Uchiha was capable of such an atrocity?

Sakura took a moment to gather her thoughts as she stared at the bed sheets dumbfoundedly. Uchiha Sasuke had murdered Governor Feng in cold blood. As if him leaving Peking for Orochimaru wasn't bad enough. Sakura felt her furor to capture Sasuke increase. She needed to bring him back not only to get him away from Orochimaru, but also so he could pay for the horrible crime he committed.

"You can't go after him." Said Sakura, finally bringing her eyes to Sakura. Naruto glanced up at her, surprise spreading across his features before it turned to dismay. He opened his mouth to speak.

Sakura quickly held her hand up, silencing him. "I know you, Naruto. I know that you feel like you need to avenge me or something, but I can't let you."

"Why? Because you love him?" The words tumbled from Naruto's lips before he could even realize what he was saying. He watched as Sakura's face morphed from shock before an unexplainable anger settled in her green eyes. Realizing what he said out loud, Naruto grimaced.


"How could you think that?" Sakura cried, her face distraught as her eyes blazed at Naruto.

"I…I saw you kiss. The day before the wedding." Said Naruto, stunned by Sakura's reaction. As he watched her, he felt something sink in the pit of his stomach. Had he gotten this all wrong?

Sakura's hands instinctively curled into fists and she turned her face away from Naruto. She hated that he had witnessed that kiss, when she had been at her most vulnerable. Recalling it made her burn with both anger and embarrassment.

Naruto reached out for Sakura's hand and held it tightly in his own. "Sakura, look at me." He commanded, his voice jittery with nerves. Reluctantly, Sakura turned to face him.

"Tell me that kiss meant nothing to you, that you have no feelings for Uchiha Sasuke." Said Naruto quickly. His heart was pounding in his chest.

Sakura looked at him, her face crumpling. "You think that I have…feelings for that bastard?" She cried. "I hate him for what he did." Tears were burning at Sakura's eyes as she looked at Naruto desperately. "I could never-"

She was cut off as Naruto gave out a sudden cry of relief as he bent down and buried his face in her lap. He squeezed his eyes shut, clutching at Sakura to bring her closer to him. He had it all wrong. He had been such an ignorant fool. How could he ever believe that Sakura loved Uchiha Sasuke? His heart suddenly felt freer than it had in days. Nothing would have to change between them…

He felt Sakura's fingers coaxing him upward and he lifted his face to look at Sakura. There was still dismay and grief written on her face, but with his face so close to hers, all Naruto could think about was how beautiful she was.

He pulled himself away before he could do the impossible and kiss her.

"Sakura, I'm going to make this right." Naruto said determinedly. "I'm going to find Uchiha Sasuke and I'm going to make him sorry that he ever touched you."

"Naruto." Said Sakura, her voice strained. "You can't. I can't let you do that."

"This bastard deserves to be brought to justice!" Naruto stressed. "And you are in no condition to travel or fight. Just let me do this for you, Sakura. I'll promise you, like I promised Feng Gaara that I will bring Uchiha Sasuke back to Peking even if I have to drag his ass back."

"I'm not going to let you risk your life for me!" Sakura cried. "This is my fight, it's my duty to bring Uchiha Sasuke back."

Naruto ground his teeth together. Why was Sakura being so stubborn about this? She was stubborn and headstrong by nature, but couldn't she see this was the right thing? He wouldn't risk her making her injuries worse because of her impatience to deal with Sasuke by herself. "You would do the same for me, if our situations were reversed." Naruto said impatiently.

"Of course," Said Sakura. "And you would fight tooth and nail if it meant preventing me from seeking vengeance for you." Sakura sighed, looking up at the ceiling. "The situation is more dangerous that you realize. Uchiha Sasuke was marked with the Cursed Seal of Heaven. He was making his way to Orochimaru when I found him."

Naruto blanched at her words. He could hear Orochimaru's laughter ringing in his ears; hear his words that night the Tian Tang Jian was stolen, like some not yet fulfilled prophecy. Naruto brushed the thoughts aside. "All the more reason for you not to go. It's too dangerous for you right now."

"Dammit Naruto, listen to me!" Sakura yelled. "This has nothing to do with you!" Her face was starting to redden with anger. "Promise me you won't go, promise to Feng Gaara be damned!"

Naruto could only shake his head which seemed to make Sakura angrier. "You know a promise I make is the promise of a lifetime."

Sakura pursed her lips. There would be no arguing with Naruto, not where promises were concerned. She had learned that long ago. "Fine." She said slowly. "Then you'll wait to pursue Uchiha Sasuke until I can come with you. Can you promise me that?"

"Sure." Said Naruto easily, offering her a slow smile.

It would be the first promise he broke.

The sun began dipping behind the horizon, blazes of pink and blue radiating through an otherwise dull sky. Kakashi's breath curled in the air as he walked quietly side by side with Tsunade to the stables that were toward the back of the estate.

"The council is going to have a hard time wrapping their heads around this." Said Tsunade finally. "Even with Inoichi's testimony, it's a hard pill to swallow."

"I know." Kakashi sighed. "But considering everything that girl risked coming here, it would be unfair to do anything less on my part."

"Yes…" Agreed Tsunade, tucking her hands into the sleeves of her cloak. "She was extremely brave considering the circumstances…"

Kakashi let the conversation drift off into silence as their feet crunched along the snow. When they finally reached the massive stables, the sun had vanished and a dark blanket had been draped over the sky. The stable doors were open when they approached and they found one of the stable boys inside feeding the horses a dinner of oats and straw. When he saw Kakashi and Tsunade, he quietly dismissed himself.

The horses began to nicker and paw their hooves against the straw as they passed. Kakashi's horse stuck his head out over the gate doors when Kakashi stopped in front. Kakashi smiled lightly, putting a hand on the horse's forehead. He was a beautiful horse with a sleek black coat and mane that was as grey as Kakashi's own hair. He nickered into Kakashi's hand as Kakashi began to saddle him.

"Have you told Naruto and Sakura that you are returning to Konoha?" Tsunade finally asked.

"I stopped in earlier." Said Kakashi. "Naruto seemed distracted, but I told him I would be returning. I thought it would be best if I didn't tell Sakura though." He admitted. "She has enough on her plate already and I didn't want to worry her. I think she should focus on getting her strength back."

Kakashi cast a meaningful look at Tsunade and she understood. Like Tsunade, those two were all Kakashi had left. She would gladly lay down her life if it meant protecting them.

"Well, I'm off then." Said Kakashi, leading his horse out of the gate before mounting up. Only darkness stretched before Kakashi as he trotted out of the stables. Kakashi preferred to travel in the darkness as it was less likely that anyone would follow or track him back to Konoha. The village entrance was shrouded in multiple Genjutsu, but it still put Kakashi at ease.

"Have a safe trip." Said Tsunade.

"And Kakashi," She said, grabbing the reins before Kakashi could ride off. Kakashi looked down, his face behind his impenetrable mask. "Don't let Konoha go to war again. I may have left Konoha, but it seems like Konoha will never leave me."

Kakashi knew all too well what she meant so he merely nodding his head before galloping off.

The Kurama estate was as old as it was grand. The Kurama were once the most powerful of the Peking Clans, perhaps even older than Peking itself and everywhere you went, there were hints of their old prestige. Vases so ancient they could crumble to dust upon the slightest touch sat in the hallways and clothing from dynasties past still hung in some of the wardrobes. The paintings of the Kurama Clan Heads that hung in the rooms were older than the Period of the Warring States.

Sitting in the grand meeting room, Tsunade felt as if she were displaced a century or two and they should have been discussing the prevention of another Menggu invasion instead of going to war with the Land of Crowns. Feng Gaara's decision to move back into Kurama estate a month earlier than expected was a surprise, but not unprecedented. He was still but a boy in the world of politics and it would take more than his title for others to judge him on more than just his young age.

Governor Feng and his family had lived in a tiny estate within the Kurama compound when he had married Karura and become Magistrate. It wasn't until he became Viceroy and moved his family back from the Land of Wind that Governor Feng had contemplated moving into the main Kurama estate. For Gaara, the move to the newly restored estate was an attempt to show himself in a more powerful light. The last of the Kurama holding office in the old Kurama seat of power sent a more powerful message than if he were still living in Tsunade's own estate.

Gaara had placed Tsunade to his right while Kankuro flanked his left. Tsunade wondered if it was because the young Feng viewed her as an ally or because he was simply grateful she housed his family.

Kankuro stood up as the last person filed into the room, his movements lethargic as if he didn't favor having to stand up. "Shenshi." He said in greeting. "Thank you for coming today. I would like to introduce myself as Feng Kankuro, the new Head of the Kurama Clan and my brother Gaara's heir."

Quiet murmurs rippled around the room at Kankuro's news. Tsunade was only mildly surprised – it seemed natural that Gaara would appoint his older brother as heir considering he had no children of his own or family left. But from what Tsunade had seen of Kankuro, she wasn't quite sure if he had what it took.

"As is tradition, I'd like to acknowledge the Peking Clan Heads." Said Kankuro, nodding his head toward the left half of the room where the Clan Heads were sitting.

"Hyuuga Hiashi of the Hyuuga Clan and Keeper of Haidian." Kankuro introduced, eyes falling on a tall man with pale skin and even paler eyes. The Hyuuga were a wealthy clan, concerned more with wealth and prestige than they were power. The Haidian District was just beyond the Peking city walls, but the businesses that functioned there contributed a large portion to the city's wealth.

"Fuma Hanzo of the Fuma Clan and Keeper of Fengtai." The Fuma Clan was the least well known of the Peking Clans, but were known for their physical prowess and close ties to the military. Fengtai was home to the Imperial Army encampments.

"And lastly, Uchiha-gong will not be joining us today nor will Uchiha-hou as both have dedicated themselves to finding my sister and her kidnapper." Kankuro quickly explained, his voice curt as if to say he would hear no more on the matter. "My brother now has an announcement to make."

Kankuro sat down, allowing Gaara to rise to his feet. The youngest Feng moved gracefully, in contrast to his older brother who plopped into his seat unceremoniously. Once again, Tsunade was struck by the stark contrast between the two brothers.

"Thank you, Kankuro." Said Gaara smoothly. "Some time ago, I announced my intention to take my late father's place as Viceroy of Zhili. With your help," Said Gaara, glancing around the table, "The Emperor has given his approval. For this I thank you all." Gaara bowed his head in sincerity before returning to his seat.

Tsunade saw a couple of meaningful looks pass between the tidu and the xunfu as other men congratulated Gaara. Tsunade had to wonder just exactly how Gaara had persuaded the tidu and xunfu to overlook their own place in the hierarchy and recommend him for the position instead. Tsunade had to suspect it was through less than savory means if Gaara was anything at all like his father.

The xunfu, pushing past his ire cleared his throat, commanding the room. "We have many important matters about the province to discuss today, but there is one matter that takes precedence." The xunfu looked around the room, his dark eyes making note of everyone that refused to look at him. "We have a war to discuss." He said finally.

The Clan Heads looked uneasy and Tsunade remembered that both of them had been Clan Heads during the Third Great Shinobi War and remembered well enough the price that was paid when war came.

"It's true." Said the tidu wearily. "I've received reports from The Land of Rivers. Either way the trials swing…it seems like war with the Land of Crowns will be unavoidable."

Grimaces passed around the table and even Tsunade had to shake her head. The last thing she needed to see was another war…

"The Emperor has allowed the deployment of troops should they come this far. But he made it clear that under no circumstances should we help any other province, even if they may be our ally."

"Well…that's perhaps for the best." Sighed one general. "None of us like war if we can help it. We should start discussing the placement of troops-"

"I have something to say." Said Gaara suddenly. He bowed his head in deference to the general who he had disrupted.

"You may speak, Viceroy." Said the xunfu, nodding.

Gaara paused for a moment, as if contemplating his next words. "What I am about to ask…it cannot leave this room. Do I have your word?" He asked, although his tone implied that he was not asking, but rather demanding confidentiality from the room.

Glances were exchanged, but eventually everyone nodded their head, sealing their word.

Gaara slowly stood to his feet. "Some time ago, it had been made clear that the next Emperor would be chosen between either the Viceroy of Zhili, or the Viceroy of Shantung. And as my father is now dead, the candidacy has passed to me." Gaara paused for a moment and his eyes flashed downward for a brief second. For that brief moment, he almost looked like the uncertain child that he was.

"Many of you may not approve of my rise to the Viceroy position, or think that a child as young as I have any right to entertain ideas about becoming the next Emperor. And I can tell you I have absolutely no desire to be Emperor. But I think there is one thing we can agree on and that is that the Viceroy of Shantung does not deserve to be made the next Emperor." Gaara's humility quickly gave way to a sudden and fierce determination that blazed in his black rimmed eyes.

"I have no right to call troops to war and I have no military experience yet the Emperor has made it clear that the Tianming will be passed to him who will be victorious in war." Gaara's eyes passed over the room and Tsunade could see that he had captured the attention and perhaps even the respect of every man at the table.

"My father had a plan concerning this matter. It will be difficult and it will require absolute secrecy and perhaps even deceit if it is to work. But I believe his plan worth pursuing...that it can lead to victory. The question I ask you is this: Are you willing to risk everything and offer me your unwavering support?"

The question hung heavy in the air. It wasn't something that could be taken lightly; everyone in the room knew what Gaara was proposing as they had been there when Governor Feng first suggested it. It hadn't seemed simple then, although Governor Feng had been a man who they would have followed without question. His son was quite different, but there was something to be said about not only his intelligence but also his outward confidence. He could be a good leader if he chose to be and that was becoming rapidly clear to the men in the room.

It was Tsunade who spoke first. She stood up, joining Gaara by his side. "The path to victory is never clear; that's something that I learned as a Konoha shinobi. But fighting for something that you believe in is better than sitting back and doing nothing. And I'll be damned if we let Shimura Owashi become Emperor just because we are too afraid to take the leap."

Gaara's eyes flickered toward Tsunade and he let a small smile tug upward at his lips. Kankuro stood up, his movements more serious than earlier. "I think my approval is a given." He said, a sly look in his eyes.

One by one, the men in the room stood, bowing their heads toward Gaara. The xunfu looked around the room and as he turned back to Gaara, his expression showed approval and admiration. "We are at your command, Governor Feng."

Shenshi – Gentlemen
Menggu - Mongolia
Xunfu - Governor
Tidu - Provincial military commander

At night the air in Kumogakure seemed to still, creating a disquieting silence that seemed eerie at best and unbearable at worst. Dark clouds that threatened of an upcoming storm hung heavy around them, almost close enough to touch. They blocked out the light from the stars, leaving all of Kumo surrounded in an impenetrable darkness. But Itachi was thankful for the shadows that obscured him as he slipped through the streets with Kisame at his back. There was a chill in the air that stung at his cheeks, but Itachi found that it wasn't intolerable.

Itachi placed a hand on the tower and looked around, as if he were waiting for a patrolling shinobi to accost them. Yet no one came. Curiously Itachi glanced toward Kisame wondering if all shinobi villages became this disturbingly quiet as the midnight hour settled in. Kisame looked back at him, his eyes an unfamiliar brown that Itachi wasn't used to. But then he grinned, a gesture that would have showed off his sharp incisors had Kisame looked like himself just then.

Itachi realized that Kisame's smile was a challenge, but he wasn't scared…not in the slightest. With a small burst of chakra, Itachi scaled up the wall as lithe as a cat before perching precariously along the ledge. Within seconds, he and Kisame were both crouched safely on the floor of the Raikage's office; the lattice work window behind them closed without a sign of disturbance.

Itachi flicked his eyes toward Kisame before flicking toward the door; a silent message in his gaze. Kisame understood, as if reading Itachi's eyes were second nature to him and he quickly moved toward the door. With Kisame on guard, Itachi was safe to begin his search.

The Raikage's desk was a beautiful instrument, made from a deep and dark wood. As Itachi leaned closer, he could smell the wood's fragrance and it was smoothed and polished to the touch. Intricate designs which incorporated the symbol for Kumogakure were carved around the rounded edges and along the faces of the drawers. Itachi ran his hand admiringly along the surface before activating his Sharingan. He scanned the surface of the desk, not daring to open the drawers in case there were any protective seals or Genjutsu. Luckily for Itachi, there were none. He pulled open one of the drawers, careful to make no sound.

The footsteps of patrolling ANBU could be heard creaking down the wooden hallways as Itachi sifted through the papers in the drawer. There were expenditure reports from the last couple of years, detailing how much Kumo had spent on weaponry and building repairs. In another drawer, there were records of every Jounin and Chunin Kumo had, along with Chunin recommendation letters and some Genin reports. Another drawer held bottles of different colored ink, a grinding stone and the Raikage's personal seal.

As Itachi opened the last drawer, he felt a panic begin to rise in him. The last drawer held an assortment of handmade birthday cards and empty hongbao, along with an odd shaped 3-pronged key. Itachi shifted through the cards with impatient hands until he hit the bottom where the cards were already yellowing with age. Feeling the panic steadily rise within him now, Itachi activated his Sharingan once more and scanned through the cards again before pulling open the other drawers with less care than before and doing the same. His eyes strained in the darkness as he looked for any hint of something that could have been disguised and hidden.

When Itachi found nothing, he swore under his breath.

Remembering the 3-pronged key, Itachi opened the birthday drawer and grabbed it. The key had to open something, perhaps some safe that was tucked away in some other corner of the office. With careful scrutiny, Itachi prowled around the room, feeling along the walls and searching though the other sparse furniture inside.

When he found nothing indicative of a hidden safe or hidden compartment, Itachi clenched the key in his hand, his knuckles turning white around it. His ire must have been noticeable for Kisame turned around furrowed his eyebrows at Itachi before soundlessly approaching him. They crouched down together, their voices not much than breathy whispers.

"Can't find it?"

"There's nothing." Said Itachi, gripping the key tightly again. "Nothing except this, but there is no safe." Itachi held his hand out to show Kisame the odd shaped key.

Kisame paused, looking down at the key before looking up. He seemed to be deep in thought, which was an action Kisame didn't trouble himself with much. "I suppose it could be in the archive room." Said Kisame slowly.

Itachi eyes flitted toward Kisame and for a moment, he saw nothing but red and bit his lip so hard that he was dangerously close to biting through it and drawing blood. Kisame stared back at him, his brown eyes clueless as he was oblivious to the millions of thoughts and accusations that were running unbridled through Itachi's mind. When Itachi's eyes turned livid, finally reflecting the inner rage he felt within, Kisame at least had the decency to look startled and fearful, so fearful that he lost his grasp on his transformation for a brief second.

"Where is this archive room?" Itachi asked, jumping straight to the matter instead of bothering to question Kisame about why he failed to mention such a room existed earlier or berate him for potentially ruining their plans.

Kisame took his time in responding, possibly because he was deliberating with the best answer that would appease Itachi and not make him angrier than he already was. Itachi's anger had surprised Kisame with its severity. Often enough, when he made the stoic Uchiha angry, Kisame usually laughed it off with a certain carelessness that said he wasn't bothered by Itachi's anger and that he didn't take it seriously. Now however, as Itachi stared at Kisame with murderous intent in his childish eyes, he knew he had to tread carefully. As it was, a part of Kisame wondered if Itachi's anger was due to a fear of being in an unfamiliar place and a general uncertainty of the shinobi world. Not that Itachi would ever admit it if Kisame asked.

"I don't know." Said Kisame softly, "All Kage towers are different, although I imagine the Raikage wouldn't want to go far..."

Itachi sighed; the previous anger and frustration escaping with his breath as fatigue quickly took its place. Kisame was right. If there was such a thing as an archive room, the Raikage likely wouldn't want to go far to access it, meaning it should have been located on the same floor. Unfortunately, the window in the Raikage office was the only window that Itachi could recall seeing on this floor meaning their good luck sneaking into the office would not extend to the archive room. And with the ANBU patrolling the halls, they couldn't exactly stroll around.

Itachi quietly voiced his thoughts to Kisame in a quick an efficient manner as they knelt behind the Raikage's desk. What he needed was more time, another night to complete the mission. Another day and night in which he could figure out how to sneak into the archive room without any of the complications they were currently having. Itachi didn't like complications and he didn't like not having a plan.

That's why it surprised Itachi when Kisame suddenly grinned, explaining that he of all people, had a plan. Itachi listened with trepidation as Kisame explained to him his idea. They would be taking unnecessary risks, Itachi could see that immediately and the thought of them getting caught loomed over Itachi's head like a guillotine. They would be making too many assumptions and too many things could go wrong, but was there any other way? As much as Itachi would have liked more time, they just simply didn't have it and failure was not an option.

With a heavy heart, Itachi gave a short nod of his head and Kisame had the gall to actually look excited. The room temporarily filled with dissipating smoke as the two shinobi imposters released their transformations before switching disguises. While Itachi's transformation was immaculate as usual, Kisame's transformation turned out stockier than it had been when Itachi used it. Of course Kisame was a large man by nature and it was difficult for him to take on the transformation of someone so much smaller than he was. Itachi fretfully reasoned that no one would be likely to notice anyway.

Kisame gave Itachi a quick salute before pushing open the window and disappearing into the darkness of the night. Itachi crept toward the door and began to count to 50.

As Itachi reached 40, a loud explosion suddenly deafened Itachi's ears for a brief second and the ground shook under foot. It didn't take long for ANBU to respond and Itachi had to praise their diligence. Itachi waited until he heard three sets of footsteps echoing down the wooden hallways before he dared to poke his head outside the office door. Padding his feet with a thin layer of chakra so he would make no sound, Itachi moved through the hallway as if he were nothing more than a specter, gliding through haunted halls.

The rooms that Itachi passed didn't hold much. Large meeting rooms decorated with tables and chairs, a spare study that seemed to be devoid of any information. One door, however, was closed before the hallway turned sharply to the right. Unlike the other doors Itachi encountered, this one had a lock integrated into the polished wood, a lock that would have been strange to behold.

Itachi brought out the 3-pronged key and slid it easily into the lock. It opened with the satisfying click and Itachi slipped inside and closed the door behind him.

Itachi remembered the first time he entered a library. His mother had been fond of reading and as all noble aristocrats did, she had access to the Imperial Library. She had taken Itachi, shortly before his 10th birthday. He had been to the Uchiha private archives before, but nothing had prepared him for the stacks of scrolls he had seen, all written on the finest of silks and in calligraphy so beautiful, Itachi hoped he could imitate it one day. And just how he hadn't been prepared for the sight the library when he had been a child, Itachi was not prepared for the sight of the archive he saw now. The Kumogakure archives even put the Uchiha archives to shame even though the latter had been around for longer.

There were rows upon rows of tightly crammed bookcases, all of them filled with scrolls and files from floor to ceiling. If Itachi had to make a guess, there were probably files in here dating back to the beginning of the Period of the Warring states and the Hidden Villages own conception.

There was no way he had time to search through all these files.

He was seeing the world through different eyes before he had even fully processed the thought that he would need to activate his Sharingan. The world was both in focus and out of focus; the tiniest details suddenly becoming astonishing clear as the background blended into a miasma of painted colors. Itachi moved quickly through the cases, his lithe form proving useful as he navigated the cramped stacks. Someone like Kisame could never come in here without making a mess of things.

Perched high in the corner on a shelf cramped with what looked like architectural blueprints and building proposals, Itachi noticed something irregular. In the state he was in now, he was much shorter than he normally was, but he was also lighter which could be used to his advantage. It didn't take long for Itachi to delicately step upon the shelves and pull the file from its place.

Dust permeated the air from his disruption of the stacks. He dropped back to the ground, his knees taking the impact of the fall although his feet made no sound as they hit the ground. He looked at the file in his hands. It was nondescript, nothing that would single it out from the others on the shelf. But most people didn't have what Itachi had and they couldn't see the chakra swirling around the file, as if it were binding it. The Genjutsu was like putty in Itachi's capable hands and it fell away like smoke, leaving Itachi with a file that was much larger than he originally perceived.

Upon opening it, Itachi realized that he stumbled upon all of Kumogakure's secrets, from reports of black operations and assassinations to details revealing the full extent of the damage Kumo received during the Third Great Shinobi War. Flipping through the files, Itachi realized that if he was a man of lesser scruples, he could steal this information for nefarious means. But as it was, Itachi had no intention of selling any of this information to Konoha, or any Hidden Village for that matter. He was here for one thing, and one thing only.

At first glance, Itachi could not find anything that implied Kumo was aware of the existence of the Hachibi Jinchuriki. Was this something that the Raikage was keeping close to the chest or was he simply unaware? The thought of having to probe the Raikage's mind sent shivers down his spine. Uchiha or not, Itachi knew he had his limits. But as Itachi ran though the files a second time, paying deeper attention, something caught his attention.

While Itachi knew a multitude of languages and dialects that stemmed from his earlier studies under his father's never satisfied tutelage, he couldn't boast to know the Latin alphabet as well as he liked. But he knew it well enough to recognize the letters A, B and C in succession. It was rather strange that a province with no contact with the Western world would have files labeled with their alphabet.

The oddity was enough to pause Itachi's fingers from flipping through the files and it was enough for Itachi to carefully read every word that was written on the page. And as his eyes reached the bottom of the last page, he knew he had found what he was looking for. With the information carefully stored and catalogued away in his brain, Itachi tucked the files back in their place. As Itachi flipped through the files once more, just in case he missed another vital piece of information, something caught his eye.

He should have left it alone; he knew that as soon as he scanned the short transcript. It was certainly none of his business; he was certainly no shinobi even though he currently looked like one. But as always, his clever mind was already picturing the implications such a thing could have on him, on his city, on his brother – should he ever be found.

The Third Great Shinobi War was a long time ago, yet it left enough of an imprint on Itachi's soul that the mere thought of war curdled his stomach.

He wondered what the Leader would do with the information that Kumogakure, Amegakure and Iwagakure intended to wage war Konoha.

Hongbao - Red envelope




The headlines were there where ever you went – staring up from their place in the sewers and gutters, crumpled along the streets and sidewalks, left behind on the tables and chairs in tea houses and restaurants.

People read in hopes of finally hearing good news…good news that would never come.

"It's disgusting." A woman complained as she clutched her son protectively by the shoulders. "How can we expect a decent world for our children when things like this happen?"

A man standing next to her shook his head. "This is all their fault. They come here, as if they expect us to bow down to them." Sickened, he tapped his pipe against his knee and then pushed his way through the crowd, away from the spectacle.

Ino silently agreed from her place among the spectators. But beyond the feeling of disgust and anger that she felt, she could feel disappointment too. Disappointment because she had felt she failed her duty. Her father told her to be strong. She could feel his presence in her mind every day since that fateful night at the Peony Pavilion, willing her not to give up, reminding her that she could go home as soon as the trial was over. As much as Ino felt comfort in her father's daily presence, she wished he wouldn't tax himself so over her well-being. She was a grown shinobi after all and she could handle herself.

As Ino looked through the crowd toward the men who were parading slowly toward the docks, faces held high without a trace of humility or regret, Ino knew she didn't have to worry about feeling weak or inadequate as she had been plagued with the last few days. All she could feel was rage.

When the Imperial Army finally marched through the streets of Canton as Ino fled from the brothal, the damage had already been done. A man was dead; a family would forever be in mourning. Some shops had been destroyed and other witnesses had been left battered and bruised when the drunken sailors had finally been detained. The city of Canton had been calling for blood when Land of Crown officials swooped in, collecting the foreign sailors before they could see the inside of a Canton jail.

Ino herself suspected there were spies within the city, who had been watching the foreigners undetected. The thought made her uneasy. Unsatisfied by the course of events, the Magistrate of Canton had demanded the foreigners be turned over for trial while the Land of Crowns called out for something called extraterritoriality.

Ino shook her head as the crowd around her booed and jeered at the sailors passing before them. A few children threw discarded rocks and small objects at the foreigners, undeterred by the looks of warning the armed Land of Crown soldiers shot them as they escorted the sailors to the docks. A rock hit one of the foreigners in the leg, but he didn't mind, going so far as to smile at the boy who threw it.

What was a small rock compared to the freedom they would have once they boarded the ships at the docks? No one in Canton was foolish enough to believe the men would be detained once they got home to their respective countries as had been promised.

Ino didn't want to watch anymore. She didn't want to watch them board the ship, knowing very well this was all some huge joke to them.

Ino turned around and began to push through the crowd. The trial was over so she had the Emperor's permission to leave and finally return home to Konoha. Through the cacophony of the crowd around her, Ino's senses registered a small spike of chakra. Hand moving to the kunai hidden underneath her cloak, Ino was suddenly on edge. After nearly a month spent in Canton, she had never felt the familiar spike of chakra – a telltale sign that someone was performing a jutsu – nor did she expect to. Ino's head whipped back toward the parade of sailors and she suddenly felt her blood run cold.

She pushed her way through the crowd, moving as quickly as her slight frame would allow in the dense throng of people as she ignored their glares and protests as she went. Ino finally broke free, bursting through the crowd and into open air. Her blue eyes quickly scanned area, looking for anyone that seemed to be out of place. A long haired soldier in a blue uniform approached her, speaking sternly in a language Ino could not understand. She ignored him as she continued her search.

He said something before prodding Ino sharply with the butt of the bayonet he was holding, inciting a round of fresh insults from the crowd behind her as Ino stumbled back. Ino grit her teeth, annoyed at being distracted from her task.

"Hey! What's going on here?"

Ino's attention darted to a Land of Rivers soldier who was quickly approaching. The Land of Crowns soldier seemed to take offense at his proximity for he quickly turned on the defensive; pointing his bayonet out in front of him as he called out in his foreign language.

The crowd behind Ino was growing excited now, their yells growing deafening as they tottered against the invisible barrier that separated them from the foreigners. The two soldiers were now shouting at each other, gesturing wildly with their weapons, neither able to move beyond the language barrier that separated them.

Ino's head was starting to spin. The crowd pushed her from behind and their shouting assaulted her ears. She had a sickening feeling, deep in the pit of her stomach that something awful was going to happen. The soldiers were reaching the dock now.

She saw him in the crowd, only a couple hundred meters from her. In the daylight, she could see how angular his handsome young face was, his aquiline nose and sharp blue eyes. He was slight of frame and his thick hair was not the color of moonlight like she originally thought, but rather like sunlight…

His eyes caught hers and her breath caught in her throat. He looked at her as if he remembered her and he gave her a slow smile that seemed maniacal rather than endearing. His visible eye looked up, toward the heavens and Ino follow his gaze, finally resting on a small white bird that was flying through the blue sky toward her. In a sudden rush of insight that Ino would never be able to explain later, she understood what was coming.

"NO!" She screamed.

She remembered the look of surprise the Land of Crowns soldier shot her, a question in his brown eyes. The white bird descended upon the man's head. The dove was a sign of peace. It meant something to the Westerners. Ino remembered hearing that, or possibly reading that somewhere. Where had she heard that? Was that what he intended? Her mind was starting to seize in fear. She didn't want this but she was too weak to stop it. Ino stumbled back against the crowd but it was too late.

The explosion was clean. Ino felt the spray of blood, hot across her face, she felt the body drop to the ground before her feet. She heard the screaming of the people around her, those who had seen the blast, trying to run and escape the madness. Someone pushed into Ino, leaving her sprawled across the dead soldier. She choked out and could feel the revulsion spreading through her, but she pushed it away as she scrambled to her feet.

There was chaos among the ranks now. The sailors with their bound wrists were looking around in confusion. One man was in the process of throwing up. Several were huddled together as the uniformed soldiers stood with their bayonets quivering. Some soldiers had their fingers poised on the trigger, ready to shoot but they never got the chance to. She saw him move into position a second before the soldiers saw him, but even that was not enough.

The second explosion blew Ino back off her feet. She hit the ground several feet away, her spine jarring upon impact. Pain arched through her back before her head made contact with the street, sending any clear thoughts she had spiraling out of reach. The air smelled like sulfur and was hazy with ash that Ino could feel choking her. There were distant screams and this horrible ringing that she couldn't shake. Her head felt heavy and her vision swam before she felt a sharp pain in her ribs and darkness claimed her.

The sky was grey and it was moving. That couldn't be right.

Her face cracked when she moved. Her head felt like a ton of bricks. There was a dull pain between her shoulder blades and on her tail bone, another pain between her ribs. Her left eye felt like it was partially glued shut. The air smelled like blood. Someone was screaming. Someone was crying. Something horrible had happened. She needed her father.

Ino tried to keep track of the thoughts that were frantically flitting in and out of her head, but it was hard between the pounding and the ringing. She sat up, a hiss of pain escaping her lips. She closed her eyes, trying to make the world settle into its usual orientation instead of it swimming before her.

When Ino finally opened her eyes and realized her brain was functioning accurately enough to know that what she was seeing was true, she wished she had left her eyes shut.

There were three perfect concentric circles. There were hats, fragments of guns, a hand and wrist with a shackle still attached to it. Another circle had half a torso, an arm and a leg. The circles were made up of body parts, bits of clothing and blood, most of all blood.

There was so much blood.

And in the middle of it all, there he stood. Ino knew it was him, the one who had stopped her from falling, even though it no longer looked like him. Her father. She needed her father. There was going to be war. He looked like them, but he wasn't. He was a foreigner but he had killed them. He had killed them all. Her brain was starting to fragment and jumble her thoughts again and her stomach felt like a ship on rough seas.

She heard him, even through the ringing and the chaos around her. "l'art est une explosion." He said in that twisted language before he broke out into a laughter that chilled Ino to her very core.

Note2: The above event was based off of the Kowloon Incident of 1839.

Character Corner

Name: Yamanaka Ino
Shinobi Name: Mei
Age: 18
Height: 5'-5"
Specializes: Ninjutsu, Taijutsu, Medical Ninjutsu, Saijutsu
Ino is the only child of Yamanaka Inoichi and his wife. Born in Konoha, Ino is part of the prestigious Yamanaka Clan who specialize in mind control techniques. At the age of 6, Ino began to train under her father's tutelage. She often trained with Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Chouji with whom her clan had close ties to. At the age of 12, Ino participated in the Chunin Exams and passed. Ino later apprenticed under Morino Ibiki in the interrogation department and studied psychology and sociology. She briefly worked in the Konoha hospital where she learned Medical Ninjutsu from Haruno Sakura. After being promoted to Jounin at age 17, Ino now works full time in the interrogation department and is one of the lead interrogators. As a child, Ino often worked in her family's flower shop where her retired mother works.

Ino had been a promising shinobi from the start after her quick mastery of her clan's techniques. As a child, she was very popular among her peers with her close friends being Chouji and Shikamaru. She also reached out to Sakura who was often picked on and convinced her to become a shinobi. Although they were close friends, they have since grown apart and have become rivals after Sakura excelled at becoming a shinobi. Ino is often very confident and outspoken and is described as merciless in interrogation. She is currently engaged to Akimichi Chouji and her shinobi name means Beauty.