NARUTO: THE SECRET SONGS OF THE NINJA.

Disclaimer: Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the disclaimer, that's right the disclaimer! This American Apple Pie institution known as 'parental discretion' will cleanse any sense of innuendo or sarcasm from the lyrics that might actually make you think and will also insult your intelligence at the same time. So protect your family! This album contains explicit depictions of things which are real! These real things are commonly known as "life"! So if it sounds sarcastic don't take it seriously. If it sounds dangerous, do not try this at home or at all. And if it offends you just don't listen to it.

- The Offspring, 'Disclaimer'

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Chapter 7- The Song of Bitter Ashes.

Devastation. Desolation. Decay. Despair. Death.

Team 7 trudged through the smoldering ruins of what had previously been Konohagakure, the Hidden Ninja Village of the Leaves. The scale of the destruction was terrifying. Huge gaping holes had been blown through the outer walls, buildings had been flattened by some awesomely destructive force, the Hokage monument had been shattered, leaving only the First Hokage's and barely half of the Second's faces intact. Not a single thing moved, there was no sign of life- but an abundance of death. Corpses were strewn around the landscape like discarded, broken dolls- slashed, crushed, burned or simply lying still and lifeless. Many wore protectors marking them as ninja of Otogakure, the Hidden Ninja Village of Sound, but the overwhelming majority were either ninja or civilian citizens of Konoha.

Naruto wandered through the ruins behind Kakashi in a daze, barely able to process what he was seeing. Team 7 had rushed back to Konoha as soon as they'd seen the smoke, adopting a cautious approach as soon as Kakashi judged they were close enough to possibly encounter whatever force had attacked it. But once they reached the shattered walls of the village and witnessed the desolation before them, a crushing despair swept over them all and any pretense at stealth was abandoned. Naruto didn't know what hurt more- that his village had been destroyed, or that he hadn't been there to fight for it, possibly even to make a difference.

Sakura felt like crying. She felt like screaming. First she'd lost Sasuke. Now Konoha lay in ruins. It was too much to bear. But after Sasuke's death she'd sworn to herself that she wouldn't shed her tears so easily. Gritting her teeth, she clenched her fist as tight as she could until the shaking subsided and went on. Beside her, Keiji walked in absolute silence, his face as blank as an ANBU's mask. His outsized eyes had glazed over and he moved as if his body was being controlled remotely by a genjutsu.

Kakashi's uncovered eye took in every detail as he led his dispirited team through the ruins. Even though he'd allowed the team to abandon stealth order once it became apparent how late they were and despite the complete lack of any signs of life so far, he remained vigilant, watching for an ambush from any of the attackers who may have remained behind. As he walked his mind worked mechanically to try and piece together the events that had transpired while his team had been held up in Earth Country.

From the number of their dead it seemed practically a certainty that the ninja of the Hidden Village of Sound were among the attackers, but there was no way a village that small would have had the strength to execute an attack this devastating on their own. Furthermore the Kazekage of Sunagakure, the Hidden Sand, had been attending this Chuunin Exam final. Any faction who launched an attack during the finals would be running the risk of invoking the animosity of not one but two villages. Not even another one of the great villages would risk antagonising Suna at the same time they declared war on Konoha, not with a village as small as Sound as their only ally.

There was another possibility though, a disturbing one which Kakashi didn't even like to think about. There was one village that could attack Konoha during the Chuunin Exam without risking the wrath of Suna, that would even be able to take advantage of the situation. But what possible reason might Suna have to turn on their ally?

The jounin's thoughts were disrupted as his attention was caught by a movement out of the corner of his eye. Apparently there was still someone left in the ruins of their village, watching them in secret. He was about to discreetly warn his students of what he had noticed when their hidden observers stopped hiding and acted.

A blur of purple and gold hurled itself through the air towards Team 7, crashing bodily into Sakura before the startled girl could even react. Kakashi and Naruto had their kunai in their hands instantly and Keiji already had a fistful of shuriken as their teammate staggered backwards, the attacker's arms wrapped tightly around her body. They hesitated as a cry from the ambushing figure rang out across the landscape: "SAKURA!"

"I… Ino…?"

"Sakura… I'm so… so glad you're alive!" Sobbing with emotion, the blonde kunoichi hugged her friend with desperate relief. After a moment of shocked disbelief, Sakura wrapped her arms around Ino and hugged her back, her eyes tearing up despite her best efforts. Any lingering bad feelings between them were swept away by the sheer joy of finding each other alive. Naruto and Kakashi lowered their weapons and Keiji tucked his shuriken away again as the two girls embraced, feeling the stirrings of hope for the first time since their return.

Ino's teammates, Shikamaru and Chouji, lightly touched down in front of the team as they followed the girl out of their hiding place and came to meet them. Choji ran right up to Naruto and fondly slapped him on the back almost hard enough to knock him over, grinning like a maniac. Shikamaru came to attention in front of Kakashi and sketched an awkward salute. "Kakashi-sensei, you have no idea how glad we are to see you and your team safe. We were dispatched to keep an eye on the village in case you or any other teams who were away during the attack returned, in order to bring to you to join the rest of us back at the hideaway."

All the tension rushed out of Team 7 the instant Shikamaru mentioned more survivors. Naruto slung his arm around Chouji's neck and punched the air with an elated yell. Sakura was unable to hold it back any longer and joined Ino in shedding happy tears. Keiji let out an enormous sigh of relief and wiped the moisture from the corners of his own dark eyes. Even Kakashi visibly sagged with relief, glad to hear that regardless of what had happened here, his team and Team 10 weren't the only survivors of Konoha. "Fantastic, Shikamaru!" Naruto yelled. "Did the old man send you to wait for us?"

The young ninja tensed and sighed internally. While he hated to deflate Naruto's optimism, his friend was letting his jubilation blind him, imagining that the situation wasn't so bad. But better to get this over and done with quickly. "Naruto…" the usually laid-back boy started hesitantly, "The Hokage is… dead." A shock ran through Team 7 at his words and Naruto's mouth dropped open. "And while quite a few of us survived, our casualties were…" He searched for the right word, pain visible on his face. "…horrific." The growing air of euphoria vanished without a trace, leaving a sickening feeling behind in its place. Shikamaru shook his head. "We'd better get moving. I'll fill you in on the whole story on the way to the stronghold."

oooOOOooo

"There was no warning." The seven of them flew through the treetops as swiftly as they could, Team 7 following the lead of Team 10. "We had no idea that Sand were planning anything, or that Sound were allied with them. While the Sand and Sound genin teams that had entered the Chuunin Exam were kinda… creepy, they didn't give anything away.

"It happened during the fourth battle in the first round of the finals," Shikamaru continued, leaping to the next branch. Ino and Chouji remained silent, leaving the storytelling to their friend. "The Sand team's most powerful guy was this monstrous freak called Gaara, supposedly the strongest genin in Suna. He used sand to fight, it protected him from attacks and did all his attacking for him, like it was alive. During the fight he retreated into a ball of sand and started preparing some weird technique." The young man hesitated before continuing quietly. "That's when it all went to hell."

oooOOOooo

Shikamaru cowered in his seat as the monster reared up above the stadium, roaring with earth-shaking, insane laughter. Any thoughts of playing dead and pretending he'd succumbed to the mass-genjutsu that was affecting the majority of the spectators abandoned him, replaced by open, mindless terror and an almost supernatural urge to flee for his life.

The huge beast that had been Gaara of the Sand cackled madly as it loomed over everyone below it, casting them into shadow. The sand creature raised one colossal hand and brought it crashing down onto the side of the stadium with stone-shattering force. Horrified, Shikamaru watched as a Konoha ninja desperately attempted some kind of technique in a futile attempt to save himself before the giant limb crushed him and the dozens of comatose people around him like ants under a boot. Another kunoichi just managed to dive to safety, carrying a slumbering child with her. The woman was sent tumbling head over foot as the force of the impact blew her away, the child wrapped protectively in her arms. The blow shook the entire stadium. As the titan lifted its arm again, only red ruin was left where it had struck.

On the verge of panic, Shikamaru hurriedly broke the genjutsu on his teammates, first releasing Chouji then leaning across his expansive body to free Ino. Desperately shaking them to speed their awakening from the hypnotically-induced slumber, the genin's genius intellect was racing at a million miles an hour to determine the best course of action, struggling with the terror and shock that was pressing down on him and every defender of Konoha.

To his growing horror, ninja wearing the music note forehead protector of Oto were appearing out of nowhere, ambushing the few shell-shocked Konoha shinobi who had escaped the genjutsu. A huge square-sided cage of fiery purple energy had appeared from nowhere on the roof of the stadium's cental tower, above the landing where the two Kages had been observing the tournament. Everything around Shikamaru was a nightmare of chaos, screaming, explosions, blood, carnage and death. But above all else loomed the terrifying presence of Gaara of the Sand, his demonic chakra oppressing everyone in the arena and the monolithic sand demon howling like a wind from the gates of hell itself as it ploughed its way straight through the side of the stadium and rampaged out into Konoha.

The next few minutes were a blur of terrified confusion for Shikamaru, a confused melee of shouting, fighting, clashing blades, jutsu flying everywhere and the roars of the monster echoing over the crashing sounds of mass destruction. His normally calm and calculating mind only managed to grasp vague, scattered impressions of the events he was caught up in: Asuma shouting orders to his team as he stepped over the corpse of a Sound-nin; Chouji bodily tackling an enemy who was trying to drive a kunai into Ino's unguarded back; the psychotic female proctor of the second exam projecting a mass of snakes from the voluminous sleeve of her coat to sink a storm of venomous fangs into the back of the man Shikamaru was fighting; the Academy collapsing in a pile of rubble as the Gaara-monster swung his huge, broad tail directly into the second storey; Inuzuka Kiba leaping away from a deadly blast of air hurled from the fan of that scary Suna woman; civilians filling the air with confused, terrified screams as Konoha ninja desperately tried to release them from the genjutsu and shepherd them to safety.

Shikamaru lashed out with his shadow and managed to catch four of the five enemy before him in his paralysing grip. The fifth barely escaped his reach, only to spring backwards into the arc of Asuma's trench knives. A pair of ANBU descended on the trapped enemies and it was the work of only a few seconds before they were butchered, Shikamaru releasing his technique and letting the corpses slump to the bloodstained ground. Taking advantage of the brief reprieve to catch his breath, Shikamaru straightened up to look over the waves of panicking civilians that were streaming past him towards the nearest exit from the arena, trying to reassess the situation. Despite the shock and awe of Gaara's monstrous transformation, it looked like the Konoha forces were starting to gain the upper hand over the outnumbered Sound ninja. While it was still far too soon to relax, he could feel the initial panic induced by the monster's appearance starting to recede and his analytical mind beginning to work again. Oto had the advantage of surprise on their hands, but they didn't seem to have anything like enough men to take on all of Konoha on their own, even with the sand monster on their side. Surely once they were beaten back Konoha's forces would be able to bring Gaara down by combining their strength against him?

Someone shouted out a warning and Shikamaru looked up along with dozens of others just as the cage of purple flames shimmered, then flickered, ruptured and dissipated without a trace, revealing a battlefield of smashed and shattered roof tiles within. For a moment the world seemed to hold its breath. Then something plummeted from the rooftop.

A great cry of despair arose from the defenders of Konoha as the body of the Third Hokage, his charred and bloodstained robes fluttering behind him, fell through the air like a stone. The corpse struck the ground with a sickening crunch. Shikamaru knew that he would keep hearing that sound in his nightmares for the rest of his life. Many Konoha fighters froze in shock and some were cut down by their opponents where they stood, but the arrival of a terrifying and oppressive presence even more evil than Gaara's pressed down on everyone in the arena, making even the Sound shinobi hesitate.

A menacing, pale-skinned figure wearing the garb of an Oto-nin dropped from the rooftop and touched down lightly beside the Hokage's broken body. The man had long, jet-black hair and unlike every other invader he wore no forehead protector. A sinister-looking katana was held loosely in his right hand, blood dripping from the point as he tapped the flat of the blade idly against his leg. But most terrifying of all was his face, his thin mouth twisted in a malicious smile and his slit eyes as cold as a reptile's. He lifted the katana and leaned it casually across his shoulder. When the man spoke he did not raise his voice, but his words could be heard clearly by everyone in the arena, even over the sounds of battle. It felt like poison trickling into Shikamaru's ear.

"Kill them. All of them."

As if in response to the man's words, the sand beast rampaging through the village unleashed another mad peal of laughter and a deep, growling voice that only vaguely resembled Gaara's bellowed "Fuuton: Drilling Air Bullet!". A sound like the air itself being rent apart echoed across Konoha and the carved stone face of the 3rd Hokage blew apart with horrific force. The rocks erupted as the horrific power of Gaara's attack smashed the Hokage Monument, shattering the visages of Konoha's leaders and raining boulders the size of wagons down on the village below.

A great cheer went up from the shinobi of Oto and cries of "Orochimaru-sama!" filled the air as the battle resumed with renewed ferocity. Leaf and Sound clashed everywhere, but any advantage the defenders had been gaining had all but vanished. Sheer desperation now drove their struggle to survive, their morale shattered by the fall of their leader and the destruction of the monument and the tides of battle were swinging violently against the Konoha ninja.

The battle once again descended into a nightmarish, confusing maelstrom of anarchy and violence around Team 10. Konoha ninja were being overwhelmed, were falling back to regroup, or were even breaking and fleeing. Asuma-sensei charged past Shikamaru with berserk hatred in his eyes, screaming for vengeance as he hurtled towards Orochimaru. Other ninjas were attacking the enemy leader, but were being cut down by a quartet of bizarre-looking bodyguards who had appeared by his side. Blood flowed down the steps and splashed across the seats of the stadium as the enemy indiscriminately slaughtered shinobi and civilian alike. Shikamaru, Chouji and Ino were barely able to keep from being swept apart by the tides of battle, their team the only sure thing they had left to cling to amidst the madness.

Moments later, Shikamaru found himself and his teammates, together with a couple of dozen other Konoha ninja, running along the rooftops above a street packed with fleeing village citizens, all heading towards the eastern gate. The majority of the Oto-nin were still the walls of the stadium, but the Konoha defenders were still being hard-pressed to protect the people flooding the street below from the deadly attacks of the enemy. As Team 10 leaped from rooftop to rooftop, Shikamaru tried not to think of his last sight of Asuma-sensei- bleeding from countless wounds and surrounded on all sides by Oto-nin, yet still fighting to reach Orochimaru and enact vengeance upon his father's murderer.

A cry of warning from one of the ninja at the front of the pack brought the Konoha force to a confused halt. A cloud of smoke and dust was rising from somewhere on the other side of the eastern wall and was rapidly approaching the village. The shinobi collectively hesitated while the people below milled about in confusion. Shikamaru's heart, already at an all-time low, sank even further.

With an earth-shaking crash, the wall exploded inwards. Surging out of the dust cloud and the flying chunks of stone, a trio of enormous serpents reared up above the horrified villagers and ninja of the Hidden Leaf. The civilians panicked completely, screaming and scattering everywhere and the ninja wavered, uncertain as to how to react. But something even worse than the snakes was following them through the gap- at the side of even more Oto reinforcements charging through the massive breach in the wall was an even larger force of ninja from Sunagakure, the Hidden Ninja Village of Sand.

After the events in the arena, it didn't take a genius-level IQ to realise they weren't coming to reinforce the Konoha defenders against the Sound forces.

The serpents surged forward, crushing buildings beneath their scaly bellies like matchstick models and leaving a swath of devastation in their wake. Screams filled the air and terrified civilians fled in all directions. The Konoha forces desperately tried to mount a counterattack on the giant reptiles, but the assault of the Sand ninja threw them into disarray. Shikamaru felt his legs grow weak as he and his friends saw their allies being cut down one after another. They were all doomed. There was no way any of them would survive this.

"KUCHIYOSE: FOOD CART DESTROYER JUTSU!"

The snake in the centre of the enemy formation was only seconds away from reaching their position when something colossal dropped from the sky to smash squarely into the middle of the monster's back, causing the scene to explode in an obscuring cloud of debris. Team 10 desperately covered their faces as dust and chunks of shattered stone and wood flew past them and the snake spasmed violently before its head slumped lifelessly to the ground with an almighty crash. As the dust started to clear, Shikamaru looked cautiously up at their saviour, only to find himself staring at the biggest toad he'd ever seen. Bigger than a mansion, the giant amphibian had a pair of equally huge katanas size strapped to its back by an orange sash around its waist. The toad had apparently appeared from nowhere and crushed the snake beneath its immense weight, killing it instantly.

Yet despite the staggering size of the creature, there was still no way anyone could overlook the man standing on top of its broad, flat head. Spiky white hair blowing wildly in the wind, thick arms folded across a barrel chest, the unknown shinobi glared grimly down at the attacking enemies of Konoha, freezing Sound and Sand ninja alike wherever his gaze fell. Shikamaru could feel the rage pouring off the man as his steely grey eyes swept across the devastation of Konoha and he could sense a new sensation rising up inside himself.

Scattered cries and cheers began to rise from the ninja of Konoha. "Jiraiya-sama!" "It's Jiraiya-sama ! Jiraiya-sama has come to our rescue !" "Group together, follow Jiraiya-sama's lead!" As the remnants of the defending forces rallied and began to fight with renewed strength, Shikamaru realised what the feeling inside of him was: hope.

oooOOOooo

"Once Jiraiya-sama arrived he took a lot of the pressure off us," Shikamaru continued. "But it was still an almost hopeless situation. It looked like we were going to be wiped out, when something totally unexpected happened. Just when I thought we were all going to die… the Sand forces turned on the Sound and attacked them."

Surprised eyebrows were raised across Team 7. Suna betraying Konoha was one thing, but betraying Konoha and then backstabbing Oto before the battle was even won? "You mean they'd been planning to betray Oto all along?" Kakashi asked from his position flying along in front of Naruto.

Shikamaru only shrugged. "Don't really know, but if I had my guess I'd actually say they weren't. We were fighting a small mixed group of Sand and Sound-nin when another group of Sand-nin attacked the Sound. The first group of Suna shinobi were just as surprised as the Oto-nin were, so if it WAS prearranged someone must have forgotten to tell them. Anyway, it was thanks to the two forces turning on each other that we were able to escape, so if it was part of their plan it wasn't a very good plan. Once they started fighting, the Sand ninja were just willing to let us go in favour of fighting the Sound, even though they'd been trying to wipe us out only minutes ago. Jiraiya-sama ordered a complete withdrawal and covered our retreat while we fled into the forest, guarding the five hundred or so civilians who were able to escape. He caught up led us to the stronghold while most of the surviving ninja brought up the rear to make sure we weren't followed."

A thoughtful silence fell over the two teams as Shikamaru concluded his recount. Naruto stared straight ahead, barely seeing each branch his feet touched as he sprang from one tree to another. He felt as if the world had been turned on its head. The Hokage, the strongest ninja in Konoha, had been assassinated. Konoha's ally had turned on it, then backstabbed its co-conspirator before the betrayal was complete. The village's might had been shattered and reduced to a crippled remnant of its former glory. Nothing made any sense any more.

Meanwhile Kakashi was thoughtfully digesting the content of Shikamaru's report. "Hmm… so two of the Sannin were involved," he pondered aloud. "Well, that certainly explains a lot."

"The… 'Sannin', sensei?" Keiji asked from his position on the right.

Surprisingly, it was Sakura who answered. "The Legendary Three Ninjas of Konoha, the disciples of the Third Hokage," she supplied. "Jiraiya the Toad Sage, Tsunade the Slug Princess and Orochimaru the White Snake. We covered them briefly in history class at the academy." The rose-haired girl gave her teammate a mischievous look. "Was the curriculum different for your grade, Keiji-kun?" The older boy blushed slightly at the implied rebuke of his academic attentiveness and declined to answer. Naruto rolled his eyes. Of course Sakura would know a little detail like that. As if anyone else ever paid attention in ninja history class.

"The details of Orochimaru's betrayal aren't common knowledge," their teacher said, picking up from where Sakura had left off. "Ninja of less than jounin rank are usually told nothing more than to avoid him at all costs. He's Konoha's greatest shame, even moreso than Uchiha Itachi." At the mention of the name 'Uchiha', Sakura and Team 10 exchanged questioning looks and Naruto gritted his teeth as he recalled what the jounin had told him about Sasuke's mass-murdering brother. "He was secretly performing horrific experiments on kidnapped villagers for his forbidden research until he was discovered by ANBU and the Hokage, but he managed to escape. There were rumours he'd founded his own village to serve his ends, but our intelligence network hadn't made the connection with Oto yet." Kakashi shook his head regretfully. "It looks like we'd been underestimating him after all."

There was a long period of pained silence after that as Team 7 followed Team 10 through the treetops. They'd been travelling for almost an hour when Shikamaru came to a sudden halt high up in a tree and the others joined him on nearby branches. The black-haired genin pointed to a plateau topped with thick undergrowth that rose up above the forest half a mile from their position. "That's the fortress there."

Naruto shaded his eyes with his hand and peered at the looming landmark. "Looks like a fair bit of a climb. I don't see any fortress, though. Is it hidden in the trees?"

Chouji chuckled. "Not exactly, Naruto. We don't go up that way either."

Shikamaru redirected his outstretched finger to point towards the ground below them. "The secret entrance is concealed down there. The landmarks you need to look out for are those three tall, straight trees standing in a perfect line next to each other over there-" He nodded towards the trees in question. "-and those three stones down there. If you look, you see they form a loose triangle." He hopped down to the ground with the others following close behind and approached the small open area in the middle of the rocks he'd indicated.

Forming a quick seal, the young man briefly concentrated and a minute ripple of chakra expanded out from his body. As the wave passed by the members of the two teams, the ground in front of Shikamaru shimmered in their vision and a small metal plaque appeared where previously there had been only another stretch of grass. An elaborate seal had been carved into the plate, one Naruto didn't recognise. As he stared at it, wondering where it had come from, an unexpected burst of dizziness made him blink and shake his head. When he looked again, the stone had vanished. "Huh?" he exclaimed aloud. "Where'd it go?"

Chouji gave him a surprised look and Ino giggled, but Shikamaru just rolled his eyes. "DON'T stare at it, Naruto," the teen said exasperatedly. "It's a genjutsu camouflage trap. You have to disrupt it with chakra the way I just did to see it, but if you look at it too hard afterwards it'll reassert its effect on you." With an exaggerated sigh, Shikamaru repeated the seal and the stone reappeared before Naruto's eyes. This time the boy managed to avoid looking at the seal and just to be on the safe side, he also avoided meeting the others' bemused expressions.

With the genjutsu temporarily dispelled, Shikamaru and Chouji each took a few steps away from each other, bent down and grasped a pair of iron rings set into the ground that hadn't been there before. The two boys heaved with all their might and slowly a large trapdoor began to yawn open in front of them, revealing a flight of steps leading down into the darkness of an underground passage.

Kakashi whistled appreciatively. With the genjutsu concealing the rings and the otherwise visible edges of the trapdoor from anybody who looked at them, it would be effectively impossible to find the entrance unless you already knew it was there. And if you didn't know where it was, there was no way you'd know where you needed to dispel the genjutsu to reveal it. Whoever had constructed this concealed fortress had known what they were doing.

Whoever had constructed it had also not hesitated to update it with modern amenities. As the two teams trooped down the steps and Shikamaru and Chouji lowered the heavy trapdoor back down behind them with a hollow boom, Ino flicked a switch set into the rough-hewn rock wall and a row of lightbulbs set into the low ceiling lit up, dimly illuminating their way down under the earth.

The passage wasn't as narrow as Naruto had been expecting, wide enough for three of them to comfortably walk side by side. Team 7 followed after Team 10 without speaking for a few minutes before Naruto inevitably broke the silence. "So, what's this 'fortress' like anyway?" he asked. "Some kind of big stone castle?

Shikamaru didn't turn around, but Naruto had a feeling he was smiling. "You'll see in a few minutes. Not far to go now." he answered.

"It must be pretty big if it's housing all the survivors from Konoha," Sakura guessed. "We couldn't see any structures from below though. Is it a hidden treetop village or something?"

"No, but I guess that would be pretty neat too," Ino said. "Look, just wait alright? You'll find out soon enough."

Another ten minutes of walking brought the seven of them to an open chamber. The electric light bulbs stopped at the end of the passageway and the chamber was instead lit by four large flaming torches on tall stands. On the other side of the room, two tall statues of powerfully-built men stood on either side of a huge pair of closed double doors made out of solid iron. None of the genin, nor even Kakashi, recognised the figures represented in the granite, but the jounin knew the symbol carved into the stone forehead protectors on their heads- two pairs of open-ended concentric semicircles joined by a horizontal bar with a single line dividing it in the middle.

Without hesitation, Shikamaru marched right up to the doors and rapped on them with his knuckles. After a few seconds of silence, there was the sound of grating metal, then a small hatch shot open at head height and a pair of eyes peered out at them. "Identify yourselves," a male voice growled.

"Genin Team 10, Nara Shikamaru, Akimichi Chouji, Yamanaka Ino," Shikamaru replied in a clear voice. "Returning from lookout at Konoha with Genin Team 7, Hatake Kakashi, Uzumaki Naruto, Haruno Sakura, uh…" He looked around blankly at Keiji for a second until the tall boy blinked and mouthed his name back at him. "…and Kyoshun Keiji."

The eyes took them all in unblinkingly. "Passcode."

There was a brief pause while Shikamaru thought. "Red three nine wind one green water," he eventually answered.

The hatch shot shut without another word and there was a tense moment where Naruto wondered whether Shikamaru had blundered, but after no more than a handful of heartbeats a loud metallic scraping echoed throughout the chamber and the doors slowly opened inwards. Shikamaru turned and gave them a thin grin. "Well, we're home. Come inside, guys."

There was a small guardpost on the other side of the door, with a table and three chairs. Three chuunin stood to meet them as the two teams passed through the door, two men and a woman. The woman had a bandage wrapped around her head, covering her right eye, while one of the men had his left arm in a sling, but all three straightened to attention in front of Kakashi-sensei and saluted. "Kakashi-san, you have no idea what a relief it is for us to see you alive again," the man with the injured arm greeted them, sincerity audible in his tone. "Jiraiya-sama was sure that you'd make it back to us, so he told us that when you did he wanted to see you as soon as possible."

The jounin returned the man's salute gravely. "Thank you, I'll do so at once." The seven of them continued on past the guardpost as the guards sealed the door behind them with an epic boom. There was only a short passage left in front of them, ending in a fairly long flight of stairs that led to an opening lit by bright daylight.

"That wasn't a very poetic password," Naruto commented as they reached the first step. "Whatever happened to 'the leaves blown on the wind dance forever free' and that sort of thing?"

Ino scoffed from a few steps above of him, her blonde ponytail swinging from side to side with each step she ascended. "It's a password, Naruto, not a haiku. Every team gets issued with a random one any time they leave the fortress to be used when they return, so no enemy can learn them and compromise security. We're not allowed to write it down either. Poetry is for peacetime."

"Make sure you don't forget it either," Chouji put in. "The walls of the chamber back there have explosive tags concealed in them that can be detonated from within." The heavyset boy smiled. "I'd call that a pretty good incentive to work on improving your memory, Naruto."

Before Naruto could come up with a good comeback, Shikamaru reached the top step and stopped in the opening, turning back to face Team 7. The boy gave the homecoming genin team an especially warm smile. "Welcome," he said "to the Hidden Fortress of the Senju."

oooOOOooo

Team 7 stared out across the wide open space in mute astonishment. Even Kakashi couldn't keep his jaw from dropping slightly inside his mask. Naruto's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. He hadn't been able to picture anything like this.

Naruto didn't know what he'd been picturing, actually. Maybe a stone fort, or a simple wooden stockade surrounding a number of wooden houses? Maybe even a single large multi-roomed building the size of the Konoha Academy, hidden away among the trees that covered the top of the plateau?

There were no trees. There was no plateau. The seven of them had emerged from a cave mouth set into the side of a sloping cliff face that curved all the way around on either side to meet again far across from them. Instead of a plateau, the fortress was built across the bottom of (and into the walls of) a massive caldera more than half a mile wide.

Countless cave mouths were dug into the walls of the caldera all the way around, just like the entrance passage from which they had emerged. On the ground around much of the base of the walls were more structures, old-fashioned buildings with wooden walls and paper screen doors that reminded Naruto of the traditional houses the Hyuuga clan had lived in back in Konoha. A large body of water was situated under the far wall, either a small lake or a large spring, with another building constructed out over it supported on thick wooden pylons. The floor of the caldera had been levelled out nice and flat by whoever had constructed this place and was mostly covered with bare green grass. Much of it was occupied by clusters of tents with scores or even hundreds of people milling around between them, presumably the civilian refugees who had escaped from Konoha, with the occasional Konoha ninja visible among them. Near the ground below the entrance they were standing at, Naruto spotted what looked like a class of academy students training with kunai and shuriken in an open area outfitted with a line of wooden posts that had clearly been put there for just that purpose.

But the strangest feature of all were the paths. Most of the ground was either grass or bare dirt, but there were patches here and there of paved stone ground that stood out from the rest. Whoever had plotted out the paths, however, must have been drunk. They weaved and twisted and turned all across the floor at the centre of the caldera basin, unconnected to each other and leading nowhere. Naruto couldn't see any point to them at all. Strangely, despite the tents and temporary shelters that were spread out all around the inside of the fortress, not so much as one covered any segment of the disjointed pavement.

Sakura let out a gasp of wonder. "Oh my…" she whispered. "It's a gigantic seal!"

"Oh wow." Keiji's oversized eyes were as wide as saucers as he gazed across the awe-inspiring scene. "You're right. I wonder what it's for?"

Naruto's brow wrinkled in frustration. "Huh? I don't get it. What seal?"

"The paths, Naruto," Kakashi answered. "It's hard to see from this angle, but they form an enormous and extremely complex seal built into the ground itself. I've never seen anything like it before." Not even the veteran jounin could keep the awe out of his voice.

Ino spoke up. "Yeah, we all got shown how it works shortly after we arrived. Jiraiya-sama gave the teams who were going to be setting out again a brief orientation course. The seal is a huge and vastly more powerful version of the genjutsu trap set on the entrance. From this angle you can't see it all at one glance so it doesn't work on you, but it's designed so that anyone who climbs to the top of the caldera, or somehow flies over it, will see it when they look down. It causes you to see just an extremely thick growth of trees growing all across the top of this plateau you think you just climbed and implants a hypnotic suggestion that they're too thick for you to bother trying to pass through. Basically, it disguises the entire fortress from above." The girl smiled. "We call it our 'magic ceiling'."

Team 7 spent a few more moments taking in the incredible sight before Kakashi shook his head. "Come on, we'd better get moving. We'll have all the time we need to get to know this place better later."

oooOOOooo

They followed Team 10 down the steps that zigzagged down from the entrance to the bottom of the basin. Shikamaru pointed out a cave with its mouth decorated by carved ornamental pillars set into the wall of the caldera at ground level a few hundred feet to their right. "Jiraiya-sama set up our temporary command post in there on the second level. If he's not out at the moment then he should be in there."

Kakashi took the lead, striding past the training ground with his team and Team 10 behind him. Naruto was deep in thought trying to imagine what this 'Jiraiya' was going to be like. Shikamaru's description of him as "a large man with long white hair and colourful clothes" was vague, but Naruto was more interested in his power than his appearance. If he was the student of the Third Hokage he must know a lot of jutsu and from what Shikamaru said about how he saved the survivors of Konoha, he had to be really strong. He wondered if Jiraiya would be able to teach him anything useful…?

Naruto was so caught up in his musings that he failed to notice his assailants until they were right on top of him. Heralded by loud cries of "Niichan!" and "Naruto-oniichan!", three bodies crashed into him almost at once. One wrapped itself around his legs, another caught him around the stomach, trapping his arms against his side and a third leapt at his head, completely covering his face in a fierce hug as a pair of legs locked themselves around his chest. Unable to keep his balance with his limbs pinned, Naruto toppled over backwards like a felled tree.

"Niichan!" Konohamaru yelled again from his suffocating position sitting on Naruto's chest. "I knew you were alive! I knew there was no way you could be dead! I knew-! I knew-! I-" His speech devolved into a mess of stammers and sobs as Moegi and Udon clung to Naruto's lower body and wailed their own relief at the top of their lungs, resisting his best efforts to struggle free.

"Hey, you three!" Naruto stiffened as an achingly familiar voice rang out over the weeping of the children. "Get off of him already. We're still in the middle of class here!" The pressure on his legs and stomach vanished as the other two were removed, then vision was finally restored to him as Konohamaru was hauled bodily off his face by the back of his shirt. Naruto looked up at his impromptu rescuer and a euphoric cocktail of relief and joy began bubbling through his body.

Iruka-sensei put Konohamaru down on his feet again and gave the boy a stern look. "Konohamaru, you should know better than to jump all over people in the middle of class. That goes for your teammates as well. What do you think you're doing climbing all over people without so much as a by-your-leave?" The academy instructor pointed back at the line of kunai- and shuriken-studded logs. "Now go back to your practice and I don't want to see you slacking off like this again until you've landed at least three good hits in a row!" The three students sloped shamefacedly back into line, but not before Konohamaru had flashed Naruto a brilliantly toothy smile.

Somewhat disconcerted, Naruto scrambled to his feet. Overjoyed as he was to see Iruka-sensei still alive after everything that had happened, he couldn't help but wonder why his old teacher was being so casual about his return. Surely he couldn't have failed to realise that it was him? Or even worse, was he disappointed with his old student for failing to be there when Konoha needed him? Naruto felt his heart sink as he remembered how Iruka had been the only person to believe in his ambition to one day become Hokage. Filled with trepidation, he took a cautious step to his former instructor, reaching out a tentative hand towards his back. "Umm… Iruka-sensei…?"

Without a word, Iruka spun around and dragged Naruto into a crushingly fierce hug. Tears glistened in the corners of the man's eyes as he held his favourite student close. "Welcome back, Naruto," he murmured. "I was waiting for you."

Naruto stood paralyzed, barely hearing Konohamaru's shout of "Hey sensei, no fair!" It was only just now, in Iruka's welcoming embrace, that it ocurred to him how close he'd been to never seeing his surrogate father again. After Team 10 had told them there were survivors, Naruto had basically taken it for granted that the handful of people he cared about in Konoha were alright. He hadn't given any thought to the possibility that Iruka might have been lying somewhere in the rubble of Konoha among all the other nameless corpses. Maybe in the aftermath of Sasuke's death he'd subconsciously slipped into denial about how cruel reality could be, especially after his team's miraculous escape from the jaws of death in the Land of Earth, but the true weight of Iruka's survival hit him like a tidal wave. Naruto raised his trembling hands and wrapped them around his former sensei's back, returning the hug. "I'm back, Iruka-sensei," he whispered, tears beginning to moisten the corners of his own eyes. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when I was needed."

The older man patted him reassuringly on the back. "Don't be silly, Naruto. You don't have to apologise for anything." He released the embrace, holding the blond out at arm's length and meeting his damp gaze with a smile. "I'm just… so glad that you're safe."

A growing murmur from behind them caught Sakura's ear. It looked like the disturbance was causing their return to garner some attention from the bystanders. Both civilians and shinobi were gathering around the training area at an unobtrusive distance, talking quietly but excitedly amongst each other as they watched the returnees. Sakura just managed to catch the odd snatch of the conversations. "-take Kakashi-san, the 4th Hokage's star pupil-" "-more survivors out there somewhe-" "-raiya-sama won't accept the position then maybe Kakashi-san might-"

Not all the looks cast in their direction were welcoming, though, and not all the words were positive. Sakura caught more than a few dark looks directed towards Naruto as the boy wiped his eyes on his sleeve and heard disturbing mutters. "-did that little monster make it back when so many good shinobi-" "-hoped we might have been rid of it for good-" "-the 3rd's law even still matter at this-" The words left a twisting feeling in the pit of her stomach. With the entire village destroyed and so many dead, why would these people still be concerned with the juvenile misdeeds of a single young genin? Not for the first time, Sakura got the uncomfortable feeling that there was more to Naruto than the goofy, loudmouthed idiot she'd known at the academy.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a shockingly loud, emotion-filled bellow. "Kakashi!" Her sensei flinched at the sound and barely managed to turn around in time to dodge an appallingly-dressed jounin with brick-thick eyebrows and a basin haircut, who hurled himself at Kakashi in a wild glomp. Kakashi desperately dodged aside as the bizarre-looking man whirled back to face him again, tears pouring from his eyes like a waterfall. "Oh my eternal rival!" he wailed. "I knew you would never die and leave our contest unsettled, but what a terrible homecoming you return to!" He lunged at Sakura's teacher again, sidestepping with blinding speed as Kakashi dodged to clasp him by the shoulders. Sakura couldn't help but be impressed- ridiculous as the man's appearance and behavior were, he was at least as fast as her own sensei. "The village in ruins, our comrades slain or scattered and my precious student… my poor Neji…" The jounin's already tear-stained face twisted into an expression of unrestrained grief and he started to sob openly.

Conscious of the baffled looks they were garnering, Kakashi awkwardly attempted to fend the crying man off as he tried to hug him. "Guy-" he started. "Guy, get a hold of yourself. You, uh…" He looked around desperately for salvation and, to his relief, saw it approaching from behind in his friendly rival's wake. "You and I need to keep it together to set a good example for our remaining students. Look." He forcibly spun Guy around as a girl in a pink shirt with her hair tied up in two buns and a boy who looked remarkably like a miniature version of Guy himself jogged up in their sensei's wake. The other man had always been somewhat of a trial to deal with in the past, but still… "Um… it's good to see you alive too," he conceded.

As he spotted the strange jounin's students approaching through the growing crowd, Keiji couldn't help but smile a little. He wondered if this was what his younger teammates had felt when they'd seen Team 10 coming to meet them? Tenten hadn't changed a bit since he'd last seen her. They'd had a slightly-more-than passing acquaintance during their academy days and for a while after, partly because of their shared interest in the violent projection of sharp or pointy objects and partly because she'd been good friends with Mio-chan. Even though they hadn't spoken to each other since Mio's funeral, it was good to see her again. She gave him a weak smile and half-hearted wave on seeing him.

Rock Lee on the other hand… the thick-eyebrowed boy had completely reinvented himself since Keiji had last met him. It wasn't just the fact that he was dressed just as bizarrely as his teacher, from the awful basin haircut to the thick yellow leg-warmers, he moved with a carefully controlled confidence and strength of purpose that had been completely absent in the clumsy, talentless boy he remembered from class.

If he'd heard their jounin-sensei correctly, though… did he say Hyuuga Neji was dead? Keiji shuddered. Not even the strongest among their contemporaries had managed to emerge from this catastrophe alive.

"Guy-sensei!" Lee shouted, even the manly tears running down his own face mimicking his teacher's.

"Lee!" Guy cried in reply, forgetting Kakashi immediately and leaping forward to embrace his protégé. "Just as my fierce rival Kakashi said, we must remain resolute! The flames of our youth shall not waver and we shall go on to avenge our fallen comrades! You are with me are you not, Lee?"

"I am, Guy-sensei!" Lee yelled.

"Lee!"

"Guy-sensei!"

A tactful cough from behind the gobsmacked Team 7 distracted their attention from the mind-boggling spectacle. Shikamaru inclined his head towards the cave they'd been heading towards before the first distraction had waylaid them. "Um, enthralling as this is, Jiraiya-sama is still waiting," he drawled, turning to stroll off towards their destination again, his two teammates following him, Ino visibly struggling to suppress laughter. "Don't worry if you want to stay and watch, they'll probably still be at it when you're done. Those two can keep that up for hours."

Team 7 swiftly followed, Naruto exchanging a final thumbs-up with Iruka and Keiji giving a small parting wave to the red-faced Tenten as she stood just far enough removed from her melodramatic teammates to be able to disavow any relationship if necessary. As they moved out of earshot, Naruto sidled up to Sakura. "Uh, Sakura-chan?" he began hesitantly, keeping his voice low. "Me and Iruka-sensei didn't look that… uh… odd, did we?"

The girl managed to keep a straight face with considerable effort. "Don't worry Naruto," she murmured. "I don't think you could ever look as 'odd' as that."

Relieved, Naruto moved away from her again, falling into step behind his own jounin-sensei. "So, Kakashi-sensei," he asked. "You know that guy?"

Kakashi didn't turn around as they approached the cave mouth. "Never seen him before in my life."

oooOOOooo

In a way, Jiraiya both exceeded and defied Naruto's expectations. While his colourfully flamboyant clothing, red face paint and outrageously voluminous mane of spiky white hair made him more resemble a kabuki dancer than a ninja, the sheer size of the man combined with the measured grace of his every motion and the aura of confidence and self-assuredness he projected left no doubt that he wasn't a man to be taken lightly. Although a fair bit taller than Kakashi-sensei, Jiraiya felt huge- he was broad and solidly built, yes, but he just gave the impression of being built to a one-tenth larger scale than normal people.

His face initially wore the tired, strained expression worn by a man who normally likes to smile a lot when he has absolutely nothing to smile about, but as soon as Team 7 entered the small chamber that had been established as the headquarters for the Konoha survivors it lit up like a child whose favourite dessert had just been unexpectedly placed in front of him. "Kakashi!" he exclaimed with unconcealed delight in his deep voice, rising from his seat behind the plain wooden desk with one fluid motion. "You have no idea how good it is to see you again! Ran into some trouble of your own, did you?"

To his team's surprise, Kakashi visibly smiled back from behind his mask and ruefully rubbed the back of his head, a gesture that struck Sakura and Keiji as being almost Naruto-ish. "Like you would not believe, Jiraiya-sama. Big trouble. It's funny, I was worried our little adventure might end up having some significant repercussions for Konoha, but I guess that's all kind of moot now."

Jiraiya strode around the desk to stand in front of Team 7 as they lined up on either side of their leader. Team 10 had departed after leaving them at the door of the chamber to go and rest. His eyes panned across the three children standing to attention next to Kakashi and Naruto couldn't help but notice the way the huge man hesitated slightly as he took his first proper look at him. He shuddered involuntarily. There had been a spark of something unexpected in Jiraiya's eyes as he'd cast them over him. It wasn't as if he hadn't been expecting something of the sort- ever since he'd been a child he'd been aware of the barely-concealed hatred and fear in the eyes of almost every adult citizen in Konoha when they looked at him and there was no way a ninja as experienced as Jiraiya wouldn't recognise him in an instant. But the look he'd seen in the older man's eyes had been different, something he'd never seen before. Recognition, yes… but something else.

But the moment was gone and Jiraiya gave the members of Team 7 another broad smile, which quickly transmuted into a surprisingly mischievous grin. "First things first, Kakashi, I have a little 'welcome back' present for you." He dug his hand into one of the pockets on his coat and pulled out a small yellow-covered book which he offered to the jounin.

Kakashi's eye widened in shock and he accepted the volume with trembling hands. "Is this…?" As he flipped it around to inspect the back, Naruto and Sakura caught a glimpse of the title: Icha Icha Carnage. "The newest unreleased volume…?"

"Eh?!" Naruto yelped and Sakura went pale, while Keiji's already large eyes widened slightly. "You read those dirty books too?!" Kakashi gave Naruto a reproachful look, but Jiraiya visibly bristled.

"'Read'?" he snapped. "I'm the author of the Icha Icha series and I'll have you know, brat, that they're best-sellers the appeal of which are far beyond what your childish mind can comprehend!" He huffed melodramatically. "Kids… no appreciation for the fine arts."

Naruto was speechless. This was the great Toad Sage who had saved Konoha's survivors from total annihilation? The disciple of the Third Hokage who was almost a legend? A writer of dirty books for dirty men (and Kakashi-sensei)? For possibly the first time in his life, Naruto simply had no words to express his bafflement. Jiraiya truly defied all expectations. Beside him, Sakura's face had gone from shocked to appalled. Keiji's expression had settled into a blankly unreadable mask.

The sage paced back and forth in front of the team like a drill sergeant, glaring intimidatingly at them. Naruto got the impression that their reaction to his 'art' had left him somewhat hacked off. Not an ideal first impression to make- but then again, the man hadn't exactly made a great one himself if his idea of welcoming them back was to start distributing smut. "Well then, you kids have names, or do I just call you 'Kakashi's brats'?"

This time it was Naruto who bristled. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto," he snapped. "And I'm-" The familiar words "–the one who's going to become the Hokage" died on his lips and he hesitated. What was the Hokage now that there was no Konoha? Would there ever even be another Hokage? "Never mind," he muttered, casting his eyes sullenly downward.

After a brief awkward pause, Sakura and Keiji provided their own brief introductions in turn. Jiraiya nodded and folded his arms. "Right then, you kids, nice meeting you and we're glad to have you back. I need to talk to your sensei for a bit in private now. Why don't you head down to the registration board and log your team's return, then take some free time? Kakashi will come and find you later for the meeting this afternoon."

The three genin nodded with varying degrees of enthusiasm and headed for the doorway. As Naruto and Sakura headed out and back down the stairs towards the ground level entrance, Keiji hesitated at the door and turned back to face the two older men. "Um, Kakashi-sensei, can I ask you a… um… a favour, please?"

The jounin blinked in surprise. "Eh? What kind of favour, Keiji-kun?" Keiji had never asked for anything from any member of Team 7 before.

The boy bit his lip and there was an agonisingly long pause before he finally spoke in an undertone that could barely be heard. "Um… could I… possibly borrow that new volume when you're done reading it…?"

oooOOOooo

The registration board –or boards, since it actually consisted of three huge blackboards next to one another- took up one entire wall of the room opposite the foot of the stairs on the ground floor, about twenty feet in from the entrance in from the fortress grounds. Covering almost every square inch of the dark surface were hundreds and hundreds of names in white chalk- a complete roll call of every Konoha ninja in active service at the time of the disaster. The room was manned by a single chuunin who sat behind a small desk reading a book, his plaster-encased left leg sticking out to the side and a pair of simple crutches leaning against the wall behind him.

The man explained how the board worked to Naruto and his friends. The board would normally be used to track who was in the fortress at the present time and who was out on a mission, but at the moment it was being used to construct an accurate casualty list. Ninjas were divided into groups by their rank, with the exception of this year's and last year's academy graduates, who were listed in their genin teams together with their jounin sensei at the end of the furthest board. The marks next to or around each ninja's name indicated their current status. A tick next to their name in green chalk meant they had survived the invasion unharmed or with only a few scratches and were fully ready for active duty. A yellow box drawn around their name was reserved for those who had escaped to the fortress, but needed to recover from their injuries before they could resume their full duties. An orange cross next to their name, however, meant the ninja in question was very severely injured- their wounds were either life-threatening, leaving them on the brink of death, or were crippling enough that they would probably never be able to resume their life as ninja, such as a major missing limb. A dark blue question mark next to the name meant "missing, status unknown", for those who had been outside of Konoha for whatever reason at the time of the attack. A large red circle, on the other hand, meant "missing in action", marking those who had not escaped the battle with the rest of the survivors, but whose deaths had not been officially confirmed. The man didn't say it aloud, but the unspoken implication was that the mark effectively meant "missing, presumed dead". A ninja whose name had been struck through with white chalk was dead- either their death had been seen or their corpse positively identified by an eyewitness.

Grinning, Naruto picked up a piece of green chalk and a blackboard duster from the man's desk and headed down towards the other end of the room to update his team's status, Sakura and Keiji right behind him. The grin faded somewhat as his eyes moved across the list of names that covered the boards between the doorway and his destination. Red circles were everywhere, but there were also countless names struck through, the irrefutable marks of the dead. The scattering of green ticks was small consolation, drowning in a sea of death. Team 10, it seemed, had been assigned to keep watch over the ruins of Konoha because they were one of only a handful of complete teams still in operation and even they had lost their jounin-sensei.

Naruto stopped at the end of the room where the genin teams were listed and started counting along the row of groups. The novice genin weren't much different from the rest of the board, marginally more yellow boxes and green ticks, but still a depressing number of dead and wounded. Genin Teams 1 and 6 from the previous year's class had taken heavy losses, both jounin dead and only three of the six genin confirmed alive, one of them critically injured. Team 3 were marked as having been out of Konoha at the time and still had not returned; Keiji mentioned that they'd been sent on a month-long mission out to a town near the borders of the Land of Lightning and a Team 4 hadn't been created from either of the last two academy graduating classes. Keiji felt a small, familiar ache in his chest as his eyes moved from 3 to 6, the names of his long-dead friends and teacher conspicuous by their absence.

Team 7's names were listed right at the end of the row up in the corner, forcing Naruto to fetch the small stepladder which was propped against the wall in order to reach them. Like Team 3, all four of them had blue question marks next to their names. However, Ino had mentioned on the trip back to the fortress that the Hokage had already been concerned enough about their inexplicable lateness that a search party wouold have been dispatched as soon as the Chuunin Exams had ended and in the wake of the battle Team 7 had unofficially been considered "lost". Naruto face showed a small satisfied smile as he used the duster to wipe out the blue chalk question marks and replace them with large, proud green ticks.

As he climbed down from his perch, he heard Sakura draw in a sharp breath. Startled, he and Keiji turned to face the girl. Sakura's eyes were wide and her face had paled even more than when Jiraiya had produced his little book, "Naruto…" she whispered, extending a trembling hand towards the board. Naruto's eyes followed her pointing finger… and he felt claws of ice clutch at his heart.

TEAM 8

Leader: Yuuhi Kurenai

Aburame Shino

Hyuuga Hinata

Inuzuka Kiba

Kurenai's name was marked with an orange cross. Kiba had a red circle that marked him as MIA. Hinata and Shino were both struck out.

A gaping pit opened up at the bottom of Naruto's stomach, sucking in all that he was and leaving him nothing but a sick, hollow feeling wrapped in an empty framework of skin. He hadn't known Shino especially well, but the stoic boy had always at least treated him with a modicum of polite, if indifferent, respect. Kiba had been rude and even somewhat contemptuous towards Naruto for his inability in the Academy classes, but Kiba had been brash and rude to pretty much everyone without distinction and unlike most of the children he, together with Shikamaru and Chouji, had sometimes got up to mischief together with Naruto as children, making him something akin to a friend.

But for some reason it was the thought of Hinata's death that gnawed at him the most. He'd practically never spoken to her during their time at the Academy, knowing her only as a quiet, hard-working girl who always seemed avoid looking at him. But ever since the mission to return her to Konoha only a few weeks earlier, he'd felt an unusual empathy for the timid girl, almost a responsibility towards her. I'll make you a promise- for as long as you keep trying without giving up, even when you fail, just remember that I'll believe in you so you can stay strong. And I'll do anything I can to help you. His words from back then echoed around inside his head, leaving pain in their wake as he remembered the way Hinata had cried into his chest. Unconsciously his hand rose to brush across the plate of his forehead protector -Hinata's forehead protector, the one she'd given him in exchange for his own, which she'd most likely been wearing when she died- and he felt a lump forming in his throat.

All of a sudden, he couldn't stand to be here in this room any more, in front of this damning list of the dead. The red marks and struck-out names mocked him for his failure, for his promises broken and his dreams incapable of being fulfilled. Turning on his heel, he rushed out of the room at barely less than a run, his head down to hide the tears stinging the corner of his eyes. He heard Sakura call out behind him, but didn't slow as he raced for the entrance, back out into the light.

oooOOOooo

"So," Jiraiya mused, lacing his fingers together on the desk in front of him. "That's Naruto. Not too far off from what I expected."

Kakashi nodded from his chair on the opposite side of the desk. "He certainly looks like his father at least. A bit short on common sense, I have to say, but he has the same courage, determination and loyalty to his comrades as Minato-sensei, as well as a great deal of cunning." The jounin leaned forward in his seat, trading his faint fond smile for a more serious look. "Speaking of Minato-sensei, I need to ask you something important, Jiraiya-sama. What do you think his intentions were when he sealed the Kyuubi inside Naruto?"

The older man's face darkened. "What's bringing this on all of a sudden, Kakashi? What did the boy do?"

Kakashi hesitated briefly. "Perhaps I'd best start at the beginning. You needed a proper report from me anyway."

oooOOOooo

Ten minutes later, Jiraiya had heard the whole story of Team 7's adventure in the Land of Earth- including the part Naruto played in defeating Wabisuke Ryota. As Kakashi finished speaking, he sat back in his chair, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm. So you think Naruto isn't a danger at the moment?"

Kakashi sighed. "I can't be certain, Jiraiya-sama, but he hasn't seemed any different since I saw him manifest the Kyuubi's power. He said he thought he could keep it under control, but I still haven't asked him exactly what he did to unleash it. I didn't want to inspect the seal until I had him back in a secure location, just in case I provoked the Kyuubi or accidentally damaged something." He sat forward and put his forearms on the desktop. "You're Konoha's foremost expert in sealing jutsu, Jiraiya-sama. I was hoping you could have a look at him and give him some advice."

Jiraiya snorted. "I was planning on meeting with the boy when I decided to return to Konoha in the first place. Not only do I owe it to his father to look out for him, I'd heard some disturbing rumours relating to him while I was travelling. Bring the kid to me this afternoon and I'll check him out."

Naruto's teacher nodded in relief. "Thank you Jiraiya-sama. So regarding what I asked at the start…?"

"What Minato was thinking?" Jiraiya shook his head. "Neither myself nor Sarutobi-sensei heard it from his own mouth, but I'm certain he wanted Naruto to be more than just a living prison. Sensei said Naruto should be viewed as a hero for his sacrifice, but when I talked to Minato and Kushina-chan before Naruto was born they both believed he'd be destined for great things. I saw the seal he placed on Naruto to hold the Kyuubi when he was a baby and I could tell that it was designed to, at some stage, allow him to access its power." The white-maned man absent-mindedly traced a figure-eight pattern on the desktop with his finger. "From what you told me, I think Naruto is doing what his father always hoped he could do. He saved your team from certain death, didn't he?" Suddenly Jiraiya slapped his palm on the table and sat sharply upright. "But I'm not certain he's doing it the way his father intended. I'll ascertain that when I see his seal today and make sure he's on he right track."

Kakashi nodded again. "That's reassuring, Jiraiya-sama. So, getting back to debriefing, I need to be brought up to speed. Exactly how bad were our losses in the battle?"

The Toad Sage's face was grim. "Bad. I don't know exactly what you heard from the Nara boy on your way here, but we lost about three-quarters of all our ninja in the battle and civilian casualties were terrible. ANBU were wiped out almost to the last man. Most of the great clans on Konoha were devastated. The only members of the Hyuuga clan we managed to keep with us are a couple of kids too young even to started at the academy yet and an elderly gardener from the branch family who was never even a ninja. We don't have a single member of the Aburame family left and the only survivor of the Inuzuka family is the eldest daughter. About the only family not to sustain massive losses was the Akimichi and even they're mourning their dead." Kakashi grimaced like a man being forced to drink the vilest medicine imaginable, but Jiraiya still wasn't finished. "Most of the jounin either died or were seriously injured in the battle as well- you know Asuma died and he wasn't the last by a long shot. Kurenai-chan is hospitalised at the moment, but she's not in a good condition and we really need more medic-nin. If I wasn't here, you'd have seniority, Kakashi."

The copy ninja blanched. It was that bad? While he was an extremely experienced jounin and was held in high esteem due to being the last remaining student of the 4th Hokage, Kakashi's actual position in Konoha's chain of command was not particularly high. He'd never sought promotion or advancement ever since reaching jounin rank at the age of eleven, since before Obito's death, any ambitions he might once have had for glory or fame driven out of him by the loss of his friend. He'd always been content simply to carry out missions and improve his skills, the better to serve his village. Even taking on a genin team, something that by default carried a slight elevation in rank to go with the increased responsibilities, was something he had only agreed to under sufferance. While he would be a natural choice as a leader in a combat scenario, for him to be the highest ranking ninja in a situation like this meant that things were dire indeed.

Shaking off his shock, Kakashi tried to focus. "What's our current situation like?" he asked, dreading the answer but forcing himself to remain calm.

"Pretty bad," Jiraiya admitted, "but not as bad as it could have been." Kakashi raised an eyebrow in surprise. "We retreated back to this place in as good order as was possible under the circumstances and we still have enough ninja ready and willing to fight to be able to defend it if anyone finds us. We're pretty sure we weren't followed here, which is no mean feat considering we were leading about five hundred scared, hurt, confused and panicky civilians. It was a godsend that Suna and Oto turned on each other like that or we'd never have made it. The facilities are still in good condition and there was a large stock of supplies in the underground storehouse, preserved by ninjutsu that even I don't fully comprehend." The old man sat forward in his chair and rested his chin on his folded hands. "The main problem is that this fortress was made to hold maybe a hundred and fifty to two hundred ninja in a desperate wartime situation, not more than twice that many civilians. There's not enough room and there's not enough food." He shook his head. "We have to get them out to the nearby towns and soon. Otafuku Gai, Tanzaku Gai, Kisaragi, whichever towns have room to take them. And the problem with that is that it's going to take almost everyone we have to spare to get them out and escorted to the towns safely. We can't very well just throw them out and expect them to make their own way to safety in light of what happened to Konoha."

Kakashi tapped his masked chin thoughtfully with a single finger. "Certainly can't. The Hokages would never forgive us if we did. So what's the plan?"

Jiraiya grimaced. "It's going to be tough. Estimates are that the food supplies here were supposed to last for over a month, but will run out in just under a week at the rate we're going through them, so we're going to begin evacuating people tomorrow morning. We'll start by asking for volunteers. I'm sure a lot of people are terrified with Konoha destroyed and would rather stay with the ninja who protected them, but I'm betting just as many will be wanting to get out and away from anything to do with ninja as soon as possible. We'll be sending them out in groups of ten or so with a three-man team guarding each. Once we've gotten the volunteers out, we'll need to start working at persuading some of the more reluctant. It's going to take days and we're going to have to bring more food in while we're doing it. At least if we can get the total population of the fortress down to about the two hundred it was meant to house, we can let the rest stay. There's going to be quite a few who'll refuse to leave anyway, like civilian parents of academy students, as well as a number of people we're going to need if we want to make this any kind of community. I want to keep the spirit of Konoha alive, not just turn this place into another covert military enclave."

Kakashi nodded his agreement. "Sounds good. What else is there?"

Jiraiya tapped absently on the tabletop with his fingernail. "There's a lot more we have to do as well, to get a better grasp of the big picture and shore up our position. I'll go over it at the meeting this afternoon, after I've had a look at Naruto."

With a final nod to acknowledge his dismissal, Kakashi rose to his feet. "Well then, Jiraiya-sama, I'll go find those kids of mine- or at least Naruto." Jiraiya nodded back, reaching for a piece of blank paper and a pen and bending down to his work. As Kakashi was about to leave the chamber, he paused on the threshhold and turned back. "Jiraiya-sama?" he called back. The toad hermit looked back up questioningly, but Kakashi hesitated. "Do you… think we failed Minato-sensei?"

There was a long silence. Jiraiya's expression was unreadable. Finally the legendary ninja sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. "I've been failing people my entire life. I failed Tsunade. I failed Orochimaru. I failed Sarutobi-sensei. And I failed Minato so many times- when he and Kushina died while I was away, when I left Naruto here to grow up alone. And yes, I think we all failed him when Konoha burned after everything he'd done to protect it." His sad expression hardened. "But at the very least I won't fail him in this."

Kakashi's single eye locked with Jiraiya's two for several ponderous seconds before he nodded again. "Neither will I."

oooOOOooo

It wasn't difficult for Sakura to find Naruto again after his flight from the registration room. Her first thought had been to go and ask Iruka-sensei if he'd seen the boy, only for her to catch Naruto standing right next to their old instructor. The class of students Iruka had been training had already finished their training and dispersed while Team 7 had been meeting with Jiraiya and updating their status on the registration board and the teacher had been in the process of packing away the shuriken and kunai they'd been using to practice when Naruto had caught him.

"Sorry Naruto," she heard Iruka say as she walked up, Keiji a few steps behind her. "I'm afraid we don't have a complete list of the surviving refugees who made it to the fortress with us. There are just too many of them and the records we kept of Konoha's civilian population weren't as in-depth as those of our ninja forces."

Naruto groaned. "So what, if I want to find out if someone survived I need to look for them myself?" He gestured vaguely towards the nearest group of tents and temporary shelters that had been erected to house the refugees. "That's hundreds of people I need to look through!"

"Well I'm sorry about that, Naruto," Iruka answered, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "We've been a bit too busy to take a complete census. If they needed urgent medical treatment they're probably registered at the hospital, but otherwise the best I can suggest is that you ask around to see if anyone has seen them."

With another exaggerated groan, Naruto turned and stumped off towards the nearest cluster of civilians. With an apologetic nod to Iruka-sensei, Sakura ran after him and tapped him on the shoulder. "Naruto, what's wrong?" she asked him. "Who are you looking for?"

The blond stopped and turned to face his two teammates. "I was hoping that Teuchi-ossan was here somewhere." Sakura blinked. The ramen shop owner? "I owe him a lot," Naruto continued, his voice increasingly subdued. "He helped look out for me ever since I was a kid. Sometimes he'd even give me credit when I didn't have enough money for dinner."

To Sakura's surprise, Keiji nodded in agreement. "I'll help you, Naruto," he said. "I'm fond of the old man and Ayame-san as well." He looked over at Sakura. "I assume you have your own people to look for, Sakura-san?"

A sudden, terrible feeling of guilt washed over Sakura as Keiji's words registered. Why hadn't she given any thought to her parents before now? Was it because she was the only member of her team who wasn't an orphan that she'd simply not worried about the concern that neither of the others would have shared? Hesitantly, she took a half-step back. "Uh… yes, I… need to go look for my mother and father," she stammered, feeling the sudden looks of sympathy that Naruto and Keiji gave her lodging in her heart like barbed hooks. They thought she'd just been putting on a brave front about her parents, when she really hadn't been thinking about them at all. "I'll start by checking the hospital like Iruka-sensei suggested," the girl continued, "so why don't you two search the camps?"

Keiji nodded. "OK Sakura-san, we'll ask around for your parents while we're we're looking." He clapped his shorter teammate on the shoulder. "Come on Naruto-kun, let's get a move on. You start here and work your way around the fortress clockwise, I'll go counter-clockwise. Meet you on the other side."

Naruto grinned and the two boys dashed off in opposite directions, heading for the nearest shelters. Sakura was left standing alone for a second, a twisting knot slowly forming in her gut. Shaking her head, the rose-haired girl turned and headed for the side of the caldera where Ino had earlier pointed out the hospital wing was located.

oooOOOooo

The hospital, improvised hastily by the few medic-nin who had escaped, was located in the network of rooms dug into the western wall of the caldera. Unlike the command post, the medical chambers took up three entire levels of the caves, both above and below the ground level entrance. Despite the apparently basic level of the facilities, the place was a hive of activity. Sakura looked in bewilderment at the bustle of people constantly moving around her, rushing up and down the wide stone staircases leading to the upper and lower levels. There was nothing that looked like a reception desk similar to the one at the Konoha hospital, where would she even begin?

"Sakura?" a familiar voice called out behind her. Sakura started and turned around just as Ino descended the staircase from the upper floor and walked over to her, sidestepping a passing medic-nin so occupied flipping through the contents of a bulging folder that he didn't even see the blonde. "Have you come to see your father?"

Her heart leapt even higher than it had when Ino had first jumped down on her in the ruins of Konoha earlier that day. Her eyes widened in delighted surprise and she lunged forward to clasp her startled friend's hands in her own. "He's here? He's alive? He's alright? Oh please, show me where he is, Ino, please! I was so worried and didn't know where to start looking for him! You know where he is, right?"

The pretty blonde girl shook of Sakura's viselike grip with some difficulty. "Yeah sure, sure, I'll take you there, just calm down already!" She turned on her heel and walked off down the passageway, heading deeper into the side of the caldera, Sakura right behind her. "There's not a lot of room in here," she explained as they stepped around a trolley bed that had been left up against the wall, "so only patients with serious injuries are allowed to stay here. People with just a cracked bone or two or shallow cuts are quickly treated and sent outside to make room for the next one and the surviving medic-nin are being run ragged trying to keep up." Ino glanced backwards at the other girl as she heard a terrified gasp come from behind her and hastily backpedalled. "Oh no, Sakura, your father isn't in any danger! He's totally a borderline case- in fact when I asked after him before, I heard they were looking at discharging him. He just got a moderate concussion, a few broken ribs and a sprained wrist, that's all."

Sakura sighed with relief, pressing her hand to her modest chest to try and make her heart stop racing. This day was starting to get to be too much of an emotional roller coaster for her. She'd have to keep her guard up until she finally got to throw herself into the arms of her parents and only then would she be truly safe to relax.

Ino grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her through the curtain covering one of the doors that were spaced out along either side of the passageway. Behind the heavy cotton shroud was what looked like a ward, crammed with dozens of people laid out on thick futons. Ino's voice was a whisper as she led Sakura across the dimly-lit room, stepping carefully around the prone forms of the patients, most of whom were asleep. "This floor was assigned for the minor civilian casualties, 'cause it's the biggest and there were a lot of civvies hurt in the attack. The minor ninja casualties are all staying downstairs at the moment, while most of the really badly hurt people are kept on the top level."

The pieces clicked together in Sakura's mind as her ears registered the quaver that Ino had almost managed to control in her voice. She stopped in the middle of the ward, forcing Ino to a halt as she tried to lead Sakura onwards. If her suspicions were correct, she had to ask Ino about this before she spoke to her father. "Ino, why were you upstairs when I arrived?" she asked, her voice as soft and gentle as she could make it. "Who did you go up there to see?"

The blonde didn't look at her. Ino didn't move, didn't respond, didn't do anything. Sakura slipped her wrist out of Ino's loose grip and clasped the girl's hand in hers instead. "Ino…"

Ino's head drooped downwards and sparkling drops of salt water fell from her face to splash on the stone of the floor. "My… my Dad." Her voice was choked and trembling. "He… he fought as hard as he could in the defence of Konoha, he used every jutsu he knew. He protected… so many people, he did so much and I'm so proud of him. But…" Sakura gently pulled her childhood friend close and wrapped comforting arms around her as the girl's composure drained away by the second. "He lost his eyes, Sakura," Ino whispered into Sakura's chest. "They slashed his eyes. Both of them. He's going to be blind for the rest of his life and he's still really badly hurt. Even if he gets better, he's never going to..." Her words choked off in pained sobs.

Sakura didn't know what to say to that. Only moments ago she'd been so relieved when Ino had told her how minor her father's injuries were, but how much would it have been hurting Ino to tell her that with her thoughts occupied by her own horribly wounded father lying upstairs somewhere? She patted the blonde girl on the back as her sobs rapidly subsided and Ino pushed her gently away, wiping her eyes. She sniffed and, to Sakura's astonishment, produced a shaky smile. "But I shouldn't be so weepy. At least Dad's alive now and he's awake. And he has Mom up there with him to look out for him even when I can't be with him, so I know he'll be OK." The smile faded again. "It's Shikamaru you should feel sorry for. His father didn't make it." She took Sakura's had again and gently tugged her onwards. "Come on, you want to see your own dad, right?"

Haruno Kizashi was tucked away right in the furthest corner of the ward. He was lying face up on a futon with a blanket covering him up to his abdomen, exposing the white bandages wrapped around his chest under his open yukata. His right arm also had bandages constraining the wrist and his spiky, dull pink hair was disrupted by yet more bandages covering the right side of his head, but he was blissfully dozing and snoring, his face partially covered by an eyemask to help him sleep. Sakura dropped to her knees beside his bed, her breath shortening at the sight of the father she thought she might never have seen again. Ino stood a tactful distance behind her, smiling. Gingerly, Sakura extended a trembling hand and shook her father gently by the shoulder. "Daddy," she whispered. "Dad, wake up. I'm back."

Kisashi's snores cut off in a fit of snorting as he jolted awake, groaning as the action sent pain running through his damaged ribs. "Ouch," he muttered weakly, fumbling to push his eyemask up from his face with his left hand. "Is that you again, Ino-chan? Has there been any word of Sakura yet?"

Sakura couldn't stop tears from filling her eyes, despite the smile on her face. "There sure has, Dad," she murmured to him, reaching out to his face and gently laying her hand over his, sliding the eyemask up onto his forehead. Their matching jade-green eyes met and she watched as her father's widened at the sight of his dear little girl returned to him.

Barely a second later, Kizashi lunged up from his mattress to grab his daughter around the shoulders and pull her into a tight hug. "Oh, Sakura," he whispered in her ear. "I was terrified that I'd never see you again! The Hokage had sent us a notification letter that your team was running suspiciously late again and after the last time, when you lost your teammate, your mother and I were fearing the worst." His voice started to choke up. "And then when… the disaster came and we all ended up here, I really… really thought you were gone forever." The arms tightened around her body even more firmly and even when Sakura heard him suck in a brief pained breath they didn't loosen their grip.

Startled, Sakura gently tried to ease her way out of the embrace to reduce the pressure on the man's injured ribs. "Dad! Take it easy, you're still hurt! You're going to make your injuries worse if you're not careful."

Kizashi laughed as he released his daughter and sat back, his hands resting on her shoulders. "Oh don't worry about me, little Blossom," he chuckled. Sakura blushed as pink as her namesake at his use of the childish nickname. "Your old man's as tough as old shoe leather." Taking a moment to look his little girl up and down, his eyes widened in shock. "Never mind me, what happened to you?! Are you alright, Sakura?"

The young kunoichi blinked in confusion for a moment before she realised what her father was seeing. With bandages wrapped around the cut on her right arm, her throat still marked by a slowly fading ring of horrible dark bruising and her dress stained with dried blood on the shoulder where she'd been struck by a shuriken, she probably looked as bad as he did, if not worse. She forced a smile to her face. "Don't you worry about any of that, Dad," she reassured him. "It's nothing. There's lots of ninja still walking around here with a lot worse than these scratches."

Kizashi visibly relaxed, although his eyes retained an expression of guarded concern. "That's… a relief to hear, Sakura. You need to take care of yourself, for my and your mother's sake as well as your own. You know how we worry about you." He stretched his arms above his head and gave both Sakura and Ino standing behind her a look that seemed hopeful. "I don't suppose… your mother has shown up as well?"

Sakura's blood ran cold. Her mother was missing? Helplessly she turned and gave Ino a pleading look. The blonde girl refused to meet her eyes. "I'm sorry Sakura. When the village fell, I could only find your father."

The man's body slumped. When he broke the long, painful silence that followed, his voice was shaky. "Mebuki… had only gone to do some grocery shopping when the attack happened. I was reading the paper in the living room when the I heard the noises. I was about to go out to look for her and I'd just gotten as far as the front door when the house collapsed. It was a miracle that I was as unhurt as I was when Ino-chan pulled me out." He grimaced. "Ino-chan's been looking through the other survivors for any sign of Mebuki when she gets the chance, but…" He shook his head and looked across at his daughter sadly. "At least you're back with me, Sakura. Until you came back, I was afraid I was all alone."

Sakura didn't know what to say. Her head contained no words, only confused feelings she had no way to express aloud. Silently, she leaned forward and hugged her father again, being careful not to put any pressure on his bandaged ribs. Father and daughter stayed like that for a long time, watched over by Yamanaka Ino.

oooOOOooo

When Keiji found Naruto again, the blond was sitting alone on a low bench, glumly shifting noodles into his mouth from a crude wooden bowl and staring blankly into the space in front of him. He sat down on the bench next to his friend and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. "So, looks like you found Teuchi-san after all, Naruto-kun?"

Naruto blinked and rapidly slurped up the noodles dangling from his mouth, then gave Keiji a wan smile. "Oh, hey Keiji. Yeah, it wasn't actually that difficult once I asked around a bit. Teuchi-ossan lost his shop in the battle, but he's managed to scrape together enough tools and ingredients to set up a little stall over there." He nodded towards a small wooden stall that had been set up in the shade of one of the long buildings that dotted the outskirts of the caldera. Just over the top of the impressively long line of people queuing up in front of the stall, Keiji was just able to catch a glimpse of the familiar white cap worn by the ramen chef. Naruto popped another bamboo shoot in his mouth, chewed and swallowed before continuing. "While there's enough food here, it's apparently pretty dull stuff, so Teuchi-ossan's become really popular as one of the only cooks around, even if this is a bit basic for him." He tapped the edge of his bowl with his chopsticks to punctuate his point. "Just plain pork broth with dried pork slices and noodles with bamboo shoots and a boiled egg is about the best he can do at the moment, but you know him, it's still great stuff." He smiled. "He was so happy to see me again he gave me this one on the house. He said he'd keep one aside for you too, Keiji."

Keiji nodded thoughtfully. "OK. Well that's certainly good news. So…" He hesitated for a moment. "…what's bothering you? Is Ayame-san alright?"

Naruto looked shocked and shook his head. "Oh no, Ayame-neechan is fine! Well, mostly fine, she got a fractured arm and a couple of minor burns in the attack." He grinned. "But she's OK, the main thing Teuchi-ossan is worried about is getting her to stay in bed and rest 'cause she keeps insisting he can't run the stall without her."

A breath of relief escaped Keiji's lungs. "Oh that's good. So if it's not Ayame-san then what's got you so down?" His mouth quirked. "Apart from, you know, the obvious?"

There was a drawn out silence as Naruto scooped up the last of the noodles and drained his bowl before putting it down on the bench beside him with a sigh. "I dunno, I guess… I was just thinking about Team 8."

Keiji nodded understandingly. "I see. Were… um… were you and Hinata-san very close?"

Naruto blinked again, taken off guard. "Wha-? Hinata? Why would you…? No, no, I barely knew her at all really." He hesitated momentarily. "Well… I suppose I talked to her a bit that time she ran away and we were sent to bring her back. She… seemed really down on herself at the time because of, you know, what that Neji had said to her, so… I just tried to cheer her up a bit, make her believe in herself." He bit his lip. "And I dunno, it was just… it worked. I felt like I really made a difference, that I'd really helped her, not by fighting for once, but just… giving her the support she needed. And she listened to me and she took me seriously, which isn't something I get very often. And it's just…" Naruto struggled for words for a moment then sighed miserably. "It's just… really sad to think that after all that, when things were looking better for her, she's just… gone."

His teammate gave him a sympathetic look. "Mmm. I know what you mean, Naruto-kun. When someone dies, one of the parts that hurts the most is the thought of all the things that might have been." He paused. "You… remember I told you about my old teammate, Mio-chan?" Naruto nodded and Keiji took a deep breath. "Well, we'd been friends for some time, but after… she was killed, the one thing I always regretted that I'd never… never had the guts to tell-"

"Hey there, you two." The boys looked around in surprise as the familiar voice of their sensei came from right behind them. Kakashi had appeared practically out of nowhere. He fixed Naruto with his eye. "Naruto, Jiraiya-sama needs to see you again, right now."

Naruto's expression soured. "Eh? Why would the pervert hermit need to see me again so quickly?"

"Firstly, don't call him that, Naruto." Kakashi's tone was smooth but contained a definite hint of a warning. "Secondly, you should know why if you used your head. Come on, let's get going." As the two boys began to rise from the bench, their teacher put a forestalling hand on Keiji's shoulder. "Sorry Keiji, he just needs to see Naruto. It's a private matter. You'll have to wait until we're done."

Keiji blinked. "Uh… OK then, Kakashi-sensei. I'll just go get that bowl of ramen Teuchi-san is holding for me." He wandered off in the direction of the food stand, pulling out a shuriken and idly flipping it between his fingers the way someone else might do with a pen.

Naruto gave Kakashi a sickly grin. "So… exactly how much trouble am I in anyway, Kakashi-sensei?"

oooOOOooo

"Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…" Jiraiya dragged the sound out to a ridiculously exaggerated length as he studiously perused the seal on Naruto's bare stomach. "Innnnnnnnnteresting. From what I can see, it looks like the components of the seal used to keep the Kyuubi contained are untouched. There's no more risk of the creature rupturing the seal and escaping than there was before." An expression of deepest relief washed across Naruto's face, only to be replaced by a wince as Jiraiya's thick finger poked roughly into his stomach. "But I'm not liking this bit here," the Toad Sage continued, ignoring the boy's discomfort. "The conduits connecting the seal to your chakra coils seem to have been modified somehow. While I can't be certain just inspecting the seal from the outside like this, I suspect that the point of connection has somehow been moved further up the gate network." He sat back in his chair and stroked his chin contemplatively. "Ideally I'd like to get a Hyuuga to take a look at your chakra system with their Byakugan, but we don't have any on hand at the moment. Such a nuisance…"

Naruto's brow furrowed with confusion. "Eh? What's that all about? What gate network?"

Jiraiya and Kakashi exchanged glances. "Hm, doesn't surprise me that you don't know about the gates, boy," the older man snorted. "Advanced stuff indeed. You really wouldn't have any need to know about it unless you were learning the most advanced taijutsu there is." He leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands together on his knees. "The body's chakra network has eight specific points on it which regulate the flow of chakra. These are the Eight Gates. They're like power limiters which keep our bodies from self-destructing through overuse of our chakra. Anyway, when Mina- uh, the Fourth Hokage put that seal on you, it tied the Kyuubi to your chakra network at the fifth gate, the Gate of Limits, which is located here." Unlacing his fingers from each other again, he reached out and rapped on Naruto's stomach with one knuckle, making him flinch again. "But I have a sneaking suspicion that the Kyuubi somehow managed to adjust the location of the connection further up the network- possibly even attaching it to the Gate of Death, right here." His finger traced up Naruto's topless body and stopped right over his heart.

Naruto shuddered. "That… doesn't sound good. Is that what happened when I drank the Kyuubi's blood in the, uh, seal world?"

The older shinobi nodded. "Blood is a powerful medium, even in an only half-real context like that. If I'm right about this then the strengthened connection caused by you ingesting the blood would have allowed the Kyuubi to alter its location inside your body, enabling it to leak its consciousness directly into your mind. That's how it was able to let you use that… Fox Claws technique you told me about. That's kind of worrying."

Naruto grinned at the other two men. "Oh, you don't need to worry about that. I pretty much know how to do that by myself now the fox showed me." He hopped off the stool. "Want to see?"

"Naruto-" Kakashi began.

"Now let's see, I just need to focus my chakra around my hands and, uh, concentrate on the shape of the claws as I accelerate the flow-"

"Boy, I don't think you should-" Jiraiaya interrupted.

"-OK, I think that's it. Kyuubi Technique: Fox's Claws!"

The air around Naruto's outstretched hands shimmered as his chakra started to manifest and for a brief moment the outlines of long, deadly talons were visible above his fingers. But a second later the chakra vanished without a trace and he staggered, overcome by an unexpected dizziness that sapped every ounce of strength from his body. Kakashi and Jiraiya caught the boy by the arms as he slumped forward, preventing him from smacking his face on the hard stone floor of the room.

Jiraiya clucked his tongue disapprovingly as the two men lowered Naruto's boneless body into his chair. "That was a stupid thing to do, brat. The Kyuubi's techniques aren't just for anyone to use. I don't even need to see that technique to realise how much chakra it wastes, just hearing Kakashi tell me about it was enough. The fox can afford to burn that much power, you certainly can't." He shook his head pityingly. "Chakra exhaustion can be pretty bad when amateur genin overreach themselves, you were lucky the technique simply failed before you knocked yourself out."

Naruto shook his head muzzily, trying to clear the spots flashing in front of his eyes. "Well that's… that sucks then!" he muttered, abashed. "So I have to work with the Kyuubi to use any techniques it shows me? Lame."

"I imagine that was the idea behind it," Kakashi observed. "The Kyuubi wants to make you dependant on it. That's why I told you to be careful with how and when you use it."

"And don't you forget that, boy!" Jiraiya added. "I'm not saying you shouldn't do it again if you really need to, but don't you dare use that power for a trivial reason!" He knelt down in front of Naruto's limp form and put a broad hand, fingers spread, over the seal again. "Now just sit still and get your strength back while I take another look at this. I think I might have an idea for something I can do to give you a bit more control over the Kyuubi in an emergency."

Embarassed by his blundered attempt to show off, Naruto sat quietly in the chair while Jiraiya poked at different points of his stomach and had a quiet, muttered conversation with Kakashi. He could feel more of his strength seeping back into his body with each passing second. Rapidly growing bored from the inactivity, he started to impatiently drum his fingers against his thigh, but knew there was no point trying to hurry the seal master along. All the same, just sitting here in silence was starting to drive him nuts.

"Hey, perve-uh, Jiraiya-ossan, where did you find out about this place anyway?" A flip of his hand indicated the whole of the fortress outside the windowless, stone-walled room. "Shikamaru said it was called 'the Hidden Fortress of the Senju'. What's that all about?"

Kakashi winced at his student's behavior, but Jiraiya just grunted as he continued studying the seal. "Never heard of the Senju, boy? They were the clan of the first two Hokages before the founding of Konoha. This was the clan's secret hideout for them to fall back to in case of a catastrophe." He stroked his chin contemplatively, eyes still fixated on the spiral design in front of him. "Knowledge of its location was supposed to be held only by the Hokage himself, but after Minato died, Sarutobi-sensei decided to let me in on the secret as well. He once wanted me to be Hokage, but I knew I'd never be suited to the job. But until he could nominate a new successor to be Fifth Hokage, I'd at least take responsibility for knowledge of the Fortress." He snorted. "It's lucky sensei never told Orochimaru about it before he betrayed us, or things might have turned very ugly indeed."

Naruto's brow furrowed. "'Minato'? Who's Minato?" He blinked. "Wait… do you mean the Fourth Hokage? Was that his name? Did you know him personally?"

Both of the men flinched, surprised by Naruto unexpectedly catching onto Jiraiya's lapse and the sage scrambled for words. "Um, no… um, I mean yes, I knew him, of course I did." With effort he regained his composure. "I was his teacher, after all and he went on to teach Kakashi-kun here."

Naruto's eyes widened. "You trained the Fourth Hokage, per-Jiraiya-ossan? Wow!" Suddenly, his expression turned pensive. "Then do you know… why he chose me to be the container of the fox?"

There was a long silence. Kakashi surreptitiously caught Jiraiya's eyes and gave a small, almost imperceptible shake of his head. Not right now. The older man sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. "No, I don't, boy," he admitted wearily. "I wasn't in the village when it happened and I never got the chance to ask him." That was half-true at least. Standing up with one swift motion, he cracked his knuckles theatrically. "OK, now I think I have a workable solution to our little fox problem. Can you stand up yet, boy?"

Instead of answering, Naruto simply pushed himself up from the chair and stood in front of Jiraiya with barely a wobble. Kakashi raised an eyebrow at how quickly Naruto had regained his strength, but the hermit simply held up his right hand with his fingers extended and blue flames danced on their tips. "Five Elements Restrained Seal!" Without another word of explanation he slammed his hand, fingers first, into Naruto's stomach right on top of the seal there. The blonde gasped as the breath was smacked out of him and collapsed back into the chair again, Kakashi catching it by the backrest as the impact caused it to tip dangerously backward. A latticework pattern briefly glowed red around the Kyuubi's seal where Jiraiya's fingers had struck before fading from view.

Coughing violently, Naruto struggled to spit his words out. "Wh- what did you do that for?!"

Apparently satisfied with the result, Jiraiya folded his arms and nodded. "Good, looks like it worked. OK listen up, brat. I just attached an inactive suppressing seal to your Eight Trigrams Seal. Since an odd-numbered seal placed over the top of an even-numbered one will disrupt it, when you activate the seal it'll insert the elemental tines across the conduits of the Eight Trigrams, disrupting the flow of chakra coming from the Kyuubi, and cutting it completely off from your system. You understand?"

From within the torrent of jutsubabble, Naruto was just able to pick out the relevant information, making his eyes light up. "You mean, uh… you put something on me that'll let me make the Kyuubi go away, yeah?"

Jiraiya nodded. "If you want to put it that way, yeah. You can trigger the seal at any time if you feel the Kyuubi is getting out of hand." He tapped one finger thoughtfully on his chin. "Be careful with it, though. Like the Kyuubi itself, it's a desperate measure. The Five Elements Seal won't just cut the Kyuubi out of your system, it'll disrupt your control over your own chakra as well. You won't be able to use any kind of jutsu that require fine chakra control and when you first trigger it there's a good possibility the backlash may knock you out. I can remove the seal easily enough once the Kyuubi has been suppressed again and I can probably teach Kakashi-kun to do the same, but it could be risky to use in the middle of a big battle." He shrugged, but his expression darkened. "Still, remember that very little could be more catastrophic than that monster breaking loose again. If you delay too long in triggering the seal, you may miss your chance- and then things would be very bad."

Hearing the intensity in the man's tone, Naruto could only gulp and nod. "I… I understand, Jiraiya-sama. I won't let anyone down. I swear it. I'll die before I waste the 4th Hokage's sacrifice."

His cloudy expression clearing into a smile, Jiraiya clapped Naruto on the shoulder. "That's good, boy. I may learn to like you yet." He gave a nod to Kakashi and strode towards the door. "Put your shirt back on boy, it's almost time for the meeting. We have a lot of work ahead of us in this one."

oooOOOooo

Rather than a part of the cave network, the meeting was held in one of the large traditional buildings near the entrance to the fortress, apparently built by the Senju as some kind of clan meeting hall. All surviving Konoha ninja who weren't either confined to the hospital wing or occupied by more urgent duties crowded into the hall, seating themselves on the tatami matting in rows or leaning against the walls. The room was fairly crowded, but it was still a depressingly small gathering of shinobi.

Naruto sat between Sakura and Keiji in the second row from the front, alongside Team 10 and a few other genin. The blond was so excited he could barely sit still. It was time for the survivors of Konoha to take action and he couldn't wait to receive his orders, to play his part in working towards the eventual restoration of the village.

Jiraiya, together with Kakashi, the bowl-haired man from before and three other jounin that Naruto didn't recognise stood at the front of the hall. The murmuring from the assembled shinobi died down as Kakashi signalled for quiet and Jiraiya stepped forward to address them. The huge, white-maned man projected an imposing and confident presence that easily held the attention of every man, woman boy and girl in the room.

The Toad Sage wasted no time in outlining to everyone their situation and the need to evacuate as many of the noncombatants as possible to the nearby towns. With their supplies already strained there was no time to lose. As well as informing the citizens, finding out who wanted to leave, where they wanted to go to, organising them into travelling groups and assigning a team of ninja to protect each one, reconnaissance teams needed to be deployed around the fortress to prevent any interlopers coming across the groups and potentially discovering their base. Secrecy was their best, if not their only defence at this stage.

A few ninja raised their hands to ask questions- how many civilians would they be able to sustain in the fortress for the long term, would the older and more promising academy students be accelerated to genin rank to help, how many ninja would be left at home to guard the fortress while the evacuation was proceeding, how would they be able to guarantee none of the people would reveal the existance (or worse, the location) of the fortress to any potential enemies, what were they going to do about the supply situation in the long term and a host of other issues. Sakura and Keiji paid keen attention to everything that was said, while Naruto fidgeted and hoped Jiraiya would move onto more exciting topics soon.

He wasn't disappointed. Once the questions had run out, Jiraiya clapped his hands to regain the attention of anyone whose mind might have wandered. "The next matter we need to address," he declared, "is the circumstances of the battle. We still have too many questions that need answering, especially about Suna's actions and their reasons for them. So we're going to get some answers the most direct way we can: we're going to send an emissary to Suna to find out where they stand with us now." A hubbub erupted at this, which Jiraiya waved down with some difficulty. "The mission is dangerous, we know, but it's something we have to do. Every day we spend in ignorance may only be increasing our danger. So we've decided to send one of our most skilled and trusted jounin, together with his genin team, in the hope that no matter how bad the potential danger, he'll be able to get himself and his students away safely."

Naruto's palms started to sweat and a grin began to split his face. Yes! he thought to himself. That's us! We're going to have to discover the truth about why Suna attacked us. He clenched his fist excitedly as Jiraiya turned to his right, where Kakashi was standing next to his bizarre friend. I won't let anything stop us!

"I'm sure you know that all of us have the utmost faith in you and your students," the sage declared gravely, "Might Guy."

Something short-circuited in Naruto's head.

Jiraiya continued, although his words flowed in one of Naruto's ears and out the other. "Your team is currently under-strength due to your loss in the battle, which would handicap them in protecting the evacuating the civilians. However, together with your own formidable skills, they should be able to provide you with the backup you need to make it to Suna and back safely. If you approach under a flag of truce and request to speak to the Kazekage, you can hopefully discover why they joined Oto in attacking us, why they turned on their allies in the middle of the battle and whether they intend to pose any threat to us in the future."

In contrast to Jiraiya's serious demeanor, Guy grinned broadly, displaying rows of gleaming white teeth and gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Jiraiya and the assembled Konoha shinobi. "Not to worry, Jiraiya-sama! My precious students are still full of youth and their courage will never fail them! You can count on us!"

Jiraiya coughed awkwardly. "Quite." He turned back to face the front again. "There's one more thing to discuss. I am not the one who is meant to lead Konoha in this situation. I've been able to keep things together so far, and I thank you for your forbearance and obedience, but we need a proper leader to take charge of our recovery from here on out." Cries of disagreement arose from the crowd, but the sage forestalled them with a raised hand. "So I will be departing tomorrow, as soon as we have the evacuation well underway, to seek out my old comrade Tsunade. She's the granddaughter of the First Hokage and far more suited to a leadership role than I am, as well as being the greatest medic-nin in the world. I intend to find her, bring her back to the fortress and convince her to take charge. While I'm gone, Hatake Kakashi will be left in command here. Are there any objections or further questions?" Silence was his answer. Jiraiya nodded. "Very good. Then let's go out and begin preparing for the evacuation tomorrow morning. It's going to be a very busy day."

oooOOOooo

The size of the yawn caused Naruto's mouth to gape open like a great red cavern lined with a row of sharpened white stones. Sitting across from him on the other side of the table, Keiji gave him a reproachful look, even as he attempted to stifle a yawn of his own. The third ninja sharing the table with the two boys, a dour, one-eyed chuunin called Mikami, studiously ignored the pair of them in favour of reading his battered copy of Icha Icha Tactics.

Naruto couldn't help being bored. After spendng the night on a narrow futon in the crowded building that had been assigned as a temporary barracks for the male ninja, the morning had been a whirl of excitement and confusion. Almost a hundred and seventy civilians had been formed into groups of ten to twelve and led out of the Fortress of the Senju via its solitary gate, escorted by teams of ninja. Once the last group had departed, Jiraiya had taken his own leave, telling Kakashi that he might be gone for up to a month in the worst case scenario before leaving him in charge. Might Guy and his two remaining students had departed for Suna at first light that same morning, while Team 10 had gone with one of the smaller noncombatant groups heading for Otafuku Gai. Naruto had sulked at the news that Team 7 wouldn't be able to take part in the evacuation, but while it was in progress the fortress was down to a skeleton defence and the team were still officially "recovering" from their own adventure in the Land of Earth.

Once all the departures were completed, Team 7 had their first moment of time to themselves since before their last mission had begun. Kakashi-sensei had even used the opportunity to do some actual teaching for once, taking his students across to the spring to show them the rudiments of walking on water. But once the lesson had finished (and Naruto and Keiji's clothes had dried; Sakura, unsurprisingly, had almost no problems with the lesson) they were assigned other work to do. Sakura was helping Kakashi-sensei with his administrative work, while Naruto and Keiji had been sent with Mikami to relieve the guards on the main gate.

The chuunin wasn't much company. He mostly ignored Keiji unless he was being addressed directly, while Naruto could sense the familiar disdain that he'd been dealing with all his life emanating from Mikami whenever the man looked at him. The two genin had chatted to each for a while about various inanities to relieve the boredom, but after the third hour Naruto was being driven up the wall. At one point he'd actually done exactly that, walking up the wall and practicing hanging from the ceiling, but after he'd lost his grip and dropped headfirst onto the table, Mikami had snapped at him to just sit still and be quiet.

Naruto had already read through the entire list of teams in the field and their personally assigned passwords at least three times already and was getting so desperate that he was on the verge of asking Mikami if he had another volume of the Icha Icha series on hand to read when a metallic ringing sounded throughout the small chamber. Someone was knocking on the gate of the fortress. Instantly all three ninja leapt from their chairs and approached their side of the gate, Mikami reaching up to unbolt and slide back the view hatch in order to look at the new arrivals. "Identify yourself," he barked through the gap.

Naruto and Keiji craned around the older man trying to catch a glimse of the newcomer through the hatch, but couldn't see anything. They could, however, hear the laboured breathing of what sounded like a young woman, one who had recently been running for a long period. "I- I- Inu-" The woman gasped for breath, swallowed, coughed once and cleared her throat before trying again. "I-Inuzuka… Hana and… the Hah-Haimaru Triplets, returned from… solo recon. I have an important report to make."

Mikami didn't react at all. "Password?"

There was a long pause punctuated only by the sound of Hana getting her breath back before she answered. "Blue lightning four leaf six nine red." Mikami glanced over at Naruto who had retrieved the register list from the table and after a few seconds of searching the boy nodded back. Without another word the chuunin snapped the hatch closed and the three ninja undid the multiple heavy bolts and bars that secured the reinforced doors and slowly dragged them open.

The kunoichi who stepped through the doors was an attractive young woman in a green chuunin jacket with her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. While her face was moderately pretty, it was marked with a pair of large red triangles tattooed on her cheeks that looked oddly familiar to Naruto. At her heels padded three large grey and white dogs and nestled in her arms was a small white puppy.

It was the puppy made the final connection click in Naruto's mind. "Inuzuka…?" he said aloud. "Hey, you wouldn't happen to be… Kiba's sister?" He remembered now where he'd seen the puppy before- sitting on top of his unruly classmate's head. The surprised girl looked at him and nodded briefly before turning back to Mikami.

"I need to deliver a message to Jiraiya-sama immediately," she said. "Can you tell me where I can find him?"

Mikami briefly explained to the kunoichi what had transpired while she was out of the fortress, while Naruto and Keiji stood off to the side. Naruto was practically bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet with excitement. What "important report" did Hana have to deliver and why did she have her brother's dog with her?

His superior finished filling the young woman in and looked over at the other two. "Uzumaki!" he barked. "Take Inuzuka-san to find your sensei at once. This report will need to be delivered to him. Kyoshun, help me get this door closed."

A few minutes later the blond genin and the pretty chuunin climbed up the steps to the second level of the command post, where Kakashi and Sakura were both working on assembling a complete census of all non-shinobi villagers remaining within the walls of the fortress. Naruto rushed into the room, almost bowling over a startled Sakura who was just about to step out for a breath of fresh, with Hana right behind him, her trio of dogs silently bringing up the rear. "Kakashi-sensei!" he blurted out as his teacher rose from his chair behind the scroll-covered desk. "Inuzuka Hana here just returned. She says she has something urgent to report!" His own report done, Naruto stepped aside to let the chuunin come forward.

Putting the little white dog down on the floor, Hana delivered a quick salute as Kakashi stood in front of her. "Inuzuka Hana reporting! I was scouting the area around Konoha near the northern road when I found Akamaru here-" She indicated the puppy who was sitting placidly at her feet, wagging his tail energetically. "-heading back towards Konoha. I caught up with him and found this message attached to his collar." Reaching into one of her pouches she produced a small scroll, which offered to Kakashi. "I think you need to read it immediately."

Kakashi nodded and took the scroll, unrolling it and letting his eye flicker across the contents. Naruto, standing unobtrusively next to Sakura near the doorway, couldn't hold himself in any longer. "What does it say, Kakashi-sensei! Tell us!"

Sakura elbowed him in the ribs, but Kakashi only glanced in their direction, held the message up and began reading from it aloud. The words within were short and terse. "'Tracking Sound forces back to hideout. Many Konoha prisoners taken, including Hinata. Death was faked. Send backup immediately for rescue attempt. Urgent. Inuzuka Kiba.'"

TO BE CONTINUED…

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AUTHOR'S NOTES:

URGH! I CANNOT express how sorry I am for this fiasco. When I first started writing this fic I was hoping to release about one chapter per month, but this one took around nine! And to think I thought I had trouble writing chapter 2! In my defence, it is going on 50 A4 pages long, making it by far the longest thing I've written to date (chapter 6 was barely 33 pages), my writing was extensively disrupted by real life events and it wasn't my favourite part of the story either, making it hard to concentrate on enough to complete. But no excuses are really good enough. As promised in the teaser, I committed hara-kiri on New Year's Day when I failed in my promise to deliver the chapter by then. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone to act as my second and decapitate me afterwards, so I had no choice than to stuff my entrails back into my belly, wrap my abdomen in gaffer tape and keep typing.

Did anyone catch the main shout-out in this chapter? That's right, "the Hidden Fortress of the Senju" is a reference to the 1958 Akira Kurosawa classic, The Hidden Fortress. It's an excellent film and very worth watching even today.

This chapter is where the full effects of the plot divergence that began with Sasuke's death are truly felt. As I said in the fic synopsis, even a small rock thrown into a still pool creates ripples. While I confess I "cheated" a bit by arranging for Team 7 to be out of Konoha during the Chuunin Exam final, everything else that happened is a logical extrapolation from Sasuke's death- most notably, Orochimaru not acting like a friggin' idiot and tipping off Konoha to all of his plans during the second exam. I hope you're not too upset about what's happened, or your favourite character dying, but I never promised this fic would be an endless cavalcade of sunshine and flowers.

While I now know better than to make any promises regarding release dates, I will promise you that chapter 8 won't take anything like as long to come out. If this was mostly a non-action chapter, chapter 8 is going to more than make up for it and it's something I'm really looking forward to writing, which always makes it easier. This is gonna be good.

Man, I could really go for a ramen right about now…

NEXT TIME:

Faced with the choice between abandoning their friends or hurling themselves into the maw of darkness, there can be only one answer for Team 7. Will they have the courage to withstand their greatest and most terrifying challenge yet? Find out in Naruto: The Secret Songs of the Ninja chapter 8- The Song of the Black Abyss.

- Arcane Azmadi