A/N: OVER ONE THOOOUSAND REVIEWS! This story has finally reached that mark! You guys are the best! When I first created this story I never once thought that it would graduate to become the massive and phenomenal hit that it is to day!

Still I return again! Things have been absolutely crazy for me as of the last few months what with the surgeries and all, but now at long last, I feel I can devote my attentions to this fic anew as I've intended to do! Of course, now that they're not cutting me OPEN anymore to work on my heart I've also come up with a quite a few new ideas! I can promise ya'll that the next few chappys are going to be nothing short of absolutely brilliant! So sorry for the wait!

Now that we've addressed all those issues, I just wanted to say: Thank you. To all of you who reviewed and have yet to review, and especially those who noticed my improved writing style. I look forward to hearing more from you as we continue down the strange, convulted path that is this story. I honestly cannot believe I've already gotten more than 100 reviews for the first chapter alone and now its so damn high I could cry with joy! Hopefully I won't dissapoint you guys! And with that...

...onto the next chapter! =D I'm also going to address another slight discrepancy here; just how Naruto feels about changing the future...and at long last we get to see the beginnings of true romance! And as a warning, there is a rather M-Rated stuff in this chapter...so enjoy its! Its a looooong one!

"Kami above, what have I done...

~?

Sand in all the Wrong Places

Truly, the Land of Wind was a sight to behold.

It wasn't just the sand but the beauty of the horizon, watching the sunrise over the horizon. There was majesty here, even in this arid land that supposedly contained nothing but dust and death. One didn't have to look to appreciate this, it was all around them. Impossible to miss. Plain yes, but wonderful to look at.

Temari had taken him out here a time or two, just before all hell broke loose. Funny how beautiful everything looked when the land wasn't pulervized into volcanic glass.

Naruto couldn't help but marvel at the land as it flowed past them; an endless blur of sand dunes interposed by the occasional oasis or shrubbery. It was certainly beautiful, in its own rustic way. The last time they'd been in the Land of Wind he hadn't had time to take in the scenery. Back then he'd been focused on finding Gaara; saving the then Kazekage from certain death. How ironic, then, that this time their mission was not one of rescue but to maintain ties with the very village he called home. At least it would be, a few years down the road.

And yet...

"This feels wrong."

"That's because it is!" Manda rumbled angrily, the deep baritone of his voice reverberating through his scaly hide to tickle the Uchiha's toes where they lay. "To think that I, the mighty Manda, would reduced to ferrying you lot across the desert!" His voice was almost a petulant whine as he slithered onward. "Just because you were attacked once whelp, that doesn't give you the right to summon me!" these last words being directed to the summoner in question, Orochimaru.

"Come now, Manda," the pale shinobi soothed as he stroked the violet scales of their mount, "I've already promised you your fill of any enemies we encounter."

"Of which we have seen none since! Those scouts who ambushed us...weren't even worthy of being mid-noon snacks!" The snake's forked tongue flitted furiously at the mention of said attackers, ground to gory smears on the sands behind them. Jiraiya and Naruto shared an amused look; as they recalled, Orochimaru had summoned the boss snake simply to scare the piss out of the Iwagakure shinobi. And it would've worked too-had not Manda decided to flatten them merely for being in his prescence.

You couldn't scare someone when they were dead.

"Maybe you shouldn't have called him." Tsunade shouted to make herself heard over the rushing wind of their passage. "You know how temperental he can be!"

Naruto seconded that motion. "Yeah, I'm not too comfortable riding on the head of a vicious reptile that wants to eat me."

"It can't be helped." Orochimaru put in matter of factly. "This is the only way to conserve our chakra. Jiraiya's toad summons and Tsunade's slugs would just dry out. Besides, no one would dare attack us with someone like him around." A wicked gleam entered his eye as he said this, confirming that at some point, enemy shinobi had in fact, dared to do such a thing. This time, Manda had made short work of them. It was one thing to fight against the lord of all serpents Naruto mused, having been one of the few to live to tell the tale. It was another thing entirely to have him on your side, however. And another still, to be riding on his head across a sea of sand. But to listen to him complain...

"Yeah yeah scaleface, we heard you the first time."

"I've half a mind to jusssssst leave you here for that remark!" the king snake hissed, words slipping with his anger, tail thrashing in agitation.

"Oh, you wouldn't dare." Jraiya replied with a grin.

"And why isssss that?"

"Orochimaru?"

"Oh my, it seems he doesn't intend to cooperate." the soon-to-be sanin sighed theatrically. "Naruto-san, if you would?"

"Would what?!" Manda immediately bristled, fearing the worst.

"Oh, you know what." Tsunade grinned merrily.

Orochimaru actually laughed at his summons discomfort. "Kukukuku...

The blackette almost smiled at that. Almost. Who knew the man had a sense of humor? But he went along with it, if only out of boredom. Leaning forward, he activated his Sharingan, allowing their ride to witness those blood red orbs and triple tomoe, the latter spinning menacingly.

"Look into my eyes...you are getting very sleepy...

"No no no!" The snake boss immediately jerked his head from side to side, terrified by the mere sight of the legendary dojutsu. "There's no need for that!

...fine."

"Remind me to stay on your good side, kid." Jiraiya snickered, penciling down a few notes on his pad.

"Whaddya writing?" Naruto had a fair idea of what it was, but he asked anyway.

"Oh, this?" His soon-to-be teacher chortled softly, "Its nothing. Just a novel I'm working on."

"Wouldn't happen to be called Icha Icha Paradise now, would it?" Naruto was suddenly looking over his shoulder, peering down at what had been written.

"Who told you?!" Jiraiya's reaction was nothing short of profound; the man looked as though he wanted to embrace/strange him at the same time! "It was Minato, wasn't it?! It had to be! That damned kid! Is he trying to ruin my life's work?!"

"Mah, mah," Naruto soothed the man's perverted rage with a wave of a hand. "It wasn't the squirt." So weird to call his father that! "Sharingan, remember?" He tapped at his still-red eyes the trio of tomoe spinning eerily. "I can just read your pencil strokes. From there it was just a matter of piecing the letters together and...wait a minute?!" There was a long, pained silence, as his brain caught up to what his eyes were seeing, and what he saw was not amusing. "Why the hell is my name in there?! You just switched the letters around! And isn't that Tsuna-

"Shh!" The whitehead practically swarmed the blackette, clamping a hand over his mouth before he could finish that sentence. "Do you want to die?!" Naruto quietly considered what he'd seen her do to Jiraiya the last time he'd been caught peeping. It hadn't been pleasant. On second thought, perhaps silence was the best answer here...

"Why am I not surprised?" Instead of attacking the pair, Tsunade simply yawned. "Only you would write a novel like that, Jiraiya."

"Libel!" the sage delcared, shooting up again in outrage.

"That's right!" Naruto found himself unwittingly backing up his mentor. "Don't step on a man's romance!"

A dangerous glint entered those hazel eyes.

"And what, pray tell, is so romantic about an ecchi novel?"

Both men paled.

"Ahahaha...well, that is to say...

"Kukukuku, you really are two peas in a pod."

'Thanks for the distraction!'

Naruto heaved a sigh as he leaned back into the shade, trying to remind himself that man wasn't evil. Yet! No, he chastised himself for the childish impulse. With the changes I've made he might never be. Once upon a time he had stood on the side of good; it was a series of unfortunate and disastrous events that had led to the man's fall and his subsuquent betrayal of Konoha. The first had been a lack of recognition; he'd felt that no one understood what he was trying to accomplish. More and more he'd felt himself growing apart from his comrades, lost in his pursuit of jutsu. When someone'd put his name forward as a candidate for Hokage he could only imagine the sanin's relief. Re

Then Minato had been chosen as Hokage instead of him. It had been the straw that broke the camel's bac. In hindsight, he almost felt bad for the man; if fate'd had her way he could've turned out the same. Having so many indignities heaped upon him could truly be trying at times. Being treated like a demon because of the Kyuubi, no one respecting him, nobody teaching him anything until he'd saved their collective asses countless times...wait a minute. Why was he trying to save Konoha again?

"Because of your friends and family?"

Right. That. For once Naruto was grateful for Yami's interference. Sometimes a voice in one's head wasn't so bad after all.

"Aaaaaaaw, ya do care-ack!"

Ruthlessly supressing his darker half, the blonde returned his attention to his fellow prodigy, resolving to at least make an effort. If the man could prove he had at least some small speck of goodness within him, then it might not be neccessary to kill him off after all. Oh, he wouldn't hesitate if the time came. It was just that, were Konoha to lose one of its most prestigous shinobi so early in the war, morale would suffer. His knowledge of the Second Shinobi War was admittedly spotty, only extending to what he remembered reading back in the academy. He knew that the war with Mist was curretnly ongoing and the Ame would eventually get dragged into it but beyond that...

Wait! Thats it!

The proverbial lightbulb went off in his head, an idea forming from that last thought. Kirigakure. They hadn't started their bloodline purge yet. That didn't happen until just before the Third Shinobi War. Which meant, a number of powerful bloodline clans -Haku's for example- were out there somewhere, just beginning to suffer persecution under their mad Mizukage. And that persecution presented an opportunity as did Ame, provided he was able to wheedle his way into tagging along on that mission. It would be difficult, but the chance of meeting Nagato, Yahiko and Konan was simply too good to pass up.

"Clever." Yami snickered in sensing his thought, worming out from under the mental stranglehold Naruto had him in. "Pull something like that off, and you'll change a lot more than the outcome of this war...

Naruto silently agreed; if those three were brought back to Konoha instead of left behind, Akatsuki would never be born. No Akatsuki meant no Biju hunting. No Biju hunting...no Moon's Eye Plan...

'Easy there, tiger!' Already he was getting ahead of himself, his mind awhirl with the limitless possibilities this change could wreak. But for now he needed to focus on the task at hand; surviving this mission and making it to Jonin. Once he did

Reluctantly, he struck up a conversation with his old nemesis.

"So...got any students, Orochimaru?"

Unsurprisingly, that got a rise out of the pale shinobi.

"As a matter of fact, yes." Golden eyes gleamed with intrigue, a rare smile pulling at his lips. "Her name's Anko. A promising apprentice, that one. But What of you? Surely you must have students of your own out there in the world there somewhere?" Almost immediately the Uchiha recognized the question for what it was, an attempt to probe him for more information. He smoothly deflected it with a shake of the head. Sneaky bugger would have to try harder than that if he wanted to learn his secrets!

"Really?" Jiraiya asked, grateful for the distraction-anything that kept Tsunade from snapping his spine like a stick was good in his book!

Naruto shook his head for a second time.

"Nope." That was the truth of it; he'd never had a student of his own. Unless one counted the lessons he'd given Konohamaru. "I've been on my own for as long as I can remember. Never reallly occurred to me to teach anyone, ya know?"

"You do know if we pass this mission, you'll be assigned a squad of your own." Tsunade interrupted, as was often her wont. "Understand? You'll be responsible for the safety of three brats. Think you can handle that, eh Uchiha?" There was no venom in her voice, just an idle question, and yet it chilled Naruto to his very soul. Though she'd since stopped hating him simply for who he was, those words of hers could easily cut to the bone when she wanted them to. He gulped, almost audibly. The thought hadn't even remotely occurred to him that he'd have a team!

"Can't I just take one student like Orochi?" the words were almost a plea. "I'm not cut out to teach three kids! Really! I'm not!"

"Kukukuku, I'm afraid not." said shinobi shook his head lightly, long, glossy hair swaying. "We geniuses can only instruct one student at a time."

Naruto hissed.

'You are sooooo getting A Thousand Years of Death for this!' but then he thought of something.

"You know what, You're right! he grinned. "Betcha lil' Anko grows up to be just like ya."

"A genius without peer?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of batshit crazy." But there was no rancour behind that word. Tsunade and Jiraiya smiled at the subtle jibe but ulltimately it was Orochimaru who had the last laugh; literally. Not that unverving chuckle that so often set Naruto on edge during his youth, but a genuine sound of actual amusement. Whatever had made him into an old cruel codger in the future doubtlessly hadn't fully taken hold yet; you couldn't fake a laugh like that.

Still snickering at the hell-raiser that little girl would undoubtedly grow up to be, Naruto turned his gaze to the desert once more. That was when he noticed something.

"Hey, is it just me, or are we slowing down?"

Indeed, Manda's almost frantic pace across the dessert had slowed to a consisderable crawl, much to the serpent's consternation. In fact there hadn't been any sand for awhile now, the storm having ceased during their discussion. Which meant that they'd either reached solid ground-unlikely unless there was an oasis nearby, or that the ground had turned to clay at some point without their knowing. Such a thing was unheard of in this sweltering climate, as was the appearance of an entirely unexpected element.

"Mud?!"

Manda's indolent cry of rage confirmed everyone's fears, his movement grinding to an abrupt halt as he found his many coils trapped in a swamp. In the middle of a desert, with no oasis for miles in either direction. The trap couldn't have been more obvious if there'd been a neon sign saying "Trap!" in bright. bold lettering.

"Ah, christ." Jiraiya was already rising, pocketing his notepad. "There's no way there'd be mud way out here in the desert."

"You know what that means..." Tsunade cracked a knuckle.

Orochimaru merely chuckled. "Another ambush, hmm?"

"Again?!"

That was the only word Naruto got off before everything exploded. Looking back, he didn't know whether to give the Explosion Corps of Iwagakure credit for surprising them, or lacing the ground with that many mines, the deadly ordinance culminating in a massive geyser of smoke and flame that seemingly slew the shinobi on the spot.

...or so the enemy hoped.

Perhaps it was the smoke and sand kicked up from the explosion. Perhaps it was because the group had been expecting such an attack the moment they'd set foot into Wind Country. Perhaps they'd even prepared for such an eventuality by summoning Manda in the first place. Whatever the case, they'd clearly underestimated Manda's skin; the moment Orochimaru had realized what was about to happen, he'd ordered his summon to coil around them, his massive hide weathering the punitive blasts with an eerie level of ease.

"Did we get them...?"

An angry and very feminie growl deep inside the snak dashed those hopes.

"I'm going to kill them!" Tsunade roared!

"Well, this is embarssing." Jiraiya murmured blackly. "They almost got us there."

"I take it back," Naruto's muffled voice resounded from within the serpent's protective embrace. "Snakes are awesome!"

"Aren't they?" Orochimaru seconded merrily. "Manda, if you would?"

The king of snakes hissed angrily in agreement, his jaden eyes fixed firmly on the fools who'd dared to scuff his hide with their tiny-to him-explosives. Still hissing, he reared back, disgorging the quartet he'd sheltered all this time. None of them looked pleased at having come so close to death.

"Prepare yourselves, prey!"

When those coils slithered open, some of the Iwa shinobi actually sobbed in fear. Then all hell broke loose.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Naruto immediately flooded the area with clones-ignoring the bafffled looks he received from his teammates-it was weird seeing so many Uchiha like that! His efforts wiped away those looks however, as a horde of Iwa shinobi erupted from beneath the loamy soil to engage them. Ah, but that was the beauty of the Sharingan. Of the twenty-four enemy ninja that arose to slay them, their number was almost immediately carved in half by the dopplegangers and their equally lethal reflexes. Another three instantly fell to Manda's writhing tail and two more were downed by an wind jutsu-who knew the old man had it in him?-courtesy of Jiraiya. That left one to Tsunade, a devastating right hook shattering the jaw-follwed by the rest of a face-of the lone assasin who dared attack her.

That left a paltry seven in attendance, of the force that had intended to ambush and kill them. Far better odds for four elite ninja and a very angry snake. Naruto stiffened as he recognized one of them; a man whom he had personally never met before, but who had been described to him by Sai. A quiet shinobi who killed his enemies with a single punch-blowing them aparts with devastating detonations. He stood there at front of their little vanguard, eyes narrow and face grim. Naruto almost didn't recognize him without the telltale signs of the reanimation. But there could be no mistaking him.

"Gari?"

That earned him a frown.

"You know me, Uchiha?" the man's voice was like rough gravel scraping across the sands, hoarse and dry.

All eyes turned to Naruto

"Yeah, what's the deal?" Jiraiya frowned.

The silence of Tsunade and Orochimaru was telling.

Shit! his brain hissed. Lie!

"Who in Konoha doesn't know of you?" Naruto shot back, dipping into his faux persona of Uchiha arrogance with an ease so effortless it almost frightened him. "Gari of the Blast Release. You're something of a legend up in Earth Country aren't you? They say you obliterated a mountain with one punch." That much was true-he'd done a bit of reading back in the library when it became apparent that he might be facing old foes in this day and age. Never had he been so glad for books!

"I could say the same of you," the older man drawled, thumbing his chin. "They say you're something of a living legend yourself. Madara's descendant, right?"

"You got me there." Naruto raised his hands in faux defeat. "Since we both know each other so well, perhaps we can come to some sort of agreement?"

"What are you suggesting?"

"Walk away."

...what?"

"No one has to die here today, Gari." Naruto repeated his warning, sharingan flaring menacingly. "Walk away. We can go our separate ways and forget this shit ever happened." He had no stomach for anymore violence today, the he could avoid pissing off Iwa this gakure early on then he had a much better chance of making peace later on. "If you attack us now, you'll just die with the rest of your men. I don't know about you, but I'm not a fan of pointless deaths. So...walk away."

"Like you let my men walk away?" Did he mean the scouts from before, or the men they'd just slain? It didn't matter.

"They atttacked us first." he said. "Wasn't my call."

Gari's frown deepened.

"And this is?"

Naruto glared bloody red daggers at Tsunade and Orochimaru, daring either to object. Surprisingly, neither did. Jiraiya had a contemplative smile on his face as though he were secretly enjoying the whole thing. Bloody bastard probably was-and why the hell was he taking notes?! Suppressing his ever present temper, the former blond turned his attention back to the Iwa shinobi.

"It is." he nodded at last.

To his credit, the man actually looked as though he was considering the offer. Then he frowned. "As tempting as your offer is, I'm afraid I'll have to refuse."

"On what grounds?"

"On the grounds that the Tsuchikage wants you dead." He pantomined a gesture at Naruto and in that same instant, a black blur flashed out of his sleeve. Naruto narrowly recognized the shuriken for what it was before he caught it in his teeth. God, that never got old. The looks on their faces were always the same...how the hell did he do that? As much as Naruto hated having a Dojutsu, he had to admit that it was unbelievably useful when it came to dodging enemy projectiles.

"Well...that's not fair at all." Gari groaned, realizing his preemptive strike had failed utterly.

"Sorry," Naruto grinned around the deadly star-spitting it out not a moment later. "We don't give a fuck. Hear that, Jiraiya? We're so important, they want us dead!" He laughed blithely to himself, idly unaware that this would soon become a common occurrence for their little group.

"Well, we are pretty famous."

Orochimaru chuckled and tucked a hand through the ebony curtain of his hair, uncaring as Manda dissappeared in a plume of smoke. "Indeed."

"You guys really know how to treat a girl." Tsunade covered her mouth and siftled a smile of her own, not one to rise above such petty mockery.

"So...I guess you're gonna try to kill us now?" Naruto cocked his head aside, masking the regrets he felt at ending so many lives. It was a shame, really. Sparing Gari would've been a powerful gesture of his mercy back in Earth Country. Ah, well. Couldn't win 'em all.

Gari took one look at the ease with which they accepted his aggression and frowned. Perhaps this was a mistake after all. But, he had his orders; the risk of someone like Tsunade merging with the Uchiha was too great a threat to be brokered. Any child produced from such a union would be horrendously strong. It wasn't anything personal really. Just a matter of business. In any case, his objective was clear. Eliminate the Uchiha and-or the Senju before that could happen. Their Tsuchikage would've had him kill both, but the captain knew he'd only have one shot at this.

But although he and his men held the advantage-barely!-in terms of numbers, they clearly stood in the shallow end of the pool when it came to raw talent. Here he was was, about to face down three shinobi who would one day be known as the sanin and an Uchiha capable of unquantified levels of destruction. It would be no mean feat for him to kill one or the other, not with two of Konoha's best standing at their backs. His chances of survival were slim at best and nonexistent if he failed in his task. Honestly, that was almost enough to make him reconsider the man's offer and return home with his head intact.

"Troublesome."

As if that word was the lynchpin, the enemy shinobi swarmed forward at the others. But not Gari; he made a beeline right for Naruto! The blackette blanched, barely managing to shout a warning over the chaos:

"Whatever you do, don't let him touch you!"

That was all he had time for before the man closed with him and they engaged in a blistering barrage of taijutsu. It was easily apparent he intended to make this a close range fight. Refusing to accomodate him, or risk contact with the enemy shinobi, Naruto blurred backwards, eyes pinwheeling wildly to watch his adversary's movements for an opening. It wasn't easy. Gari was a good deal faster than what he remembered, presising him relentlessly, rerfusing to allow him even a moment's rest to use ninjutsu; it was all he could do to stay out of the man's exceptionally long arms.

Arching backwards, he silently swore when the man tried to clobber his head off. He knew even the lightest contact could be deadly-with what little chakra Kurama had left him it was very likely that any explosion could be fatal. He wasn't willing to risk regenerating an arm or anything major. If this man injiured him, it would likely permanent even with Tsunade's aid. Of course, he didn't need both hands to call upon that vast repetoire of ninjutsu that was his own. As a matter of fact, one technique sprang to his mind just now.

"Suiton: Mizurapa!" (Water style: Wild Water Wave!)

Gari hadn't been expecting an Uchiha to suddenly spit water at him. One moment he'd been trying to land a telling blow; the next a terrific impact slammed into him and bowled him head over heels. He wouldn't realize what had happened until it was too late, by then his adeversary had the distance needed to launch another assault. He flung a palm forward, an invisible current leaping forward to violently swat the larger man from his feet

"Fūton: Reppūshō!" (Wind style: Gale Palm!)

Battered by the sudden surge of wind Gari found himself bowled over, tumbling head over heels across the sands. As luck would have it, he toppled to a halt directly next to his mission objective. The man almost could not believe his luck! The Uchiha's attack had left him lying at the feet of a very surprised Tsunade, the blond having only just finished off one of his men. Chance!

He lunged upward!

"Got you!"

Tsunade made the mistake of trying to finish him, then, striking at the man's unprotected flank with a brutal right haymaker. Naruto shouted a warning, but it was already too late to intervene. In a move that shouldn't have been possible, Gari twisted aside and snaged her wrist, stopping her assault cold, her knuckles just brushing the bridge of his nose. Jiraiya froze. Naruto froze. Even Orochimaru made a sound of dismay, unable to believe that someone of Tsunade's level had been stopped.

Gari could've blown her arm off right then and there. But he didn't. Too late, Naruto realized exactly what he intended to do. He darted forward, but the way was suddenly barred by two enemy shinobi.

"DON'T!"

"Sorry." Gari murmurred contritely, his brow hardening in concentration. "Bakuton!" (Explosive Release!)

He said nothing mores, he simply drove his fist into the blonde's stomach, the blow detonating explosively and throwing her backwards. Any other shinobi would've been obliterated on the spot; but Tsunade merely had a gaping hole where her midsection should've been. Fatal. Deadly. Mortal. No one could recover from a wound like that. Not even Tsunade. Dead. Gone. Desceased. These three words flicked through Naruto's mind, like the embers of a dying flame. He saw red.

Great, unholy red.

Countless memories of her in his youth flitted through the fog of his mind, good and bad times both shattered by her passing. She'd been-was still-one of his precious people. No amount of timetravel could change that, not in his mind. But now Tsunade was dead. And it was his fault. He'd killed her. She was dead because of him. He might not have dealt the telling blow but the blood was on his hands. It was all his fault. His fault. His fault. All. His. Fault. His fault...

A lone tear of blood trailed down out of Naruto's right eye, followed soon by his left, a slow trickle that stung every so slightly as he blinked the red tears away. Something stirred inside of him as he laid eyes upon Gari in that moment. Something dark. Bleak. Ancient. And so very angry. A power he had dreaded touching -awakening- from the moment he'd awoke in this body. But now it was there. Free. Alive within him. He could feel the tendrils of black chakra writhing behind his eyelids, eager and waiting to lash out at their master's preordained target.

Infuriated, Naruto gave them that target.

"Amaterasu."

Black flames burst into existence upon Gari's right arm, staggering him.

He was screaming almost before he even knew what was truly happening to him, unknowing of the horrors that had just awoken within the new Uchiha. One moment Tsunade of the Senju was falling away from him in a broken heap and the next the sleeve of his right arm was burning and scalding the skin beneath. He tried to smother them with an earth jutsu but they just burned even brighter, spreading from arm to shoulder then to his chest, slowly roasting his entire body despite his efforts to temper the intangible inferno. It burned! Oh sweet Kami did it burn! He called for his subourdinates. They didn't answer. None of that mattered now, he had to find a way to get rid of this hellish fire before...before...before...

Ba-dump.

When he looked up the Uchiha was all but towering him, bloody eyes boring holes into his flesh, through his very soul. He stood stark against the sun-his form little more than a shadow. Except for the eyes. Those eerie awful eyes. There was no mercy to be found in those sinister scarlet orbs, not a single sliver of decency to which he could appeal. Should've taken the offer. But the realization came too late the chances of Naruto being merciful after the death of his teammate were nonexistent. He was going to die, Gari realized, and there was not a damned thing he could do to stop it.

And then his world was gone. His perception was trapped by those spinning tomoe, all control severed from his body in an instant. For perhaps the very first time in his life Gari felt experiance fear outside the prescence of the Sandaime Tsuchikage. This man...he wasn't a man at all! He was a monster! Still his body burned, but even that failed to hold a candle to the cold pit of dread opening in his stomach. His would-be-killer said only one word then, and it was a word that promised complete and utter pain.

"Tsukuyomi."

Gari opened his mouth to say something, anything, before this devil of a man ended him. All he managed was a wet sounding gurgle as his world fell away. A world of red skies and black water opened up beneath them a heartbeat later but when he looked back the Uchiha wasn't alone. Rather, there were more of him. Dozens. No. Hundreds. He was beginning to think that he should've ended him first...doubtlessly whatever he'd done had stripped away the last vestige of honor in the man. Because each of those clones bore a weapon and he wasn't liking where this was going...

"Where am I?!" he demanded to know. "What have you done to me?!"

"I tried to be civil." The Uchiha whispered, his words a breathless hiss, as though he were barely reigning his anger in. "Tried to let you walk away. And this is the thanks I get? You should've run. Run while you had the chance. Fool. Stupid...stupid...FOOL!"

That was when the first of many kunai descended from on high, pinning him to a cross that hadn't been there before... yet now suddenly was. Gari tried to move; to break free, but found himself inexplicably bound, his hands and feet crucified by the deadly knives. Naruto advanced upon him then, and his silent army moved with him.

"Oh don't worry," he began almost amiacably, the sudden mood swing causing Gari to start, "I won't let you die. Yet. First, you get to suffer."

Gari cried out in pain and yet the assault continued, extending in a series of slashing stabs designed to inflict maximum misery and suffering. Once. Two. Three. Or...was it more? Six? Too many to count. Over and over and over they fell upon him, an endless cycle that took his arms, his legs, eyes and organs, eviscerating him in every way possible leaving him on the edge of death. Still this torment continued, exending from hours to days and days to weeks, and weeks to months for years and years and years...

Just like that he was back in his body again, the genjutsu having ended. The Uchiha still stood proud and tall over him, utterly unfazed by the mental slaughter he'd inflicted on the lesser shinobi. Poor Gari...he was not so fortunate in that regard; he could barely string so much as two thoughts together now, let alone speak. Glassy eyes stared up at his tormentor, having years of torment in as little as ten seconds. He was broken now in every sense of the word; assuming he somehow survived this encounter, he'd never be a shinobi again.

Jiraiya whistled softly at the sight.

"That was the Mangekyo, wasn it?" He'd heard of such things, but to see the legendary black fire firsthand was something else entirely. The kid wasn't even looking at him anymore and the body was still burning...

Naruto nodded mutely. He didn't want these eyes! He'd never wanted them! As if sensing the man's distress, the whitehead turned aside.

"Good," he muttered, cringing at Tsunade's still form. "Hope you made the bastard suffer."

Orochimaru felt a small smile tug at his lips. Such prowess...

"You should kill him, Naruto-kun." he suggested.

Naruto said nothing as he stared down at Tsunade's killer. Then the black tanto bit into his neck and he knew nothing more. The cut was swift and merciful, Gari -what little remained of him- was dead almost before his gawping visage even struck the ground. Death was a mercy for him, after what he'd been through. Now ordinarily, the loss of their leader and the awakening of a Mangekyo Sharingan would've galvanized the remaining ninja to retreat, especially after what'd just occurred.

But instead of doing just that, the remaining enemy shinobi weaved through a rapid series of signs and dissapeared, their forms rippling away into the earth. That was when the mud came to life around them, swelling up in the facade of a dozen upon dozens of mud and earthen clones, each a perfect duplicate of the originals. Each bore a weapon hardened of rock, be it scyhe or sword or kunai, each equally deadly in their own right. They would rather die with weapons in their hand than wrisk the wrath of their Tsuchikage.

"Well, damn." Jiraiya muttered, drawing a kunai of his own. "Thats not fair at all-

"Move!"

His warning came just in time as each of his clones, -many having survived thus far- drew breath, kneading chakra in their stomachs and exhaling in the next instant. So much for subtlety.

"Gokkakyu no jutsu!" The ensuing fireball that followed was nothing short of massive. And effective. Several of the bunshin outright disintegrated upon contact with the roiling inferno. Turned out a few of them weren't clones after all, screams of pains resounded through the inferno only to be cut off just as quickly. By the time it had cleared only a handful were remaining, evidence of a single controller, rather than several. That made things easier, especially with Manda's abscence.

Much easier.

"Watch where you're aiming!" Jiraiya's shout berated him; the words fell on deaf ears as Naruto threw himself back into the fray.

He spotted one of the supposed clones and swarmed him with taijutsu. He didn't care whether the man had a sword that it was drawn and ready. He was too filled with rage. Pain slashed across his right arm almost immediately as man got a lucky slash in but he pushed past it, grabbing the blade with his wounded hand and jerking it aside to open the way for a kunai. The man went down with a wet gurgle, eyes rolling back within his skull as the Uchiha overwhelmed him, striking with a well-placed knife to the head.

There was no blood.

"Wait just a minute..." the Uchiha said in angst, watching as his opponent crumbled to loamy soil before his eyes. His eyes widened, realizing he'd lost sight of the real foe. Naruto immediately spun towards Orochimaru and Jiraiya, both of them occupied fighting the other clones of the shinobi. The other two copies, seemingly aware of the imminent escape plan, noticed Naruto right away. "Oi, he's escaping!" he hurriedly yelled, trying to find the original amidst the horde of bunshin that had arose. But there was too much chakra strewn across the battlfield and the enemy had hidden himself well. Blast it, the bugger was going to get away!

"No, he isn't!"

A hard "CRACK!" snarled through the air, accompanied by a bone-chilling scream of pain. Abruptly the clones dropped, deprived of the chakra controlling them. The boys blinked, turning their attention to the source of the sound, towards a woman they had believed to be dead. Naruto gawped, his clones vanishing with a resound poof of smoke. But...how?! How the hell was that possible?!

Battered-and just a touch bloody-Tsunade Senji held aloft her prize, a stout-looking man bearing the crest of Iwagakure upon his tattered hitiate. Her grin was nothing short of beatific; as though she'd just won a poker tournament rather than secure an enemy shinobi. It certainly didn't help that the man was clutching at his now-bleeding genitals in obvious pain. The three males shuddered in silent sympathy to the castration the fool had sufered, each knowing it could easily have been one of them.

"How in the hell're you alive?!" Jiraiya gawped.

"What, you thought I was dead?" the blond drawled, thumbing her forehead. "Please! Did you forget about my seal?"

Naruto couldn't help but gulp at the sight, both that of the now neutered man and the marks wreathing the one who had made him a enuch. In his anger he'd completely forgotten about her Yin Seal; recovering from a wound like that was nothing for someone like her. That didn't stop him from striding forward, and it certainly didn't deter him from doing perhaps the most reckless thing in his life. Without even thinking of his action or her potentially violent reaction he stepped up, swatted the man's broken body out of her grasp...

...and embraced her.

"You reckless idiot!"

Immediately she stiffened against him, but it was shock not anger that stilled her body. What the hell was going on here? Were those tears in his eyes? They were! She'd only been down for a few seconds! Did he really think she'd been...and even so, what was with this reaction?! They'd only known each other for a few days, and here was...hugging her?! Naruto couldn't see her face with his chin over her shoulder-had he been able to do so he would've witnessed the impossible; Tsunade's face burning bright than the Suna sun overhead.

"I...you...what?!"

"Don't ever do that again!" Naruto pulled back to arms length, her flush fading as those still scarlet orbs bored holes into her Unbidden, her heart skipped a beat. They were quite...different from what she remembered, preserving the trio of tomoe after a fashion, now trio of circles rimmed by three bars. As if they'd undergone an evolution of some sort. Even as she looked on they faded, turning onyx once more. He shook her then, an irritated growl leaping from his throat to drag her back to the present.

"Do you hear me, Tsunade?!" Another shake. "Never again!"

"But-

"EVER!" The sheer vehemence of his statement took her aback.

Tsunade had never been shouted at like this before...not since her genin days with Sarutobi-sensei. And even then she usually did most of the shouting! Having a man yell back at her, profess genuine concern over her well-being...well, that was a new one. She didn't know how to react, or even what to say. Few had dared stand up to her since she'd acquired her monstruous strength. Those that had were still nursing bruises. For this Uchiha-Naruto-someone she barely knew, to demand she not risk herself in battle was so ludicrous she'd literally been stricken speechless. She felt like a frightened genin beneath his gaze, nervous and skittish courage all but deserting her as she stared into the dark depths of those angry eyes. It was...terrifying.

To her infinite surprise, she demured.

...hai."

"Yosh." Just like that the fierce expression was gone from his visage, leaving him patting her firmly on the shoulder like a proud parent. "I'll hold you to that, Tsunade-chan." Somehow, she couldn't find it within herself to protest the suffix. Perhaps that was for the best. She had no way of knowing what the moment would lead to in the near future, nor the chaos that it would cause. For a seed of doubt had already been planted in the back of her mind, and soon it would take root. Naruto had been concerned about her. More than just the concern of one teammate to another...

"If the two of you are quite done, you may wish to check his eyes." Orochimaru interrupted. Tsunade jerked back as if she'd been burned.

"What about them?"

"He awakened the Mangekyo at the time of your "death" and used it most strenuously." The prodigy put in primly. "It would be wise to make sure his vision hasn't deteriorated."

"You shoulda seen him." Jiraiya seconded with the slightest of smiles. "The second you went down he went apeshit on the guy."

Naruto hissed, mildly offended. "Traitors, both of you! We agreed not to talk about that!"

To her surprise, the two men had the decency to look contrite.

"We thought she should know." Orochimaru returned, looking slightly hurt. Wow. Was that even possible?

"Yeah kid, she deserves to know." Jiraiya added.

Tsunade's gaze snapped back to him, hazel eyes pinniong the Uchiha. Her grandfather had beaten everything about the Sharingan into her brain. She was one of the few who knew its secrets. Such as the fact that one only awakened the Mangekyo when someone dear to them perished...or they killed their best friend. Clearly, Naruto hadn't done the latter. Which meant...

"Is this true?" her voice was dangerously flat. Naruto almost quailed at the sound of it.

"Yeah, well, I thought you were...ya know...

"Let me see." Her inner medic taking over, Tsunade reached for his visage. Naruto immediately flinched aside.

"Oi!"

"Stop squirming, you big baby!"

Naruto grunted as she seized his face in hand, his Sharingan flaring unconcsiously. She tilted his head side to side, inspecting them. The crimson orbs followed her every movement, those barred eyes regarding her just a touch too closely for her liking. They'd stopped bleeding she realized, trying to look at it from a clinical point of view. To do anything else would allow her to think, to realize the awful truth. He activated them because of me. He's going to go blind because of me. Because of me-down girl! We are NOT going there! Not with a man you barely know!

A hot flush crept up the back of her neck that had nothing to do with the Suna heat. She stubbornly pushed the thought away and addressed him.

"Any pain in your eyes?"

"No." Naruto admitted.

"Blindess?"

"Nope.

"Dimmness of vision?"

"Nadda."

Wait a minute.

Naruto actually paused at that, his bemused smile fading. Was it possible that he already had the Eternal Mangekyo Sharingan? This was Madara after all and these were his eyes. If they were already eternal, then their problem was solved; the fear of a loss of vision was virtually nonexistent. But how could he be certain? The only way to do that was to use the Mangekyo over and over again. Yet in doing so, he might draw suspicion to himself, make others wonder why he wasn't losing his vision. This boded some thinking. Later. Not now. Ruthlessly, he put his mind back on track.

"Fair enough. But if you ever shake me like that again...!" her expression was nothing short of thunderous.

Naruto laughed merrily, . "Ehehehehe...you're really scary sometimes, Tsunade-chan."

A sly, knowing smile tugged at the blonde's lips. "What, don't tell me you're are you afraid of a little aggression, Naruto-kun?"

"Not at all! Unless Orochimaru would like to volunteer?"

The prodigy suddenly turned about three shades of white.

"No need for that!"

Just like that, the balance was restored between them, the moment of tenderness gone, but not forgotten. Tsunade would never forget. She filed that look away in the safe that was her mind, locking it away until those charcoal orbs reflected such concern for her again. As far as she knew, they wouldn't. But, that brief moment of dominance on his part had sparked something in her. He'd shouted her down, demanded that she not risk her life unless it was absolutely neccessary. Yes, his comments had incenssed her. And yet...the sentiment touched her.

Naruto would've laughed again, but everything was suddenly blurry. It wasn't his eyes, he simply felt...dizzy? When the hell had he sat down? Why was he covered in blood? Why couldn't he move his arm? Belatedly he realized what was happening; his body was going into shock. But from what?! He hadn't even been injured that ba-

"Oh shit!" Tsunade was suddenly at his side, her anger forgotten. "Your arm! You're bleeding!" Ah.

Ahhhh.

"Tis' just a flesh wound..." Naruto tried to reassure her, but found the words slurring between his teeth. Was this what it felt like to be injured? To not regenerate? He knew that Iwa shinobi had cut his arm but with that anger at the time-the adrenaline-he simply hadn't paid any attention to it until now. Apparently he'd been cut deeper than he'd thought...

"Baka!"

It was like being chided by Sakura all over again; except this time it was the master instead of the student admonishing him for pushing himself too hard and ignoring his injuries. Was that a touch of fear in those hazel orbs? No. Surely not. This version of Tsunade would never be afraid for him. He must be imgagining things...

"Stay still!" She hissed. "You've lost a lot of blood and the muscle is damaged." Tsking, she pressed a chakra-covered hand to the wound. "I can repair the latter but youll have to take it easy until your body can replace what you've lost. That means no more Mangekyo for the next twenty-four hours!"

"Yes, mom."

That earned him a swift swat on the head.

"Call me that again and I'll knock your block off!"

"Don't look now," Jiraiya murmurred, "But we've got company."

Naruto's head turned to find a lone shinobi striding through the sandstorm. Another enemy? His fears were only slightly allayed when he saw the headband. Suna. He was from Shuna. The barely even of age; dark eyes wide beneath a mop of pale russet hair. Dust the color of gold itself seemed to swirl around him; a silent shield protecting the youth from the harsh elements. A moment of terse silence passed between the five of them each waiting for the other to speak. Surprisingly the boy was the first to comply, his voice little more than a dry rasp, though whether from lack of water or simple surprise, they knew not.

He looked just as surprised to see them as they were him, however.

"You're the envoy, I trust?"


The welcome they received at Sunagkure was surprisingly quiet, if not simple in Naruto's mind. A sandstorm had blown up shortly before their arrival so perhaps that explained why there was no fanfare to welcome the four of their arrival, no trumpeting of horns or banging of drums for which the envoy might be heralded. Only a smattering of what probably passed for Suna Anbu and what he assumed was a village council were there to greet the yonin at the gate and even then they seemed more somber than excited to greet their guests.

And their clothes!

Naruto almost balked at the thick garments they wore, swadled as they were from head to toe in thick clothing to keep out the elements. It amost made him feel underdressed in his shinobi fatigues and cloak. Granted, he had seen similair garb in Suna before, but this was bordered on outright exreme. Only the Anbu in their sandy-colored uniforms were any such exception, and their masked faces betrayed absolutely nothing. A mere handful-shinobi probably-were not dressed so, but his eyes ghosted over and failed to recognize any of them.

"Greetings." One of the women bowed lower, her face creasing in what-Naruto hoped-was a genuine expression. "I am Chiyo of the Sand. We welcome you to Suna." Her gaze strayed to the boy who'd found them back in the desert and a frown formed. "Hiro-sama, you were told not to venture out alone."

"I was bored." the redhead demured with shrug. "Besides, I was rather curious to see these vagabonds for myself."

"That is no way to treat our guests!"

Another shrug from their escort. Naruto's mind, however, was elsewhere. The woman's name hadn't been lost on him; not in the slightest.

'Grandma Chiyo?!'

It took every fiber of his being not to start in surprise. Chiyo was...young! A good deal younger than he remembered her to be. Well, damn. Now that he looked at her he could kinda see the resemblance, but to see an old face like that, someone who he knew was dead, yet in this time alive and well...it was just a little bit chilling. Oh, right! Manners. He really needed to work on that.

"Or you could butcher them." Yami interjected snidely. "Just saying."

"It is our honor to be here amongst the sands." Naruto ignored and returned with the traditional Suna bow, something Tsunade had all but beaten into him before the'd set outy. A murmur of surprise rippled through a few of the elders, passing through the congregation like an unseen wave; an Uchiha with manners, no less? Naruto held the bow a touch longer than was strictly neccessary, essentiallly showing that he was defering to their leadership for the duration of their stay.

"An Uchiha with honor." Hiro murmured beside, bemused. "I wasn't aware such a thing existed."

Yami growled.

"Just one kill, partner! Pretty please?!"

Naruto's only response was a kindly smile.

"You'll find I'm not as uptight as the rest, Hiro-san."

"No kidding." Tsunade muttered, a touch of her old bitterness seeping through the smile she wore.

A grimace, once more reminded of the arrogance of Mikoto's clan. His clan. It was going to be an uphill battle undoing the damage they'd done to their own reputation; Naruto only hoped he was equal to the task that'd been set before him. He felt himself up to it, but only time would tell. It would be here he decided, that he would make the world realize not all Uchiha had a stick up their ass. Still he smiled, and if Hiro scoffed back for

The rest wore smiles that looked as though they'd been painted on, their eyes hard with the hardship they'd suffered in the last month. Many of them looked outright leery of the newcomers. Not that he blamed them in the least for their caution.

The way into the village was through a passage that cut between some very tall, very crooked cliffs, and at the entrance of this passage a small gate opened to admit their passage. A pair of Anbu passed to allow them their admittence, but their stiff posture belied their tension. He'd no doubt they wore smiles like they had two electrodes attached to their cheeks beneath those faces but while their masked leers may have passed over Jiraiya and the others, it was Naruto they fixed their sights on.

They were ushered inside.

To their infinite surprise they were each assigned an individual guide. One by one Orochimaru, Jiraiya, and finally Tsunade were led aside, until only Naruto remained.

"Ah...nice to meet you?"

His gaze fell upon Hiro, half-expecting the boy to lead him onward. When he did not, Naruto frowned. Still In the spirit of friendship and cooperation -not matter how much he might dislike this little shit- he extended a hand to the younger boy. Hiro regarded his palm as though it were a poisonous adler. For the first time, an actual emotion crossed his visage. Not anger but rage. A hatred so vile Naruto nearly recoiled from it. Now he didn't claim to know what the kid's issues were, but he'd have to work to curb that temper of his; else he'd make more enemies than friends in his short lifetime.

"As if the future Kazekage would deign to escort you!"

He stormed past without another word, leaving Naruto under the watchful gaze of the Anbu.

"Uchiha-san?"

He turned, seeking the voice.

"Yes?"

One of the masked shinobi suddenly pulled off her facade, drawing aside the likeness of a scorpion to expose her visage to him. Then she reached down and began to remove her uniform in the same instance. Naruto's heart nearly skipped a beat.

'Oi!'

"I like where this is going...

'O-I!'

He promptly found himself caught in the gaze of a green-haired kunoichi with sunsent colored bangs, her heartshaped face framed by a slight smile, above which eyes of the brightest hazel shone. Her attire was all but functional, not practical in combat-giving him the sense that she dressed this way simply to gain attention. Or, someone had ordered her to, he suspected. She sauntered up to him with an almost deceptive ease, those full hips swaying with each step. There was a sureness to her movements he realized, a grace most kunoichi, even Mikoto herself, lacked.

She was upon him almost before he knew what was happening, not bothering to ask permission for the intrusion of his personal space.

"Greetings." she replied stoically, her head inclining in the slightest of bows. "My name is Pakura. I am to be your guide for the duration of your stay, Uchiha-san." Jiraiya looked as though he were about to protest-why did Naruto get the hot kunoichi guide?-but a withering look on Tsunade's part silenced the self-proclaimed pervert. An ordinary Uchiha would've rebuffed her formalities with a casual "Hn." but then again, Naruto wasn't your typical Uchiha now, was he? To the disbelief of nearly everyone present he did the one thing that no one expected him to do.

He reached out and took Pakura's hand to his own, lightly pressing his lips against the back of her palm. Kissing it. There was a shocked silence amidst both parties. Such a thing was unheard of! Behind him, Tsunade's visage colored in surprise; she didn't think the Uchiha had a romantic bone in his body!

"Just call me Naruto," he replied, dark eyes meeting her own. "As allies we needn't stand on formality."

Her full lips curled in the smallest of smiles.

"I shall remember that, Naruto-san."

She turned then, regarding the dumbstruck sanin with something eerily akin to bemusement.

"Your escorts shall direct you to your rooms, honorable shinobi." she said, turning away from them immediately thereafter, as though the trio were but a mere afterthought in her mind. "In the meantime Naruto-dono, I would be more than happy to bring you to-

"Wait!" Tsunade protested, shouldering her way to the front of the group once more. "Where are you taking him?"

"Why-to sign the treaty of course." Pakura said as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Our lord's sole stipulation was that he meet with Naruto-dono as soon as he arrived so that they might discuss the terms of our agreement in greater detail. Surely your Hokage informed you of this?" Naruto felt the hackles on the back of his neck begin to rise with those words. The old man hadn't mentioned anything like that in the brief. Something wasn't right here; were they planning to get him alone and kill him?

Tsunade's expression was telling; evidently she shared the same thought.

"In that case we'll come with you." Jiraiya was quick to interject, trying to preserve the suddenly fragile peace between the two shinobi. "We'd be more than happy to meet him."

"I'm afraid I cannot allow that." the kunoichi returned with a shake of the head. "He wished to meet with the Uchiha alone."

"Why?" came the demand.

"There are sensitive matters he wished to discuss. Nothing more. Surely you aren't reneging on our alliance over so simple a term?"

"Now see here you little-

"Its fine!" Naruto interjected, drawin alarmed looks from everyone. "It's fine." he repeated, softly now. "If the Sandaime wants to speak with me alone, then that's what he'll get." He didn't mention that this felt a great deal like a trap, that his every sense screamed at him to get the hell out of here. But he was used to danger, becoming a political hostage-however briefly-didn't ruffle him in the slightest. His body might want to be far, far away from here, but his mind knew that this charade was entirely necessary.

"So glad someone sees reason." Pakura purred, pleased. "Shall we go then?"

"We shall." Naruto deffered to her with a wave of the hand. "Please, lead the way."

In the instant as his head turned, Naruto activated the Mangekyo Sharingan and locked eyes with Tsunade. He could've done so with anyone, but since she was still relatively close, she would have to do. The blonde of course startled as he pierced her mind, alarmed to suddenly find herself trapped in the world of Tsukuyomi. There was no torment or torture to greet her here howevers; only a singe sentence awaited her arrival in the warping world of genjutsu, spoken so swiftly she almost wasn't able to read them.

"If I don't return in three hours...take the others and get the hell out of here."

Just like that she was back in the world again, her body slicked with a cold sweat. Naruto's words stood out in quiet confidence as he turned his head back around, the Mangekyo fading from his orbs. That idiot! He was going to get himself killed! She was certain of it! And all out of some misbegotten sense to keep the peace!

"Na-

Before Tsunade could protest further, she found the Uchiha body-flickered away in a swirl of sand.


If there was one thing Naruto would take away from his stay in Sungakure besides her stoic beauty it was thus:

Sand.

The damn stuff was absolutely everywhere. In his face, his hair-damnit he'd forgotten to cut that!-bristling beneath his sandals and stinging at his skin and getting stcuk in his clothes. If it weren't for the veil he'd been given, it surely would've found its way into his eyes as well. That would've stung the newly awakened orbs something fierce, he was certain. But ultimately his thoughts were not with the sand kicked up by the wind of the storm but rather, with his comrades. Had they gotten his message. Would they even listen to it?

"No need to be nervous." Pakura reassured him as she ushered him inside a grand building that had to be the man's residence. "I am told Lord Kazekage merely wishes to speak with you. Nothing more."

'Why does that not make me feel any better?'

"Well shit, for once we agree!"

There was an awkward silence between the two halves of his psyche.

...I won't say anything if you don't?'

"Agreed."

A lone seat was waiting for them when they arrived and in it, a man in the unmistakable white-blue robes of a Kage.

"Kazekage-sama." Pakura genuflected, but did not otherwise move from her place at Naruto's side. "The Uchiha is here, as per your request."

Face consumed by the shadows of his wide-brimmed hat, the Kazekage acknowledged his presence by raising one elegant hand, never once turning in their direction. He was not so much an 'honoured guest' perhaps, as a mild irritance to be endured, but at least the Kazekage didn't glare at him like the Anbu had. If anything the man seemed to be measuring him-gauging him for any sign of weakness. Abruptly he laughed aloud it was a deep, throaty sound that instantly set Naruto on edge.

"We meet at last." His voice was low yet pleasant; exuding strength and charisma from every pore. "I've heard a great deal about you, Uchiha Naruto."

The latter bowed. "You do me honor, Kazekage-sama."

"Please, what are formalities amongst equals?" the man tilted his had, exposing sand-colored eyes set within a scarred yet-still-youthful face. He might've even been handsome, once. "You may address me by my given name, by all means. Please, call me Kazeyama."

"Very well...Kazeyama-san."

The man's brow tightened slightly at the mention terse suffix, only to soften seconds later.

"I understand we have you to thank for eliminating the scouts on our border. There was a rather baffling man amongst them. Gari of the Explosive Release, I believe?"

"We dispatched an enemy platoon led by him, yes, thank you." Naruto had never been particularly good at verbal sparring; he much rather preferred to let his fists do the talking. But that simply wasn't an option here-if he slugged a Kazekage for asking odd questions he was likely to remove Konoha's only ally in this war.

"On the contrary, it is I who should be thanking you." A tiny smile broke out on the man's chiseled face, like a crack etching along a stone surface. "Thanks to your noble efforts we will be able to duplicate the Explosive Release for ourselves someday. Together, we will dash our enemies against the borders." Naruto felt a cold chill creep over him-the idea of that bloodline in anyone's hands was a frightful thing. Tsunade had been lucky thanks to her seal. Other shinobi wouldn't be...

"But enough about this tedious war." The man miracously withdrew a bottle and pair of glasses from the folds of his robe, filling both to the brim. "Let us drink. To our alliance." Naruto arched an eyebrow in shock. The man liked his drink?

"We haven't even discussed the treaty yet." he frowned, accepting one for the sake of saving face.

"Ah, straight to the formalities!" Kazeyama smiled mildly. "I was hoping to save the most bitter course for last." He let the words hang over them as he drank first, doubtless to convince the Uchiha that he hadn't called him here just to poison him. Naruto sniffed subtly, his enhanced senses detecting no trace of poison. He'd heard the unspoken threat in those words. We will discuss it when I am ready. Not before. Like so many others, the Kazekage wanted to know if he truly was a descendant of Uchiha Madara, not some impious imposter rising to claim such a prestigous title.

"I suppose we could." reluctantly he drank, wincing as the sake burned down his throat. If the man really had tried to poison him then he'd be in for an unpleasant surprise; Sakura had taught him how to burn away all but the most potent of toxins with chakra. And with Naruto's reserves, bolstered still by the flagging remnants of Kurama'schakra, even the most deadly of venom couldn't inspire more than a mild headache in him. The secret was best served after all, if it remained a secret.

"Excellent." Unaware of the musings of his host, the kage poured himself another glass. "I trust your stay in my village has been a hospitable one?" he asked.

"Thus far, yes." Considering he'd met an impetuous little punk and already been dragged here against his will...

"Ah." Damn but the man read his expression like a book. "I see you've met Hiro, then. You'll have to forgive his behavior. The council has been grooming him to succeed me...for some time now. A touch of arrogance is to be expected among the young, don't you think?" He laughed softly at the thought. Between the two of us, I'd rather someone more capable claim my seat. Someone like...Sasori, for example." If he noticed a muscle jump in Naruto's jaw, he did not acknowledge it.

"Did you he's produced many of our finest poisons?" The Kazekage continued. "A master puppeteer, and at such a young age! Truly a prodigy. Humble, too. Nothing like Hiruko. Shinobi ought to know their place in the hierarchy, wouldn't you agree? Hiro has yet to learn that. I wouldn't mind at all if Sasori were to take his place beside me...

"What're you saying?"

"I'm not saying anything, Uchiha. Just that accidents are quite common in our line of work...

Naruto didn't rise to the bait; he'd just been given permission to take a life for political gain. Despite that-it was suddenly all he could do not to use the Sharingan to plumb the man's mind for information. Sasori. Sasori was here?! In this village?! Someone like that could never be Kazekage. He shuddered at the thought.

Kazeyama was quick "Do you like your new weapon?"

"It has...been useful." Naruto admitted, glancing down at the black tanto he'd been gifted; the very act felt like a betrayal of himself. "I am told it was made by a master blacksmith from your village."

"Indeed." the Kazekage replied silkly. "What you have there is chakra reactive ore, the blade will expand or contract as you see fit." Naruto's surprise must've been evident; because the Kazekage laughed again. "What, did you think we would give such a paltry weapon to someone of your calibre? I would thank you not to test it in my prescence, though. My guards are a bit twitchy thanks to the war...

Well then, that would explain the chakra he'd been sensing for the last five minutes.

"What do you think of our kunoichi, Naruto?" Another question, but this one evoked a frown.

"I have only met one."

"Pakura, then." his cold gaze fell upon the kunoichi in question. "What do you think of her?"

Naruto turned to considered his answer a moment, then supplied the only answer he could. The truth.

"She seems an exceptional shinobi, Kazekage-sama."

"Isn't she, though?" Kazeyama nodded. "Her bloodline is unmatched in our village; I daresay she'd be more than a match for you in close combat."

"M-My lord!" Pakura's cheeks colored in surprise, the admission having caught her off guard. "You honor me with your words."

"How about it then, Uchiha? Is she not beautiful."

Now it was Naruto's turn to color. He was no virgin by any account, but being placed on the spot in such a matter would be enough to ruffle even a kage's feathers.

"She is...ah...very beautiful."

"You may have her, then."

Beside him, Pakura turned absolutely ashen. Naruto swallowed. Hard. He'd been expecting a request for a spar or somesuch; not an offering to bed the woman! Alright, relax. He told himself. You can talk your way out of this. Just stay calm and don't let him get to you...

There was a silence as he contemplated his next move. Then:

...I beg your pardon?"

"I said you may take her back to Konoha with you, as your wife." the wind shadow continued amicably, no doubt sensing the sudden shift in mood. "Consider her my gift to you; as a matter of fact, I'm in a good mood today so I will lend you another. You may bring her and any other chunin you wish to Konoha upon your return. Take them with my blessings and when you become the next Hokage, remember the generosity of Suna, and her leaders." This man was was making one hell of an assumption there. Naruto didn't know what to make of it. Did he assume he was like most Uchiha, constantly lusting for greater powers? That he was going to forcibly wrest the mantle of Hokage from Sarutobi's shoulders?

"And in return?"

"In return?" the man looked offended. "I ask for nothing in return, only that you remember my kindness this day. In return for that I shall promise you this-we will aid and abett you in every possible way in this way, no matter the cost nor the loss of life we will fight by Konoha's side until the last man, woman and child. Is that the answer you desire? Here is the treaty, you may read it to your liking." Naruto did just that, his Sharingan flaring to ready every word and subtext, anything that might be slanted to Suna's advantage.

Naruto bristled as he read over the documents; there had to be more at work here. There just had to be. Every item here benefitted Konoha in every possible way, the only thing Suna trully stood to gain was protection and assistance should they fall under attack by enemy forces. And all he had to do was accept two of their kunoichi into the fold?

"And if Pakura wishes to stay?"

At his elbow, the kunoichi flinched as though she'd been struck.

"She has no choice in the matter." the Kazekage dismissed the woman with a wave of his hand. "I have spoken. She will go with you for the good of Suna-because I have ordered it. Now, I ask only that you sign on the dotted line."

Pakura didn't move, but her eyes suddenly sought his. He had an idea of what was going through her head; she was in shock at being offered up like cattle by her Kazekage to appease Konoha. She'd laid her trust with this man and how had he repaid her? By tossing her aside. There was so much anger in those orbs, though whether it was directed at him or the Kazekage, he knew not. Only that he had to make a decision. Now. Here and now, before the Kazekage lost his patience.

"Out of curiosity, what would happen if I refuse these terms?"

"Then I'm afraid our alliance is null and void." Kazeyama's tone brooked no further arguement. Naruto hissed in a sharp intake of breath.

"In that case," He began, the words were acid in his throat, "I-

"KAZEKAGE-SAMA!"

Naruto was almost grateful when the door slammed open, cutting off whatever he might've said. An aide all but flung himself into the room, bespectacled face so fraught with terror that Kazekage didn't even deign to strike him down on the spot.

"Hiro-sama has been kidnapped in the town square!"

"Aw, damnit." Naruto muttered. "Why is this shit never easy?"

Pakura was already gone, darting out a window before anyone could say she wasn't needed.

"By all means, chase after her." The Kazekage urged, but the words were empty, merely a formality. "It would be horrible if something were to happen to him...

Swearing, Naruto lunged out into the village after her.

In the shadows of his hat, a small smile twisted at the Kazekage's face.


"Hey...are you alright?"

Pakura resolved herself not to speak as they flitted across the rooftops, not to look at the Uchiha for fear of revealing her emotions. Her tears. To display emotion was a weakness. One that could be exploited. Just as she had been. If her Kazekage, the man in whom she had laid all her hopes and dreams, was willing to ransom her off to Konoha for the sake of peace...whom could she trust? The Uchiha? He seemed a nice enough fellow, or at least one hesitant about claiming her body like some prize cut of meat.

"Hey!"

Pakura cried out in surprise as he moved to block her with his body, forcibly arresting her movement by grabbing her wrist. This close she was suddenly aware of just how tall he was-head and shoulders above her. Not just in terms of height, but skill as well. He wasn't ruffled in the slightest, and yet here she was, nearly a sobbing wreck at the the Kazekage's betrayal. Because that's was what it was...wasn't it? He'd all but signed her death warrant by giving her to the Uchiha, uprooting her from the life that she'd known all this time...and she'd wanted to kill him for it! If that aide hadn't come barging in when he had, she would've thrown herself at the Sandaime, deciding to die at the edge of his iron sand rather than become someone's trophy.

"I said, are you alright?"

"Alright?" she whispered brokenly into his chest, "How can I be alright?" She felt like an idiot! Ready to weep into the chest of a stranger she barely knew. Forced to be a wife to a man she'd just met! He had struck her interest true, but that had been when she'd thought she had a choice not this arranged marriage for the sake of her village! Even knowing that many before her had done the same wasn't enough to mend her her heart as it were, she could only flounder in disbelief at what had been wrested away from her.

"You can cry, if you want."

"I will not!" she struggled out of his grasp; surprisingly he let her go. "I am a kunoichi!" Almost immediately she withdrew, rubbing at her wrist. "I would never shed such tears...

"Oi, you were just sold out by your leader. Its alright to be a bit upset-

"I AM NOT UPSET!" She all but shrieked; that was a lie and Pakura knew it. She was distraught. "You don't know me!"

"No, but I'd like to."

"Like to fuck me, you mean." she remarked bitterly.

Something in his eyes hardened then.

"No. I mean I'd like to get to know an admirable kunoichi who deserves better than that scum of a kage."

"Mere words." she snapped back, but her voice warbled on the last note. "Empty of promise."

"I could always kill him." Onyx snapped into scarlet in dire warning. "No one would know." No one but her. Though he had hurt her, she was still a kunoichi, through and through. She would do as she was told...but that didn't mean she had to reveal Naruto's threat just now, did it?

"You really do deserve better than him." Insufferable man! He just wouldn't let it drop, would he?

"And how would you know?"

"I've seen his type before." In that instant he seemed to age before her eyes. Not in the physical sense, but more in the spiritual sense. It was all in his eyes, they looked so tired, like he had lived for far too long and a part of him had given up and was just waiting to die. It was enough to shock whatever wariness she'd had for him right ouf of Pakura. This man had lived through countless horrors in his life, and yet he was still trying, despite her best efforts, to wrest her out of this impossible situation.

"You really have, haven't you?"

"More than you know."

Pakura looked at him then, the movement causing her intricate sunset and jade colored bangs to form the hint of a shroud around her face. His sharingan seemed to blur in the morning's light. Naruto couldn't miss it and his expression reflected his intrigue. Pakura tilted her head to the right, then swayed it back left and Naruto blinked in amazement. In the woman's movement, his own eyes seemed to dance. And with Nauto still obviously mesmerized, Pakura leaned forward and quite softly brushed her lips with his own.

It took several heartbeats, but that seemed to break the spell and the Uchiha leaned away, staring at her with puzzlement.

"Why did you do that?" he asked in a voice that seemed hard to find.

"Because I believe you." she whispered.

Naruto cocked his head curiously, and when he started to protest, Pakura put a finger over his lips to silence him.

"Don't be a fool," she said with a small, sad smile. "I'm not worth throwing your career away."

"This is why I hate village politics." Naruto muttered, scarlet orbs fading back to black. "Always screwing everything up...c'mon, we've got a brat to save."

Reluctantly she took off after him, descending into the streets below. What was that just now? What had made her kiss him? She didn't know and likely wouldn't for many more days. No point in puzzling it out now. Not when the future Kazekage was in danger.

"There he is!"

Naruto skidded to a dead halt when he saw the shinobi in the town square. It was obviously one of Gari's men, as if the apocalyptic rage that knotted the man's face wasn't enough, the burns answered all his questions almost immediately. What it did not answer was how in the hell the man had managed to incapacitate Hiro and a Suna kunoichi by himself let alone wreathe his body in enough explosive tags to blow a mile-deep crater in Sunagakure. Insanity didn't even begin to define this man. He glanced furtively every which way, The look in his eye was one of sheer madness, someone who had nothing left to lose but his own life.

But if he lost it, so would many.

"You!" the man raged, the moment he laid eyes upon Naruto. "Keep your eyes away from me! Demon! Monster! Murderer! You killed my captain! Scum! Filth! Konoha won't live to regret your actions!" The prone forms of the Hiro and the Kunoichi offered no resistance, it was up to them do do something.

"Calm down," Pakura interjected with a calmness she no longer felt. How could she after what she'd just done? "What are your demands? We can talk about this."

"TALK?!" He screeched! "There's nothing to talk about, Suna bitch! You whores are just as bad as them! You murdered us like pigs! Butcher us...like cattle! Now, I'm going to do the same to you!" Clutching Hiro and the girl closer to himself, he cackled madly. "Hell! I'll take the you all to hell with me! We can all burn together! Just like he burned me!"

"You're insane." Naruto frowned. "And you need treatment-

"Don't TOUCH me!" the man flinched aside as Naruto's sharingan span into existence. "Don't even look at me! I know your tricks! He told me all about them! I won't be deceived!"

Naruto froze, blood turning to ice in his veins.

"He...?"

"The true Uchiha!" the man was raving now, clearly crazed, or so everyone seemed to think. "He restored my body! Told me the truth! Sent me here to kill you, traitor! And I will! I-

Madara?! How the hell is that even possible?!

That was when Hiro's gold dust smashed into his face with all the force of a sledgehammer. Whatever the Iwa nina had been about to say ended then and there-his mouth was suddenly flooded with so much of the stuff that he may well have choked on it. And given a few more seconds, he just might have.

But they didn't have a few seconds. Even as the future Kazekage wrenched himself free, the man released the killswitch, setting dozens upon dozens of tages aflame. Everyone fled or ran in that awful instant, all save the four shinobi for whom his wrath was reserved.

His temper inflamed beyond all point of salvaging, the man reached down to ignite the rest of the tags strapped to his body. With his mission having failed he was determined to at least take a few of them with him! For the glory of Iwa, and his Tsuchikage, he would purge these scum!

"DIE!"

There was no time to decide; he could only save one. Not both. So he grabbed the girl instead of the boy and dove for cover. In that instant he was vaguely aware of Hiro's cry of shock, then of Pakura, flinging a fireball into the man's chest with devastating effect. But it was already too late. Naruto saw with his Sharingan what would happen an instant before it occurred and reacted-calling upon a deadly power he daren't have touched until this very moment. An azure ribcage formed out of the nothing, blue bone breaking into the beginnings of a shoulder, then an arm, an elbow-

Then came the explosion and orange fury burnd the world white. The incomplete Susasnoo served its purpose; acting as a buffer between the three of them and the blast.

The Uchiha groaned as he dusted himslf off, the grit and gravel of Sunagakure already etched into his uniform. A suicide bomber? Who the hell did that anymore?! Still bemoaning the dirt and dust that had gotten into his imaculate uniform, the former Uzumaki turned to face the girl he'd just rescued from certain death. The same could not be said of her companion however; without the Flying Thunder God technique-curse this body of his!-he simply wasn't fast enough save both. Whomever Hiro had been or had been destined to be, he was dead now. Dead as dead could possibly be.

"Well," he muttered to himself, "that could've gone off better...

"Agreed," his colleauge muttered beside him brushing herself off with a groan. Her Scorch release had been key in defusing the blast, though she was far too humble to ever admit it. "Though I had not expected him to detonate himself in such a spectacular fashion." Her hazel eyes quietly regarded the small crater that had once been the market district. It would've been far larger had she not managed to detonate some of those tags preamturely; the Iwagakure assasisin had only managed to take two lives instead of dozens. His own...and that of a shinobi...

"Any injuries?" he asked, "Here, I can heal-

Pakura started, brushing off his hand with a flush.

"I would rather you attend to the kunoichi beneath you, Uchiha!"

"Wha-oh!"

The teenager they'd rescued managed groaned, dusting herself off with a pained hiss. "Wha...? Where's..." She took one look at her companion's charred corpse and turned bone white.

"Oh my god...

"Hey," Naruto patted the girl's face back to him. He knew well enough that if he gave her a chance to stare overlong at her comrade's corpse the poor girl would just break down. "Don't look at him. Look at me. Are you alright? Are you injured? What's your name?" The trick was to bombard them with so many questions that they didn't have time to think there would be time to grieve later. If there was even the slightest of possibilities that the attacker wasn't acting alone...

Her voice was numb, though thankfully not with shock. "Karura...

"Rank?"

"Ch-Chunin...

"Injuries?"

"None."

"Measurements?"

"Hah?!"

"Kidding, kidding." he sighed; if she had enough energy to be angry, then she'd be just fine. "Right then, Karura-chan, I need you to focus. Can you stand?"

"H-Hai!"

Naruto froze as he helped her up, as he got a good look at her, realization swarming over him.

Brown hair. Purple eyes...

Merciful kami above and yami below. This was no mere kunoichi in his arms; he'd just saved Gaara's mother from certain death! And if that boy with the Gold Dust was who he thought he was, then that blackened body had to be...Gaara's father. That was who Hiro was. No other shinobi wielded such a technique and if they did, he didn't know of them. Meaning...

...ah, balls!

"What the hell happened here?!"

Naruto didnt even look up as Tsunade's voice pierced the air above him. Jiraiya and Orochimaru arrived soon therafter, pausing only to gawp at the massive hole the man had punched in the village before bringing their attention to bear upon Naruto. In the end it was the latter, not the former, who asked the million dollar question.

"What did you do?"

Naruto took one long look at Pakura, then Karura, and sighed.

"Yeah, kind of a long story there...

A/N: And there you have it! Naruto finally starts changing things en mass! No one sees him for what he really is, and more and more he's losing pieces of himself. He remembers what he once was but more and more he's starting to see just how much a mess he's walked into. And now he has the Mangekyo-uncertain of whether or not it will make him blind. Ain't that lovely? On the plus side he's attracted Tsunade's attention...and unknowingly started to ensnare her heart.

We've started and ended the Suna arc in STYLE here folks, and Naruto's-unintentionally-picked up two girls! Hope you enjoyed it! On another note, Naruto has officially decided to atry and convert Orochimaru to the side of good for the sake of Konoha, rather than end the bastard...we'll see how that wokrs out.

We'll get to see interactions and potential arguements between his ladies next chappy! Look forward to it, ya know!

...god this is going to be FUN to write. So many ideas! But feel free to suggest something!

Pairing is still up in the air, but Mikoto is most likely going to be involved, although I will gladly take any other recommendations that are offered. Kushina's falling for him! But the question does remain: will Naruto ever reciprocate her feelings? I'm leaning toward yes...in time...I may even include Tsunade, seeing as how the age gap has shrunk to almost nothing now. Mikoto may have a slight lead, BUT THE PAIRING IT STILL ENTIRELY UP IN THE AIR! VOTE! REVIEW! TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT!

So...in the immortal words of Atlas...

Review...would you kindly? And of course, enjoy the preview! Guess what happens?

(Preview)

"Ame." Naruto's deadpann was barely concealed. "You give me a team, and the first thing you do is send me to Ame."

"I wish it were otherwise, but you have proven yourself too capable." Hiruzen replied, steepling his fingers. "Your actions in Suna garnered a great deal of attention after all." He made no mention of Pakura and Karura, that went without saying that Naruto had made a coup by securing the two kunoichi for Konoha; regardless of what some might think.

"So what's the mission?"

"A-Rank, as matter of fact."

"And?" Naruto pressed.

Sarutobi continued.

"Hanzo's been making trouble along the border for too long now, and needs to be dealt with. I've already sent Jiraiya-kun and the others on ahead. If you hurry you should be able to catch up with them. Besides, these three are quite capable, as I'm sure you'll see. I'm sure they'll become Chunin in no time."

Naruto's only response was to pinch the brow of his nose. "Lemme guess, I have no say in this whatsoever?"

"None at all. Now see for yourself."

As if on cue, a soft knock sounded on the door.

"Ah, there they are now. Come in!"

Two youths entered, closing the door behind them.

"I would like you to meet your team."

Naruto's brow furrowed as he beheld the three youths assembled before him by Sarutobi. He'd fought and railed against this from the moment he'd set foot back in Konoha, but in the end cooler heads had prevaled. So here he was in the old man's office, silently rueing his new rank as Jonin.

He recognized a young Kurenai Yuhi almost immediately-those ruby red eyes were a dead giveaway. The boy, he didn't know. He had silver hair like Kakashi but there was no way it was his old sensei, Kakashi was still a kid in the academy if he recalled correctly. It wasn't until Sarutobi identified him as Ibiki Morino that he actually got a rise out of Naruto. Oh, this was rich! These two had scared the crap out of him when he was a kid but now the tables were turned! Speaking of tables, where was the third student...

Sarutobi seemed to realize it as well.

"Where is Uzumaki Kushina?" he asked.

Naruto's head snapped around so quick it might've flown clear off his neck. Somewhere in the back of his mind, his darker half cackled. Naruto only had one word for them both.

...no."

"Yes." Hiruzen answered immediately, ignoring the killing intent that flooded the room. "She hasn't had a sensei since her last one died in action a year ago. As she seems quite attached to you, I deemed it fitting."

"She's too old!"

"A genin is a genin." The sandaime remained unmoved by his plight. "Besides," and here he did become him closer, "You're one of the few shinobi who can control her should "it" attempt to beach the seal again. I trust you will treat this matter with the utmost discretion?"

Before Naruto could answer, a voice was heard from beyond the door.

"Those fools weren't arm wrestling they were playin' life death match 'ttebane!"

"Hai, hai." One of the Anbu answered. "Go right on in."

Instead of opening slowly, the door flung itself open with a resounding crash...admittinga blur of orange and black.

"Uzumaki Kushina, reporting for duty-gah?! Naruto!" she skidded to a grinding halt, eyes wide at the sight of him. "When did you get back from your mission?!"

"Yo. Just a few hours ago."

The Uchiha colored at the sight of the girl. Beautiful as ever, her long, lustrous red hair trailing after her loud entrance. hitiate strapped proudly to her forehead. And was she wearing...orange?! It was almost enough to draw a smile to his face, the sight of his favorite color stirring up fond memories deep within his heart. Still, the scowl refused to depart from his face. Sarutobi's next words only made it deepen.

"Meet your new sensei, Kushina."

Her grin was practically earsplitting...and bloody adorable, he had to admit.

"SENSEI?!"

R&R! =D