Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto

Team 7's Ascension

Chapter XIV - Grow the Tree IV

Early Morning of the Second Day – Southern Area of the Land of Wind

The room he was in, a small rented flat in the poorer part of Bōeki Toshi's inner city proper, lit up in different shades of green and blue. Sweat trailed down his brows but Kakashi ignored it. Instead, he opted to focus all his concentration on the meticulously carved symbols in front of him. When the colorful light died down, he lifted his hands and shot a furtive glance toward the shutters of the window, assuring himself that his actions hadn't attracted unwanted attention.

Kakashi hadn't paid for the room, of course, and a smile tugged at his lips as he reminisced about the indignation of his charges back when he had layered an illusion around the inn-keeper in Tanyu. He walked over to a small cupboard in the corner of the room and grabbed a bottle of water from the shelf. By now, his team should be in the second stage of the Chūnin Exams, trouncing the competition.

There was no doubt that they'd pass… and if not, he knew exactly how to motivate them to do better next time – as soon as he made it out of the Land of Wind. While thinking of his Genin, he had emptied the bottle with greedy gulps. He allowed himself another chuckle, before turning to the center of the room.

His expression turned sour.

Sprawled over the large wooden table was a person he had bought on the city's black market – in an underground cavern beneath the port, to be specific. Rivulets of blood were flowing freely from the wounds Kakashi had inflicted on the man of unknown origin. They pooled under the table and from there on made their ways further through the room.

This wasn't something Kakashi was proud of, but over the course of his life there had been many things he hadn't taken any pride in doing. Still, he did them – either for his own survival, or for the continuous wellbeing of his village. He snarled while his hands grabbed the kunai from the table, yet his hands were steady as he went back to work.

What he did was something revolting, more in tune with Orochimaru's ways of the world than those ostensibly prized by his village. It was a corruption of his sensei's art, of the hour-long lectures he had received from Minato-sensei's wife on the topic; and, this ambivalence he felt, gnawed relentlessly at his conscience while he worked on this innocent person – who, even if unconscious, was still alive due to a few drugs of choice.

Another carved line was added to the complex matrix that spun over the whole body. Blood seeped out and Kakashi summoned his chakra again, infusing it with the blood in the wound. What he attempted at this moment had only been done once before. It was an esoteric branch of Fūinjutsu, the founding of which was credited explicitly to the Snake Sannin himself.

Fūinjutsu, not through the use of ink and parchment, but through the close bond between blood and seals carved into a body. Kakashi hadn't left the man alive to be cruel. He kept him breathing because it was the blood of the host that chained the matrix to its purpose; that made the whole thing possible.

But, therein laid the root of his mixed feelings.

It was disgusting, morally wrong on every level conceivable. Yet, despite all this, he couldn't help the fascination that surged through him with every line he carved, every curve he etched into the body before him with impeccable exactitude. The sublime fascination though, was nevertheless accompanied by horror each time it reared its head.

Kakashi despised the Snake Sannin – the mere thought of the man enough to incite feelings of rage in him – but, as he looked down on the beautifully, maddeningly mutilated form of his own victim, such feelings of resentment also directed themselves against him; steadily interwoven with actual fright and apprehension.

Even though dissimilar in many ways, he walked on a path not unlike Orochimaru had done.

He stepped back from the table and leaned against the dirty wall; breathing in, and breathing out. The toll he paid for this venture wasn't just a mental one, but a physical and spiritual as well. His reserves wouldn't hold up for much longer, and he still needed some of it to actually facilitate his escape. His right hand gripped his silver hair and Kakashi yanked his head twice.

This was not the time to doubt his abilities to escape.

There was no going back, at least not now.

The things he had read in Orochimaru's files were forever branded into his mind; no matter that the Hokage had destroyed them as quickly as possible upon receiving said data. Kakashi's ANBU squad had found them in a deserted research facility at the edge of the Land of Fire. All appearances pointed toward the fact that it had been abandoned in all haste, and Kakashi, in a fit of curiosity unbecoming for his position in Konoha's hierarchy, had looked through the research material like a man possessed.

He was no scientist, but his curiosity had been piqued; and, much as he would like to forget everything he saw, Obito's eye made such an undertaking an exercise in impossibility. He had read it all, every damn sentence, and therefore he remembered it all. Kakashi's contemplation ended when he heard knuckles rapping against the door to his rented room.

Was it time already?

He looked over to the body and noticed pleased that all the lines had been carved. Still, a few more moments to recuperate would have been welcome. The knocking resounded again and he slowly rose from his slumped position against the wall. Curious, when had he sat down?

"I'm coming," he said.

With two minor illusions, the smell and sight of his gruesome endeavor were made unnoticeable to the untrained civilian who still continued to knock. He marched up to the door – a kunai held behind his back in case it wasn't the person he expected – and opened it slowly. On the outside stood a portly man with a bald head, wearing colorful robes.

The owner of the apartment didn't attempt to enter, and the slightly glazed look in his eyes told Kakashi that his Genjutsu was still in place. "Finally, honorable guest… I feared you would not wake in time!"

The irony of being called honorable wasn't lost on Kakashi and made it easier to favor the man with a smile. "As you see, I did."

"A blessing indeed, honorable guest, for just as you bid me at yesterday's eventide; I come to inform you that the sun has risen past the first tower of the Port's Watch."

The Hatake looked past the man, and saw indeed that the sun was on her unstoppable ascent toward the heavens. A sense of urgency pervaded his mind and body; he quickly turned to the owner of the establishment and layered another illusion around him.

Without further words, the bald man walked away to continue with his daily routine while Kakashi slammed the door shut and hurried toward the table. This would be the crucial part, and he couldn't allow himself any more delays.

He gave the body a last once-over, before racing through a sequence of hand seals.

"Fūinjutsu: Karada no Ōkina Gobyū (Great Fallacy of the Body)!"

Kakashi slapped his right palm on the chest of the man, and tapped with his left index finger against the forehead. Large amounts of chakra surged through his limbs, taking them as ready conduits and breathing purpose into the seal.

Beneath him, the host had woken up despite all the drugs and started to writhe in agony. Kakashi closed his eye for a moment, the wrongness of what he did becoming all too apparent once more. He gritted his teeth, and as soon as the infusion of chakra through his right palm was finished, he took it of the body and ripped away the piece of cloth that veiled his left eye.

This was the reason, as far as Kakashi concluded, why Orochimaru had simply discarded this sealing technique as inconsequential at the time. The Sharingan, the same eye that had led Kakashi to remembering every detail of the disgusting procedure, was now needed to plant the Genjutsu over the body and anchor it within the matrix of carved flesh.

The black wheels spun for a few seconds.

It was done.

The body had stopped moving around, the man was finally released from his personal hell, and Kakashi looked at the result with such ambiguity, feeling disgust and fascination at the same time. The corpse now appeared to be an exact copy of how he had looked in the presence of Suna's General, up to the minutest detail; and the fact that it was a dead body, yet the illusion still held strong, showed nothing more and nothing less than that his seal had worked.

Kakashi put his hands together. "Kai."

Nothing happened. No shimmering, no hazy outlines. The corpse remained just as he had envisioned it.

Noon of the Second Day – Five Miles Away from the Land of Rivers



Kakashi's legs burned as he raced over the mighty dunes, two squads of Suna-nin directly behind him. How long had it been since he last needed to exercise his muscles like this, instead of simply augmenting his speed with chakra? Too long, and it made his current ordeal excruciatingly painful. This cat and mouse game he had played with Suna's forces for days now demanded its tribute. Unfortunately, it couldn't be paid in a bit of sweat or a few drops of blood – not anymore.

He was only a few miles away from the border of the Land of River. There, in the large bodies of water, and the adjacent forest that made it such a beautiful spot for vacations, he could easily lose his pursuers. In this desert though, he couldn't.

… Only a few miles… His plan was in place. He wouldn't die just yet. Konoha had to be warned.

His team had to be warned.

He swerved to the right.

Kunai peppered the path in front of him, and shuriken crashed into the sand behind him. Faster!

Another volley of projectiles was on its way; he could hear it. His eyes narrowed. Four shuriken were pulled out of his pouch and he threw them with all the accuracy his exhausted state allowed for. They diverted some of the incoming weapons, but most continued on their way.

His back burned, as two kunai found their target; at least he still wore the old fashioned Suna armor. A shuriken sliced into his right leg and brought him to his knees. Not like this! He coiled himself into a protective ball and rolled awkwardly forward before ending in a somersault that barely brought him out of range of the next attack. A fuma shuriken landed in the sand behind him and a few strands of silver hair floated gently through the air.

When he landed back on his feet, he crouched low as a sharp gust of wind blew over his head. It had missed, but the strain on his legs nearly made him cry out in agony. For a moment he saw stars in his vision, and white hot pain lanced through his body.

He shook his head and soldiered on. The border, the green lush grass behind the river; he could see it now. It wasn't far away. He'd make it. A quick look over his shoulder showed him that it was now or never. He had to implement his plan, or everything would have been for naught.

The last few dregs of chakra in his body were called upon as he knelt on the ground and raced through hand seals. There existed a reason why he had taxed his muscles as much as he did during his escape.

His palm crashed on the ground beneath him. "Fūton: Sākuru Hogo no Jutsu (Circle Protection Technique)!"

Gales of wind started to circle around the area of his body, mixing with the sand and obscuring the sight of his pursuers. They knew where he was, but not what he did. Now came the crucial part. He quickly unsealed the result of his Fūinjutsu and just as predicted, the Suna-nin had become impatient. Wind techniques crashed against his protective barrier and he let out a loud scream of anguish.

To fake the scream hadn't even been hard, as the forces of nature also ripped into him, having overcome the barrier quite easily. It didn't matter. Everything was in place. He ran through the last set of hand seals – this was the Jutsu that would save him, the first one he had taught Sakura as her interest in her elemental affinity rose. 'Hiding like a Mole' was a fitting name, indeed.

He'd be nothing more than a husk on the verge of chakra exhaustion when he arrived in the Land of Rivers, but he'd be alive, and his village wouldn't suffer a surprising betrayal.

"Fūton: Kyojin no Toppū (Gust of the Giant)!"

No. No! He knew that voice. Damn it!

Before Kakashi could finish his technique, a colossal gust of wind threw him away from his protective barrier. The flight was longer than expected, and everything in his body hurt, even more so when he came crashing down behind a dune.


Senryaku no Fushigi, Suna's Miracle Tactician – commanding officer of the invasion force – had found him. Why was the man here? Didn't he have an invasion to plan? A single tear of frustration rolled down his cheek.

He had been so close; so close! The prepared body hadn't survived the onslaught of the technique, couldn't have, really. After all, Kakashi had barely survived himself. He wouldn't make it to the Land of Rivers. Not with that man hunting him.

His whole body hurt, and already he could hear the voices behind the dune become louder.

No, there was still something left to do. He couldn't escape, but he wouldn't give up like this. His team would be prepared! Only a minute left, maybe one and a half before the Suna-nin would have scaled the dune and would see him lying in the sand, broken and beaten.

Dogs weren't made for the desert; a fact Pakkun had often reminded him of in the past. But there were only a few miles left to greener pastures. He knew he could trust him to do his duty – the duty he had failed in.

His thumb swiped over one of the many wounds on his body and he rushed through the seals as fast as he could.

"Ninpō: Kuchiyose no Jutsu (Summoning Technique)!"

His words were whispered and the cloud of smoke was a very small one. His only hope was that no one had seen it. Pakkun appeared before him, and the dog's eyes widened dramatically as he saw the state his master was in.

Kakashi shushed him quickly and beckoned him to come forward. "Pakkun," he whispered. "Suna is about to invade Konoha… warn them, warn my team."


The small dog was interrupted by a coughing fit, and Kakashi's blood landed on his paws. Pakkun became even more frantic, when Kakashi reached with his somewhat functional hand toward his Sharingan.

"It mustn't fall into their hands. Keep it for me… will you, Pakkun?"

In one swift motion, the Hatake plucked out the gift of his dead friend and secured it in the small pouch around Pakkun's throat.

"Kakashi, what-"

"Go! They'll be here soon."

Pakkun threw a last glance over his shoulder, before racing away. Kakashi saw that his trusted summon had made it just over another dune, when agony suddenly rushed through his whole body. Someone had put his knees on his back. He glanced with his healthy eye at the face that appeared next to him.

"Hatake, it's been a while," the General whispered into his ear. "I must say I'm surprised that it's you. Then again, I'm not. Not really."

Kakashi kept his mouth shut and stared back unblinkingly. There wasn't much he could say anyhow.

"Not up for a conversation, I see." The pressure on his back lessened. "Well, it doesn't matter. Kanshu-san, bind him and bring him back to the camp. Hatsuonki-san, send messages to the squads still searching the area and tell them that the mission was a success."

Both nodded, and Kakashi's right eye closed slowly.

Sasuke, Naruto, Sakura…

Then, unconsciousness claimed him.

Evening of the Second Day – Konoha

The soft breeze that swept through the large backyard of the mansion cooled the sweat on Hiruzen's forehead. He shifted his left foot about an inch and was, once more, in the perfect textbook position to block an incoming attack. The leaves rustled in the trees; a carved bamboo pipeline hit the stones that framed a nearby pond with a resounding thud.

Much as he would love to sit on the porch, relax, and drink some of the fabulous tea his clan's retainer had acquired four days ago, he couldn't. He had told Kakashi that a storm was coming, and that hadn't been just a lie to motivate the man. There were still some key information missing for him to get a complete picture of the situation, but the coincidences were piling up – most of all the suspicious nomination of so many foreign teams for the Chūnin Exams.

For years, during the fragile peace of the last two decades, it had been the unspoken agreement that the hosting party could nominate up to five or six teams, and that the other great nations only went up to half of that amount. It was an unspoken rule, now broken by everyone. Kumo alone had sent twelve teams – twelve! He had responded in kind, of course, but the thought of that many shinōbi from potentially hostile villages in the vicinity of Konoha wasn't a pleasant one.

His iron stance paid off as the knee of his son crashed against his guard; but, despite the weight behind the attack, it didn't manage to move Hiruzen even an inch. Asuma followed his attack with quick, yet extremely powerful punches and Hiruzen moved his hands to block all of them successfully.

His son had become good, he noted pleasantly.

Still, Asuma had a lot more potential to unlock in Taijutsu – potential that would only reveal itself through experience and the acquisition of several more styles. Hiruzen grabbed one of the incoming fists in his bare palm and tugged it backward. Asuma was a talented Jōnin, and the maneuver only caught him off-guard for a split-second as he shifted his center of balance slightly to compensate for the forced movement. Not a great amount of time – a butterfly could flap its wings, but barely – yet it was enough for the older man to win their bout. In the short moment Asuma had been off-balance, Hiruzen had aimed precise jabs at three different points on the abdomen of his son.

He hadn't moved much but panted slightly, his old age showing through. A look at the crumpled form of his son, who slowly got his bearing and rose from the ground, told him that this kind of training had truly become necessary once more. Hiruzen had never neglected his daily routine to keep somewhat in shape, but it seemed as if a newer, harsher training regime had to be implemented, and soon at that.

Somewhere in the shadows of the Great Tree enemies were lurking and he had to be ready for them once they showed themselves.

"That was quick, Pops." Asuma held his stomach and grimaced as he sat down on the grass.

Brought out of his contemplations, Hiruzen looked at his son and smiled. "You're good, son, but it was too easy to unbalance you. Improve on your footwork and mistakes like that will become something of the past."

Asuma grimaced, but it quickly formed into a rueful grin. He was glad that after all the trouble he's had with his father, the man was still willing to accept him like this. The younger Sarutobi knew that he hadn't been an easy child, nor had he become an easy shinōbi. Both had been born with the clan's inert stubbornness, and more often than not it had led to fierce arguments between them.

"You want to go another round?" Asuma asked, heaving himself up even though his body hurt quite a bit after having sparred with his father for three hours now.

"I think you've earned your rest." Hiruzen chuckled. "Besides, I think there's someone else who'd love to step up and have a go at me."

Asuma looked around, alarmed that he hadn't noticed another shinōbi in his vicinity. "Who-?"

His question was interrupted as his father turned away from him as if struck by lightning. Hiruzen's hands rose in a cross-block, and not a second too late. A plated fist crashed against the block, and the force emitting from the blow forced Asuma to step backward. The hairs on his neck rose and a chill ran down his spine.


Then he saw the person who was challenging his father and he relaxed somewhat. The white mane unmistakably belonged to one of his father's students. Still, as another thundering punch glanced off the Sandaime's defense, Asuma retreated to the porch and seated himself. This was the kind of spar not many had the chance to witness, and he'd make sure to soak it all in.

There was a lull in the fight for several seconds, as both shinōbi looked at each other with narrowed eyes. Asuma used that time to create a Kage Bunshin and wake his nephew. Konohamaru wouldn't forgive him, ever, if he withheld such a sight from him. The thundering echoes returned, and with surprise he noticed that his father actually went on the offensive this time, completely disregarding his usual defensive stance.

"Woah, who is Jiji fighting?"

Asuma turned his head and smiled at his awestruck nephew. "Take a seat, Kono. He's fighting Jiraiya of the Sannin, his old student."

Konohamaru scrambled to get himself next to his uncle, his eyes never leaving the two old men duking it out in the backyard. "Jiraiya? I've heard that name from Suzumebachi-sensei when she told us 'bout infiltration."

Asuma nodded. "And what did she tell you?"

"That he's a lecher," Konohamaru answered. "Iruka-sensei says he's a hero and incredible shinōbi, though."

"A lecher, eh? I guess that's true to some extent…"

Both fell into silence as the spar was brought to another level. Konohamaru had trouble following the two combatants, only seeing them when their punches interlocked somewhere. He heard a grunt of pain, and the figure of his grandfather soon became visible, flying against the compound's wall. Mid-fly, Hiruzen turned his body around and tipped the ground with his hand, catapulting himself in a somersault onto the wall, where Jiraiya was already waiting for him.

More blows and kicks were exchanged, although both men had slowed down and concentrated more on technique than power now. There, Hiruzen held the advantage, but the earlier display of his student had shown him quite clearly that his own raw force – once unrivaled in the Elemental Nations – had declined with age and disuse. He could punt a few Jōnin into the ground, no problem, but an opponent of his student's caliber would make it hard to win, extremely hard.

After a last exchange of blows, Hiruzen jumped back and gave Jiraiya the sign to stop the spar. He wiped off the blood trickling from his lips, and spit a glob of red saliva into the grass. The hit that had sent him careening toward the wall had hurt.

"That's enough, Jiraiya."

The Sannin nodded and followed his former teacher to the porch, where the two spectators were still sitting and staring.

"Asuma," Jiraiya said, nodding toward the man. Then he crouched down and ruffled Konohamaru's wild hair. "You must be Konohamaru. The Old Man's told me plenty 'bout you."

The Sannin bit his thumb and slammed his palm on the ground, while Asuma looked on in confusion, and Hiruzen seemed to be intrigued. A small toad appeared in a puff of smoke and croaked, jumping into Konohamaru's lap. "Why don't you play a bit with Gamomocha, kiddo? He can show you some awesome tricks."

Still somewhat overwhelmed by the incredible fight he had just seen, and now by holding a – for him at least – large toad in his hands, the honorable grandson didn't even think about protesting. He wasn't dumb. This was a trick to get him away, but he didn't really care. The adults probably had boring things to talk about, and the toad was definitely more interesting than that. He waved at his uncle, grandfather and the nice lecher, before running into the house to play with his new friend.

"That was a nice thing you did, Jiraiya-sama." Asuma stood next to the two strongest shinōbi the village had to offer and smiled.

The Sannin returned it; but, when after several moments, the Hokage's son still was standing next to them, he said, "Unfortunately, I don't have a toad your size…"

Hiruzen snickered and Asuma looked confounded. "Maybe I should summon a monkey to play with him," he said.

"What- Oh, yes, funny, haha," Asuma said; then he snorted. "I can feel that I'm not wanted here anymore. I'll see you tomorrow, Pops. Good evening, Jiraiya-sama."

As soon as his son was out of the range of his perception, Hiruzen turned to his student. "That was quite mean of you."

"You completed it beautifully, sensei."

Hiruzen stroked his beard. "That I did indeed. Now, why don't we sit down and you tell me the reason for this visit."

Jiraiya nodded, but asked, "Is it safe?"

"Of course it is… the privacy seals for this mansion were crafted by Minato, after all."

The Sannin smiled sadly. Minato… he truly missed him. It was good to know that his sensei had so much faith in the work of his student's student. "Good," he said; then his expression became grave. "We've a lot of trouble on the horizon, Sensei."

"I thought as much. Have you found the root of our problems?"

"Root, stem, blossom whatever works, I think. In the end you nurtured him, after all."

Hiruzen stopped in his motion to fill his pipe and looked at his student. "Orochimaru?"

"Who else?"

"I had hoped that his foolish notions of immortality would confine him to some foreign labs forever." Hiruzen frowned. "You say he's conspiring against Konoha?"

"Conspiring?" Jiraiya laughed; it sounded hollow. "He's founded a hidden village, took over the Land of Rice completely, and has recruited a ragtag army of shinōbi, mercenaries and bandits. That's a bit worse than a small conspiracy, wouldn't you say?"

The Hokage clenched his pipe tightly between his right fist, lest it would fall to ground. Orochimaru…

"Is that all?"

"… Who knows? I've heard that some weird stuff is happening in this year's Chūnin Exams. The large amount of teams from ostensibly friendly nations… your bloody response to it, there's a lot that reached my ears these last weeks."

"The Second Task was mostly Danzo's idea, although I concurred with his plan – you should know why."

Jiraiya leaned back against a wooden pillar that stemmed part of the roof of the porch. "I know why, don't worry. Just as well as you know that your response to fill these security holes hasn't been received with open arms by the nations who sent their Genin to Konoha."

"I assumed as much," the Hokage admitted.

"Anyway, before you march out on me and gather your precious War Council… how's my godson? Haven't seen the little troublemaker in over a year." Jiraiya leaned forward, looking eager. "Did he finally become a Genin? Is he a good shinōbi?"

Hiruzen's countenance didn't light up, despite the change of topics. "You won't like what I've to tell you."

"What? Is he dead? No, he can't be dead… the toads would have noticed if the seal suddenly went haywire."

"Calm down, Jiraiya. Naruto isn't dead. He was assigned under the leadership of Kakashi, with Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura as his teammates."

Jiraiya frowned, but nodded. "Kakashi, eh? Not a bad choice, as long as he really trains them."

"Oh, he did… don't worry. They've become an excellent team, even if Kakashi's methods were somewhat harsh," explained Hiruzen.

"Well, that's to be expected. We're training Genin to become capable shinōbi after all." Jiraiya adopted another sitting position and puffed on his own pipe. "What's so bad then? You should know me better than that… as if I'd rage on you just because the sensei of my godson is giving out some tough love."

"That's not it." Hiruzen laid his pipe aside and prepared himself. "Team 7, Naruto's team, is taking part in the Chūnin Exams."

"Ha! Good one, Sensei. But I bet you that in the next one he'll mop the floor with the competition; if he hasn't already earned a field promotion by that time!"

Jiraiya laughed, but all too soon he noticed that his former teacher wasn't laughing alongside him. The merriment in him abated in an instant, and he shot a poisonous look at the wizened Hokage, who didn't appear to be all that wise anymore.

"Are you telling me," he begun. "That my godson and his team – Genin not even trained for a year… that they are in the Forest of Death right now?"

"Aye, along with the teams formed by their class mates."

"You know that I want to punch you, right?"

Hiruzen nodded. "I know, and I also know that you won't do it. Have faith in him, Jiraiya. He's grown up exceptionally and has united the other two rookie teams under his banner. He'll make it through, that I know too."

Smoke left through the Sannin's nostrils, making him look more like an angry bull than anything else. "I will believe you, Sensei. For your own good I hope though, that you're right."

The Hokage said nothing, and Jiraiya continued, "You need a sparring partner, don't you? Well, you found one." Jiraiya looked at his mentor with cold fury lurking behind his eyes. "Tomorrow we'll take it to a training ground though. I won't pull my punches."

"Very well."

Night of the Second Day – Forest of Death

It was unusual for him to visit his master a second time on the same day, but the events of the last few hours had forced him into hiding quite quickly, and now that he had no purpose anymore beyond scouting the competition – a task his master could do easier and better than him – there was nothing left that bound him to this place.

He sped through the underbrush of the forest, taking care to avoid the position of the many security cameras that were hidden all over the premise. It had been one of his major tasks before the Chūnin Exams begun, to collect information about their whereabouts, as well as anything that had something to do with their further development. Much as he was loathed to admit, the Ningu Kenkyūsho (The Research Department) did incredible work. They had even managed to invent a flying construct fueled with chakra that carried a camera on its back. These things were so small; to the naked eye they only appeared to be mosquitos.

His gaze swiveled to the right, then to the left, making sure that none of these infernal contraptions was following him. It didn't take Kabuto long afterward to find his master, but he was met with a most curious sight. The Sannin was leaning against the trunk of a tree; one leg was pulled to his body, and the other dangled carelessly from the branch. His face, directed toward the dark sky, bore a contemplating expression.

"Kabuto, you returned." Orochimaru didn't look at him, his yellow eyes still focused on the stars above.

"I have, my lord, and I bring news from the happenings in the forest."

The Sannin's head didn't move, but he glanced at the gray-haired boy for a short moment, before returning to his previous observation. "So you do. Speak."

"The small group I formed with my team and another experienced team from Konoha was ambushed by the Suna Alliance. I escaped their notice, of course, but they have all the chips," he explained.

As no reaction was forthcoming from his master, he continued in a dispassionate tone, "Yoroi and Misumi are dead. In the aftermath I tried to locate the team we sent from Otogakure, but they too have perished apparently. I believe the Kiri Alliance was responsible."

This news got Orochimaru's attention and he narrowed his eyes. "The team is dead? A pity… I wanted them to test the Uchiha's mark, something that – obviously – isn't possible now."

Kabuto nodded deferentially. "I would have tried to establish contact with Team 7, but the Alliance they formed proves to be an obstacle. They're suspicious of everyone – especially those they don't know – and the Nara would expose me rather soon, I fear."

"Indeed," Orochimaru acknowledged. "You did well, coming to me. You serve no further purpose in this game if you can't connect with our targets."

For a moment, Kabuto feared those words would be his last. People without purpose generally didn't last long under his master. Then he calmed down, reminding himself that he still had many uses in other ways. There was no way his master would kill him. The Sannin favored him with a smirk, as if he knew exactly what kind of thoughts had just run through his head.

Silence ensued and Orochimaru went back to his original position, gazing at the stars. Kabuto who had never seen this sight of his master, spoke up tentatively, "My lord, is there something of interest in the stars – a new technique perhaps?"

"Only one? You lack imagination, Kabuto." The womanly shape of the Sannin laughed; only the barest hint of malice in her voice. "The stars are endless, just like the possibilities of Jutsu. Imagine, one technique for one star… it'd take decades, centuries, millennia even to uncover them all. Have I seen something of interest in the stars? Why yes, I have."

It was a surprising declaration from his master, and Kabuto proved to be wise indeed as he kept his mouth shut. The endless amount of stars the Sannin praised… the motivation behind the man's Immortality technique… in the end they only showed that he'd never truly accomplish his goal of learning everything there was to learn.

He bowed his head low. "What are your orders, my lord?"

Orochimaru, still entranced by the night sky, waved him away with his pale hand – the nail polish making for a stark contrast. "You are of no use to me here. Go back to Oto and make sure that the preparations are all completed. I'll meet you there once this task is over and I've had a little talk with the Kazekage."

This time, the Sannin's laugh had all of its old qualities, and the malice Kabuto heard sent shivers down his spine. Whether they were shivers of dread, or of pleasurable anticipation, he couldn't tell.

Night of the Second Day – Konoha

"Hiruzen, what is the meaning of this?" Koharu asked, dressed appropriately, but with her gray hair in wild disarray.

Homura sat next to her and kept his silence. He too looked rather disgruntled, but knew it had to be something of importance if the Hokage summoned them in the darkest hours of the night. To the right of him, sat a man he hadn't seen for quite some time in his capacity as adviser – nearly two decades at least. The Commander of the ANBU forces made for an impressive sight. He was about six feet high, wore a black mask with three red stripes running vertically from top to bottom, and cloaked himself in a mantle of purest white.

On the other side of the table, opposite the three, resided the Hokage who looked none too pleased as the leader of the Nara clan to his left let out a yawn.

Danzo, the sixth and last one of their illustrious group, snorted. "It's rather obvious why we're here, isn't it?" He looked specifically toward Shikaku and the ANBU Commander. "There's a war coming, and Hiruzen finally knows from where…"

The candle light flickered ominously in the room and Homura saw Koharu blanching. "Surely… "

Homura put a calming hand on her tight and shook his head. "It's the truth, Koharu. We've seen the signs long ago… you've seen them, too. This is no time to become bewitched by an illusion of peace."

The Hokage nodded along with his old teammate's words. "Danzo is right, unfortunately. My treacherous student has founded a hidden village of his own, and is recruiting forces as we speak. This, coupled with the most unusual Chūnin Exams held since their conception, leads to only one conclusion – there are dark times ahead for Konoha."

"So Danzo's solution to the Second Task was truly the right choice. If we are to be attacked, we can't afford to have such an amount of foreign shinōbi near our most important infrastructure," murmured Homura.

"For the moment, yes," said Hiruzen. "In the long run this could cost us a lot of good will with the other nations. That's a problem for another time though."

Koharu, who had finally regained her wits, looked at her Hokage. "So we're facing Orochimaru's army? That shouldn't be too much of a problem, should it? Konoha's forces should be more than adequate to repel any kind of army the traitor can muster in the few years he had."

"There are, of course, the standard defensive units stationed in and around Konoha, but we should not forget that a large part of our military is spread throughout the world completing missions and the like," the ANBU Commander spoke up for the first time.

"Troublesome… he's right though. Even if we recall the troops in the Land of Fire, it would still be a hard fight. Additionally, we would have to recall them without arousing suspicion. Man, Orochimaru never did things by half, did he?"

"I concur," said Danzo. "Recalling every squad we have stationed in the surrounding areas would cause him to back out, coming later with much more troops to worry about. I propose that we only sneak a few – the best – into Konoha, and fill the ranks otherwise with my Root agents."

The Hokage grimaced for a second, but then his face smoothed back into its usual expression. "That would be for the best. Do you have enough agents?"


Homura suddenly looked up. "What about our alliance with Suna? If we ask them for help, they might be willing to aid us, and-"

Danzo's rough laughter echoed through the chamber. "Suna? Our relation with them is broken. They wouldn't help us if we promised them half of the Land of Fire."

"But the treaty…" Koharu interjected.

"… isn't worth the parchment it's written on," said Danzo; then he looked at Hiruzen. "What about Hatake? Wasn't he supposed to return three days ago? I know him to be lazy off duty, but he never slacked on the field, not once."

"I know," answered Hiruzen with narrowed eyes. "His lateness makes me very uneasy, and if he hasn't returned by tomorrow I will send an enquiry to Suna."

"Now," he continued. "On to other matters of importance…"

Morning of the Third Day – Forest of Death

The trees passed by in a blur as Sasuke sped through the forest with Shino and Ino close at his heels. It was a sensible team configuration as far as he understood it, and he doubted that there would be much in the way of trouble for them. Having a capable scout like Shino on his team made the whole mission easier, and his bugs could warn them well in advance should danger be heading their way.

The Yamanaka, too, wouldn't be a burden. That much he got from the hours he had observed her now. Her stamina wasn't up to par, but it was enough that the small distance to their camp could easily be surmounted at high speeds. What made her truly valuable for the team was her clan's ability. Gathering information would be so much easier with her on the team.

They had left the Alliance Camp two hours ago, opting to venture north first for a while, before they would turn right and circle back to the others. It was a sound plan, and Shino had immediately spread out his bugs toward the north and in a large perimeter around their group. That was why Sasuke decreased his brisk pace the moment he saw the Aburame stiffen up for a split-second.

He halted on a branch, Ino coming to rest next to him, and waited for Shino to tell them what he found out.

"There's an encampment a few more miles to the north," said Shino. "It seems to be a large one."

"Have they sensed us?"

Shino shook his head to the negative. "I do not think so. It is curious, but it appears we have remained unnoticed so far."

"Could this be a trap?" asked Ino.

"Possibly… or we're incredibly lucky and they have no sensors," said Sasuke. He stared toward the north and frowned. "Do you know how many people they have in the camp?"

"My Kikaichu counted twenty-five living signals; many of them with an affinity for lightning."

Ino's eyes widened minutely as she heard the number. "Twenty-five? How many teams did Kumo send to Konoha? That's insane."

"I am in agreement with that statement," said Shino. "It would be most unwise to attack them as long as they have such numbers on their side."

"We won't attack them – not with only three of us here. But it seems as if they have no sensor. Let's get a bit closer to them. Should it be a trap, we'll run as fast as possible."

Sasuke didn't wait for an answer, and immediately set out again. Shino frowned, but followed quickly. It was dangerous to get too close to the encampment, and he would have preferred to regroup with the others instead of spying more. Nevertheless, he followed the Uchiha heir. Team 7 had proven itself worthy for now, and he'd just have to trust that Sasuke-san knew what he was doing.

It didn't take long for them to reach the Kumo encampment, and Sasuke frowned heavily. "This isn't good. None of them look like rookies. With these numbers it'll be hard to hold our camp should they come at us full force."

Ino came up behind him and whispered, "Can we go now, please? I'm really not comfortable that close to their camp, Sasuke-kun."

"Soon," Sasuke answered. "Shino, can you establish a line of communication with your bugs from this camp to ours?"

The Aburame was surprised by the question, but quickly gathered himself. "It would be… difficult."

"With that many people, we can't get blindsided by them. We need to know their movements. Can you do it?"

Shino was silent for a minute, contemplating how he'd actually go about it. Then he nodded, but cautioned, "This connection will take up most of my colony for the time of its existence. I will be of no help during our travels back to the camp and afterward."

"But you can do it?" Sasuke asked again, a gleam in his eyes.

"Yes. I will bug them with my Kikaichu and establish a miniature spy-network along the route from their camp to ours."

Ino grimaced, although it changed quickly into a smile. "That pun was horrible, Shino."

Shino simply shrugged his shoulders and after a last confirming nod from Sasuke, hundreds of his Kikaichu left his coat. They soon settled down in pairs on every shinōbi in the Kumo camp, and with all due haste, the Konoha scouting party left the area just as planned toward the east.

Noon of the Third Day – Forest of Death

Another couple of hours later, Sasuke's team was marching slowly through the eastern part of the Forest of Death. Soon, they'd be circling around and coming up to their own camp – it could only be one or two hours longer. The pressing heat had them sweating, but despite that and his usually quite aloof countenance, Sasuke had a nearly invisible grin playing on his lips. The idea with the Aburame's bugs… pure genius, and he definitely wasn't a stranger to celebrating himself when he earned it.

It weakened their current fighting power, as Shino had to rely on Taijutsu with the temporary loss of his winged allies, but nevertheless, the trip could be called a success. Even the three poorly concealed hostiles that had been stalking them for the last thirty minutes weren't enough to detract from his mood.

Once he had reached a small suitable clearing for carnage, Sasuke turned to his teammates. "Get behind me, please, and don't get involved. If they attack you, kill them. If they don't, leave them to me."

Ino looked bewildered. "Sasuke-kun?"

"Let's do as he says, Yamanaka-san. There are, apparently, some hostiles inbound."

Shino took the blonde by her arm and led her to the edge of the clearing. It was a sting to his pride that he couldn't adequately fight at the moment – the loss of his Kikaichu making him almost feel naked – but he comforted himself with the thought that the information he'd provide later on would be vital for the Alliance's survival.

"But, I can help him," Ino replied.

"You could… I believe, however, that you need to conserve your energy. Sasuke probably has another task for you soon."

Sasuke had stalked into the middle of the clearing in the meanwhile and stared at the tree front opposite of him. "You can come out now! I know you're there!"

He sensed his opponents quite clearly, but they didn't appear.

"Come out! I'll even fight you alone…"

Again, nothing happened. Sasuke scowled. Now they had managed to ruin his good mood.

"If you don't come to me, I'll simply come to you," he muttered under his breath.

He raced through hand seals and cried out, "Katōn: Hōsenka no Jutsu (Phoenix Flower Jutsu)!

No fire exited his mouth, but a profound smirk stretched his lips as he saw three shrouded figures jump away from the place which he had – ostensibly – aimed at. Just using the seals and shouting the name did nothing if he didn't also mold his chakra.

Ino looked at the Uchiha, not believing that he had failed in his technique, when Sasuke suddenly vanished from his position and appeared next to one of the hostile shinōbi. The exchange of blows was extremely short-lived, and soon Sasuke's first enemy crashed unconscious onto the ground in front of Ino.

The second one followed shortly thereafter, and only the third, a woman by the looks of her apparel, managed to hold out for longer than a few seconds. She ducked and weaved away from Sasuke's furious attacks, which had till then been purely consistent of Taijutsu, and was therefore greatly surprised as a kunai was suddenly thrust through her hand, nailing her to a large tree. She only had a moment to look at her bleeding, immobilized hand in confusion before the pain set in. No scream escaped her though as Sasuke clapped one hand over her mouth and knocked her unconscious with the handle of his kunai.

The whole fight between him and the enemy team had lasted three minutes at the most, and Ino was flabbergasted once he returned to her and Shino. He threw the body of the woman next to the unconscious bodies of her comrades.

"You did not kill them, Uchiha-san. Very unusual after what I could observe yesterday and heard from your teammates," said Shino.

"They still have a purpose. Ino, can you look through their minds?"

Ino paled slightly. "I- Daddy only started to teach me the technique a few weeks ago. I can try, but it won't be a deep scan; only superficial information."

"See what you can get from them. Shino, come with me."

Sasuke beckoned the Aburame to follow him, and seconds later they stood a few feet away from Ino where whispers wouldn't reach her inquisitive ears anymore. The Uchiha looked at the Aburame and sighed.

"You know that killing them afterward will be a mercy to them." It was a statement, not a question.

Shino nodded his head. "I know. It is distasteful, but if we do not do it, either the wildlife or the other alliances will. We can make it painless, at least."

"Did you recognize their village?"

"No," answered Shino. "They must have been from a very small one if their insignia wasn't even in our school books."

"I want you to lie to Ino."

Shino's head snapped up sharply. "Why?"

"You know why. You've been there – yesterday – when she saw people die for the first time. We're still in hostile territory, and will be for a few more hours. Our security net is currently performing other more important duties…" Sasuke explained.

Shino's green eyes flashed behind his glasses. "You wish to avoid a nervous breakdown then."

"Yes, I do. We haven't taken their chips yet, and I doubt she remembers it at the moment. Let's ask what she found out, get her away a few miles and then I'll return here with the excuse of getting them."

"I do not like this kind of deception, Uchiha-san," Shino said.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Should I execute them in front of her then?"

Shino hesitated for a moment, as both options went against his personal code of conduct. In the end he stifled a sigh and looked over to Ino, who was still deeply in concentration, performing her clan techniques on the three bodies.

"I agree, but only on one condition."

"Name it."

Shino pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Once we're back in our camp, you're going to inform her about the deception while I'm going to report to Naruto-san. It will fall on your shoulders to weather her breakdown, and to explain why you did it."

Now it was Sasuke who hesitated for a split-second, but he quickly agreed to it. A few seconds later they were back with Ino and listened attentively to her findings. As she had told them before, most of it was just superficial because she hadn't had much training with the technique. Shino and Sasuke pulled off the ruse without arising suspicion, but even the callous Uchiha looked bothered as Ino thanked him profusely for the chance to train her Clan Jutsu.

That bothered look was not only satisfying to see, Shino felt, but also laid some of his doubts to rest. Sasuke was a cold bastard – and it took an Aburame a lot of time to even think about a person in such terms – yet it seemed that he wasn't completely without conscience.

Evening of the Third Day – Land of Rivers

The landscape he traversed was beautiful, yet he had no time to take any pleasure in his journey. As fast as his four legs could carry him, Pakkun ran through the wilderness, crossing rivers wherever he could in the faint hope to reach Konoha just a few hours earlier. His master, his summoner, his trusted friend was in danger – mortal peril even – and for him, who had been in the service of the Hatake clan since his conception, nothing could be of higher importance.

He raced past a small village, not caring for the eyes of the farmers that followed him; they simply had never seen a dog with shinōbi training. It was moments like these though, when Pakkun wished that his pack had a similar home like the toads. Mount Myōboku, and the accumulated knowledge of the toad elders, had the tremendous advantage that they could simply reverse summon the members of their clan and their summoners.

An ability Pakkun envied, especially now that Kakashi was in danger. Alas, the Dog Pack Sakumo's father had made the contract with wasn't in possession of such a place and didn't have the capabilities of the toads.

Urged on by these thoughts, Pakkun increased his pace again.

AN: And Cut! Well, that's it for the 14th chapter. Story is moving onward on several fronts, although I fear that I'm covering the Chūnin Exams in too much depth. Nothing to do about it now, though.

Used Techniques / Vocabulary:

Fūinjutsu: Karada no Ōkina Gobyū (Great Fallacy of the Body) – S Rank (through the need for a sacrifice – otherwise, A-Ranked)

Fūton: Sākuru Hogo no Jutsu (Circle Protection Technique) – B Rank

Fūton: Kyojin no Toppū (Gust of the Giant) – A Rank

Katōn: Hōsenka no Jutsu (Phoenix Flower Technique) – C Rank