Disclaimer: Naruto is written and illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto and was published in Weekly Shonen Jump. All rights to the material belong to them and any other related parties, not me.

Crouching Ninja, Hidden Kitty

Kakashi was wandering through town as twilight fell upon the village. He was making his way to the Hokage Tower and was in high spirits. Naruto was supposed to arrive soon, and the Copy Ninja had things to discuss with Tsunade before the yellow-haired agent of chaos returned.

Carrying several neatly stuffed folders of paper, and sporting multiple ink stains on his visible features, Kakashi certainly did not cut his usual dashing figure. One might have mistakenly figured that the Copy Nin finally had his own copycat or that a night of costumed revelry approached. Yet the air of utter casualness that hung about the tired figure proved that it was Kakashi beyond the shadow of a doubt to any who knew him.

Many had tried to duplicate that self-assured air but none had been successful.

"Hey Kakashi. How's it hanging?"

Asuma? Blinking his one visible eye in surprise, Kakashi looked around to see who had called out to him. Spotting the person in question, Kakashi gave his patented eye smile and called back.

"Asuma. What are you up to?"

"Oh, not all that much. Lady Tsunade gave me some time off between missions so I've been trying to relax and visit the family. I just felt like getting outside for a breath of fresh air."

The bearded Jounin patted the bench on which he was sitting. "Here, come and sit down with me so we can catch up. It's been awhile since you and I've talked to one another?"

"Yeah, we haven't really spent time with one another since you were laid up after the Orochimaru raid your team made a few months ago."

The bearded Jounin grimaced as Kakashi sat next him. Kakashi nodded his head in empathy.

"Some things are never easy to remember, are they?" he said gently.

Asuma nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah. Every time you think that the guy can't get any worse he comes up with some new sort of sick shit." Asuma placed on hand over his eyes and gently rubbed his face. "I really hope that the information we got on his other hideout comes in use for you soon, Kakashi. But truth be told, that's not even the worst thing I've had to deal with recently. "

Kakashi's visible eye widened from shock. That raid had been a terrible event, with several shinobi losing their lives to mutated humans and animals. The experiments Orochimaru and his servants had conducted had warped and twisted the test subjects into unnatural creations which could only be put down through force.

What on earth could possibly compare to something like that sort of traumatic event?

When Kakashi stated this the other man's face shadowed with remembered pain. Combined with the appearance of his beard, which was looking rather patchy and ill kept for the normally well groomed Jounin, Asuma suddenly looked like one of the front line ninja who had seen too much action in too short of a time.

Yet other than the Orochimaru raid, no such battle which could place a look like that on a veteran's face had taken place recently. Kakashi's curiosity was hence aroused.

If there was one thing that Kakashi valued in this world besides the safety of his comrades, it was accurate information on his enemies. If one did not have accurate information, then the chance of surviving an encounter with the enemy plummeted. If he himself were to cross paths with whatever had done this to Asuma, then Kakashi knew that he would need to be prepared.

"What happened?" Kakashi asked simply.

Chuckling sadly, Asuma put his face in his hands. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Kakashi."

Placing a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder, Kakashi lent Asuma what support he could. "Try me."

Taking his face out of his own hands, Asuma looked at Kakashi's face. Emotions flickered through the big man's eyes. Sorrow and horror in equal amounts, and a look of pained suffering. And something more as well, something that looked almost primal in nature, almost as if Asuma had been thrown back to a time where the bijuu ran wild and the world was young.

Asuma lit a cigarette as he delayed his response. Kakashi waited in silence while his friend and comrade took several puffs from the cancer stick. The two sat still as the cigarrette was consumed by Asuma's steady puffs.

It was only after he had tossed the used butt away and begun lighting a new one that Asuma spoke.

As the sun's first rays touched the world, the steady chirping of crickets reached its end. Daylight was coming to the Land of Fire, awakening the slumbering people of Konoha.

Early risers began to leave their homes and shops switched their signs to open. Yawning ninja's switched places with bright eyed ones, signaling the end of the night shift and the opening of the village's gates for the morning's business. It was a brand new beginning for the village of Konoha.

Today was a beautiful day,Asuma thought as he stood at the gates of Konoha. Once he turned the report in to the Hokage he would be a free man for the next week. He would be able to visit Kurenai, and maybe even check in on his Genin. Maybe Shikamaru took his advice and finally made a move on Temari while he was away. The two former enemies had been flirting and dancing around each other to the point of ridicule.

At some point you just needed to put your cards on the table and go for it. That's what he had done with Kurenai and had never regretted it since.

Asuma groaned to himself as he rolled his shoulders. He had just come back from an exhausting mission. Even though the lands were mostly at peace with one another there were still threats that required the skills of a ninja to deal with. Rogue ninja, bands of mercenaries, investigating the movements of Akatsuki and Oroshimaru... the list seemed to be nearly endless at times.

Yet Asuma had managed to persevere. He had struggled through bandits and thickets for weeks on end, fought through fog and rain, and spent lonely nights holding vigil from the top of trees. The only thing that still stood between him and his family was the written end of mission statement he had to deliver to Lady Tsunade. He was thirty minutes away from going off duty and nothing was going to stand in his way.

"Uncle Asuma, look out!"

Except for his precocious nephew's Genin team and the common foe of all newly christened Genin, the feline Tora. With speed that even a seasoned Jounin couldn't match, the cat penetrated Asuma's guard and landed on his chest. The thing likely hadn't even seen him and looked stunned that an object had blocked its path of escape.

Confused by the sudden arrival of an unknown object in its path, Tora briefly paused. Reflexively, Asuma brought his hands to his chest and captured the creature. So this was the dreaded creature that Ebisu always mentioned over drinks. It did not seem to be nearly as evil as Asuma's fellow Jounin described.

Walking up to his uncle, Konohamaru let out a whoop of victory. "Nice catch Uncle Asuma! Even brother Naruto couldn't have done any better," Konohamaru exclaimed in joy.

Chuckling, Asuma shifted the cat to eye level in order to get a better look at the small creature. "If being a moving wall helps you complete a mission then you can count on me anytime."

Grinning, Konohamaru shot his uncle a thumbs up. Pausing to speak into his radio for a moment, Konohamaru briefly glanced away. "Closet Peeper come in. This is Blue Whirlwind. The ferocious feline of furry fury has been captured at point Gamma. Repeat, the 4f has been captured at point Gamma. It is in the hands of Asuma-sensei. Orders?"

Listening to Konohamaru communicate with his teammates via the radio, Asuma's smile grew even wider. Someday that was going to be his kids. Learning what it meant to be a team under the experienced eyes of a seasoned leader. The carefree days of Genin missions, when the worst thing that could happen to you was a scrape or two received from helping some old woman weed her garden.

A strangled scream of anger and embarrassment came back through the radio. Something about 'improper names' and 'being in a public place'.

Asuma chuckled at it. Ebisu had yet to learn the lesson every Jounin teacher learned at some point. That you either hid your sensitive buttons from your Genin, or face their childish torment. Not everyone could be like Kakashi, who had apparently turned his obsession over the Icha Icha series into a bizarre training game.

Asuma closed his eyes as he let go of the present to envision the far future. Someday his own kids would do that to their own sensei if they were lucky enough to find one that truly cared about them. The life of any ninja was a tough one, but the time they spent with their Jounin instructors was usually counted amongst the happiest memories any ninja possessed. It was up to the older ninja to guide and protect the younger ones during this stage of their development, and it was a duty that Asuma took seriously.

Page Break

Yet unbeknownst to him, the worst thing a Genin could encounter short of Orochimaru or Akatsuki was currently in his hands. And it was very, very unhappy.

Silent and still, Tora had been evaluating the new threat provided by the man called Asuma. She had been dealing with shinobi for so many years that the feline had learned how to determine the strength of its pursuers and come up with methods in order to deal with them. Realizing that it stood no chance against this new opponent unless it had the element of surprise on its side, Tora bid her time.

And as the bearded man listened to the evil midget speak to another of her pursuers, a window of opportunity was opened. The man's grip relaxed and his attention went elsewhere.

Seeing her chance, Tora struck and let loose a cry of battle. "Mroooowwwww!"

"What the – argh!"

Tora had launched itself out of Asuma's hands and was currently unleashing righteous feline wrath upon Asuma's face. The Jounin was on the dirt, twisting and rolling over as he fruitlessly tried to remove the hissing ball of fury. His knives had come loose from his belt and his ninja tools were strewn across the ground.

"Fuck! Get it off! Get it offa me," Asuma screamed out as Tora tore into his face with her claws. The bearded man struggled to capture her, but the feline knew better than to let him grab hold of her. She twisted and dodged as she continued to vent her displeasure.

Soon Tora gained the upper paw in their struggle. After sinking one pair of front claws into Asuma's beard, the cat used the leverage to repeatedly rabbit kick him in the face with her back paws, giving voice to her feelings of spite as she attacked.

"Mrow! Hiss!"

She rained down vicious attack after vicious attack. Tora had to keep fighting, for if it were to pause even a moment, she knew that she would be sent back to the gruesome clutches of her detestable owner.

"I'm coming uncle! Hang in there, I've got this!" Yelled the young one who often chased it. Named Konohamaru, the young one occupied a special place in Tora's heart, for he was among her most frequent pursuers. She hated him with a passion second only to that of the blonde haired one who was the first to retrieve her, and thus trap her within this horrible cycle of pain and suffering.

Sensing Konohamaru's presence nearing, the cat leaped from Asuma's bloodied face and onto that of the onrushing Genin. She screamed her rage and anger as she flew through the air.

"Mrowww... ftt ftt, hiss!"

"Ah! Not the eyes, not the eyes! Noooooo!"

Her aim was true.

Moving through the open air market in Konoha, Kurenai was the picture of relaxation. She had not been assigned a dangerous mission for a few weeks, and she was finally able to get a number of chores accomplished as a result.

An added benefit was that she would be able to make a home cooked meal for Asuma for the first time in a long while. That made her feel good, as usually he was the one who cooked for them. Often with a smile as the smoke from his cigarette waged war with the steam coming from his pans.

He was a bumbling fool at times, but that usually only served to make him cuter. On the rare occasions that his moronic thought processes took him too far, he usually knew that he had done something wrong. If there was anything that he should have passed onto Shikamaru and Choji, it should have been his talent for making things up to women.

Sadly, last Kurenai had heard Shikamaru was still holding back from pursuing the visiting Sand Jounin. It was amusing at first, but a month in and it was starting to look ridiculous.

Smiling gently, Kurenai moved to a vegetable stall that was located next to one that sold fish. Thinking of the man she loved had made her day even better. She would purchase some special ingredients and make Asuma his favorite meal. He would probably need it after coming back from such a long mission.

Page Break

Night had fallen upon the village of Konoha and all was quiet as Asuma crept around one of the back alleys of Konoha. Pausing, he made a fist in the air.

Behind him and several feet back, Konohamaru stopped moving. The enemy could be close.

After a minute long pause, Konohamaru spoke up "Did you see movement?"

Grimacing, Asuma shook his head. "No. The creature isn't here. It's cunning. Almost too cunning."

Konohamaru scratched his head nervously. Something seemed kind of odd about Uncle Asuma. He was not acting like himself. And it was starting to get kinda late too. Auntie Kurenai might hurt him for keeping her lover out so long.

After several minutes of silence, Konohamaru tried to start a conversation."Uncle Asuma... are you alright?"

Without pausing in his scanning of the area, Asuma replied, "Of course Konohamaru. Why would you think otherwise?"

"Well Uncle, the cat did trash your unsealed mission report and then run away with the sealed copy you kept in your pouch."

"Ah. Don't worry about it, Konohamaru. I was just lax in my duty back then, but I am now fulfilling it with all of my strength. Everything should be okay."

Asuma's eyes flickered from side to side as he searched for their feline quarry. He must have noticed Konohamaru's nervousness though for he asked a question of his own. "Is there anything else that has been bothering you?"

"A few things. Mostly that you've been stroking your knives lately. Ever since that third attack, the one where she bit your ear and then twisted her body upwards while she was still attached and-"

Asuma cut him off sharply. "There is no need to bring that up again, Konohamaru. I just want to be sure that my knives are still in place and undamaged. A ninja should be aware of his tools at all times. Especially when an ambush is likely."

"Yeah, but, y'know, you've also been looking a little funny too. You're all hunched over, and your face is scrunched up, and your ear is still bleeding pretty badly through that strange compress you stuck on it."

"It's a mixture of dandelion and honey. It's a legitimate form of emergency first aid on the battlefield."

"But we're not on a battlefield. We're in Konoha, and you can just go see Lady Tsunade or one of the other -"

"Enough! Konomaru! We are tracking a dangerous opponent. One which has a natural advantage over us and has demonstrated a complete lack of mercy. We must appear as weak and nonthreatening as possible in order to make it drop its guard. If it thinks that I am terribly wounded, then so much the better."

"Um, really? 'Cause it's not really working, ya know? But um, staying on this tangent, you've also been saying funny things for the past hour or so too, Uncle.

Glaring at his nephew, the bearded Jounin crossed his arms over his chest. "I have not."

"Have to!" Konohamaru shouted as he pointed a finger at his uncle. "You've been calling Tora weird names. Names like devil animal, and hellspawn, and unholy offspring of a biju and Gai-sensei, and acting like the cat is a demonic feline of death, doom and destruction."

Konohmaru's strained voice cracked as he rushed through his words and continued to speak. "Weird stuff like that, Uncle. And you also keep saying something about pumpernickel. What the hell is pumpernickel? What does it even mean?"

An awkward silenced fell on the two of them after Konohamaru's shouted words. Asuma was the one to break it.

"Okay, so maybe I am a little stressed," he replied a touch defensively. "I turn to pumpernickel whenever I get stressed. It's my go to food whenever I'm not allowed to have a cigarette, and you know that Kurenai only lets me smoke in the house when I cook these days or if I'm out on missions. Is liking pumpernickel a crime? Are you trying to make fun of me? And are you calling me fat? I'm not fat! And I'm not a criminal either! I am not a fat criminal, so stop persecuting me and help me rescue my report from the clutches of that evil animal so I can go home and see the woman I love!"

What the hell was that? Looking at his uncle with a scared look in his eyes, Konohamaru backed away and put a little more space between the two of them. Things were starting to get dangerous. Maybe he should change the subject like Naruto's sensei had taught him. It always seemed to work for the Copy Nin.

"Ne, Uncle Asuma, could we call it a night soon? I'm startin to get kinda tired, you should probably meet up with Auntie Kurenai, and I was hoping tha-"

"Never!" Asuma roared. Standing upright with an audible crack from his back, the large man glared at his shorter nephew. "Do you not realize the pain and suffering that this animal has caused? Not only to us, but to dozens, perhaps hundreds of our fellow ninja? Should we stay silent and walk away, knowing that the creature is still out there, lurking, just waiting to strike again?

Konohamaru tried to form a rational response to the irrational rant his uncle had just delivered. "Um, Uncle Asuma, I really don't think that-"

"The answer is NO Konohamaru. We shall not go quietly into the dark. We shall stride forth like heroes out of legend and combat this evil. We may face terrors along the way and lose comrades to its hideous strength-"

"Um, it's just you and me right now. The others all left to get some rest and come back to this in the morning."

"Exactly! They have already fallen prey to a genjutsu cast by the creature. Only you and I managed to dispel its effects. It must be due to the special blood of the Sarutobi clan that flows within our veins!"

"Uncle Asuma, our clan doesn't have a bloodline limit. And if we were immune to genjutsu, Aunty Kurenai wouldn't be able to -"

"We must!" Asuma roared as Konohamaru valiantly attempted to reason with him "Otherwise, why is it that no one else has joined us in our fight against this creature of pure and utter evil? Anything else fails to make logical sense!"

"Well, if someone who wasn't you were to ask me, and if you did nothing to stop me from giving a proper response to their question like you have been doing so for the past few minutes, then I'd probably say that logic has nothing to do with it. Actually, what I'd probably say is that it's because you've gone completely off the deep-"

"Yosh! My youthful ears heard that you were in a dangerous plight, my comrades." With the grace of the very predator they were stalking, Maito Gai dropped in next to the two crouching ninja. Within the confines of the dark alleyway, the man's usual green spandex did not look quite as out of place as it did when Gai wore it on the streets.

Still, Gai's entrance had cut off Konohamaru's words and the young Genin was incredibly annoyed. Looking between the two older men, Konohamaru tried to express his annoyance with both of them. "Come on! Just let me finish my frickin-"

"Hush young Konohamaru-kun. Your youthful tone does you credit but your words take it away. You must learn to speak as cleanly as I do lest you tarnish your soul's mighty glow."

Ignoring Konohamaru's cry of utter frustration, Gai looked at the two Sarutobi ninja. The man's bushy-brows moved down as his forehead creased in thought.

"Asuma my friend, I overheard your words. Whatever terrible creature the two of you are fighting, you will have me, Maito Gai, on your side to deal with it. I swear it upon my title as the Green Beast of Konoha!"

Konohamaru's heart sank at those words. The man was insane on a normal day, and today was anything but a normal day. With his appearance there was no way that Konohamaru was going to escape. He rarely cursed his low rank, but now was definitely the exception.

With his eyes tearing up from apparent joy and relief, Asuma composed himself and clasped the right arm of his longtime comrade in the traditional grasp of the warrior. "Gai. I, I don't know what – I mean, how should I-"

"There is no need for words between men, Asuma. We are both of Konoha. We are of one mind and one spirit."

"Gai my friend, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Nodding his head, Gai gave his signature arm pump and cheesy grin. Konohamaru's sinking heart plunged even deeper as he saw it. Those actions had never boded well for him in the past, and the man's following words only made the feeling worsen.

"Never fear!" Gai called out mightily. "With two men such as ourselves, and the brilliant youth of little Konohamaru." Gai paused for a moment to flash his smile at Konohamaru, who groaned and began to bang his head against a nearby wall. "What force could possibly stand against us?"

Still visibly filled with emotion, Asuma wiped his eyes and crouched back down. "Yeah, Gai. Yeah. With you joining Konohamaru and myself, I think that we can finally implement a foolproof plan to catch the unholy monster that started this mess."

The chase wore on. With the addition of Gai to the team, Asuma and Konohamaru had finally begun to make progress in catching the fleeing feline. Several times they had come close to nabbing the slippery creature, yet each time she had managed to escape their grasp. One time they had nearly managed to catch it, but the thing had escaped their grasp after a pitched battle.

It was a long fight, and a brutal one, but the struggle finally seemed to be nearing its conclusion. The morning sun had passed overhead, changing into an afternoon blaze. Still, things finally seemed to be going his way.

Asuma was creeping through the underbrush of an Anbu training ground. Konohamaru had chased the fugitive kitty onto its premises after it had fled the battle, fulfilling stage one of Asuma's master plan.

Stage two was completed when, upon receiving confirmation from Gai that the devil's spawn was within the specified area, Asuma activated a special barrier seal that trapped all things within the training ground. No jutsu, inanimate object, or living creature of any size above that of a tiny beetle could now leave its area of effect. It would take a kyuubi powered Naruto to break out of this place.

The demon was now well and truly trapped.

"Here kitty kitty kitty. Come out, come out wherever you are," Asuma called to the forest. "Come on out, Tora. You know that I'll find you sooner or later. Just make it easy and turn yourself in. We don't have to do this the hard way."

A low, rough cough from the woods ahead of him caught his attention. Did cats cough like that? It had sounded like some kind of animal laugh. Wait, if cats did cough like that then did that mean that the damn cat was laughing at him? And if it was laughing at him, did that mean that the cat was somewhere nearby?

Eyes widening with excitement, Asuma silently jumped onto a low-hanging tree branch to get a better look at the surrounding area. An open field, devoid of grass or cover of any kind stood on the right. In front of him was a small lake, and he doubted that the cat would be hiding in there. That left the area to his left and rear, which was heavily forested.

Creeping from branch to branch, Asuma scanned the forest for signs of movement. This was his moment. He would catch the creature without the help of the others and end this night of torment. He would end the hellspawn's reign of terror by himself, and go home to receive accolades from his wife and Genin.

As these delusional thoughts ran through Asuma's head, his eyes spotted movement from in front of him. Pausing, Asuma slowly moved a hanging branch out of the way so that he could get a better look at the creature that had caught his attention.

Sure enough it was the cat. It had stopped its flight to brazenly rest within a clearing and was currently giving itself a thorough cleaning. With one leg up in the air and a refreshed feeling about it, one might almost have been fooled into thinking that it was another cat. But Asuma was not fooled.

He could feel it in his gut, and in a glance that brought a smile to his lips, he noticed the sealed copy of his report lying in the grass nearby. That feline was the one in question beyond a shadow of a doub. It would soon be his.

Reaching up to his ear, Asuma quietly activated the radio that Gai had given him. He spoke in a low whisper, for it would not do to let the monster know that he was nearby. "Green Lightning, Little Cub, this is Papa Bear. Come in, roger."

"Papa Bear, this is Green Lightning. What's your status?"

"I've found the target at location alpha-four-niner. It is currently stationary and unaware of my presence. Roger."

"Roger that," Gai said excitedly. "I'm on my way over from beta-two-three. Little Cub, what's your status?" A pause. "Repeat, Little Cub, what's your current status?"

Then Konohamaru's voice sliced into Asuma's eardrum with all the subtlety of Kakashi's chidori. Asuma swore as it did, hoping that his nephew's voice didn't ruin things as it blasted from the radio.

"I am not Little Cub! For the final time, I am Blue Whirlwind! Argh! Why do the two of you keep calling me that crappy name?"

"Little Cub, this is Green Lightning. The reason is because it suits you. As the youngest member of our group, it brings out your youthful nature to the greatest possible extent. Roger."

"That's a load of bullshit!"

"Little cub, please remember what I said about tarnishing your youthful nature. Roger."

"Argh! No. No roger. Never again. I'm done with this crap. Asuma, Gai, the two of you are on your own. I'm getting the hell outta-"

A loud crash and crackle came through the radio. Shortly afterward, Asuma heard a similar sound in the distance. It seemed as though Konohamaru had forgotten that the barrier stopped them from leaving too.

Oh well. If Asuma was any judge of things the kid had most likely needed the shock given off by the intense raiton field generated by the seal. His nephew had been acting fairly odd for the past few hours. The boy would probably be okay in a day or two so long as it wasn't Kakashi who had designed the seal.

Still, Konohamaru's bodily sacrifice in the battle to capture the terrible beast would not go unforgotten, Asuma vowed to himself. Even if it was his nephews own stupidity that had removed him from the chase, his fall could still be laid at the feet of the vicious feline that had started it all.

"Green lightning, this is Papa Bear. Little Cub seems to be down but the mission is still a go. I'm moving to secure the target. Provide support when you arrive. Roger."

"Roger that Papa Bear. My ETA is three minutes. Over and out."

Asuma looked down again to confirm that the target hadn't moved. The demon beast was still there and as brazen as ever. Instead of cleaning its leg it had moved on to another portion of its anatomy. It seemed to have lost it's distinctive red ribbon at some point during the chase. What a disgusting creature. "I hope that you choke on your own fur," he muttered to himself.

Gathering himself up, Asuma prepared to leap out of cover and catch the beast before it could escape. Yet just before he left his perch, a sudden sound coming from his left caught his attention and he looked over to see what had caused it.

Sitting there on the branch, no more than a foot away from his face and complete with her distinctive red ribbon, was Tora. Looking back at the other cat, he could confirm that it didn't have a ribbon tied on its ear.

He had been lured into an ambush.

"Clever girl," Asuma murmured. He reached for his knives as the creature launched itself with a hiss.


Several hours later saw Asuma, Gai, and Konohamaru standing at attention in the Hokage's office next to an unmarked metal crate of some sort. Tsunade tapped the nails of her left hand as she looked the three men over, trying to decide what to make of things.

Konohamaru wore a dazed look, and the boy kept wobbling on his feet. Truth be told, the poor kid looks as if he had recently had a run-in with her old teammate Orochimaru.

The Genin's clothing was ripped and torn in several places, and the boy's forehead protector looked like it had been put through a meat grinder. Tsunade tried to figure out what sort of struggle would do that to a metal forehead protector within the boundaries of Konoha, but she couldn't come up with anything short of a full scale ninja death match. That, or one of Gai and Kakashi's training regimens that had been forbidden by her old sensei before his untimely death.

Turning her attention to the two Jounin, Tsunade realized that they were only in marginally better condition themselves.

Gai wore a look of wary alertness, constantly shifting his attention between Asuma, the crate, and Tsunade herself. The ever cheerful man looked as though he had gone through three full rounds with Jiraiya, with the former releasing his gates and the latter entering Sage mode. It was not a look Tsunade was accustomed to seeing on the man's face.

As for Asuma… there was no way to sugarcoat it. The man clearly looked insane. His beard was torn in several places, his face looked as though it had been used as a scratching post for some kind of deranged animal, and his eyes possessed a feverish glint to them. He was also hunched over with one hand on his back, as if he had taken a bad fall sometime recently.

If she had not known better, Tsunade would have said that the man was in need of hospitalization and a thorough mental examination. She looked at all three once again and corrected herself. All three ninja looked as if they needed a stay in the hospital, followed by immediate psychological evaluations.

What had happened to them?

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Tsunade leaned back in her chair. "So let me get this straight," she said sourly. "Upon returning home from his initial mission, Asuma encountered Konohamaru. Konohamaru was pursuing a target that Asuma briefly managed to trap. Yet due to a moment of inattention, the target was able to escape Asuma's grasp and make a getaway. And in the process of escaping, the target destroyed Asuma's mission report and stole a sealed copy of it as well. Correct?"

"Correct, Lady Hokage." Asuma replied. The bearded man kept his expression neutral as he looked at a spot on her wall.

Meanwhile, Konohamaru muttered something that she couldn't quite catch. Then he giggled to himself.

Giving Konohamaru a strange look, Tsunade refocused her attention on the two senior shinobi. "In continuation, after tracking the target through the streets and alleys of Konoha, Gai joined you. With his help, the three of you trapped the target on an Anbu training ground. Then, after setting a clever and sophisticated ambush the target somehow managed to turn the table on you, so to speak. Furthermore, after having done so, the target then proceeded to disable Konohamaru, wound Asuma, and engage Gai in hand-to-paw combat for half an hour before you were able to defeat it."

Closing her eyes, Tsunade continued. "But, that wasn't the end of this travesty of a mission. Was it? For once you had seemingly subdued the target it managed to escape your grasp yet again and, before you could recapture it, destroy the seal surrounding the Anbu training ground. In doing so the target destroyed valuable material linked to the seal, set fire to the nearby forest, and disrupted the surrounding wildlife to the point of causing a stampede of creatures who proceeded to run through the streets of Konoha just as people were beginning to wake."

Tsunade locked eyes with her two senior subordinates. Asuma's right eye developed a nervous tic while Gai began to add her position to his nervous pattern of looking.

"Is all of this correct?" She asked the two of them in an icy tone. If they were content with feeding her this pile of bullshit, Tsunade was certainly going to make sure that they understood just how low they had fallen in her eyes. Because as far as she was concerned this was the biggest pile of horeshit that had crossed her desk since she had taken this job.

"Yes, Lady Hokage." All three male shinobi replied glumly. At least, that was what Asuma and Gai replied. Tsunade wasn't too sure that Konohamaru was capable of making coherent replies at the moment, as his words had ended in a jumble of noise and saliva.

Her eyes burning with rage, Tsunade slammed her fist down on her desk as she shouted. The reinforced desk held up against her rage, but the ominous creaking noise it made indicated that she was close to breaking yet another one. "What the hell kind of creature did you find, and how do you expect me to buy all of this ridiculous crap you've shoveled in front of me? You are trained shinobi, leaders of our youth and veterans of the last Great War for goodness sake!"

Asuma and Gai exchanged a look. Konohamaru, meanwhile, let out a high pitched giggle and fell over, unconscious. Maybe she should take another look at the kid to be sure he was alright. His face had begun to lose all of its remaining color. Briefly shaking her head, Tsunade decided against doing so. She had a more pressing urge to take care of.

When neither Asuma nor Gai responded to her inquiry, Tsunade stood up from her desk and walked over to the crate. She was a leader of action, not of words, and if the two of them were being slow in clarifying then she would certainly force the issue.

"If neither you will tell me straight out then I'll just have to find out what did this to you myself."

As she made to open the crate, both Gai and Asuma launched themselves at her, trapping both of her arms against her body. Gai spoke to her in a shaky voice as his hand touched her arm.

"Lady Hokage, you know that I fear no foe, but I beg of you," the spandex wearing man said emotionally. "Please, please do not open this box. To do so would be to loose a terrible evil upon the world, one which we three men only just barely managed to contain. I have encountered many enemies and battled against many strange creatures, enough to know that this oneis not of this world. So I beg of you, Lady Hokage, do not open this container!"

Tsunade resisted the urge to rip the arms of her subordinates off of her own arms and then use the offending limbs to fling them through the window behind her.

Pausing, Tsunade took a deep breath and counted to ten. She took deep, calming breaths as she counted and waited for her violent urge to lessen in strenght. Once it did, she was able to respond to her subordinate's impassioned plea.

"Very well Gai. I'll do as you say – for now." She said crisply. When neither of the two men moved, she spoke again. "And if you don't remove yourselves from my person, that creature will be the least of your worries. Understood?"

Both men quickly took their hands off of Tsunade's arms and moved to their original positions at that little reminder. Studying the two through slightly slitted eyes, Tsunade once again wondered what kind of creature was contained within the crate.

Surely it wasn't the cat Tora whose capture had initially been given to Ebisu's team. Sure the feline was difficult to stalk and contain, and growing more so every year, but it wasn't on the same level as the two Jounin standing before her. But there was no way that Konohamaru could have been in pursuit of anything else. The clash between this knowledge and the reality standing in front of her was giving the her a headache. One that signified a need to take a drink from her stash of sake.

Rubbing her head with one hand, Tsunade considered her options. The three shinobi were obviously at the end of their rope and in dire need of rest. Keeping them here any longer would be of little use in figuring out what on Earth had happened, and could in fact be detrimental to their health.

After mulling over the facts for a few minutes Tsunade made her decisions.

When she spoke, it was in the powerful and icy tone of voice of the Hokage. "Asuma. Gai. Konohamaru. Your mission has been completed. You may now consider yourselves off duty for the next couple of days. Asuma, get yourself home and then report back in for a new mission in one week's time. Your students have a few questions for you, and you could certainly use the rest. Gai, take Konohamaru to the hospital and ask Shizune or Sakura to take a look at him. Then tell them that I would like to speak to the two of them at their earliest convenience. You are forbidden to mention anything regarding this mission other than what facts might be pertinent for Konohamaru's health. Finally, you yourself are to report for a new mission in three days time."

Tsunade glanced at both of their faces and gave a sharp nod. "Dismissed."

With one final look at the metal cage standing in the middle of the Hokage's office, the three men filed out, with Konohamaru slung over Gai's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The air of defeat which hung about them was palpable.

As the door closed behind them, Tsunade turned around in her chair to stare through the window at the sky beyond. She rubbed her temples out of frustration and cursed under her breath. Listening to their insane story had a taken a lot out of her, and she was in no mood to continue dealing with her day's appointments. Looking at her schedule to see who was next, though, caused her mood to brightene. Her tardiest subordinate was next, and judging from the lack of a presence outside her window, he was following his usual routine.

Excellent. Maybe she could sneak out for a bit and take a sake break while Shizune and Sakura dealt with the mysterious crate. She was feeling generous, so she might even tell her two apprentices what she was asking of them.

Asuma and Gai walked through the streets of Konoha in silence. Each man was wrapped up in their memories of the horror they had finally managed to escape from, and neither one wanted to disturb the other. After several minutes of quiet walking, they reached Asuma's apartment.

Stopping shortly before the small door, Asuma shot his friend and comrade-in-arms a steady look. "Gai," Asuma said softly, "If you ever need something from Kurenai or myself, you've got it."

Gai nodded his head, his face somber and solemn. "It was an honor to do battle alongside you my friend. I will remember your words and your actions." So saying, Gai walked down the street and turned a corner, heading over to the hospital to fullfill the Hokage's commands.

Asuma watched him go as a feeling began to build in his chest. It was happiness and hope, for he and his friends had emerged through the deadly night to soon find comfort and respite.

Smiling, Asuma took a key out of his pocket and opened the door to see the genjutsu expert standing in the entrance way with a worried expression upon her face. "What happened to you? You were supposed to come back early last night, not this afternoon. Did your mission not go as planned?"

Groaning as he stretched his back – he needed to go see a medical ninja about that, it wasn't feeling quite right – Asuma gave his girlfriend a big, bright grin. "Yeah, everything didn't go as planned, but I'll tell you about it later." Asuma walked over to his wife and gave her a hug and a kiss. "For now, lets just relax and take it easy. I've got a missed day to make up to you and I plan on getting started as soon as possible."

Giggling, Kurenai wiggled her way out of Asuma's arms. "I may know a few ways that you could do that. But for now, come in and sit down. I made your favorite meal for you last night, and you can just heat it up in the micro."

Asuma yawned and scratched his head. "Could you remind me what it is again?" Asuma asked. "My brain is feeling a little fuzzy."

Kurenai shot him a strange look. "It hasn't changed for the past eight years dear. You had it every time we went to the Wave country on a mission together. Pumpernickel bread and catfish soup."

Page Break

"What happened next?" Kakashi asked his old friend.

Looking towards the sky, Asuma paused to give a brief shudder. "You don't want to know, Kakashi." Asuma replied. "Besides, it was all classified by Lady Tsunade, so I'm not allowed to tell you anyway."

Shaking his head, Kakashi stood up from the bench the two men had been sitting on for the past hour. After listening to the other man's story, he had to say what was really on his mind. "It seems to me like the three of you had a much harder time than you should have. I remember that cat giving Naruto a run for his money back during my team's Genin days, but no feline short of the two-tailed biju should have been able to cause you and Gai that much trouble."

Glaring at Kakashi, Asuma threw his cigarette to the ground. Crushing it beneath his feet as he stood up, Asuma turned to look Kakashi in the face. With a haunted look in his eyes, Asuma turned to face Kakashi one more time."Beware of what you say. The demon has ears keener than those of a fox. And it is more cunning than you can possibly imagine. Take care of yourself, and if you see Gai, tell him that my offer still stands. Goodnight."

"Goodnight Asuma." Cocking his head to the side, Kakashi watched as his friend stumbled home. Asuma looked like a man with one too many drinks in him, yet he was stone sober. How odd.

Chuckling to himself, Kakashi said, "Yeah, right," and then left to resume the hunt for Gai. Night had fallen as the two shinobi spoke with one another, and Kakashi wanted to get this done before Gai left on some mission or other. It was time to set the final stage of preparation in motion.

Page Break

Unbeknownst to Kakashi a pair of feline eyes were watching from the dark. The creature to whom they belonged had followed the scent of one of its previous attackers to this spot, hoping for a chance at revenge. However, thanks to a stroke of misfortune the frightened attacker had met up with another human, one that the feline recognized.

This new human was in fact the leader of her very first opponents, the first group to send her back to the place of misery and sorrow she was forced to inhabit. The smell was undeniable, and on which Tora had never forgotten. He had begun the cycle of horror in which she found herself trapped without end.

She would have her revenge.

"Ftt Ftt!"


A/N: This was a fun little story to write. Nothing serious and with plenty of openings I can take advantage of should I ever choose to continue it.

I hope you all enjoyed the read.

Updated for edits on 12/3/2018

Until Next Time,