Chapter 138

On the Trail: An Uneasy Alliance!

The Nara Clan Research Facility.

To those outside of the Nara, Yamanaka and Akimichi Clans, with an exception to the Hokage and select individuals bearing proper security clearance, it did not exist. Not as an unsubstantiated rumor, nor in the hearsay scuttling through the grapevine of shinobi, who were known to gossip like Academy children when bored or inebriated. Or both.

The facility simply did not exist. In a world of secrets and shadows, any facility or organization that had form cast a shadow into the world, no matter how big or small. Like the Anbu, the worst kept secret Black Ops unit of any of the Five Great Nations; they existed, everyone, even civilians old or perceptive enough, knew of the organization meant to be secret among shinobi.

Like the Foundation, which had left the thinnest, barest of trails and shadows, yet was known to enemy and allies alike to exist. Beneath the surface. Hidden in the shadows of the Leaf's light.

Great pains were taken to ensure the research facility left no trail, that it held no form to cast a shadow, and not a rumor of its existence ever snaked through the grapevine. Even among members of the Nara, Yamanaka and Akimichi it was a non-entity.

It did not exist. Could not exist. Otherwise it would be a primary target for sabotage or, worse, for thievery. Within its walls, secured and handled with the utmost caution, were a veritable cornucopia of materials shinobi would use for the purposes of killing. To poison fertile lands or their fellow man rather than heal fields razed in war and cure rare and fatal ailments afflicting allies or civilians caught in the web of war.

The facility was dedicated to researching potential new medicines, crafting antidotes to foreign poisons, and the overall pursuit of medicinal knowledge.

It was remote, as well. Located in the mountains, the collection of buildings that made the facility were simple dwellings, common in their craftsmanship and wholly unmilitary.

The choice was tactical, as expected from the Nara Clan. An illusion to keep potential—if not rare—prying eyes, or invaders, from suspecting its purpose and its ties to the Hidden Leaf Village.

Over the course of the last four decades there'd been a single unexpected guest. The incident involved a traveler waylaid on the road by common thugs; they escaped in a blinding snow storm and stumbled upon the facility by happenstance.

Yet the traveler never suspected he'd been found and saved by the Nara Clan, or that the simple dwellings hid a secret beneath its inviting illusion. In fact, he was treated kindly, tended to and kept warm until the weather cleared.

Later, when he returned to his home, he struggled to recall how he survived. His friends blamed it on the head injury. He was inclined to agree.

Because of its remote location and the illusion maintained by its settlers, security was limited. Only scientists, doctors, researchers and civilians vetted by the Nara Clan occupied the settlement. Trustworthy people. Some—few—possessed the ability to fight. Many more were pacifistic, looking solely to research, work and live peaceful lives.

Vigilance and secrecy were the facility's greatest defenses. Its research labs were hidden, concealed from those who might attempt infiltration or investigation where even a thorough shinobi would fail to find them. Its people sharp and observant.

For all intents and purposes it was an old, meager collection of mountain cottages, populated by common folk who worked day in and day out to maintain their living. A harsh life. Especially in the worst of the winter. But not a bad one.

The ruse, the illusion, the deception had kept its secret.

In all the years since its founding, through the last Great Ninja War, no enemy shinobi had uncovered the facility. Its work went uninterrupted. Without casualties.

Until along came a rogue shinobi of the Leaf, slinking into its perimeter with ill intentions and darkness in his heart.

"Careful not to touch any of the plants," warned a surviving researcher, standing just inside the door in a beige medical uniform, accessorized by a medical mask and gloves. "Even the slightest brush can cause a severe allergic reaction," he explained.

"Duly noted," replied Mr. Anbu, carefully entering deeper into the lab.

Inside, two dead researchers lay among knocked over distilling apparatuses, scattered papers, pencils and pens, as well as plants Amari did not recognize. She wasn't a herbalist. Or a doctor, for that matter. She didn't even know this place existed an hour ago.

Two other similarly dressed researchers—alive, thankfully—were searching the shelves and drawers painstakingly labeled, and now stained by blood, to inventory what was left untouched and uncontaminated. And what was stolen.

"Amaririsu, hang back. Best only one of us risks potential exposure."

"I can't argue there. Rashes are a drag."

"Indeed," Osamu agreed from her shoulder.

Mr. Anbu carefully crouched beside the dead researcher closest to the entrance, bracing his forearms on his thighs. The researcher lay on his side, facing away from the kunoichi; she could only see his feet poking out from behind the laboratory table.

However, judging on the clutter around him, and the stream of blood on the table, splattered over the distilling equipment and papers, she assumed his murderer slit his throat.

"This man was killed quickly. No signs of torture on him," the Anbu agent examined. He rose and carefully approached the second. "So why did he torture this one?"

The second researcher's death was more clear. He was kneeling before the table as though it were an altar, arms held out in a wide V-shape and his hands pinned to the table by two kunai impaled through his fragile flesh into the solid surface beneath. His right cheek sported a terrible and uneven burn—likely from the burner.

The cut along his throat, and the splattering arc it left behind, was displayed grotesquely. A trail of blood trickled off the edge of the desk, but no longer dripped.

"Maybe he knew the plants by a different name? Or was pursuing deeper knowledge of their uses?" the researcher offered.

"Unlikely," Mr. Anbu shook his head. "Mizuki—the man who murdered your colleagues—knew where to find this facility. He also knew it would possess the ingredients he needed to craft his potion. He wouldn't have needed that kind of information. Besides, the drawers holding them are all labeled. With common and scientific names."

"He likely memorized the ingredients he needed," Amari concurred. "And how to mix them. It doesn't make sense for Mizuki to torture that man. He's in a hurry. Hunted on all sides by Leaf shinobi. Even he isn't stupid or arrogant enough to believe we'll never catch him. He knows it's only a matter of time, and he'll want to have his 'ultimate body' before that point."

"Ultimate Body?" the researcher questioned, squinting as though someone claimed gas expelled by unicorns could cure all ailments.

"That's what he's calling it," Mr. Anbu explained, his tone clearly dismissing the title in the same fashion. "We believe the ingredients he has gathered will create a potion to advance a Curse Mark."

"I wouldn't know," said the researcher. "We do not research Curse Marks. Why would we?" He shrugged. "What little we do know of Curse Marks has nothing to do with medicine. Also, in that same vein of knowledge, we know Orochimaru's Curse Marks in particular deteriorate the wielders mental faculties if used consistently over time. Irreversibly, I believe. That's all I can tell you of it. As I said, we do not research Curse Marks."

"Yeah. I expected as much." Mr. Anbu stared emotionlessly at the poor soul tortured. "I suspect Mizuki would know that, or wouldn't care. He doesn't seem to be the type to care how something works, only that it will work. Torturing this man achieves nothing. In fact, it actually would endanger his overall goal by prolonging his time here."

"He probably would've set this entire place on fire just to spite the Leaf if he had the time," Amari said, considering the gruesome scene and the possibilities. "Which means he did it to be unnecessarily cruel, or…"

"Or?" Mr. Anbu prompted, glancing her way.

Amari had a theory. She turned to the researcher.

"Did anyone see the murderer? Even a small glimpse?"

"I don't believe… Wait, yes, there was one. Doctor Lin said she saw the murderer leave in a northeasterly direction."

"Could I speak to her? It'll be brief, I promise."

"You may."

"Mr. Anbu?"

"Go ahead," he replied. "I'll see what I can learn here about the stolen ingredients."

The researcher led her out of the labs to one of the cottages, one which a stream of smoke rose out of the brick chimney. Inside, seated in front of the fireplace with five colleagues, holding a warm cup of coffee in her manicured hands, was Doctor Lin.

Their quiet discussions ceased when she approached. Doctor Lin, identifiable by a single dark freckle beside her right earlobe and ponytailed black hair, looked up from her cup of coffee, brown eyes like a doe startled by a falling tree. The brownish-black liquid, rippling slightly in a white cup, was an inch short of overflowing. It hadn't been touched.

"Excuse me, ma'am, may I speak to you a moment?" Amari asked politely, gently.

Doctor Lin's hands were trembling. Her eyes, and the eyes of her colleagues, flicked to her headband, her weapons, and Osamu.

They're all on edge, she judged. I can't blame them. They aren't soldiers. This remote facility isn't meant to exist to anyone. According to Uncle Shikaku, there's never been an incident here of war or violence or anything outside of a stray traveler who lost his way. And the two men, they were colleagues, friends, who they may have spoken to this morning and countless times over the years.

And now they're dead. Murdered in cold blood.

"Um, yes?" Doctor Lin replied uneasily. "Is this about the murderer?"

"Indeed it is," Osamu spoke. "We have learned you witnessed the individual in question fleeing. My Lady," he gestured carefully with his wing to Amari, only just brushing the tips of his black feathers against her cheek, "would like to confirm that, among other details."

"Would you be able to tell me what he looked like?" Amari asked. "Also, was he alone?"

"Yes, he was alone," Doctor Lin nodded. Then lowered her eyes back to her coffee, struck by uncertainty. And nerves, no doubt. "Or, rather, when I saw him from the window in the kitchen over there," she made a small gesture with her cup towards the kitchen, "he was on his own. A partner could have theoretically fled before him. Or leapt over one of the cottages."

We'll have to check for tracks, thought the kunoichi, but for now it seems like all we have is a single individual attacking this facility.

"I didn't really get a good look at him; he was at a distance and moving quickly," Doctor Lin added.

"Still, could you try to describe what you saw?" she pressed gently. "Height, build, hair color, scars, anything that might have stood out is useful."

"Um, well…" The doctor stood up and raised one of her hands to simulate height. "He was quite tall. Maybe about…this high?"

"Quite tall, indeed."

Conjecture was on the verge of an undeniable conclusion.

"His hair was a bit longer than shoulder-length. And it was green, too. About the shade of that curtain over there. There was also…I don't know. Scar tissue, maybe, across his forehead. Or maybe a birth mark? It was noticeable, whatever it was. That…that's all I really know."

A memory came to mind. And with it a familiar face.

"Well, well, well, what a surprise!" she recalled Aoi's sneer. "Last time we met you all had one foot in the grave, and yet here you are. Are you the last, little Genin? Did you leave behind your comrades dead bodies to fulfill your mission, like a good little shinobi?"

"I see. Thank you for the help," she said with a slight bow.

Outside of the cottage, Amari frowned and crossed her arms. The elevation made the air crisper, colder. She wished she wore her cloak and beanie.

She wished this incident had never happened.

"Tall, green hair, scar tissue on his forehead, it matches Aoi Rokushō's identity perfectly," she said, mostly to herself.

"Mizuki sent his pawn in his stead, then," Osamu judged.

"Which likely means he encountered resistance."

"Or was setting up another trap. Two birds, one stone, as you humans say."

"It isn't adding up," she muttered. "Why would Aoi help Mizuki? He proclaimed his status as Jōnin repeatedly. He truly believed he was an elite shinobi who could take on the likes of Kakashi-sensei or Itachi."

"From your mission report, that is a dubious claim, to put it mildly," Osamu stated plainly.

"Incredibly dubious. Yet now he's taking orders from a Chūnin? From Mizuki of all people? It doesn't make sense. Mizuki isn't someone Aoi would respect. Or fear. Even with a Curse Mark. So why? Why help him achieve his so-called 'ultimate body?' The Cloud shinobi we interrogated didn't mention Mizuki sharing this 'gift' of his. All they were promised was a chance to kill me. And freedom."

"Yet Aoi remains at Mizuki's side like a loyal pup, it seems," Osamu followed her trail of thought. "While the Cloud shinobi took their chance to capture you at the first opportunity. If the bounty on your head is the prize, Aoi has done a poor job of claiming it."

"Exactly. Aoi was arrogant in his power, to the point it was laughable. Team Eight, Ten and Team Guy would've crushed him in our place. Hell, even members of Class 1-A would've made mince meat of him. Giving him the rank of Jōnin was unbelievably gracious of the Rain Village.

"But for all his faults, Aoi wasn't a complete fool. He's a manipulator, just like Mizuki. That's how he tricked Idate and captured Mr. Ibiki, in the end. He may have succeeded, too, if Mr. Ibiki wasn't so hardcore."

"Mm. True. Now these two rogues are working together. Apparently bound together by their shared hatred for you, Lady Amari."

"I'm flattered," she deadpanned.

"Indeed," he chuckled. "However, as these two men are both manipulators, the real question then is this: Who is manipulating who? Is it the rogue who orchestrated the entire prison break? Who gathered these men for a shared vendetta against you and is on the cusp of achieving his 'ultimate body?'

"Or is it Aoi? Is it the man skulking in the shadows, camouflaging his intentions like a chameleon and portraying himself as an obedient pup in front of his eager master, waiting for the moment he turns his back to snatch away the real prize."

"That's what I'm beginning to wonder."

And the real prize they sought?

Power.

It always came back to power.

"Let's check for a second pair of tracks. I doubt we'll find any, but it's better to be vigilant."

Checking the area where Aoi was seen fleeing, Amari only found one set of tracks in the secret settlement leading off in a northeasterly direction.

Afterwards, she regrouped with Mr. Anbu outside of the hidden lab. Beneath the cat-motif mask his expression was unreadable.

"What did you learn?" he asked.

"Mizuki wasn't the one who killed those men. It was Aoi," she informed confidently. "Doctor Lin's description matched him perfectly: Tall, green hair, and a distinguishable scar on his forehead. She didn't see him fleeing with anyone else, and Osamu and I checked for tracks. He was on his own."

"Aoi, huh. Mizuki must have sent him ahead to gather the necessary ingredients for his potion."

"Speaking of his ingredients, were they the only ones missing?"

"Yes," Mr. Anbu confirmed with a small dip of his chin. "They're still taking inventory; you saw the mess he left. However, I doubt anything else is missing. Aoi took what he needed and left quickly. Though that doesn't explain the torture.

"Mizuki wouldn't have sent him ahead if Aoi didn't know what he needed, and seeing as it isn't a common formula, it's doubtful the torture was performed to interrogate the ingredients and the location out of the researcher. Cruel amusement is possible, but I find it unlikely. They've been exceptionally meticulous and careful thus far."

"I think I may have a theory on why Aoi tortured that man," replied Amari.

"What is it?"

"Aoi is a manipulator just like Mizuki. Even if they've come together over their shared hatred for me, they aren't friends. They're hardly even allies. They likely see each other as tools. Means to their own ends. And I think this 'ultimate body' is likely the end they're both after presently."

"Except, by your estimations, Aoi has no clue what this potion will do," said Mr. Anbu, bringing his hand to his chin. "Mizuki has likely kept its tie to his Curse Mark a secret. It'd be too risky to show all of his cards, otherwise his 'allies' might decide he isn't worth keeping alive. Meaning Aoi probably suspects this potion is merely a performance enhancing drug of some nature. Interesting."

"Right," she nodded. "Mizuki is only using Aoi and the others to reach his goal. They mean nothing to him. Likewise, Mizuki's 'ascension,' if we can call it that, means nothing to Aoi.

"Knowing that, Mizuki has no reason to trust Aoi will simply stand by and let him drink the potion. So he's guarded the secrets of it. Made vague mentions of attaining the 'ultimate body' while offering no real substance to what that even means.

"The potion is an unknown to Aoi. It's worth, specifically. Can he sell it and make a substantial profit off of it? Can it earn him a place back in the Rain Village? Can he sell its secrets to them? Is it safe to drink? Will it enhance his body permanently? Temporarily? What are the side effects?

"I bet that's what he was searching for when he tortured the researcher. Information. Information and knowledge on the prize Mizuki has doubtlessly raved about since they met."

"Only to come up shorthanded," Mr. Anbu said. "His inexperience in information gathering is plain to see. You can't expect a random researcher undergoing barbaric torture to know what an assortment of seemingly random ingredients will do."

"What's our next move, then?" Amari asked.

She knew what she wanted to do. What she believed was the appropriate course of action, given that the enemy had killed two researchers at her Clan's secret research facility and acquired the ingredients for the potion.

It wasn't her call, though. Mr. Anbu was in charge.

"Our mission hasn't changed," he responded. "We have to find Aoi and Mizuki and stop them before they create this potion. Even if its survival rate is low, leaving them to kill each other isn't an option. There's still a chance either one of them will flee beyond the border, alerting the Stone, Cloud, Rain or Orochimaru to this incident. We will not allow that to happen."

"Agreed," said Osamu.

"Lead the way, Mr. Anbu."

Mr. Anbu chuckled at the nickname, then turned to face the northeast. "We'll pick up his trail. Will you be able to keep up?"

She was tired, admittedly. Tired and sore.

"I'm ready to go," she said instead.

"All right. Let's move out."


Mizuki didn't stop to watch the obliteration of the abandoned Academy Teacher Exam facility. He didn't turn around when the blast roared, he didn't wait around to see the flames and smoke rise, the building crumble and the ashes fall. The shockwave to pound his torso didn't generate a single fragment of hesitation.

There was still too much more to do. More to achieve. Besides, he didn't need to see a single ash fall to know the truth.

Iruka was dead. Gone. Either killed in the explosion or buried in rubble, struck by a stone that ended his life or presently sucking in his last breaths of contaminated air as the debris and smoke choked the life from his weak body.

The result was etched in stone. It was written by fate itself, Mizuki knew without a doubt. Iruka couldn't see it, failed to see it. His eyes were too damaged, too weak, too blinded by the light he spent his life walking in while real shinobi, shinobi who treaded darkness and made the difficult decisions weaker men could never make, maintained the light through bloodshed.

In the end, Iruka was no different than a blind rodent. He could smell the cheese left out for him. He skittered towards it little by little, climbing over the small obstacles in his way to reach it. But he couldn't see the rat trap it sat upon, waiting patiently to snap his neck. Couldn't smell the poison the cheese was laced with.

He just skittered on ahead towards the food, unable to see that his fate was decided at birth.

The strong thrived, the weak died. Or were removed, one blind rat at a time.

Mizuki felt nothing for the cowardly man. Nothing except contempt for his attempted manipulations and blatant lies. For all he preached of the Will of Fire, of morality, he was no different than anyone else.

Did Iruka really believe he'd actually fall for his lies? That he would doubt Lord Orochimaru's gift? That he would believe Amaririsu was somehow stronger than him?

Preposterous! What kind of fool did he take him for? He wasn't a blind rodent ambling towards a rat trap. He could see clearly in light and had mastered the darkness, he could smell the poison laced into every single little lie.

Just the thought of him made Mizuki growl.

Hiding behind such an arrogant lie, pushing his buttons, sneering down at him like all the others! He deserved to die. A guy like him, a naïve and weak fool worth less than a starving, runaway dog, just wasn't cut out to be a shinobi.

After all, a starving dog could be trained. But Iruka?

He was dead. So it didn't matter anymore. He didn't matter anymore. Just a memory he'd sooner forget than hold onto. Why should he remember someone so low, so weak, so meaningless in his life?

Fate deigned to favor him over and over and over again. At every turn he felt its blessings bring him one step closer to his goal.

With Iruka now out of the way, there was nothing left to do except attain Lord Orochimaru's gift. Just as planned.

Mizuki left Iruka behind. Left him in his unmarked grave of fire and rubble. He heard the paper bombs and the old generator explode, felt the shockwave pulse in his chest, and pressed onwards to the meeting spot he designated. He never looked back.

"You're afraid."

Clenching his jaw tightly, to the point of discomfort, Mizuki snarled.

"You're afraid to face Amari's judgement. Because you've seen what it will be. The dreams you suffer are like a prophecy you can't escape. You see it there each night. In the burning red and piercing lavender gaze which has seared itself onto your soul. And you know should this Ultimate Body be a lie, the dreams will become reality."

Afraid? Him? The mere idea of it was laughable.

Once I have the Ultimate Body, he swore darkly, I'll kill her, too. You couldn't protect her with your power or your lies. But don't worry. I'll send her to the afterlife to join you soon enough, Iruka.


Billowing smoke rose where the Academy Teacher Exam facility once stood, now but a indistinguishable blackened crater no different from any other building razed in previous wars.

The thick ribbons stretched across the sky; towns miles away could see the smudge wiped over the clear atmosphere like mud on a white carpet. Embers and ash fell like snow in and around the crater.

The sky was bleeding.

At the crater's edge the choking stench of smoke and biting heat was overwhelming. Naruto and Pakkun stood there all the same, the human of the pair looking on with wide eyes, horrified by the scene of destruction his teacher was caught in.

Structural debris of all shapes and sizes not obliterated or ejected in the initial explosion littered the crater. Some forming piles of blackened stone. Others, if you squinted hard enough, had a semblance of shape to them, forming what was once the arena, the halls, and other rooms he didn't know the purpose of.

It didn't matter. Nothing remained except a battered shell, a ghostly, smoke-ridden outline of what used to be.

"Pakkun, can you sense Iruka-sensei anywhere?" Naruto asked desperately.

"Sorry, kid. There's too much smoke blanketing this area now. My nose is useless. If we're going to find him, we'll have to do it the old-fashioned way."

"Ri- right."

He tried to ignore the if in that statement. Tried to ignore the terrible feeling tearing his insides apart at the thought that, like the burned out skeleton of the building, all they would find was the scattered residue of his teacher's remains somewhere down there.

Creating a team of thirty Shadow Clones, Naruto leapt down into the crater, into the dense smoke and soot, along uneven earth where it was hard to breathe and intense heat rose from the fresh ashes, stinging his eyes.

Pakkun, despite his enhanced senses, joined his search party, suffering right alongside the Shadow Clones in search of Iruka.

Come on, where are you, Iruka-sensei?

The group sifted through the rubble and debris. Gathering together to lift up large pieces, or digging through the mounds of hot dirt and ash where a body could easily be buried.

You're still alive, aren't you? You can't die here. Not like this. Not yet.

Naruto squinted. His eyes stung. Burned. He stifled a cough.

There's still so much I haven't been able to tell you. Things I've been too embarrassed to say. Things I don't know how to say right. About how much you mean to me. How much your words back then to Mizuki meant to me. How sometimes I think of you as less of a big brother and more of a father figure.

That's why you can't die here. Not yet. Not until I can figure out how to tell you that stuff. Not until I become Hokage. And not after that either. Not until you've lived a long life teaching kids everything you tried to teach me.

So, come on. Move something. Yell! Something to show me where I can find you.

Burying his nose and mouth into the elbow of his sleeve, Naruto inhaled deeply the pungent odor of smoke tainting his clothes in an attempt to gather as much air as he could without coughing, without the irritating itch at the back of his throat impeding him.

At the end of the inhale, he cupped his hands around his mouth and did the only thing he could think of.

"Iruka-senseiiiii! Where are you?!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, quickly breaking off into a cough.

Then he listened. Ignoring the sound of his Shadow Clones footsteps on the dirt and debris. Ignoring their coughs and his own.

He searched the area, eyes flitting every which way like a humming bird foraging for nectar. He was looking beyond the soot. Beyond the dense cloud of smoke that was going to take weeks to get out of his nose. And probably several showers and trips to the hot spring, too, so he no longer reeked.

There was nothing. No reply. No shout. No weak call to give him direction. The ashes hissed. The smoke rose. And the heat burned. The sky, darkened by the smoke, seemed to be in mourning.

Teeth grit, he prepared to continue his search, refusing to give up so easily on his teacher.

Thump-thump-thump.

Naruto perked up. His heart skipped and his body tensed. That dull, stomping noise, where was it coming from?

Desperate, he began to run around the crater, nearly tripping and falling several times when his foot hit an uneven surface or a piece of hazardous debris slipped out beneath him.

Thump-thump-thump.

"I think I can hear you! Whatever you're doing, don't stop! You hear me, Iruka-sensei! I'm going to find you even if I have to dig you out myself!"

"Naruto, it's coming from over here!" Pakkun said, running across the crater.

The ninja hound led him to one of the furtherest points from the area of detonation.

All thirty Shadow Clones converged on the position. There were slabs of concrete braced at an acute angle against the remains of a wall, standing about as high as two and a half blond knucklehead's. Pakkun started digging at the dirt around it.

"Iruka-sensei! Is that you in there?"

"Naruto," he heard his teacher wheeze from within. "I'm…glad you're all right. I was worried about you."

"I'm gonna get you out of there, Iruka-sensei. Don't worry!"

"Careful," Iruka warned weakly. "When I tried to free myself, I ended up dislodging a piece of debris. I'm pinned now. Geh!" His teacher gasped, then coughed roughly. "It's…getting harder to breathe. If you aren't careful, the rest will come crashing down on me."

"That's not gonna happen. Don't worry. Just hang tight, Iruka-sensei. I'll get you out of there."

Piece by heavy piece he and his thirty Shadow Clones removed the debris burying their teacher. Carefully. Meticulously.

Even when their collective coughing grew worse, the sweat built on their hands and tears fell from their irritated eyes, they kept at it, determined to rescue Iruka from within his smokey prison of soot and stone.

Pushing aside the final piece, which landed with a dull thump that scattered ashes into a thick cloud, he finally saw Iruka. He would've gasped if he wasn't coughing so much.

His teacher lay on one side, grimacing even with the weight removed. He had reason to. His hand, colored crimson and dirtied by ash and dirt, was resting on his side, over his flak jacket which bore a dark stain. And that was just one of his wounds.

Visible sweat coated Iruka's face. Yet he managed a weak smile.

"Nice work…Naruto."

The wound looked bad.

Naruto tried not to let his concern show. He dispelled his Shadow Clones and immediately knelt beside his teacher to pick him up in a fireman's carry. Iruka grunted and groaned, but did not complain. He was too weak to speak.

"Hang on, Iruka-sensei. I'll get you out of this smoke and bandage you up. Then I'll go find Shizune. Shikamaru said she was on her way with Sasuke and Sakura."

"Mizuki…"

"Forget about him," Naruto cut off his teacher as he ascended the crater. "Whether it's now or later, we'll stop him. Doesn't matter how far he runs or what kind of body he has. His days are numbered. It's only a matter of time."

"Naruto…"

"I know he's supposed to be our priority, that there are people who have died because of him, and people right now who are doing everything they can to stop him from succeeding. I'm just as angry as anyone over what he's doing. For sending people after Amari. For unleashing all those prisoners to do who-knows-what kind of damage. For possibly giving the Stone a reason to ignite a war.

"But even if you order me to leave you behind, I won't. That's not something I could ever do. Even if it meant fighting hundreds of shinobi to get you to safety, I would find some way to do it. Even if doing this makes me scum and people hate me for it, I don't care.

"A shinobi who would abandon even one of their precious comrades to die is the worst scum I can even think of. So don't waste your breath, okay? I'm gonna get you out of here. And you're going to treat me to Ichiraku Ramen when we get home."

With his focus on climbing out of the crater, thinking through what he needed to do to stop the bleeding and then find Shizune, Naruto did not see Iruka shut his eyes and smile in pride. He was content.

"Naruto, hold on," Pakkun commanded. "I can hear someone coming."

Naruto grit his teeth. Come on, what now? Don't tell me it's those two idiots. Shikamaru and the others have got to be okay. I just need them to hang on a little longer.

He was nearly at the edge of the crater when the person in question appeared. A woman, which relieved him only somewhat. She stood barely over five feet, at a guess. Her eyes, in the haze of smoke, were dark to his watery vision. Her hair, too, which was braided down her back, though her bangs hung at her cheekbones.

The bruising at the corner of her lips matched its darkness.

Though she wore the standard attire and flak jacket of the Leaf, Naruto didn't lower his guard. He'd already fallen hook, line and sinker for that one earlier.

A gust of wind rustled his broken jacket. Blew another helping of smoke into his watery, stinging eyes. She squinted, too, as it hit her. Her long braid undulated, briefly. Then fell still against her back again.

Naruto stifled his coughs as best he could.

"All right, who are you?!" he demanded after a moment.

"Tsu…baki?" Iruka struggled to see her. Struggled to form the word. The name which belonged to this woman he recognized.

The sight of Iruka's injuries, specifically the blood, distressed the kunoichi. That much was clear by her expression.

"Iruka… Please, I know you have no reason to trust me," she spoke in a gentle voice, "but allow me to tend to his wounds. I know Medical Ninjutsu."

"Yeah, well, I'm not feeling particularly trusting right now," replied Naruto roughly. "I've already been tricked once today. And I don't see a headband on you anywhere. For all I know, you're just another one of Mizuki's pawns, dressed to play the part of a Leaf shinobi who shows up out of the blue to help us."

"Please," she pleaded. "Iruka needs help."

Yeah. He knew that. And he was desperate. But he wasn't about to hand Iruka over to a stranger, let alone someone who could just as easily kill him with some manner of Medical Ninjutsu instead of healing him.

"What do you think, Iruka-sensei? Should we trust her?"

"For now."

Naruto hummed. "For now, huh."

After a moment, he accepted the stranger's aid and finished his climb out of the crater.

He didn't lower his guard.


"Well, well, it looks like you encountered some trouble."

Mizuki snorted, then smiled at the sneering remark. It oozed viscous slime and projected confidence. As always.

Aoi, sitting on the branch of a tree, sneered arrogantly down at him. Deriding him further without saying another word.

"What can I say?" He glanced at his minor wounds. "I let my mind wander. Nobody's perfect."

"I see," Aoi didn't hide his mockery. "Well, while you were letting your mind wander, I collected all of your precious ingredients. Soon you'll have your Ultimate Body."

"And to think you doubted the facility's existence," Mizuki replied, placing his hands on his hips. He smirked up at the rogue shinobi. "You need to trust me more, Aoi. Or, at the very least, Lord Orochimaru."

"Hmph." The corner of Aoi's lip lifted almost imperceptibly. "If we're trusting each other now, why don't you tell me what this 'Ultimate Body' is? You've spoken about it so often, and yet you seem to know so little of the details. I also noticed you only asked for enough ingredients to make a single potion. Have I not proven myself worthy of your trust to be given this gift as well?"

"Come now, Aoi. That isn't very fair," he replied with a slimy smile. "I trusted you with its ingredients, didn't I? And I asked you personally to retrieve them, trusting you implicitly to gather and return them. I had every intention of explaining its details to you when we arrived at our final destination.

"But since this is about trust, I'll tell you why I only asked for a single potions worth of ingredients. The truth is, you're not ready for it. Not yet, that is."

"Is that right?"

"Yes. You have to fully commit yourself to this potion, in body and spirit. Drink it with the doubts you wield, a weak body, or both, and you will certainly die. I, however, have prepared vigorously for this. Every day since I was arrested, I have prepared. Not just for our grand escape. But for this inevitability. For the day I finally had the chance to receive Lord Orochimaru's gift," he said, spreading his arms out in a grand gesture.

"Now," every word he spoke was slick as an oiled toad, "that's not to say you can never achieve it. Or that I would ask so much of you and then force you to leave empty handed. The place we're going to now has another gift already waiting for us. It'll be all yours."

Aoi squinted in suspicion. "What is this gift?"

"Today I will achieve the Ultimate Body. That is my gift. You, Aoi, your gift is something else. Something special. It's easily the strongest weapon a shinobi can wield, according to Lord Orochimaru. At the risk of sounding childish, I'd say it's the Ultimate Weapon. Something that will rival even the legendary Blade of Thunder Spirit."

"Ultimate Weapon?" Aoi repeated, his suspicion flourishing.

"Come with me," Mizuki gestured with his chin in the direction they were to go. "I'll show you everything."

"Then lead the way."

"Of course," Mizuki smiled.

Oh, he would lead the way. That's what he had done from the start.

Don't worry, Aoi, he thought insidiously, you'll get your reward in due time. The Ultimate Weapon was always meant for you.

Everything was going according to plan.


Naruto couldn't remember ever feeling so awkward.

Sure, when he was a bit more foolish, spending less time working on Academy homework and more time thinking of pranks, pulling them off, and generally goofing off, he'd snuck behind carefully drawn lines into the adult sections of bookstores, where he then carefully and thoroughly examined the magazines for sale.

Magazines who's covers displayed adult women, beautiful, attractive and, of course, voluptuous. Women who were attired in lingerie, swimwear or other revealing outfits meant to tantalize its very specific audience. And sure he'd done it to, dare he say it, research material for the Sexy Jutsu—that was it, honest.

Sure, he found more erotic magazines in his quests. Magazines which offered more…detail by offering less clothing. And in the process he learned a whole lot about female anatomy he didn't know how to handle. Certain things that made him feel all sorts of awkward sensations and hormones he didn't know how to process.

Things that would end in his brutal death if Amari had ever caught him.

Those same…details, shall he say, in a different life, one where he actually had parents, would have never come into his possession, of course. And if his fantasy parents had caught him, oh boy, he probably would've been in for a lecture. Maybe worse.

And sure he'd been caught redhanded leering at the erotic pictures of scantily clad women by the shop owner. Three times. Each time he was promptly swatted him by and chased out of the store with the bristle end of his broom for his misbehavior.

But, despite the awkward and daring feeling to flood his body the first few times he saw those magazines, it wasn't anything that made him uncomfortable. Just a bit awkward. And, admittedly, aroused.

The only four instances in his life he could think of that came close to his present awkwardness occurred during their mission to the Land of Tea, the boat ride back and their recent mission to the Land of Sound.

First, when they all realized where Amari had hidden the Blade of Thunder Spirit, and, unintentionally, all stared for a prolonged moment at its intimate location.

Thankfully, he hadn't been alone in it. Thankfully, he knew now, he wasn't the only one who felt a spike of adolescent hormones.

Sakura and Sasuke, too, felt it. They, too, caught themselves staring. They witnessed the embarrassed blush on Amari's face at their inquisitive gazes just like him, and they had never spoken of it again. So that was okay. Besides, the mission came first, redirecting their focus, making it little more than a passing moment of uncomfortable awkwardness.

Then there was the time when Sakura was tending to Amari's wounds. It was an accident, of course. He honestly never meant to turn over while Amari—or any girl, for that matter—was partially undressed.

He wasn't anywhere near as bad as the Pervy Sage.

Still, he had. In hopes to reassure his best friend when it seemed like she was being too hard on herself about the mission.

It wasn't even the initial shock that she was still partially undressed that was bad. It was the silence that followed. The ominous and awkward silence that permeated from everyone.

Again, though, it was relatively quick. Passing afterwards with minimal scoldings and lectures; no one wanted to prolong or keep the subject in active conversation.

Finally, in the Land of Sound on two occasions. First, learning he accidentally groped Sasame. He'd thought their mysterious assailant was a boy, at the time. More than that, he was just trying to get them out of the way before they were hurt more and his hand just…well…

I really hope Mimi never calls me groper in front of Amari, he thought anxiously.

He'd been waiting for it, honestly. Mimi wasn't the type to waste a good laugh like that, especially at his expense.

Case in point, pointing out that Sasame was straddling his body for his final stint of uncomfortable awkwardness. They hadn't realized it. They didn't think of it like that, the way Mimi insinuated it for her own personal enjoyment. But they certainly did afterwards. And boy was that awkward.

Both times, though, like the previous times, passed quickly. Especially the most recent.

Hard to be uncomfortable after receiving a kiss on the cheek by a pretty girl.

This, though…

Naruto, seated beside his injured Sensei, hand on a kunai as he watched the kunoichi—Tsubaki—tend to Iruka's injures with Medical Ninjutsu, looked between the two adults for the zillionth time. He flattened his lips together and tried not to squirm.

God, this was super awkward.

Neither of them had said a word to one another. The silence alone was strained. But they kept catching each other's eyes, then looking away, as though they were afraid continued eye contact would tell the other everything they were thinking.

In-between they made small little glances when they knew the other wasn't looking. All the while he had to watch, practically intruding on the whole silent affair. Like he somehow found sitting here watching two adults act like shy teenagers enjoyable.

Geez. This is weird.

He fought against his desire to fidget, his expression displaying his awkwardness for all to see. Not that they did. They were too focused on sneaking glances to notice him.

What's the deal with these two? I feel like a third wheel. Why won't they just say something? Do I need to strike up a conversation with this lady to figure out what the deal is?

Wait, Naruto came upon a realization. Are they…in a secret relationship?

Again he examined the pair. Again he watched the awkward little glances, listened to the prolonged silence as their eyes met and darted away again.

He'd thought he was unfairly comparing them to shy teenagers; he didn't know how else to put it. But maybe…

"Ahhh, I get it now," Naruto grinned.

"Huh? Get what, Naruto?" Iruka asked, looking at him for the first time since the healing started.

"You don't need to be so coy, Iruka-sensei," he replied, raising his kunai and extending his pinky alone, smudged by ash and soot. His grin was impish and knowing. "I see what's going on here. Don't worry, your secret is safe with me."

"My secret?" Iruka stared at his extended pinky.

Then gaped and blushed, suddenly realizing the implication of the childish gesture.

"You immature little fool!" he boomed, head seeming to grow three sizes larger and voice somehow matching it.

"Wahhhh!" Naruto recoiled back, raising his hands as though that might stop anything.

"Huh, seems my sensor was off, too," Pakkun muttered.

Iruka immediately grimaced after his outburst, hand snapping to his wounded side, presently being tended to by Tsubaki.

"Try not to exert yourself yet, Iruka," Tsubaki instructed gently.

"Is he gonna be all right?" asked Naruto after collecting himself.

"Yes, he should be. However, the wound is deep. It will take time for me to heal it."

"Who are you, lady?"

"My name is Tsubaki." She hesitated for a beat. "I… I am Mizuki's fiancé."

"Fiancé?" Pakkun repeated, baffled.

Naruto's hand tightened around his kunai.

"Hold up," he began seriously, "do you even realize what Mizuki is up to right now? What he nearly did to Iruka-sensei? All the trouble he's caused the Leaf just today?"

Tsubaki didn't look at him. She stared at Iruka's wounds while she worked.

"I am aware," she admitted softly. Shamefully.

"Then what are you after?" Naruto demanded hotly. "Why bother taking care of Iruka-sensei if you're gonna marry the guy who tried to kill him?"

"Please, you must understand. The Mizuki I knew was a kind and gentle man."

"Kind and gentle, huh?"

Naruto stared intently at the bruises on her face. They were fresh. Recent, at least within the last few hours. He didn't need to guess how she received them.

No, he'd been hit by all sorts of people in his life; shop owners who feared, hated or were disgusted by his existence; adults, drunk and sober, cut from the same cloth as the shop owners; the women at a bathhouse once when he was trying to teach Konohamaru the Sexy Jutsu, though he supposed he deserved that one, at least.

"Is that why he hit you? Because Mizuki's a nice guy? Because he's gentle and caring?" he asked, unable to hide his disgust.

He shook his head. "No way. I'm not buying it. No kind or gentle man would ever lay a hand on a person they loved. So either he tricked you like he tricked everyone else. Or you're just tricking yourself and trying to find something good in a guy that is no good at all."

Tsubaki said nothing. She continued to tend to Iruka's injuries, regret and sadness glistening in her eyes. She understood. No doubt about it.

"Unfortunately, Naruto is right," Iruka said. He was staring up at the evening sky, tainted by ribbons of smoke. "I once believed Mizuki was the same man you knew, Tsubaki. I believed he was kind and gentle. Someone who I could depend on, who encouraged and inspired me as a friend and a comrade.

"Years ago, after my parents died, there was this time when I was at the Memorial Stone. I was crying. I remember it distinctly. Lord Third found me there that day. He confronted my constant misbehavior in class and the tough face I wore, even through tears. Gently. He knew I felt alone. That beneath all the smiles and laughter I was curled up and crying inside. He pulled me in and held me close. Afterwards, when my sobs had subsided, he taught me of the Will of Fire.

"That was the day Mizuki first approached me. He invited me to join the game everyone was playing, claiming it was because he had noticed I was feeling lonely." Iruka smiled mournfully. "It was the first time I remember smiling and laughing genuinely. From that day on, Mizuki was one of my closest friends."

Iruka's smile fell.

"However, even back then, Mizuki was up to his twisted schemes. He claims when he witnessed Lord Third speaking to me, he saw an opportunity to gain the favor of the Hokage. I think he was struck by jealousy that I had somehow gained the attention and, in his eyes, the favoritism of Lord Hokage.

"Before that, he was glad I was alone. In fact, he admitted he found my suffering enjoyable. To the point of watching me cry from the shadows."

"What kind of sick guy does that," Naruto wondered, frowning.

"His words sting, I admit," Iruka said softly. "I thought nothing he could say or do now would effect me deeply. I thought after he tricked you, Naruto, and was arrested that I settled my feelings on his betrayal. Hearing him admit all of that, though… It's like rubbing salt in a wound. I couldn't understand how the friend I knew was capable of all of this.

"Yet I can see now how deep his manipulations go. This goes beyond Orochimaru's involvement or his Curse Mark. Mizuki's heart was as cold and hard as a glacier long before their meeting. All of us, we're just means to an end to him. And if we are no longer useful, or if we hold him back, he'll simply remove us. Like Genda."

"Genda?" Naruto tilted his head. "Who's that?"

"So, it is true, then?" Tsubaki asked, a slight tremor in her voice.

"Yes. He admitted to it with pride. Passion. He feels no remorse. No guilt. No regret."

Tsubaki said nothing. Her glistening eyes focused on Iruka's wound.

"Who's this Genda person, Iruka-sensei?"

"A comrade from our class," explained his teacher softly. "Before I became a teacher, there was a mission to retrieve a sacred scroll led by Mizuki. The capture was successful, but they were pursued as they retreated. Genda's leg was injured while they fled. He couldn't run.

"Official reports claimed the injury was the cause of death. However, Mizuki is actually the one who killed him. He murdered Genda—suffocated him—because he was unable to defend himself; he was dead weight, too weak in Mizuki's eyes, so he eliminated him."

There was a pregnant silence. It wasn't nearly as awkward, but it was tense. Tsubaki's hands shook.

For Iruka-sensei and Tsubaki, Naruto had a sudden thought, Mizuki has severed a bond they held precious. His actions are causing them pain. And that rat doesn't care one bit.

"I'm sorry, Tsubaki," Iruka said gently. "I don't think the Mizuki we knew ever existed."

Tsubaki didn't reply. What could be said when the person you loved, who you prepared to marry and spend your life with, didn't actually exist. When years of love were wasted on a person who never truly loved you.

Naruto didn't know. He really didn't.

"…So, what do you wanna do?" he asked after a moment.

"I'm not sure what you mean," Tsubaki replied hesitantly.

"Well, no matter how you slice it, we have to stop Mizuki. There's too much at stake to let him slink off to Orochimaru. But…" He frowned. "I can't pretend I like the guy or that I think he deserves a second chance. I mean, he murdered a classmate of yours in cold blood. He hit you. He betrayed the Leaf to gain power from Orochimaru. He's tried to kill Iruka-sensei twice now and has set loose the entire prison, setting a bounty on my best friend's head for petty revenge. And those are just the things I know about.

"Still, despite all that, he's your fiancé. He may be a liar and a no-good lousy traitor, but the man you thought you knew, you loved him. I can see that. His love and his act may not have been real, but your love was. You didn't lie or act. You loved Mizuki. Sincerely."

"I did."

"I can't imagine what's going on in your head or your heart right now," Naruto admitted. "But it drove you to chase him all the way out here. That's why I'm asking. What do you wanna do? What did you hope to do when you chased Mizuki?"

"I…" Tsubaki trailed off and stared thoughtfully at her hands, glowing with a hue of green.

He didn't mean to put her on the spot. By questioning her intentions he was essentially picking at a fresh wound with untrimmed and dirty nails, scratching it, incensing the pain and potentially infecting the wound.

It couldn't be easy. For her or Iruka. Mizuki's betrayal, his manipulations, they hadn't wanted any of this pain. But he did betray them, he did manipulate them, and now it was up to all them to deal with it.

No matter how painful it was.

"I suppose, Tsubaki began, "I hoped I could convince Mizuki to surrender himself to the Leaf. I hoped, when I eventually caught up to him, I could somehow convince him to abandon his pursuit of this dark power and renounce his ties to Orochimaru. Then, perhaps, the man I loved could redeem himself.

"Now I am uncertain such a man ever existed. I am uncertain of what I'm doing or what I am chasing. I do not know what I hope to accomplish. For what can I accomplish if the man I loved never existed? What can I hope to say that will make the lie a reality and reality the lie?"

She shut her eyes tightly. "Already my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. I begged him to abandon his plans. I pleaded desperately for him to surrender before it was too late."

"Is that when he hit you?"

"Yes," Tsubaki nodded. After a long pause, she asked, "I'm a fool, aren't I?"

"I don't know about that," replied Naruto. "You've had a precious bond broken. You were betrayed by the person you loved. I think it's all right to be a little uncertain of what you want. If you ask me, though, Mizuki is the real fool."

"What makes you say that?" asked Tsubaki.

"Well, he's trusting Orochimaru, for starters. That's just dumb. Even I know Orochimaru only sees people as toys he can experiment on. Mark my words, Mizuki will learn firsthand why trusting that rotten snake is one of the worst mistakes you can make."

If the 'Ultimate Body' is anything like what happened to Arashi…

In his mind's eye he could see Arashi fused together with the corpses of Kamikiri and Jigumo. He could hear his insane laughter, accompanied by his ravings about becoming the ultimate weapon. Like that was important. Like that was an achievement to be proud of.

He'd forgotten what was important.

The memory of the muscular, lumpy tumor-like body he had transformed into and its malleable flesh still gave him goosebumps.

And the regret that he hadn't been able to save him lingered in the form of fresh scar tissue.

"More than that, though," Naruto continued, pushing aside his dark thoughts, "he's betrayed the person who loved him. Only a fool could do something like that. Definitely to someone who loved him as much as you did."

"He's right, you know," Iruka agreed. "Mizuki has to be the biggest fool there is turning his back on you for Orochimaru."

"Iruka…"

There was another awkward moment. Another strange silence between the two adults as they caught each other's gaze, held it for a prolonged moment, then seemed to catch themselves and quickly averted their eyes.

Naruto's and Pakkun's sensors pinged again. Neither brought it up.

"Besides, even if you were a fool," Naruto tried to break up the awkward air, "it's not like you're the only one. Mizuki tricked all of us. So if you're a fool, then Iruka-sensei and I are big fools, too." He grinned. "Guess that means you're right at home in our squad."

"You know, you're surprisingly self-aware," Pakkun quipped. "For a fool."

"Hey!" whined the knucklehead, clutching a fist and shaking it at the ninja hound. "Don't twist my words like that! That isn't what I meant."

The short and light giggle of Tsubaki drew his eyes back to the kunoichi. For the first time he saw her smile.

"Thank you, Naruto."

"Ah, don't mention it," he waved off her gratitude.

Considering they still had to apprehend Mizuki, which wouldn't be easy on Tsubaki, the least he could do was try to lift her spirits. There was no telling what that battle would entail. Or the darkness Mizuki would unearth.

If it was anything like Arashi…

He hoped it wouldn't be.


Tsubaki went on to recount how Mizuki first came into contact with Orochimaru while healing Iruka's injuries.

It occurred, by her estimations, around the time of Genda's death. Perhaps on his return to the Leaf. Perhaps a short time after. Pinning the exact day of their meeting was difficult, nigh on impossible, as their duties to the Leaf and missions kept them apart.

"It was around that time I noticed Mizuki's behavior begin to change," Tsubaki explained. "He began to speak of leaving the Leaf Village to live a different life. I listened, patiently, though I disagreed. The Leaf has always been good to us, and shinobi cannot simply leave as he was speaking. It would mean going rogue, living as criminals. But the more I listened, the less nefarious his desires sounded.

"Mizuki told me he wanted a simple life far away from the daily conflicts and death of shinobi life. I came to believe Genda's death was the cause. I suppose it was, in a way.

"However, I only suspected he had become disillusioned. Loss is never easy. Losing a comrade, especially one who you've shared so much time with, is far harsher. I have seen it far too many times. Shinobi who have lost a friend, a comrade akin to a brother or a sister, who shut in on themselves. Who shut the world out and shut down. Far too often, tragically, they take their own lives."

"That's terrible," Naruto said softly.

"It is. Life as a shinobi, from my experience, often exists in two extreme planes with a small middle ground of peace and joy. There is the highest plane, generally existing in combat where the body and mind are under heavily concentrated doses of adrenaline, anxiety and stress, which is often followed by its polar opposite. The lowest plane where darkness festers.

"The whiplash, you could say, of those same concentrated doses leaves behind psychological duress, trauma which causes distress, anger, pain, fear and uncertainty. And though we all experience it, we feel as though we are alone. Isolated.

"Many do not ask for help. Some may feel they are somehow weaker for these dark thoughts, which furthers the parasite that is our inner darkness. The worst thing we can do is face it alone. To believe we are alone and isolated when we are not.

"For that reason, I endeavored to guide Mizuki's mind away from the dark thoughts I believed he suffered from."

"As time went on," she continued after a long pause, "his aggression towards the Leaf only seemed to intensify. Yet I could still see shades of the man I loved. I swore to save him from his darkness, even if that meant leaving behind the Leaf for a simple life, no matter how difficult it may be. I was duty bound to save him. As a medic-nin, and as someone who loved him deeply. I did not want to lose him. Mizuki was important to me, to all of us who cared for him."

Her eyes lowered. "I never suspected it was the real Mizuki I was beginning to see. I never suspected the man I loved could murder a friend. I am still struggling to grasp it. To know I loved him, that we… I feel a sense of loss and shame unlike any I have ever felt before."

Time went on. Her attempts to restore the man she loved failed time and again. Mizuki never once raised his voice to her or a hand, treating her like she was all that mattered, promising one day, one day, they would escape the confines of conflict for a simpler life.

It was perfect manipulation. He mollified his fiancé, kept her in the dark and let her fill in the blanks for his change of behavior, all while he prepared for to steal his tribute to Orochimaru.

"Mizuki finally confessed his true motives and allegiances to me a few days before he tricked you into stealing the Scroll of Seals, Naruto."

"A few days before?"

"Yes. He spoke with zealous bordering on fanaticism. He claimed outrageous things, such as Orochimaru appreciating his abilities more than anyone in the Leaf. He spoke around Genda's death, telling me how it was that event which catalyzed their meeting. That is when I began to realize Mizuki had done something truly horrible."

"Why didn't you come forward?" Iruka asked. "If you knew days before, you could have warned Lord Hokage."

"I was horrified, Iruka," Tsubaki admitted, hands trembling. "I was afraid of what he might do if he learned I betrayed his intentions. But…I also did not want to believe Mizuki would actually go through with it. Up to the night he committed the crime I convinced myself I could change him. That I could save him."

"And after?"

"I was afraid if I told anyone the truth that Mizuki would be punished more severely. Even then I wanted to believe he had only lost his way temporarily."

"If only that were the case."

"I'm sorry, Iruka."

"You'll have to atone for your mistakes, Tsubaki."

"I know. I am prepared to do whatever I must to atone for all the pain my actions have caused. Beginning with Mizuki. He must be stopped before it's too late. Before he can cause any more irreparable harm to the Leaf."

"Tsubaki…"

"Yeah, but how do we find him?" Naruto asked. "There's so much smoke in the air now, who know's how long it will take for Pakkun's nose to sniff him out. We don't have time to waste."

"I think I know where Mizuki has gone," answered Tsubaki. "Before his arrest he spoke of a place where Orochimaru's gifts were waiting for him. A cave system hidden in the hills not far from here. I will lead you to it."

True to her word, when she finished healing Iruka's injuries, Tsubaki led them away from the smoldering wreckage back onto Mizuki's trail.

Elsewhere, the team of Tenzō, Amari and Osamu followed the trail left behind by Aoi, trekking swiftly through the trees amid falling leaves, across hillsides and towards the cave system they did not yet know of.

They saw the billowing smoke in the distance. Witnessed how it tainted the sky, and wondered who was responsible and whether or not they were too late.

Together the two squads were converging on their targets. In their hearts they each carried the hope that, against the odds, they would reach Mizuki before he could achieve his goal.

They were already too late.

The darkness was set to be unleashed.


"There it is," Mizuki said, pointing to the hidden cave system designated to him by Orochimaru from atop a distant hill. He could barely contain his excitement. "That's where we'll find the lab."

"Hmph. Then what are we waiting for?" Aoi asked brusquely. "I want to see what this Ultimate Weapon is."

Mizuki smiled a vile smile. "Trust me. You won't be disappointed."

The gift was in reach. All he had to do was reach out and grasp it.

Soon there would be nothing that could stop him!