Naruto: Bloodlines

by The SOC Puppet

Part 18 – Hell In A Handbasket

NOTE: I have a LiveJournal site that's got its own exclusive story, snippets, previews and assorted stuff on there. It's going to be updated faster and more often than any stuff at FFN. Just a heads-up. Head to the LiveJournal site and search for thesocpuppet, or look at the end of Ch. 17 for the address. FFN apparently doesn't like links.

Summary: Naruto defeated Neji by figuring out how to use the full force of the Naruto Bomb's variations as well as the secret of the Diamond Body technique – fulfilling his promise to Hinata. He also looked to have shown Neji an alternative to his usual griping about fate and destiny.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, except for originals like the Uzumaki family. The characterization of the Fourth Hokage is all my creation, as is his relationship to Naruto. All jutsus are also not my invention, other than the ones that Naruto will learn as the story goes on.

" " – Speech

Italics – Thoughts

– Misc. Speech

"Have I ever told you you're completely, utterly crazy?"

Slumped down outside the door to the stadium infirmary, Naruto looked up to see Ino holding out a towel to him, her expression fairly irritated. Plucking the cloth from the blonde girl's hand, Naruto tried to wipe some of the sweat and grime off his face. He merely succeeded in smearing it into a mask. Suppressing a curse, he glanced back up at Ino.

"Only every time we meet. Why so worked up now?"

Ino threw up her hands, sitting down beside him.

"Weren't you the one who said he wouldn't go rushing in like a moron anymore? What's the deal leaping straight into Neji's attack at the end?"

The blonde boy leaned his head back against the cool stone of the stadium wall.

"Guys like Neji, they don't even think you're worth listening to until you've knocked 'em down a peg or three. Only way I could have gotten Hinata started on making him a normal guy was to beat his best technique. That means I had to survive it and then whip his ass. Mastering my family's technique was the key, and I'd have had to field test it to know if it worked anyway."

"Never mind," Ino sniffed. "I should know better than to use logic on someone who probably thinks banging his head against the wall is good toughness training for his forehead."

"No, that's Lee's style."

The bantering pair looked up at the sound of a new voice, to see Tenten striding down the hallway towards the infirmary. When she reached the door, Naruto stretched an arm across it, keeping the black-haired girl from entering.

"I know you're teammates and all, but he's pretty worn out. That, and Hinata's dad just popped in there. From the look on his face, they got something serious going on in there. Probably family business. Let 'em finish what they're up to first."

Tenten considered those words coming from Naruto. Even with everything she knew about him, it still made no sense to her. One minute he was ridiculing her abilities, the next he was spouting off some sappy line about families and togetherness. Fighting with Neji, he'd gone from a commanding presence, lecturing the #1 rookie, to blindly charging in the last exchange, heedless of his own safety. How could Naruto be so complicated, completely different from the way the rest of the village saw him?

The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop herself.

"You beat him. You beat Neji."

Naruto grunted and straightened out his neck with an audible crack.

"Sure as hell doesn't feel like it, but yeah."

"Lee trained to the point of almost killing himself, and he couldn't. I can't even touch him. Gai-sensei thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread! How did you do it?"

The blonde boy shrugged and slumped wearily back against the wall.

"Let me get back to you on that when my brain is working again. One battle at a time."

Ino looked back up in the direction of the battlefield.

"Speaking of battles, wasn't Sasuke going to fight that weird Sand kid after you and Neji finished?"

Naruto's response was far from enthusiastic.

"Something like that."

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"You're not going to go and watch?"

Naruto rolled his eyes.

"Ino, let me save you the trouble and tell you exactly what's gonna happen. He's gonna make a grand entrance. Then he'll pull something out of his ass, something new or flashy, which he probably copied off someone else. Might work, might not, depending on how much he cares about winning right off the bat. Could even look like he's in trouble for a bit. But just in the nick of time, he'll bust a move, win the fight, every girl in the audience will go absolutely nuts, and the Legend of Angsty Bishonen Uchiha Boy will grow to even more epic proportions.

"I'd rather spend my time doing something I might actually be surprised at."

Tenten leaned against the other wall, facing Naruto and Ino, looking curiously at both of them.

"What's your problem? You have more than Sasuke'll ever have. You're the son of a Hokage and a top Anbu leader, you've got a power source nobody else can copy, and an aunt who has so much money she can just waltz into the village, knock down a building and open a new restaurant."

"That's inherited," Naruto snapped. "I didn't work for it. Besides, even if I wanted it, only about a dozen people respect me for it. Big deal. But he can be an asshole to everyone and they fall all over themselves to be his friend. Do I need another reason?"

Ino asked her own question.

"Then why shake Neji's hand? He's not exactly the friendliest person alive."

"If Hinata wanted to save him from himself, there had to be something there worth saving. He wanted to fight his destiny, but he was so bitter it'd screwed his head up. Guy just needed some help."

"Isn't that exactly what Sasuke's like?"

Her friend made a disgusted noise.

"There's a difference between fighting your past and letting it drag you down."

"If you say so."

"Look, when I gotta spend so much of my time doing something that can be taken away from me in an instant, that's a problem to me. Especially when it's something my parents left behind. You guys saw what happened when Sasuke fought that chakra vampire. He took Lee's taijutsu. That's practically all Lee has, and Sasuke just waltzed in and stole it. You want to fight the past and be angsty about it, great. Your choice. But do your own damn work. I'm staying as far away from him as I can."

"That hardly seems like the Naruto who was so earnestly, idiotically trying to convince me I was fighting an impossible battle a few minutes ago."

Naruto, Ino and Tenten looked up to see Neji and Hyuga Hiashi at the open door of the infirmary. Hinata's father looked at the other three children for a moment, then nodded briefly to his nephew and strode silently back down the corridor, in the direction of the battlefield.

Tenten glanced at her teammate quizzically.

"What was that all about?"

"I think," the long-haired boy murmured, "it was about laying ghosts of the past to rest and moving on. And towards that end, please ask me no more. The only the thing the past is good for is learning how not to make the same mistakes in the future."

Naruto grinned.

"Now I believe in miracles. You're starting to sound human."

"If by human you mean more like you, then, regrettably, yes. Something tells me I will need to find a happy medium between old and new."

"Well, that's good. If there's an empty cot in that room, I'm takin' it. You wiped me out so bad it'll be hours before I can kick somebody's ass again."

Neji stood aside, waving a hand towards the inside of the room.

"The world is safer for it, I assure you. Go."

Naruto flopped down on a spare cot and commenced snoring within seconds. Ino rolled her eyes as she sat in a nearby overstuffed chair.

"Whoever's crazy enough to marry him someday is going to have to be a living saint."

Tenten glanced gingerly in her teammate's direction.

"He's too dense to notice it, but I always saw Hinata hanging around Naruto, even if she never said anything to anyone about it. You think she's got a thing for him?"

"Hard to tell," Neji grunted. "With everything she's experienced since she fought me, I doubt she'll be in a position to chase anyone for some time. She told me as much. We both have some serious thinking to do, and not just about what we discussed."

"Wait," the black-haired kunoichi started. "You talked to her? This 'new' Hinata I've been hearing about?"

Neji sat back down on his cot before he answered.

"For a brief moment. She left when she sensed her father coming. The conversation was…enlightening."

"What was it about?"

The Hyuga prodigy, back on his cot, made a satisfied noise and turned his head towards the wall, settling down to rest.

"Talking about a revolution."

Tenten rolled her eyes, looking at her teammate and over at Ino.

"Different talking style, same irritating Hyuga."

A muffled voice came from the long-haired boy's direction.

"I heard that."

"Good, you secret-keeping dummy!"

Ino giggled and settled into her chair. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

She would quickly learn just how ironic that thought had been.

A little vibration was all it took to get Slinger Ozaki's attention, which was really rather strange. In a restaurant with a klutz, a no-talent ninja otaku and a washed-out kunoichi, the cook was the first one to notice something strange afoot.

"You feel that?"

Setsuna, engrossed in the latest issue of Small Business Weekly (or the manga she had concealed behind it, same thing), raised her head.

"Feel what?"

Slinger took a step over and prepared to respond, but something else caught his eye first.

"This. My soup base has ripples in it. Something's shakin' the ground."

"I told you to go on a diet, dumbass."

"I mean it, Setsuna. Thought you said this ain't quake country when you declined the extra insurance on this place."

Naruto's aunt shut her magazine and popped up from her seat at the bar.

"It's not quake country. The only insurance you need in a Hidden Village is for Acts of Shinobi. Or, as the agent described it, Cartoonishly Powerful Drunk Off-Duty Moron Insurance. That costs enough as it is."

The rattling of the restaurant's sliding door interrupted Setsuna and Slinger, both turning to see if it was a customer. Instead, a red streak was all they saw, roaring past them into the broom closet and slamming its door shut. The owner glanced at her cook.

"Miki?"

"Miki."

The two of them walked over to the closet and opened it to find their frizzy-haired friend cowering behind a wall of mops, buckets, and assorted cleaning supplies. Setsuna, tapping her foot on the floor, looked down at her longtime "winglady."

"What's gotten into you?"

All that came out of Tanaga Miki's mouth was a muffled whisper.

"S-s-s-s-s-s-s…"

Slinger leaned forward, straining to hear.

"Whazzat?"

Miki's scream bowled him over, which was probably for the best, as she pointed in the direction of the front windows (and where the stout cook's face had been moments before).

"SNAKE!"

Setsuna turned to look in that direction, and caught sight of a three-headed serpent marching through town. Her only remark was completely, totally unprintable (and quite vulgar).

Slinger's reaction was only marginally safer for delicate ears.

"Who let the #()! shinobi circus into town?"

Setsuna grabbed Miki and booted Slinger in the rear.

"That's not a circus. That's the biggest criminal the Leaf has had in years, and his cronies. Get into the cellar. This is one fight even we can't handle."

Looking out in the direction of the stadium, Uzumaki Setsuna thought about her nephew. You better watch yourself, kid. The games are over.

It became something of a "where-were-you-when" moment in the Leaf. Where had you been when the single worst day since the Uchiha Massacre began? For Naruto, Ino, Neji and Tenten, the answer would always be "sound asleep in the stadium infirmary." With some color added in some stories, completely honest in others, but always the same basic answer. It was pretty safe to say none of the official eyewitness histories quoted any of them about the early moments of Orochimaru's first attack.

Ino, always an early riser, was up first, feeling more of the vibration that had alerted Slinger. At first, she dismissed the motion as related to the fights going on upstairs. Naruto and Neji had certainly caused plenty of damage to the battlefield. But nobody their age, not even the Sand kid (or so she thought at the time), had the power to cause buildings across town to shake and collapse.

Naruto would probably be needed to deal with this. Unfortunately, as Ino knew from experience, waking him up was about as hard as getting Choji to go on a diet. Something drastic had to be done.

"FREE RAMEN!"

The boy shot upwards like he was spring-loaded, and then caught sight of Ino and the infirmary behind her. His eager expression immediately soured.

"Shoulda known it was too good to be true."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"This from the girl who mooched a super-size bowl of ramen from me and then chucked the empty at my head?"

"Hey, you convinced me you weren't crazy, didn't you?"

"Are you kiddin'? You went rooting around in my head and almost got filleted by the furball before you'd believe me. You owe me a nice new bowl of ramen as a peace offering. Preferably in a softer bowl."

Neji's drowsy voice intruded on the argument.

"I trust your waking us all up has more of a purpose than arguing about food?"

Ino's response was accompanied by yet another rumble that shook the entire stadium – and the deadpan expression on her face.

"Yeah, I'd say it does."

"Holy ##&!"

All of them turned around at Naruto's shout. The hyper Genin was perched at the window, looking out into the forest.

"There's a huge-ass snake slithering into town and a bunch of little guys comin' in behind it! We're under attack or something!"

Tenten rolled her eyes as the last sentence.

"Or something? What else could it be, a traveling kabuki freakshow?"

Naruto and Ino's faces were deadly serious, the pair speaking in tandem.

"We've seen weirder."

The other girl was about to ask just what when Neji shook his head.

"Trust me, Tenten. Better not to know."

As if the situation wasn't clear enough, several voices could be heard running up and down the hall outside, each with pretty much the same message.

"We're under attack!"

"Okay," Naruto shrugged, "'or something' is out. We gotta get moving and bust some heads!"

Neji might have been friendlier, but his brain was still as sharp as ever.

"Dial down the enthusiasm, Naruto. You were just saying you were too tired to fight anyone. A few minutes of rest couldn't possibly have changed that. My condition's no different. We need to track down someone of higher rank and get their orders. There's surely a plan for dealing with an attack such as this."

Ino spoke from near the window, where Naruto had been seconds before.

"A plan dealing with, say, evacuating women and children so all the distractions are out of the way?"

"That sounds right."

"Well, I hate to make Naruto's head even bigger, but it looks like that plan's shot to hell. Take a look out the window."

Four pairs of eyes beheld a scene of utter chaos in their home, buildings collapsed or burning, fighting everywhere; smoke, screams and blood filling the air. Small groups of people huddled together, making for the forest, all the while being pursued by other groups wearing foreign uniforms. Naruto's fist thudded into the concrete wall.

"Screw fatigue. If they're evacuating kids, the Academy classes must be on the move too. I ain't lettin' Snake-boy's lackeys get their hands on Konohamaru and the others. It's time to fight back. You guys in or out?"

Mentioning the Academy got Tenten's attention, all right.

"Tenji's still there too! I know I always say I wish the little brat were dead, and I do, but not at anyone's hands but mine! Only I get to maim him! And maybe Naruto, but only a little."

Her target's jaw dropped at that.

"HEY! What am I, a child molester?"

"No, just insane."

"WHAT!?"

"Who else would agree to try to discipline my brother?"

"Why ya asking me? You ain't had any better luck with that pint-sized punk either!"

"Who's a punk? Don't you dare call my brother a punk!"

"If the shoe fits…"

Ino, watching the two of them go at it, whispered a question to Neji out of the side of her mouth.

"They are on the same side, right?"

Hyuga Neji's expression was flat – but the gleam of amusement in his eyes was unmistakable.

"I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it may endanger my health."

Ino sighed and did what came natural to her in such situations.

"WOULD THE TWO OF YOU JUST SHUT UP?"

Naruto and Tenten stopped throwing anything movable at each other long enough to turn their heads.

"Are we going out there or are we just going to act like preschoolers the rest of the day?"

Naruto grabbed a kunai out of the pouch on his leg, spinning it by the ring in its handle. The look on his face promised utterly senseless carnage.

"What do you think? Time to hunt some snakes."

It was safe to say Uchiha Sasuke wasn't having a great day so far. Having to walk the whole way back from the wasteland where Kakashi had been training him, he'd missed Naruto's fight with the previous year's #1 rookie, Hyuga Neji. To top that off, he was currently staring at a giant ball of hard-packed sand with a hole punched in it. The hole being there was good – it meant all that chakra concentration practice had paid off and Kakashi's Chidori worked. The inhuman eye staring back at him through the hole was not good.

Lately things like that were happening more and more often. Things that simply weren't grounded in any reality Sasuke had ever believed in. Some people might enjoy being in the middle of weirdness – Naruto, maybe. Sasuke didn't. His very first experience with warped realities had been courtesy of his older brother. Everything had pretty much been downhill from there. The cursed seal on his neck was only the latest reminder that his power levels were nowhere near where he wanted them. I will allow only one person to warp my reality - myself.

It wasn't that he didn't have the talent – dozens of people had been telling him he was great for years. The Sharingan user wasn't inclined to disagree. But everyone else seemed to have easier or better ways of getting there. And as soon as anyone knew he had the use of the Uchiha Bloodline Limit, about the only way he was going to learn anything was through thievery.

That part didn't bother Sasuke so much. It was for a good cause. It would contribute to the death of an S-class criminal. The problem was that shinobi were pretty good at hiding when they didn't want to be found, and that especially went for times when new techniques were being practiced. New, powerful techniques.

Sasuke had witnessed Naruto's exploits in the Forest of Death. Surprisingly, that bomb jutsu had been quite powerful – so much so that Sasuke was convinced the idiot knew much more than he had ever let on. But as he analyzed the attack again, the black-haired Genin realized fate had conspired against him again. The sheer level of chakra required to make it powerful was beyond Sasuke's capabilities. For now. At the moment, if he had used the same technique it wouldn't be any better than half as strong.

Naruto was hiding something. He had to be. The only reason Sasuke had even bothered to go train with Kakashi was because five days of stalking the hyper blonde boy at the beginning of the month-long break between Exams had gotten him absolutely nowhere. Naruto had gone missing, and searching his usual training areas was fruitless. Not even Iruka or that mousy little Hyuga girl had known where Naruto was. In the end, rather than wasting time, he had simply gone off as Kakashi demanded. It hadn't been a total loss, after all, what with the new Chidori to use.

But now…Chidori or no Chidori, something was very wrong with the world. And Problem #1 was the palpable evil he could sense from the eye that stared into his Sharingan, shadowed inside the hole he'd made in Gaara's shield. These days that was the theme of anyone with power, from Orochimaru to Yoroi and now Gaara. Darkness, or in Orochimaru's case chaos, could be powerful. Damned powerful.

For someone rightly praised as brilliant, a genius and a prodigy, parts of Uchiha Sasuke's mind were remarkably simple. Such as the ever-growing corner of his mind that demanded vengeance for his brother's crimes. Vengeance, at any cost. To that piece of his soul, power was the ultimate goal. As much as possible, as soon as possible. And the cost be damned. Right about now it was debating with itself looking into "alternative" power sources. Because if an idiot like Naruto could have access to almost limitless chakra reserves and powerful attacks, Uchiha Sasuke shouldn't have had any problem doing it either.

The sound of moving sand snapped him out of deep thought, primal instincts forcing Sasuke to leap back. When he looked back at where Gaara had been, he saw the sand shell dissolving, a human form gradually revealing itself again. The Sand Genin clutched his left shoulder, blood running from a deep wound. All signs of an impending Uchiha victory. So why did he still have a feeling of "too little, too late?" Why did the fear chilling his spine not recede? I cannot afford fear! Fear will do nothing but hold me back when I face my brother again!

The rustling of cloth and faint murmurings from the stands drew his attention away from Gaara. Why are the people all asleep?

He didn't know he'd spoken that thought aloud until he heard a voice coming up behind him.

"It's not a complete surprise. There were rumors of an impending attack; most likely assisted from within, else they'd not have gotten everyone inside the stadium as they did. Orochimaru and perhaps others behind it too."

Sasuke watched Genma step in front of him, shielding him from Gaara, who was kneeling in the sand with his siblings as well as another Sand-nin by his side. The Leaf Examiner watched the scene with a wary eye. The older Sand-nin was saying something to his students, who picked up Gaara and abruptly leaped back out of the stadium. Sasuke's snarl got Genma's attention again.

"What's going on here?"

"War. The Chuunin Exam's history. If you're game, I've got a mission for you instead."

"And that is?"

"Hunt down Gaara, and the others if need be. You and I both know you're as good as a Chuunin anyway. Make yourself useful."

Uchiha Sasuke's only response was to launch himself backwards, towards the stadium wall, an eerie smile splitting his face from ear to ear. And as he did so, the siren call of vengeance thundered in his eardrums.

War means battle. Battle means fighting, and new things I can learn. The more I learn, the more power I'll gain.

Perhaps it wasn't going to be such a bad day after all.

"Sakura! Where are all the Genin from your class?"

Haruno Sakura could be forgiven for not listening 100 to her sensei's question. She was sort of busy trying to figure out what was going on, and between explosions in the Hokage's box, fighting going on in the stands, weapons and warriors flying everywhere, that wasn't a really easy thing to do.

"I don't know! I haven't seen Naruto or Ino since Naruto won, Neji got carted off, Tenten followed him and Hinata left her seat. Choji and Shikamaru are asleep, Sasuke-kun's down there, and I haven't seen Shino all day."

"Damn!" Kakashi cursed, standing back to back with Gai. "Sasuke went after Gaara. There's no way he can take on all three of those kids and come out unscathed. I'd send you after him, but you need to find help first. See if you can't find out where Naruto went. If you do, get back here and I'll send you all out."

As the Copy Ninja spoke, his rival did as well. Okay, so it was more of a battle cry. But ask anyone in the Leaf and most of them were fine with that kind of yell coming from Maito Gai. It was when he talked that he started creating problems. Right about now, he was in the process of creating problems for a Sound-nin. At least Sakura figured being punched out of mid-air and then rammed all the way through the concrete stadium wall was a problem for a Sound-nin. Without experience it was kind of hard to tell.

"Bah! Shoddy construction is no match for the power of the Leaf's Prideful Green Beast! But still, it is yet another thing in which I have beaten you, Kakashi! The score in stadium demolition between us is now 1-0!"

"Sakura!" Kakashi snapped, ignoring Gai as usual. "Go out that hole and find Naruto. If you can, get a few more reinforcements while you're at it!"

The pink-haired girl complied, scrambling to avoid any stray weapons bouncing toward her, and leaping out of the stadium to a tree below.

If I were Naruto and the village were under attack, where would I go first?

The obvious answer was straight into battle, but then this was no ordinary fight. There was something in the village that could be threatened in an invasion. Ramen.

Gathering herself, Sakura leaped off in the direction of Setsuna's restaurant.

As it turned out, Naruto and company need not have worried too much about the students of the Leaf Academy.

"That's the last batch. Close down the blast doors between here and the other side of the mountain, don't let anyone out, and don't open up the shelters for the civilian evacuation unless you get the right codes from the group leader."

Umino Iruka seldom got any kind of respect at all from people he gave orders to. To be fair, children surrounded him most of the time. But now that his orders were being listened to, he wished with all his might that it hadn't come to an invasion of the village to make his students pay attention. Turning slightly to see the fires and destruction spreading through town, he shook his head. If wishes were that easy to grant, Naruto would be wearing the Hokage robes by now, and I'd be a Jounin or Headmaster of the Academy.

Days like these were what he had dreamed about as a child, opportunities to prove that he, too, had what it took to be a hero like his parents. Chances to fight, rather than just teach. He'd done missions, of course, but when even Naruto had been on a mission several times more dangerous than Iruka had ever completed, comparing records wasn't encouraging.

"All right, you know what to do. Wait for the rest of the groups to arrive. I have to go meet the refugee columns."

Iruka dashed off as his students closed the door to the mountain shelter, heading back down towards the village. Tuning out the sounds of battle, Iruka homed in on the grayish smoke trails rising at intervals within the city, as opposed to the black clouds of smoke created by fire. By design, all of the women and children and non-combat civilians were being evacuated in several directions, and small gray smoke flares led the way. If fire truly began to present a problem, Anbu observers would trigger a second set of flares along the escape paths and send up red smoke. At the same time, anyone in the area who wasn't already escorting a refugee group would drop what they were doing and go to aid the escorts, as the red flares would be an obvious giveaway to enemy shinobi. It was the latest in a series of evacuation plans; several had already been thrown out after prominent shinobi had turned traitor, like Orochimaru and Uchiha Itachi.

Thankfully, it hadn't come to red flares. Yet. Angling his next roof jump towards a gray smoke column, Iruka caught sight of a mottled camouflage pattern streaking down a nearby alleyway. Sound-nin. If they haven't spotted this group, they're about to. If they get the word out, we'll have to go to red, and the situation is only going to get more chaotic.

It had been a very long time since Iruka had had to do anything other than basic ninjutsu or taijutsu. Grudgingly he admitted to himself that seeing what Naruto's class was capable of had left him feeling a bit underpowered. That's no excuse for letting yourself get rusty. Pulling out two kunai, the young man gritted his teeth. No excuses, Iruka. Just do your job like you're always telling the kids to. Teach by example.

Flipping over the edge of the roof, the Leaf Chuunin launched himself towards the alleyway. Almost immediately, he wished he hadn't. Instead of one Sound-nin, he was facing three, one of whom wore a vest and clothes different from the other two. Most likely a Jounin and two Chuunin. This far from home, I don't think the invaders would risk getting their Genin being slaughtered by our forces.

Impossible or not, he'd come this far. He had to fight. Running would only get the evacuees in trouble, and draw their escort over to help him. I just hope this fight turns out a bit better than my little tussle with Mizuki. Screaming incoherently, Iruka leveled his kunai and charged. When the Sound Jounin parried his blow, the Leaf-nin staggered backward, dropping one of his knives. Intending to counter, the enemy shinobi snapped a thrust kick aimed at Iruka's jaw. Dodging, the smaller Chuunin's foot landed on the fallen kunai and slipped, throwing up sparks. Intending to capitalize, the Sound-nin advanced – until he saw the look of triumph on Iruka's face, and the kunai streaking at him, thrown by chakra gathered at the bottom of the Leaf-nin's foot.

Iruka's moment of victory was brief. His opponent vanished in a cloud of smoke, the kunai thudding dully into a block of wood. And behind it, the real Sound Jounin had thrown a shuriken of his own at the now off-balance Leaf Chuunin. He was halfway through his own set of Kawarimi no Jutsu seals when the clang of metal on metal brought him out of his chakra concentrating trance. Looking up, he saw a kunai intercept the Sound-nin's shuriken. A woman's sharp, sarcastic voice echoed from a rooftop above the combatants.

"Iruka, you always say you're more than just a babysitter, but one on three, outnumbered and outranked, ain't gonna prove it. Even your so-called dead last student had more brains than that, last I heard."

Two slender forms leapt down into the alley in front of Iruka, who took one look and blanched. Mitarashi Anko sure did know how to make an appearance, but this took the cake.

"Hinata? What are you doing here?"

"Her duty," the Special Jounin snorted. "Two and a half versus three ain't the greatest of odds, but it's better than what you started with. Let's rumble!"

"Hello? Setsuna-sensei? Slinger? Miki? Are you here?"

The restaurant was eerily quiet when Sakura stuck her head inside. Hearing no response to her question, the pink-haired girl walked in, surveying the dining room for signs of life. Seeing nothing, she proceeded into the kitchen. Pots and pans lay strewn about on the countertops, some almost ready to serve. So they were here, but they must have left already for shelter.

Naruto couldn't have gone to Ichiraku; he'd actually have to pay for his food there. So where could he have gone? Setsuna could take care of herself, and Naruto wasn't so familiar or close with his aunt yet that he'd have gone home to check on her safety. Where else would he go? Ino's house? Back to the stadium? Nowhere at all?

"AAAAH! Naruto! Even when you're not on my team you're still giving me a headache!"

Her ranting done with, Sakura threw the back door open and left the restaurant, heading back the way she'd come.

That wouldn't have been such a big deal, but for two facts, one unfortunate for the kunoichi, and the other quite fortunate for her. Unfortunately, her appearance at and entrance into the restaurant had attracted the attention of several pairs of eyes – none of which belonged to a Leaf-nin – on the premise that the "civilian" building must be some sort of hidden staging area for the Leaf to regroup. Fortunately (although she might not have thought so), the observing invaders didn't consider the pink-haired girl much of a threat. Her exit was unnoticed and unlamented. The other occupants of the building were not going to be quite so lucky.

Mere moments after her student left, Setsuna's head emerged from the passageway leading to the cellar. Peering around in both directions, the ex-waitress saw nobody around.

"Kids these days. Everything's gotta be instant, quick. Nobody's got any damn patience to wait until the door's unlocked."

She was forced to reconsider that opinion when a shuriken whizzed by, inches from her head, and thudded into the wall nearby. Slinger's voice immediately made the situation even worse, as the cook came barreling out into the kitchen as well.

"Whoa! I heard that! Somebody threw a carbon steel Four-Point Starblade! That's the rarest shuriken model ever forged! Let me take a look!"

"Damn it, Slinger! If you have a death wish, indulge it on your own $&!$&# time!"

"Huh. Smith's stamp is from the Akasaka Armory. That's a Wind Country operation."

Setsuna dragged the burly man away from the cellar entrance just as more shuriken and kunai came whizzing in at them.

"Yeah. The four guys out there wearing Sand Village vests and gear kind of tipped me off to that!"

One of their attackers shouted into the kitchen, arm still cocked to throw a weapon.

"Come out of there, or we'll burn this whole damn place down!"

Setsuna kicked open the cellar door, storming out with two hastily grabbed meat cleavers in her hands.

"The hell you say! Do Sand-nins get their kicks from picking on civilian cooks and waitresses now?"

"Cut the bullshit! We know this is a staging area! Give up your commanders!"

"What commanders, numbskull? All we got in our cellar is a fridge for beer and cheap sake, and somewhere to tie down the live produce! You want that, go ahead and buy a lunch special! Otherwise, get the hell out and go fight someone who's up for it!"

The Sand Jounin (or at least it looked like a Jounin to Setsuna – boy, she regretted not paying attention in Foreign Ninja Fashion 101 now) wasn't buying it.

"If you think I won't touch you because you're a woman, you've got another thing coming! If I have to beat it out of you, I will!"

Uzumaki Setsuna spat, a sneer curling the corners of her mouth. All considerations of talking her way out of a fight had just about vanished.

"Punk, you couldn't lay a finger on my body unless you had six feet of rope, a syringe full of knockout drugs and the baddest taijutsu skills alive! Beat it out of me? Try it! I'll carve your ass up and serve you to the dogs!"

Her cook ambled out of the cellar as well, whipping something around in front of and behind him.

"And don't forget Great Nunchaku Master Slinger! Bow down before my obvious skills!"

Setsuna took a closer look and sighed.

"Slinger, unless they're homophobic, whipping a string of sausages around ain't going to scare them off."

"Are you kidding? I made these sausages out of the toughest cow in Echizen City, Iron-Teats Bossy! We haven't sold a link off this string in eleven years! They're like petrified wood! Kneel before my Steel Cow Nunchaku, you bastards!"

"What the hell have you been reading all these years, ninjutsu scrolls or bad chop-socky manga?"

"Both! Manga-ya and the Grass Village did a marketing deal a couple decades back. Good stuff, if you can find it."

The Sand Jounin went bright red. Or puce. Maybe purple. Setsuna had never been good at deciphering skin tone shades.

"You think this is a joke, you bastards? I'm a Jounin of the Hidden Sand Village! Me and my three Chuunin will flay you alive!"

The ex-waitress fixed him with a closer look, and then turned away in disgust.

"Your kunai holster is on backwards, you're wearing noisy-ass metal bracelets on both wrists, and your clothes are brighter than your vest. Who the hell made you a Jounin?"

At this, the enemy shinobi (if you could call him that) had the grace to look sheepish.

"I'm the first cousin of the brother of the childhood sweetheart of the roommate of the Kazekage's wet nurse's father-in-law! Oh, and I play a mean shakuhachi in the village quartet!"

"That's just great," Setsuna growled, "It's the Attack of the Killer Shinobi Dweebs."

"Excuse me? I happen to be Matsutake Kunimitsu, heir of the Matsutake Clan! I think I rate higher than a dweeb. My associates here are all credible graduates of the Sand Academy and validly promoted Chuunin. I shall have them nail your skins to the wall for that affront."

"What, you ain't gonna fight?"

"I hardly think that's necessary," Kunimitsu intoned, buffing the nails of one hand on his vest. "Because if it become necessary for moi to step in…"

Slinger cut the Sand Jounin off, dropping his sausages and grabbing a rolled-up package on the kitchen countertop. He snapped his wrist, unrolling the package to reveal a line of kunai, throwing knives and throwing axes.

"If you end up fighting, you're already dead-on screwed."

"Ye-NO! If I fight, it would simply be overkill. Like swatting a fly with a boat oar. Yes, that's the ticket."

Setsuna made a noise halfway between a growl and a laugh, hefting her improvised weapons.

"I'll give you points for having the balls to say something that ridiculous. Let's see what you and your yes-men can do!"

"Gentlemen," Kunimitsu yawned, turning away, "see to their destruction."

Setsuna and Slinger had handled their share of handicapped fights before, but all of those fights had been against people with no shinobi training. Going two on three against real Chuunin, even those bad enough to be assigned to Kunimitsu, was another thing. For a brief moment, Uzumaki Setsuna regretted flying off the handle. In the next moment, she discarded the feeling. Made your bed, you sleep in it. Just concentrate on surviving – and maybe causing a little mayhem while you're at it.

Meat cleavers were inelegant weapons, and even worse was the fact that they were unwieldy, slow. Versus shinobi armed with sleek, agile kunai, they would be damn near useless. What to do?

"Hey, Motormouth! Happy birthday!"

Tossing one cleaver up into the air, the raven-haired woman whipped a foot around, connecting with the kitchen tool's handle and sending it flying end-over-end in Kunimitsu's direction.

Even a Genin could have ducked the cleaver, given that more than two hundred feet separated Setsuna and Kunimitsu. So Setsuna, even knowing what she did about the "Jounin," was surprised to see one of the three "Chuunin" break formation and deflect her weapon away.

And if they were credible Chuunin, why no jutsus? Why spend time fighting and possibly getting hurt fighting civilians in the middle of an invasion when they could have flayed her and Slinger alive with a good Wind attack or two?

Uzumaki Setsuna's face split open in a savage (some would say half-crazed) grin. They're Chuunin only as much as Kunimitsu's a Jounin. These guys are nothing but a bunch of thugs drafted to be this jackass's bodyguards! They're mooks! Goons! Yabos! In other words…

They're meat.

"Slinger! Gimme the knuckles! We've got some slugging to do."

Placing the remaining cleaver on the countertop beside her, Setsuna caught the pair of brass knuckles Slinger had dug out of his bag and tossed over. Slipping the weapons on, Setsuna turned back towards Kunimitsu's goon squad and settled into a defensive stance.

"Who wants some?"

They might have been thugs, but Kunimitsu's men weren't without some skill. The one in front snapped off a roundhouse kick that Setsuna leaned her upper body away from, parrying deftly with one arm. Dropping to a knee, she whipped her own leg around to sweep her foe, but the first "Chuunin" leaped over it, both combatants coming face to face across the kitchen counter.

Okay, not a TOTAL waste of time. More even a fight than I'd have guessed at the start.

Slinger, as was his wont, had started up a knife fight with Thug #2, keeping a watchful eye on the third straggler. Holding a kunai backhanded, the cook's hands moved with surprising speed, sparks flying as slash followed counter slash. As the last Chuunin approached the kitchen entrance, Slinger pivoted in a half-circle, slashing with enough force that he'd have cut his opponent in two if the man hadn't defended with a double-handed grip on his knife. One opponent occupied, the burly ninja otaku grabbed at a concealed holster hidden in his waistband, fanning out three steel needles. In a fluid motion, Slinger hurled the slim weapons at the Thug #3, forcing him back, and pivoted into a defensive position, facing Thug #2. He might be useless with ninjutsu, but the cook had plenty enough experience with conventional weapons to be dangerous.

"Been a while since we danced like this, Setsuna. I don't care if they're shinobi or not, we're gonna cut this one close, if we stay outnumbered."

Setsuna grunted, snapping Thug #1's head back with a quick jab. The "Chuunin" had seen her brass knuckles coming and pulled his head away to cushion some of the blow.

"About damn time, if you ask me. You were starting to get positively domestic without having to scrap once in a while."

Sensing Thug #3 coming back into play, Setsuna dodged a thrust kick from Thug #1, leaping up to the counter. With a kiai worthy of a black belt, she whipped one leg around in a perfect hook kick, connecting with a five-gallon pot hanging above Slinger's workspace. At such short range, Thug #3 had less than half a second to react and defend himself. Had he been an actual Sand Chuunin, Setsuna's attack would have been futile. Thankfully, he wasn't. A loud bong made the fight equal numbers again.

"There. You happy now?"

Slinger snorted.

"Ecstatic."

Setsuna didn't get the time to enjoy her handiwork. Thug #1 used a neighboring sink to leap up at her, going full-extension with a flying kick. Sneering, she dropped into a split-legged position on the counter, grabbing her foe as he sailed by and helping him on his way. Slinger groaned at the loud crash that resulted.

"Hey, watch the grill! I eat off that thing!"

"You just don't want to wash any (!# plates!"

By the time Thug #1 rose again he looked as if he'd been in prison and pressed his face against just-painted bars. Fortunately for him, Slinger hadn't actually lit the grill fire – yet. Frankly, he didn't have the time.

A knife fight – a really good knife fight, to be exact – was a lot like a chess match. One wrong move opened up dozens of possible counterattacks, but even those could be parried if you guessed right. Slinger Ozaki was good at chess, though he was no Shikamaru. And while Thug #2 was no Sand Chuunin, he was quite a chess player himself. Both men now sported cuts, most of them shallow, seemingly all randomly placed, and all bleeding. Neither of them said anything. It was enough to admire the other's technique – and be wary of it.

He's using the Scorpion stance, the cook noted. Sharp, darting attacks, the occasional low strike, trying to wear me down. Gotta see about countering that.

Curling his knife hand above his shoulder, Slinger assumed a mirror of Thug #2's Scorpion stance, looking to see if the man shifted stances or attacked first. When nothing happened, the cook snapped into action. Curling his index finger over his knife rather than around it, Slinger opened his hand, flicked the knife down to his other hand, and charged.

"Checkmate."

Thug #2 turned slightly, intent on evading the thrust that seemed to be aimed at his heart. A grin split Slinger's face from ear to ear. As the two men passed, he muttered a message to his opponent.

"Now who said I was trying to kill you?"

As he finished speaking, Slinger rammed his blade so hard into the Sand thug's shoulder both men heard the bloodcurdling squeal of metal on bone. As they broke apart, the thug leaped back, the arm hanging limply at his side.

"Ain't had a good fight in months. You think I'm gonna end it this quick?"

Setsuna's voice snapped him out of his triumphant moment.

"Slinger, behind you!"

Thug #3 must have had a head of pure rock, because Setsuna's pot strike had knocked him silly for a grand total of 90 seconds. Both restaurant workers having forgotten about him, the Sand fighter had grabbed Setsuna's forgotten cleaver and was now bearing down on the cook with it, raised high to strike. Or at least, he would have struck but for the resounding clang that echoed through the kitchen.

"What the hell?"

As the third thug crashed to the ground, he revealed another form standing behind him, white as a sheet, shaking like a leaf – and holding a now-deeply dented frying pan. Tanaga Miki pointed a trembling finger at Kunimitsu and mustered a voice halfway between a squeak and a roar.

"Y-y-you get out! Now!"

Setsuna was not one to look gift horses in the mouth.

"All right, buddy boy. It's decision time. I'm feeling generous. One of your mooks has a busted wing, the other one's got a busted melon and I'm about to bust the third a new one right between those delightful lines on his face. You've got two choices. Pack up your boys and get the hell out, or stay and see how many different varieties of dog chow I can turn you into once I'm done with the Goon Squad."

Kunimitsu might have been a fop, but he wasn't a dumb fop.

"You are the very soul of mercy. I'll be leaving now."

"Good. You hang around any longer and I'll become the soul of ass-whooping. Get going!"

Thug #1 warily stepped over near Miki, who squeaked and brandished her frying pan. Spitting disgustedly, the Sand fighter ignored the red-haired waitress and picked his fallen comrade up under the armpits, dragging him out back towards Kunimitsu. Grunting in pain, Thug #2 followed, although not before yanking Slinger's knife out of his shoulder. His eyes promised revenge if the two should ever meet again.

When the door finally shut behind Kunimitsu and his men, the three co-workers collapsed in relief, Setsuna falling into a nearby chair, Slinger grimacing as he leaned against the counter to put pressure on his wounds, Miki hugging her knees to herself. Naruto's aunt took a look around at the devastation wrought in the kitchen, and the weapons sticking out of the wall. The ex-waitress angrily hurled one of her brass knuckles at a pan on the floor.

"That little ditz comes here out of the blue and asks me for training. Now she skips in here, runs out, attracts the attention of a bunch of destructive lunatics, makes me fight them, and then isn't even here to clean up the mess. Sakura, you better keep running. Because if you ever come by this place again, you're gonna work every red cent of these damages off."

Slinger asked a question of her as he pulled a bottle of alcohol out of the medicine cabinet.

"Thought you had insurance for shinobi."

The grin on Uzumaki Setsuna's face, savage and malicious, mirrored exactly her nephew's expression when he'd gone out to fight the attackers minutes before.

"She doesn't know that."

"Great! This is just great! Uncle Kumataro's going to kill me and probably adopt some ragamuffin off the street as the new heir once he finds out about this. Beaten up by two waitresses and a cook! We've hit a new low!"

His only undamaged lackey made a disparaging noise, lending an arm for Lackey #2, he of the damaged arm, to lean on. Kunimitsu had bandaged the man's wound and stopped the bleeding with one of his best stylish gauze wraps, which the Wind Country's Bureau of Aesthetics had rightly praised him for. Was it his fault Uncle Kumataro prized the Kazekage's awards above the BOA's?

Lackey #3, a few steps behind, hadn't said more than a few words since they'd left the restaurant, and apparently hadn't heard much either. Getting his bell rung by a waitress half his size was a good excuse for doing nothing, Kunimitsu had to admit. It was really too bad that the rank Uncle Kumataro had secured for him wouldn't allow for that kind of injury to excuse him from fighting. Right about now, that was what he desperately desired.

"I don't suppose there's a way for us to go home at this point. Perhaps we should head for Tanzaku-gai and see Rokusaburo the Surgeon. I've heard he does excellent facial transformations."

Lackey #1 wasn't terribly fond of his employer or the man's nephew, but he did sort of need to get paid.

"Sir, as long as you distinguish yourself somehow during the invasion I'm certain Matsutake-sama will consider this outing a success. One kill, for instance."

"Oh, honestly. I think we both know how likely that is to happen."

Lackey #3 picked a good time to say something for once.

"There's a group of people heading down an alley that way, two blocks down. Looks like the Leaf are trying to clear noncombatants out of the way so they can counterattack."

Lackey #1 was a thug, but not necessarily a particularly evil thug.

"They're civilians, you moron."

"Hey, there's enough dead Leaf mooks around here already to take forehead protectors off of. We could, like, turn the civvies into shinobi or something after we waste 'em. Be a good photo op for Matsutake-sama."

At this point, Kunimitsu would have streaked through an old wives' convention at the local hot springs to avoid having to report back to the Kazekage and his uncle that his squad's only accomplishment was making a wide-bodied cook attempt to fight them with a string of stale, iron-hard beef sausages.

"That's so stupid it might actually work. It would only take one kill, really. Perhaps we could ask them who the village idiot is and do them a public service."

Before any of them had taken a single step off their rooftop perch (or hiding spot, whatever), a kunai thudded into the building in front of them.

"Wow, big men. You attack out of nowhere, mess up the peace, ally with Orochimaru and now you want to slaughter a bunch of civilians. I should have been born in the Sand; I'd be Kazekage by now with those standards."

Kunimitsu looked up to see four Leaf Genins on a neighboring roof, two male and two female. The blonde boy in the middle appeared to be the source of the previous comment. Lackey #1 was not about to let that slide, even if was technically true.

"You've got a big mouth, kid. Let's see you back it up against a Jounin and three Chuunin!"

The other Leaf boy made a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh.

"A Jounin and three Chuunin? If translated into our ranks, given your plan I think it comes out to a fifth-year senior at the Academy and several toddlers."

Lackey #3, perhaps still addled by all the cookware he'd been hit with, opened his mouth in response.

"THAT'S IT! I'm gonna rip your guts out and paint this little shantytown red with your blood!"

His eyes widened as the first Leaf boy began to glow red, and an evil presence weighed the air down.

"Sorry. That's my line."

AUTHOR'S NOTES

I would have loved to have updated sooner, but Real Life, as many of you know, is a pain in the ass. Between Ch. 17 and now, I lost my job, started getting headaches, had to take my car in for almost $1,000 in repairs because the brakes were dying on me, and generally life sucked. Things are, of course, looking up, mostly because they don't have any lower to go.

Thankfully, Set in Stone 4 and the second chapter of my LJ story are planned out thoroughly, so look for those to come out faster than this chapter took. I realize there wasn't much Naruto in Ch. 18, and the perspectives jumped around a lot, but it was necessary. Ch. 19 is going to be one gigantic battle from start to finish, and will be (I think) the true point at which this plot goes completely AU. Stay tuned.

Next: Iruka, Anko and Hinata versus three Sound-nins! Naruto, Ino, Neji and Tenten versus Kunimitsu and the Goon Squad (and then on to weightier issues)! And where exactly is Sasuke headed?