Naruto: Set in Stone

by The SOC Puppet

Chapter 4 – Beyond The Wall

Summary: Naruto, Kaori and their friend Juzo passed the Genin Exam and got their first mission – which turned out not to be a mission after all. Now that they're fully-fledged Genin of the Stone, what adventures await?

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, except for originals that may pop up along the way. All jutsus are also not my property, other than the ones I think up.

" " – Speech

Italics – Thoughts

"Come now, boy. You can't keep Naruto bottled up forever. He'll have to emerge into the greater spotlight eventually if he's to advance ranks."

Yamazaki Daimaru glowered at his father as they sat at his desk, inside the Tsuchikage's office. The Fifth looked down at the mission briefings on his desk, and though none of them was any higher than a C-Rank mission, he was still anxious.

"Father, don't make light of the situation. Up until now, Naruto's only been threatened by natural Earth Country enemies or neighboring villages trying deprive the Clan of a male heir. When they discover Naruto's identity, the Leaf will come looking for him. I can protect him inside our borders, but I can't protect him against Leaf hunters or renegades on top of whatever resistance he'll encounter on outside missions."

The Earth Country's isolation from other countries was partly by choice, and partly because of a giant mountain range, known as the Shield Wall, encircling it on two sides; the sea completed that circle to the north and west. On maps, it was an empty, neutral ring around them, keeping them away from the Wind and Fire Countries and sealing in several minor hidden villages: Waterfall, Rain and Grass.

The mountains presented a unique obstacle; so high and treacherous they were all but impassable, they could be traversed only via a few easy-to-defend trails. Of the five major countries, only the Earth Country's borders had never changed in any of the great wars of the past. It was simply impossible to invade. But given the difficulties of maintaining supply lines beyond the Shield Wall, the Earth Country couldn't easily conquer territory outside its natural defense barrier.

Most people of the Earth Country, isolated and non-technological, couldn't have cared less. It kept "corrupting" or "polluting" influences from seeping into their homeland. But the Stone Village was a place where information – and outside information in particular – was invaluable, given the difficulties in observing opponents. Their only recourse for a long time had been sending out parties to conduct surveillance on other Hidden Villages. The surveillance party Daimaru had sent to the Leaf when the Ninetails attacked were the ones who had found Naruto.

He'd never regretted it, but Daimaru knew adopting Naruto had come at a great cost. The Tsuchikage was not stupid enough to believe the Leaf would simply forget his son had ever existed. The Stone Village leader had clamped down on almost all of the information flow into and out of his country. If Naruto hadn't become a Genin, his picture would never have gotten out of the Earth Country. Instead, the Fifth had organized more and more missions on the border, trying to make up for the lost intelligence streams. It helped, but it only went so far.

The missions before him were all outside the Wall, several on the border with the Fire Country, and one on the always-explosive border with the Wind. You couldn't say much for the Sand Village's intelligence, but they were definitely persistent. With their daimyo cutting costs and sending missions to other villages, the Sand found all kinds of excuses to "take out the competition."

Kantaro tapped the Wind Country briefing, drawing his son's attention to the C-Rank mission.

"If you're that uptight about letting him outside the Wall, send him up against the Sand. They'll only be trying to kill him for sport, rather than being a demon's vessel, if that makes you feel any better."

The Fifth rarely appreciated his father's twisted sense of humor. This time was no exception.

"Any other mission, I would send him. But this one is more than just a police action for the Sagami City magistrate. According to his intelligence, the smugglers he's been chasing are operating in both the Wind and Earth Countries. If even one of our people goes over the border chasing these scumbags, the Sand will take no time pouring back over onto our side with some cockamamie excuse. It won't get them any territory or influence, but it will create casualties. Wasteful ones. Weren't you the one who always hated wasting resources?"

"Pah. Any Jounin worth their rank would know well enough to stay off the border and let the Sand authorities handle it. If the smugglers are bounding back and forth, it can only be because there's heat on them from both sides of the border."

"I'd agree with you – if any Jounin but Yuki were Naruto's sensei. One insult, one moment of frustration, and she may very well give the Sand their excuse. I can't risk the safety of my son – or my sister – in a situation that tense."

"Daimaru," the Fourth sighed. "It's time she proved herself. She's barely made it into every rank she ever had in this village. If she can't handle even a politically-charged mission, what will you ever be able to trust her with?"

Kantaro's son was unconvinced.

"You're telling me this? From Day One, you've done the most arguing with her. Of everyone in the village, you've always had the worst opinion of her. Why the change of heart?"

The retired Kage stared his successor straight in the eye.

"It's true I don't think much of Yuki. But if I thought she was worthless, I would have told Magoichi flat out she wasn't to get anywhere near Naruto's Genin team. All this time, we've given her things we know she's good at and can handle. That's no longer possible. She's got to show everyone that she's a true Jounin, or else we look like we gave her the rank. Training your future heir sounded like a good test. A mission with political implications is an even better measure of her progress."

"In other words, shape up or ship out?"

The old shinobi's voice was colder than the arctic winds atop the Shield Wall.

"I couldn't agree more."

"Smugglers? Isn't that more a B-Rank or A-Rank mission?"

Yuki held her orders between two fingers, as though repulsed by them.

Daimaru shook his head, pointing to the paper in her hand.

"Look for yourself. I had this mission vetted by our intel men in Sagami four times. None of the smugglers are shinobi, just thugs and bruisers. With the firepower of each Earth Country posse sent to shut them down, if they had actual power, they would have had to use it by now. There is one thing…"

Yuki's ears perked up at the slightest hint of intrigue.

"And that is?"

"Intel says these guys are jumping back and forth between the Earth and Wind sides of the border. But the bulk of their time's spent in the Wind Country. Only time they're seen on our side is when they actually have an operation to carry out. Doesn't make any damn sense. The Earth Country throws its criminals in jail, but the Wind Country, well, you're lucky if you even make it to a work camp or a cell. Most smugglers would be smart enough to flip it over and base themselves here. At least they'd survive if they were caught."

"What if they're just stupid adrenaline freaks?"

"Then," the Fifth shrugged, "I'm just being overcautious. But the whole thing stinks. That's why I'm giving you an additional order - under no circumstances are you to cross the Earth-Wind border. Not physically, not with an attack, nothing. The same goes for Naruto, Kaori and Juzo. If the smugglers cross over, let the Wind Country authorities handle them. Eventually they'll either give up or the Wind will take them down. Either way, they can't complain about us invading their turf."

"I thought you said Sagami City wants these idiots taken care of. How do we do that if we can't finish them off?"

Daimaru wasn't about to start giving out hints.

"You're a smart woman, Yuki. You figure it out."

If there was one good thing about Yamazaki Yuki, she was an early riser. Not minutes after sunrise on the morning after briefing her team, the kunoichi had packed her three Genin off on the road leading south, towards the border.

"Today," she began as the group exited the Stone Village's gates, "we've got an actual job to do. Sagami City is suffering from a rat infestation. These are special rats - smugglers bringing all sorts of illegal black-market goods into and out of the Earth Country. Fortunately for us, they also operate in the Wind Country. If we can chase them over the border, we'll let their authorities handle it."

Never one to dodge a fight, Juzo was skeptical of those orders.

"Yuki-sensei, we've seen you fight before. Nobody ever gets off clean, or escapes. Why you turning yellow all of a sudden?"

The Jounin replied – after mentally slapping the younger boy upside the head.

"We're dealing with smugglers, not shinobi. These guys don't have our training and power, so they're smart enough not to fight us straight up. Instead, they'll be running at the slightest hint we're coming. We won't be battling them so much as chasing them. And that means we have to be conscious of our environment when we're doing so. The Tsuchikage himself said none of us are to get anywhere near the Wind Country border. That's all the Sand would need to come and attack us for 'trespassing.' Believe me, we don't need that."

Something in the Jounin's voice irritated Juzo, who threw up his arms in disgust.

"What's the big deal fighting the Sand? They're a bunch of pussies that toss wind and fling sand. You ask me, they make Futaba, the drag queen pub bartender, look like the Macho King of the World."

"Read up on your foreign villages studies more next time, then. These guys are nutcases with a capital N. Don't tell me you've never heard your parents or friends whisper the stories that go around."

Kaori sniggered.

"Oh, he's heard some. My older sister Kana, trusting soul that she is, told a story she once overheard from Daddy about a Sand Jounin slicing a man in half from a hundred meters with nothing but a wave of his arm and a vacuum blade. Juzo heard it and fainted dead away. Must have blocked that memory out, huh?"

The Jounin snorted.

"If that was all the rumors said, the Sand wouldn't be any scarier than us. There's only one thing you need to know. Naruto's not the only kid of his kind. The Kazekage's youngest son holds the spirit of an old Sand priest-turned-demon. Naruto's demon is there because someone put it there to save the Leaf Village. The Kazekage's boy? His demon was put in him on purpose – his own father's orders. They wanted a living weapon. That should tell you exactly what these freaks are capable of."

Naruto heard the words but couldn't process them. On purpose? What parent would willingly subject their child to such torture? If this Sand demon was anything like the Ninetails, the Kazekage's son was plagued with a curse that was nearly impossible to control. Naruto had never willingly given into his demon's savage leanings, and had sworn never to do so. The nightmares he occasionally had, flashbacks of everything the fox demon had done over the centuries, were horror enough.

He felt sympathy for the other boy, but the Tsuchikage's son wasn't stupid enough to feel pity or friendship. To be raised as a living weapon was a recipe for disaster – and madness. Naruto had enough problems just trying to suppress the rage and diabolical power that occasionally surged within him. Who would be fool enough to try and embrace them wholeheartedly? Who could? A little part of him, the darkness hiding inside, was intrigued at seeing what kind of power the other demon possessed, to measure itself against the "competition." That by itself was disturbing enough.

"Drop the bravado, Juzo. They're hardly weaklings. You remember what happened when that Sand assassin attacked while you were at my house. Imagine that power in someone without any control at all, or even insane. That's a long way away from being a pussy."

Juzo did indeed remember, although he fervently wished he didn't. The Sand assassin had knocked Kaori out, and was halfway through trying to pierce Mizuki with several vacuum blades when Naruto had abruptly turned red and charged him. By the time the nine-year old had finished with his attacker, there hadn't been enough left of the corpse to identify it. The expression on Naruto's face before Kantaro had calmed him down had been evil incarnate.

Daimaru had sent pieces of the assassin's remains to every neighboring Hidden Village (and some distant ones) with a newspaper clipping about the incident. Only the Leaf had been excluded, for obvious reasons. He had retained the skull and mounted it on a pike at the main gate. No assassins had dared strike at Naruto since. The Fifth made no effort to disguise his low tolerance for those who tried. Retaliation for any foreign attacks on his son had been swift, exact, and sadistically brutal. Few people were stupid enough to offend a Yamazaki twice, but there were enough idiots out there that the lesson always had to be taught.

Given the thought of someone who was even more brutal or cruel, it was no wonder Juzo had never considered what might be worse than a demon-possessed Naruto. The heavyset boy shuddered visibly.

"You had to remind me, didn't you?"

"What," Yuki snorted, "you thought all shinobi are as easygoing and quick to make up as us? We're a special case. There's an entire mountain range defending us, and we don't steal enough clients away for any other Hidden Village to take notice. Not everyone has those advantages. You ask me, hanging out in the desert under the sun all the time has fried their brains."

Naruto was tired of discussing insanity – if only because he worried the Ninetails would be encouraged.

"So what's the plan, if we've got one? Just waltz in and beat these smugglers down?"

"The Sagami City Constable will brief us when we get there," Yuki said, "and he'll do what he can to help us out. For now, expect to do a stakeout or two before we move in. Gotta see just when and where they cross over onto our side of the border, so it can be sealed off or we can trap them in."

"And if they run?"

"Play it by ear," his aunt sighed, evidently tired of thinking it over. "Best case scenario, we do force them over into the Wind Country, and make their cops put them away. And if they don't, every merchant who runs trade routes through this area will be quite interested to hear how the Wind Country condones smuggling. Pity, that. Now enough talk. We've still got another day or two to go until we pass through the Wall."

YOU SEEM DISTURBED, HUMAN. I MUST BE SLIPPING. NORMALLY EVEN THINKING OF ME IS ENOUGH TO MAKE YOUR KNEES KNOCK. NOW I FIND YOU IN FEAR OF SOME OTHER DEMON FROM THE DESERT. FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT. YOU WILL SOON SEE THAT THIS SAND DEMON IS NOTHING IN COMPARISON TO MY POWER.

Naruto wasn't sure what was worse – the nightmares or the occasional visit he was dragged into at the gates of the Ninetails' seal, when he drifted into very deep sleep. Not because of any physical danger; the seal took care of that. It was more because the fox demon was unbelievably annoying. Reduced to bluster, unable to harm its vessel, it took what scant pleasure it could in disrupting the human boy's dreams as much as possible.

It was right about one thing. Naruto rightly feared the demon's influence on him, but he also held very scant respect for it.

"Big words. You can't even get to one lousy human and you're spouting off about beating another demon?"

TO CALL SHUKAKU OF THE SANDS A DEMON IS TO DISGRACE US ALL. DO YOU REALIZE WHAT HE WAS BEFORE HE ATTAINED HIS POWER? A PRIEST! A FOOL OF A CLERIC!

"You're shitting me. How's a priest become a demon?"

IT IS THE FATE OF ALL YOU HUMAN FOOLS WHO BELIEVE THEY CAN COME TO CONTROL AND MANIPULATE THE ENERGIES OF MAKAI. EVENTUALLY, MAKAI CONTROLS THEM, CORRUPTS THEM. SHUKAKU WAS NO DIFFERENT. THE LAST I SAW OF THE FOOL, A TANUKI LORD HAD TAKEN POSSESSION OF HIS SOUL, DRIVING HIM INSANE. A FINE FATE FOR ONE WHO STUDIED US IN ORDER TO SEAL US.

"So you're saying whoever Shukaku is inside doesn't hold a candle to you?"

WHAT HAVE I, A FULL KYUBI, TO FEAR FROM AN INSANE BADGER? YOU ARE THE ONE WHO SHOULD BE AFRAID. IT IS NOT MUCH OF A DEMON, BUT A MERE HUMAN CANNOT HOPE TO STAND AGAINST IT.

"And so it all comes down to the same bullshit from you again. Embrace you and I can beat anything."

THE TRUTH IS THE TRUTH. WHY DO YOU RUN FROM IT?

"Maybe because I've seen pictures of what you've done. Or just because I feel like it, you fuzzy lunatic. Pretty much the same thing."

SAY WHAT YOU WILL, HUMAN. IF YOU ARE FOOL ENOUGH TO FIGHT THE VESSEL OF SHUKAKU, YOU WILL NEED ME. THEN WE SHALL SEE HOW FAR YOU CAN RUN.

As it usually did when Naruto started ignoring it, the Ninetails retreated into a sulk, its red glow disappearing from view. Tonight was not like usual – by now Naruto would have been smiling. The Tsuchikage's son wasn't. Why he wasn't smiling was simple – this time, there was a very good chance the Ninetails was telling the absolute, stone-cold truth. Suddenly his first mission outside the Shield Wall loomed very ominously.

He tried to calm himself down. If the other boy was a Kage's son, surely they must have taken the same precautions as the Tsuchikage had taken with Naruto, like keeping him close to home for a while. Why waste him on a task like hunting down powerless smugglers?

The more he thought about it, the less that reassured Yamazaki Naruto. His life had so far defied every logical barrier in its path. The blonde Genin had a sinking feeling that the demon vessel from the Sand would be no different.

Sagami City was like any other border city in the Earth Country. Haphazardly built, there was no rhyme or reason to the buildings in its streets – which were themselves laid out like a patchwork quilt, cobblestones meeting asphalt, the old and the new. They simply existed, thrown up to feed whatever new need its citizens could think up.

The same couldn't be said for the massive concrete wall bisecting the place, sealing off the city from a similar settlement on its other side in the Wind Country. More than fifty feet high, topped with razor wire, it was obviously there for one reason – keeping people from going back and forth without prior permission.

But that reason paled when you saw the steady stream of people moving back and forth through the wall's two gates, a half-mile apart. Yuki's eyebrow twitched in irritation as she looked on.

"I can see why they needed some outside help with their border patrols."

"Yuki-sensei," Kaori smiled (with poorly disguised contempt), "don't you remember? Daimyo Kurasaka started an Open Door Policy three years ago when he took the throne, so the Earth Country wouldn't be so isolated. Most people still don't go past the Wall, but new culture's slowly seeping in."

Juzo grimaced.

"Guess there's something to that Sand trap theory after all. Who'd bother to smuggle if all you have to do is walk through a hole in the wall?"

"We don't know that for certain," Naruto muttered. "A lot of things are banned in the Wind Country. Anything above a bladed weapon, items that can be concealed easily to help prisoners escape, like small tools a visitor could smuggle in. They're not bringing stuff into our country, they're taking it out. With the contempt the Wind has for the Earth, no guard would bother searching someone who comes back over to their side. They don't think we have anything worth stealing or smuggling, what with normal Earth Country people's lack of technology. To them we might as well be ignorant hicks."

Yuki shook her head, looking at the mass of people going in and out of the gates.

"Doesn't mesh. Most of our border city authorities wouldn't bat an eye at people taking tools or weapons out of the country. Earth Country doesn't produce anything along those lines you can't find elsewhere. If Sagami City wanted these clowns caught, it's because they're making it an entry point for something."

"Contraband, if you must know. They're bringing large quantities of narcotics, technology with high pollution quantities and assorted other banned items."

Sagami City's Chief Constable, Murayama Sosuke, was as rugged-looking as his hometown, and as irritated as Yuki had guessed he would be. Like most frontier lawmen, Chief Murayama was not pleased at having a case on his hands he couldn't solve himself. The Jounin wasn't buying his explanation.

"And what would they get paid with? Last I checked, the Earth Country keeps all precious metals and gems within its borders. Nothing of any value gets anywhere near the borders unless the daimyo approves, and anything that does go there is escorted by Stone-nins."

"Actually," the Constable grumbled, "you'd be surprised. They want crops."

The gathered shinobi looked at Sosuke like he'd just grown two heads.

"Crops!?"

He shrugged.

"Do you have any idea of the physical impossibility of growing food in the desert? Over the years, the Wind Country daimyos intentionally let a lot of their fields go fallow, to turn them into desert. It's their own version of the Shield Wall, only this Wall has maybe one oasis every hundred square miles, and will bleach your bones to ivory in seconds if the vultures don't get to them first. Having to import so much food keeps people dependent on the daimyos for survival; only they have the resources to do so. It's certainly cheaper than building prisons for dissenters."

Yuki muttered a curse under her breath.

"All right, food for drugs and bad tech. Let's assume that's their reason, even if it's completely unrealistic. How have they been operating?"

"It's pretty simple. They find back alleys, taverns, basements. Even a couple of brothels and abandoned warehouses. Anywhere they can meet in secrecy. And the longer this has been going on, the more brazen they're getting. More stuff to sell, locations farther and farther away from the wall. Makes it easier to find their meetings, but each time, it's like they know we're coming. They're half out the door by the time we even arrive."

"Could it be an inside job by your men?"

"It seemed possible, but we've only got five deputies. I asked Stone-nins passing through to watch them where possible. None of them have gone anywhere near a smuggler. If I didn't know any better, I'd say these slimeballs are getting scouting and advance intel from shinobi of their own. They don't do any fighting for them, but letting them escape is problem enough."

"Well," Juzo sighed, "Safe to say the Sand's involved in this. Trap or not ain't clear, but their fingers are all over it. Sure explains why they're acting so tough when they ain't got any power of their own to speak of. How we gonna move?"

"First," Sosuke muttered, "you're going to have to leave town."

Juzo did a double take.

"Say what? We fight by retreating?"

Yuki waved off her student's indignant question.

"I know what the Chief's getting at. If Sand-nins are supplying the smugglers with intel, they have to have noticed us coming into the city. If my Jounin robes didn't do it, our forehead protectors would have. They see us here, either there's going to be a fight, or they back off until we get frustrated and leave for real."

Naruto looked at the map of Sagami City on Sosuke's office wall.

"So let's say we wait outside the city, in the forests closest to the wall. When the Chief and his people find another black market sale going on they'll flush the smugglers out. If nobody here's ever fought their hired help, that means the Sand shinobi must be leaving the Wind Country ahead of the smugglers. If we're along their escape route, we could confirm they're working together."

"That's a lot of wall to cover," Kaori said, tapping the map. "We'd have to split up to get it all. What happens if they notice us?"

Yuki waved a hand in dismissal of their unknown foes.

"As soon as you can see who and what they are, back off. Once we know how they operate, we can shut the whole operation down. If we fight, they'll just change how they move. And if it really comes down to a fight, call the rest of the team in, and we'll fight them on this side of the border. Nothing like a direct solution to your problems."

Naruto winced, thinking of the likelihood of another twist of fate aimed right at him.

"How did I know she was going to say that?"

"Juzo's calling the wrong person yellow. You haven't looked this nervous since the day Grandfather explained what an engagement really was."

Naruto turned from his perch atop a pine tree, to see Kaori landing on a nearby bough. The girl always had been blunt.

"Just thinking. I never ran from a fight in my life and you know it."

"You, thinking? That's never a good sign."

It was when her betrothed didn't respond that Kaori knew more than just thinking was going on in Naruto's head.

He's brooding. He never broods. Naruto's killed assassins before, faced off with a thing that would make grown men crack. Nothing's ever spooked him.

"Want to talk about it?"

His response wasn't too helpful.

"He's out there. I don't know how I know, but I know."

"If you're out to piss me off from frustration, you're doing a great job. Mind clearing things up?"

"That Sand kid. The one with the demon, like Aunt Yuki said. He's in on this. I can feel it."

"So what?" Kaori shrugged. "You can take him. It's not like his demon's any more powerful than yours."

"That's not the point!"

"Then what is?"

"Who gives a crap if his demon is more powerful than mine? I've never consciously used the Ninetails' power, and I don't want to. What I'm worried about is if this kid is crazy enough or trained to use his demon's power."

His fiancée's expression didn't change.

"Then he's as insane as anyone who willingly lives in the middle of the desert. Don't tell me you actually think you and he have anything in common?"

"As long as this thing is inside me, the chance is there."

Naruto flinched as Kaori snapped a soft, intense curse at him.

"Bullshit."

"What now?"

"You heard me. What makes you think you're anything like him? Did you forget what Aunt Yuki said? He's been raised as a weapon. His own father condemned him to his fate. Your parents saved you from the Leaf. You know better than to use your demon. I doubt he does. You are not him."

Hearing a sound, the blonde Genin slapped a hand over Kaori's mouth.

"Shut up. We'll talk later."

She forced his hand off, eyes blazing.

"You can't run from this, Naruto."

"I'm not," he murmured. "Our sand-rat pals are coming this way, and unless you want a fight, we better keep quiet."

"This is a good chance to find out if your little nemesis is here."

Naruto sighed.

"I'll take my chances some other time. If he's here and he really does know how to use his demon, fighting him ourselves is suicide. When everyone knows their escape route, we'll all fight him."

Placing one of his hands on the trunk of the pine tree, the Tsuchikage's son performed a series of seals with his free hand.

"Doton: Suishou Shuriken no Jutsu (Earth Element: Crystal Shuriken no Jutsu)."

A glittering ball of energy began to form around Naruto's free hand, pulsing along with his heartbeat, drawing minerals out of the tree. Finishing his seals, Naruto formed a fist around the energy, molding it into the form of a throwing star, which he hurled at another nearby tree, shattering it into crystal dust. Taking his other hand from the tree trunk, he quickly switched into a set of two-handed seals.

"Doton: Suisho Bouenkyo (Earth Element: Crystal Telescope)."

Closing his left eye, the Genin focused his vision on the moonlight filtering off all the crystal motes floating in the air, dispersing chakra outwards to see whatever might be reflected, before the remains of his shuriken fell to earth. After a few moments to get his bearings, Naruto motioned to Kaori to make some notes.

"Looks like four Sand-nins. Jounin and three Genin, if their dress codes are anything like ours. Three male, one female. Male Jounin has a cloth covering half his face, maybe for the mission or to hide scars. Genin kunoichi's blonde, with four pigtails. Other two male Genin are younger; one has a wrapped bundle on his back and the other has a gourd…"

Kaori prodded her betrothed as he trailed off.

"What?"

"It's him."

"Him who?"

"The Sand demon. Not the kid with the wrapped bundle, the one with the gourd."

"You sound pretty sure. How do you figure that's him?"

"I can't put it into words. It's a gut feeling. Took one look at his eyes and it chilled me down to the bone. They're empty. Completely dead, no trace of humanity. That says living weapon to me."

Kaori triggered her headset, patching her into Yuki, Juzo and Sosuke's frequencies.

"Guys, I think we've got our shinobi, heading towards Grid 207. Jounin and three Genin, even odds. Unless you believe what Naruto's saying."

Yuki responded immediately, a faint sound of moving brush in the background betraying her movement.

"What is it?"

"He says one of the Genin in the Sand group is the kid you told us all about, the one whose father put a demon in him."

"With my luck, I wouldn't bet against it. Observe them as long as it's safe, but don't pursue. I want their route traced as closely as possible."

"Don't worry," Naruto gritted out. "I'm not exactly in the mood to take him on. Not yet, anyway."

"Okay," Yuki sighed, tracing two red route lines on the map of the border area. "we know they take different routes to escape. The shinobi head west, to where Naruto and Kaori were. Juzo and I caught the smugglers heading east in our direction. Probably to avoid just the scenario we want; keep us from proving this is a Sand-sanctioned operation."

Sosuke shook his head.

"I still don't like that theory. Why send the smugglers on a defined escape route without an escort, when they could give up the plan?"

"Could be they've got suicide protocols, like poison capsules to swallow if captured or cornered. If the shinobi never get involved, nobody finds out there's more to the plan than mere smuggling. That leaves them free to set their trap all over again."

Juzo grunted, his first input in a while.

"If they're separated in the first place, why even bother trying to capture these smugglers?"

"Who said anything about capturing them?"

"Now you've lost me."

"If we're chasing them, right on their heels, but there's open space in front of us, even a man with a suicide order would run rather than die. As long as we keep them busy dodging attacks and stay far enough away, they'll keep on running. All we have to do is direct them to where the Sand shinobi cross the border. If they cross, the Sand-nins will have to deal with them. If they don't, I'm for slaughtering them as an object lesson to the Sand."

Naruto snorted.

"They're just pawns. You think the Sand Village would care if we kill them?"

"I sincerely hope so."

The Tsuchikage's son shook his head, checking his weapons pouches.

"I don't know what to be more scared of, that Sand demon kid or my aunt developing a taste for blood."

"You'll get your answer by the time this night is over," Yuki snarled, slamming a kunai into the map grid where the Sand shinobi had been. "Let's go teach these bastards what side of the border they belong on."

"GET BACK HERE, YOU PIMPLES ON THE ASS OF HUMANITY! I'LL RIP YOUR BALLS OFF AND FEED THEM TO THE DOGS!"

Naruto winced as Yuki's scream tore into his ears over the headset, looking over at Kaori as he did so.

"Are we completely sure she's only going to chase them?"

"Do you think you could stop her if she tried otherwise?"

"Probably not."

Crashes, grunts and muffled curses echoed through the woods, coming closer to Naruto, Kaori and Juzo's hiding place. After a few seconds Yuki could be heard screaming again.

"Doton: Honpou Saiganki (Earth Element: Rampant Rock Crusher)!"

Five men in ratty clothing crashed through the brush near the three Genin, running full tilt for the border. Yuki came barreling out after them seconds later, slamming her hands against the earth. In response, two boulders erupted up from the points of impact. Rising swiftly, the Jounin slapped one hand each against the boulders, which exploded outwards toward the fleeing smugglers. Or, they would have, had the explosion been aimed a few inches higher. As it was the impact of the smaller stones kicked up plenty of dirt and dust, both on the smugglers and on the Genin lying in wait.

"I'd call this friendly fire," Juzo mumbled, shielding his face with one arm, "but that'd be mistaking Yuki-sensei fornice."

Kaori murmured her own response through the collar of her shirt.

"Just feel lucky she's aiming low. Serizawa Goemon got the full impact and you saw what it did to him."

"Serizawa Goemon's a moron who must have lucked into Chuunin rank. Who else would be dumb enough to stand Yuki up on a date?"

Naruto held up a finger gingerly, in case more rocks were coming his way.

"One man's stupidity is another's , he was so pissed we egged his house he forgot to put on the standard anti-Yuki protective cup before coming out. That's his problem. Our problem just ran past us. Move!"

Juzo raised himself up from a prone position, slipping a kunai out of his pouch.

"Five seconds and she's already out of eyesight. How come she never moves this fast at home?"

"When was the last time someone in the Stone Village gave anyone else a shot at consequence-free violence?"

"What about when that pop star Tomoyuki came to town?"

"I said consequence-free. No idol can withstand a fangirl stampede. Not in one piece, anyhow."

Readying his weapons, Naruto took some time to let his thoughts vanish, simple banter occupying his mind. Better that than walking around on eggshells, waiting for a catastrophe or worse wearing a Sand forehead protector. The same went for movement. Putting one foot in front of the other was simple enough to lose yourself in. Before long he stood atop another pine tree, looking down across the border, where forest began to thin out and become scrub, then desert. Yuki perched on her own tree, teeth gritted and weapons bared. Below them stood the smugglers, frozen like prey under the gaze of the four Sand shinobi.

The Stone Jounin spoke first, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"My, what perfect timing. Seems your citizen's ain't content just screwing up their country. Now they're bringing loads of crap over into ours. Much obliged if you'd handle their punishment. I'd hate to ruin a perfectly good two-day old manicure."

The other Jounin's face was half-hidden, but Naruto and company couldn't have missed the rush of crimson that came over it at Yuki's insolent greeting. When he spoke, it was with clenched teeth.

"You have our gratitude for cornering this scum. They will be dealt with."

Yamazaki Yuki wasn't buying his forced pleasantries.

"Good. You can repay the favor by dispensing your justice on the spot. My team's familiar enough with what you people call the law. They won't be too shocked."

The other shinobi kept his composure – barely.

"Surely you do not mind if I take them a bit further into our territory? I doubt the Earth Country would appreciate blood being spilled into it."

"Suit yourself," Yuki spat. "As long as they're dealt with. Now."

As the Sand shinobi marched their prisoners toward the desert, Kaori whispered a question.

"Sensei, is it wise to let the Sand-nins take the smugglers out of earshot?"

"Doesn't matter." The black-haired woman sighed. "They know we sniffed out their plan and we didn't fall for it. Sagami City won't be getting any more smugglers for a good while."

"Should we go?"

"No. I promised Constable Murayama I'd see the smugglers pay for their crimes. I'll stay, but you're all free to go pack for home. Good job, everyone. Not bad for your first real mission."

Naruto's voice, curiously muted, stopped them all in their tracks.

"I'm staying too."

Kaori snapped another curse at him.

"What are you, suicidal?"

"No. I'm tired of running scared from something that hasn't even shown itself yet."

His fiancée sighed dramatically, leaping back up into the tree beside him.

"Your funeral."

Yamazaki Naruto's eyes burned in cold fury, the Sand demon squarely in his sights.

"Not now. Not ever."

"We did everything we were ordered to, Master Baki!"

Baki of the Sands cuffed the smuggler leader with a vicious backhand. Never send a mere human to do a shinobi's job. A sterling opportunity to crush the pacifist Stone Village, wasted because of the most primal, illogical human emotion – fear.

"Everything? FOOL! WERE YOU NOT TOLD TO KEEP THE EARTH COUNTRY FROM DISCOVERING OUR INVOLVEMENT?"

"We thought we could escape! That other Jounin never got within two hundred feet of us!"

Ignoring the stench of nervous sweat – and possibly some urine – Baki grabbed the whining fool's shirt and yanked him upwards, lowering his face to the lackey's.

"She could have killed you six different ways from a thousand feet. She is a Jounin of a Hidden Village! If you thought you could escape, it was because she was letting you escape! And being the halfwits you are, it worked to perfection. Now all that is left of the Kazekage's perfectly-plotted operation is a ragged group of bunglers waiting to be judged for their crimes."

Dropping the leader on the sands to gape at them in horror, Baki turned to leave.

"Gaara. Finish them."

Ten seconds later, a quarter mile away, Yamazaki Naruto watched what little belief he had in basic human goodness flee in gibbering panic, feeling Kaori's hand tighten on his shoulder - whether in fright or sympathy, he couldn't tell.

Juzo, white as the bleached sands, threw up the remains of his dinner.

Yuki folded her arms and spat, contempt in her eyes.

"Living weapon is too good a name for it."

And then the Sand-nins were gone, the only evidence of their presence a slowly spreading crimson sea, soaking into the dunes.

Kaori came out of the Sagami Inn some time later, to see Naruto up in a tree again, idly staring at the moon. Walking to the base of the tree, she sniffed.

"What happened to the Naruto from a few hours ago who was so confident?"

"Still there," he murmured. "Just wondering what he got himself into."

"That's wuss-ese, not confidence I hear."

"You call it wussy. I call it being rational. It's one thing to be confident about the unknown. It's another to rush blindly into the embrace of a demon."

"What are you talking about?"

Naruto leaped down from the tree, landing softly on the balls of his feet.

"That kid isn't going to stay inside the Wind Country forever. Someday, when they think they've got him trained and under control, they'll let him out. And when that happens, people are going to die. A lot of them. I catch enough flak for having a demon in me. I'm not gonna be tarred with that brush again because some maniac can't control his demon."

"You're not an anime superhero. You can't go protecting everybody from him."

"I'll settle for protecting our family and our village. But to do it means I'll have to harness my demon. So forgive me if I don't just jump up and yell 'take me now, furry nutcase!'"

"You know that means the Leaf is going to find you. Is that something you want?"

Yamazaki Naruto's eyes turned a frigid, icy sapphire in the moonlight.

"People have been trying to kill me for years and failing. I don't owe any of them the gift of mercy."

Kaori looked at her betrothed with a resigned gaze.

"Now who's tarring who with a broad brush?"

"When someone from the Leaf shows me why I should care about them," Naruto snapped. "I'll care. Until then the only thing they'll get from me is a boot in the ass."

A stiff breeze sent a chill down the Third Hokage's spine, setting the leaves in the nearby trees to rustling. The old shinobi looked up at his face, carved into the mountain above, and felt as old as the rocky visage looked.

There was a time I stood in the face of great evils and never wavered, all the confidence and power in the world to sustain me. But that was too many years and too many hard choices ago.

Next to his face on the mountain was another, youthful features frozen forever in stone.

"Sometimes, Arashi. Sometimes I wonder whether it's you or me that's better off when everything's added up."

The Third ratrly wasted time on regret. There was little enough left to waste already, too many duties and people and missions still to assign. But ever since he'd taken office again, he found himself here, standing in front of the monument to the dead, all the names of the fallen, at the end of each day.

To be honest, his being there was ludicrous. For that singular name, the life he regretted losing most, had never been carved upon the surface of the onyx stone. Uzumaki Naruto.

One life, affecting so many. Hatake Kakashi, so broken returning to find only a bloody patch of ground he'd veiled his face permanently, cloaking shame with hollow humor. The Third, raising a grandson while another's had been abandoned to die. Then there was the woman who knelt at two graves ahead of him, who had been all but silent every day for ten years.

She had been everything Leaf kunoichi aspired to become. Wife of the Fourth, Kazama Arashi, pregnant with his heir, and a focused, promising Anbu commander, wielding the trademark naginata every Kazama's bride was entrusted with.

In the space of a single night, that life had vanished. Suzuno had awakened from her hospital bed to find her husband dead and her newborn son missing. By then, the village had realized what their hysteria had wrought. The Third had kept the peace, minimized their role, invented a story about the hospital being attacked. He needn't have bothered; any excuse would have worked as well on a mind numbed with grief.

The crowning insult had been left to Suzuno's own clan to deliver. Lacking an heir, desperately trying to retain the Uzumaki clan's prestige, her own grandparents had delivered her, still silent, into the waiting arms of Yamanaka Inoshi. That his childhood crush, sustained into manhood, was one-sided mattered not a whit. That Suzuno would not and still had not spoken a word to him in ten years too went by the wayside. Life went on. Missions and clients were what mattered.

Yamanaki Inoshi and the late, unlamented Uzumaki elders had their mutual heir now, a girl child with hair as blonde and radiant as her mother and half-brother. It remained to be seen if Suzuno had gained anything of her own. Ino seemed well adjusted, for a child of an Ino-Shika-Cho trio member. A small victory, but a victory it was.

He quested for such little moments of joy the closer each day's silent tableau came. Always the same; he at the monument, she at her graves, and never a word of hope to change it, the revelation of Naruto's unknown fate dying before it crossed his lips. To tell her would just be another betrayal, an admission her rights had been tossed aside to keep the peace.

Besides, what incentive could he possibly have to tell Suzuno anything with that naginata strapped to her back? There was certainly no way to take it from the willowy blonde. Some said, and he believed, her first husband's final gift was all that kept her sane. That they could say this of a woman with a living child bowed the Third's shoulders in silent self-reproach.

At the very least she seemed to draw strength from the weapon, practicing the forms of the Kazama-ryu each day after visiting Arashi and Naruto's graves. Perhaps the familiar katas took her back to a happier time. Then again, it might only have been a way to silently take her revenge on those who'd wronged her, both the dead and the living. The old man had never dared ask, fearing the answer.

Answers. So many answers he didn't have. So many he desperately wished to discover. Never mind that the final answer to Naruto's fate could be the one he dreaded most, the simple finality of a buried corpse. It would still be putting the child to rest. And if the boy were, by some twist of fate, still alive, so much the better, no matter where he was. But ten years had passed, and the old shinobi was still no closer to knowing.

Turning to leave, the Third Hokage murmured an unheard farewell to Suzuno. He would see her again on the morrow. Until their mutual question was answered, he would accompany her on her quiet journey, paying his penance for a silent woman's sorrow.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Guilt piled on top of more guilt. Not something we see every day from the Third. I figured he can't be Wise Old Sage or Lecherous Old Fart all the time.

Buried somewhere in my LiveJournal is the model which Suzuno is based on, spear and all. For the lazy, it's Yuki from Gekka no Kenshi (Last Blade).

And yes, Dear Reader, you (and Naruto) will see Gaara again, somewhere down the line. When that happens, all bets are off.

A note on geography…the Shield Wall is not canon, of course, but how else do you explain the Stone not showing up until 230 chapters into the manga, and even then only in a flashback? Something has to be keeping them out of the limelight. Why not a giant mountain range? Readers of Seven Against The World, my LJ story, will see the Wall again later in that story. If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?

I've learned not to do chapter previews anymore, if only for the simple fact that it restricts me in what I put in the chapter. Like Naruto, I find it hard to go against what I've promised. Instead, I'll tell you what you won't see in upcoming chapters: a lot of the rest of Team 7. New universe, new focuses. Kakashi will have some face time, but Sasuke and Sakura will have very little. As for who takes their places, some of you who've IM'ed me already know. The rest of you can ask, or wait to find out. You may be pleasantly surprised. Or not. Who knows?