Naruto: Set in Stone

by The SOC Puppet

Chapter 5 – Water Under The Bridge

Summary: Naruto, Kaori, Juzo and Yuki traveled to the Stone's border with the Sand, successfully destroying a smuggling ring operating on the border, but got warning that the Sand might be involved in the whole scheme – and that the Sand, too, possessed a shinobi with a demon sealed inside himself: Gaara.

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

"You've done it, Tsuchikage-sama! The threat of the Sand is finished and their demon re-sealed."

Standing atop a cliff over a smoldering crater, Naruto waved a hand in dismissal.

"Nah. Only way to end a threat is to wipe it out. That ain't what we do, and these guys don't deserve that. And demons, well…you can at least hope the thing stays sealed for a while. Humans don't have much self-control around absolute power."

"Does that mean I should be afraid of you, husband?"

He turned to see Kaori stride up, Jounin robes trailing behind her, a bit worse for wear after combat. The Tsuchikage smiled rakishly at his wife.

"Only if you want to be."

The red-haired kunoichi snorted, blunt as ever.

"That happens too much as it is."

"You know you love it."

She reached a hand up towards his face.

"Mom always said I had no self-control…"

And then she pinched his nose.


His dream now over, Yamazaki Naruto, Genin of the Hidden Stone, awoke to the sight of a large crab pinching his nose in one claw.

"AZUSA-NEESAMA! You are so dead!"

Yamazaki Mizuki didn't even turn around from where she was scrambling eggs for breakfast. A blonde teenage girl came running by the kitchen door in something of a hurry, carrying a crab as she stuck her head in briefly.

"Mama, I wasn't here."

Then she was off again, pursued by a voice still about half a floor above.


The Tsuchikage's wife sighed.

"Yamazaki Naruto! No jutsu in the house!"

Azusa's voice returned.

"Nyah! Big bad ninja! No jutsu for you! Try this…"

"Yamazaki Azusa! No kunai or flying animals in the house!"

The Yamazakis' youngest daughter, no longer carrying the crab, walked back into the kitchen and flopped down in the chair with a pout.

"Well, what's the point if you can't even use that?"

Mizuki gave her daughter an exasperated look.

"I asked you to wake your brother up for breakfast, not take him to the zoo."

"Yeah!" Naruto snapped, walking into the kitchen with hair mussed all to one side. "What Mom said!"

"You didn't say how to wake him up. He never hears the alarm clock anyway."

"I do too! Is it my fault Aoi-neesama always sneaks in and changes it to later?"

Mizuki put her spatula down and turned to face her children.

"Naruto, what have I told you about stupid excuses?"

The Genin crossed his arms stubbornly.

"Who said it's an excuse? I caught her just last Tuesday! She says it's important, she needs all the beauty sleep she can get or else her skin looks all blotchy and fancy-pants Doctor Akagi will think she's ugly!"

"Honestly. She doesn't even sleep on the same floor as you do."

Azusa sniggered, brushing her bangs back from her eyes.

"Oh, you didn't know, Mama? Our Lady Aoi is ever so sensitive. If I let off a fart it's like Doomsday has arrived. Gods forbid stick-up-the-ass Doctor Akagi should think she comes from a family full of heathens and savages."

All four of the Tsuchikage's children, true to Daimaru's distaste for the ordinary, marched to their own beat. Yoriko was the fighter, devoted to the craft of the kunoichi. Aoi, the older of fraternal twins, had been nearly completely feminine, to even her mother's dismay sometimes, and pursued a medical career. Azusa, the younger twin, as if to show she wasn't a copy of her sister, had gone tomboy and worked as an animal trainer when she wasn't on lower-intensity shinobi duties. And Naruto was, well, Naruto.

Mizuki wondered about the effects of raising children in such a martial climate. The Stone was not nearly as warlike as other Hidden Villages, but there were still shinobi, and people still grew up faster.

"I'm sure it's just a phase. Pretty soon she'll have gone back to studying medical journals and telling us tales of her latest dissection."

Azusa shrugged, snagging a piece of toast off the table.

"All I know is, the age of consent in the Earth Country's fifteen, and Aoi buys more bridal magazines than those old maids at the club trying to catch any man with too much booze in them."

Mizuki shook her head and went back to making breakfast.

"The law's age of consent may be fifteen, but your father's is more like thirty."

Her daughter rolled her eyes.

"If you ever need to find me, I'll be with the old maids."

"Theatrics won't get you anywhere, child. Naruto, finish up quick. Yuki told me your team has another mission to be assigned today."

"Great," her son groaned. "More work at the compost pile."

Breakfast plowed through, Naruto stepped out of the house, tying on his forehead protector. The Tsuchikage's son surveyed his backyard, strolling toward the exit and Stone Village headquarters.

The Yamazaki compound, though larger than every other in the village, looked much like any other large house – with one major exception. In the middle of the backyard, where any other house might have a pond with koi or other colorful fish for decorations, Daimaru had installed a miniature pond and river containing, of all things, freshwater crabs.

It had sealed his reputation as one of the strangest shinobi in the village, but the Stone's leader had been pulling out all of the stops he could when he'd first married his wife, to keep her from becoming too homesick and missing the ocean. It was either that or dig a channel to the sea with his bare hands, which Kantaro stopped by ordering his son to just buy a damned aquarium or something and be done with it. Mizuki had appreciated it anyway; Yoriko was living proof.

Naruto understood the sentiment, but he honestly hoped Kaori didn't want anything quite that lavish when they got married. Not that he wouldn't do it, but honestly, how was he supposed to top his father's gesture?

Village people said Yamazaki Naruto had it tough. Sometimes it wasn't for the reasons they might have thought.

"So what fun-filled job have you stuck them with this time, brother dear?"

Yuki lounged in her chair as Daimaru shuffled some papers around on his desk, waiting for his son's team to arrive. The Fifth shrugged and pointed to a nearby chair, where Kantaro sat paging through a back issue of Shinobi of Fortune magazine.

"Ask Dad. It was his idea."

"I'm sorry, my memory must be fried. I thought you were supposed to be the one in charge here."

"Hey," Daimaru said placidly. "it sounded creative. Beats hearing you bitch at me for assigning your team to – what was it again? Oh, right, 'shit duty.'"

"Well, what else would you call raking and sorting the village compost pile?"

The Fourth snorted.

"I'd call it something you got paid for. If you like, I can find you a real job and assign Shira to look over Naruto and Kaori."

The Stone Jounin muttered something and was silent for a very brief moment.

"Well, do I get to know what this creative mission is?"

"Don't worry, you'll enjoy it. Standard C-Rank diplomatic mission."

"That's creative?" she wondered aloud.

"It is if you're going to be envoys to the Hidden Waterfall Village."

Yamazaki Yuki sat bolt upright, head snapping around to look at her father.

"Daddy, are you completely INSANE? You want me to take your grandson and Juzo into the middle of Shota-con City?"

"They're not that bad," the older shinobi snorted. "Honestly, one tabloid publishes a stupid story and everyone piles on."

Yuki sighed.

"Not that bad? Have you two forgotten what happened to Tomoyuki?"

"Name sounds familiar. That pretty boy singer the girls are swooning over?"

"Were swooning over. His manager got greedy and booked him a gig there. He hasn't been seen since. That was six months ago."

Daimaru handed her the mission briefing sheet.

"Dad might not have taken it into account, but I did. This is the last test for Naruto."

"Test of what? He's done everything you've asked of him, including all that ridiculous waterfall meditation."

The Tsuchikage gave her a flat look.

"Yuki, where is the Chuunin Exam being held this rotation?"

It took his sister a few seconds to dredge up the information, but when she did, understanding set in.

"You don't want to risk sending him to the Leaf."

"No, that's Mizuki. But if he can't go, that's two years' worth of time he'll be cooling his heels here, doing routine stuff. She agreed to let me test Naruto before she'd even consider letting him out of her sight. The Genin Exam was the first test, and he'd have had to take that anyway. Running into Gaara of the Sand was the second test. The Hidden Waterfall is last. It's right on the border with the Fire Country. If their hunter-nin or just shinobi in general are looking for him, we'll know immediately. Naruto draws too much attention in this area not to be recognized."

"What if they do come after him?"

The Fifth fingered a stray kunai on his desk, eyes hardening.

"I'm going to toss a carrier pigeon in with your equipment, one of the elites with flare-launch training. If you get attacked, dig yourself in and ask the Hidden Waterfall for help; we've got an alliance agreement with them and the Leaf doesn't. Then release the bird. There'll be at least two teams on missions nearby that have standing orders to drop everything and head to the Hidden Waterfall if they see the flare go off."

"Waste of time," Yuki muttered. "Think I can't handle a bunch of pussy hunter-nins or a rogue? Or Naruto and the other kids, for that matter? Naruto beat off at least a dozen of them before he turned nine."

"He might have kept them off him, but he certainly didn't kill them, other than that poor sap who tried to attack Mizuki and Kaori."

Their father's voice interrupted.

"They'll be fine, Daimaru. You forgot to tell them I'll be traveling with them on the way there, at least."

Both of the Fourth's children turned to stare at him. Daimaru sighed.

"When were you planning to tell me?"

"I'm retired, boy. When did I suddenly need to ask permission to take a vacation?"

A vacation? Him?

The Fifth looked at his father with a jaundiced eye. The man hadn't taken a moment off for more than twenty years, and now he decided to do it as his grandson's biggest challenge loomed? True, he didn't need anybody's permission to go, but for a shinobi supposedly very strong on common sense, the retired Kage was acting pretty flighty.

"Suit yourself," he muttered. "Just don't go causing any international incidents."

"Now where's the fun in that?"

Kaori had plenty of problems with people joking about the color of her hair. From assuming she had a temper like her younger sister's to asking her if she'd dyed her locks, she got all the standard redhead treatment. Right now, though, the Genin was doing a good job of making her face the same color as her hair.

"Uncle Daimaru, are you trying to get him killed? Sending Naruto into the middle of all those old hags trying to paw him all over and 'teach' him things?"

His misgivings already aired, the Fifth had a bit more twinkle in his eye now that the children had entered the room for a briefing.

"That's what you're here for, isn't it? Just tell them he's taken."

"OOHH! That's IT! You can look out for yourself!"

Kaori wheeled around and stomped out, leaving Naruto staring after her and Juzo grinning.

"Just think, buddy. Five more years and that's all yours officially."

"Lucky me," Naruto deadpanned. "Thanks a lot, Dad."

"My advice, son? Wear weights on the trip there."

"What the heck for?"

The Fifth tapped a finger on the side of his nose.

"You're going to be doing a lot of running. Best to train up those legs, eh?"

What was the saying about family? They were the ties that bound (and gagged). His father probably had a reason for sending him somewhere that nutty, just like he'd had a reason to tell him to train his focus against the Ninetails by meditating under a waterfall three times a week. All Naruto knew was that he usually wound up better off for all the weirdness. Usually.

Better just to let things work out as they would. On with the mission.

"So what're we supposed to do on a diplomatic mission? The Hidden Waterfall ain't even got a Kage."

"No," Yuki allowed, "but they do have a ruling council. All women. I do hear they're always on the lookout for a bigger presence of men on the council, but you guys have heard enough about the place to know why that'd be tough."

Juzo sniggered.

"Yeah. They'd have him stripped and drained before the first meeting ever started."

"If he were lucky, anyway. Now, just like the Rain and Grass, the Hidden Waterfall's a big part of our buffer zone against the Sand and Leaf. It's in our best interests to keep them friendly. Every few years, then, we've tended to exchange gifts, information, and sometimes even loaning out shinobi – all female, in our case. Apparently this year's gift is scrolls."

Kantaro grunted at the mention of the gift.

"They ought to be honored to get that much. The last time we got a gift from them, they sent us fruitcakes."

"But I thought we found a use for those."

"If I'd wanted a paperweight that badly," the Fourth snorted, "I could have grabbed a rock out of the river."

Naruto tuned the last part of the conversation out and concentrated on the redheaded girl still ignoring him, both of them well behind Yuki, Juzo and Kantaro. Why she was angry at him when his father had sent them on the mission mystified him, but didn't make things any clearer.

"You wanna tell me why you suddenly turned into Kira today?"

She rounded on him, eyes flashing dangerously.

"Don't act like you don't know!"

"I don't, and it's not an act. Do I look like a mind reader?"

Kaori sighed sharply and turned back to looking at the road.

"Forget it. It's not like you'd understand."

He seized her arm, turning her around to look at him, expression placid.

"Try me."

She tore away from him, resentment evident in her tone.

"Your dad acts like I'm supposed to be your wife already, and that's simple compared to what Grandpa expects out of me!"

The kunoichi's face turned bright red when she saw Naruto shrug.

"They're adults. They do that. Who said ya gotta take it seriously?"

"Who said I don't want to take it seriously?" she said. "I…I just didn't want to do it now. I wanted to be normal, at least until we get married."

"We know three dozen ways to kill a guy older, bigger and stronger than us quietly, and about three dozen more ways to do it messily. Ya call that normal?"

"You know what I meant!"

"Yeah. So what? No matter how much they wanna push us, the age of consent's fifteen. They can't make us do nothin' until then, and even then we're the ones who gotta sign off on the marriage certificate to make it legal. We got the power. As long as we keep that in our heads, we can do whatever we want.

"Besides," he muttered in irritation, "if ya really don't wanna do it I can always ask Aunt Mana to switch Kana for you. She thinks Kana's a better choice anyway."

It was an old trick, but guaranteed to work on either of the two youngest Ishida sisters. Given the tempers Kaori and Kira had inherited from their ancestors, the older, more peaceful Kana regularly got the most compliments out of all three girls. Kaori, if it was humanly possible, got even redder in the face.


"Hey, I tried to argue for ya, but your mom's always like that. I had to beg and plead to get her off my case."

"Oh, really?"

That calculating look in her eyes, underneath the fury, told him he'd exaggerated once too much for his own good. Fortunately, Naruto was experienced at dealing with angry girls – he had three to survive at home already.

"Aw, come on. You know you're the only girl for me. Everybody else in the village only looks at me and sees the Kage's Son. You know me, and you know…the furry thing, and last I checked you ain't scared of neither. You think I wanna screw that up?"

It was the truth. Sappy as hell, something he never would have admitted under torture, but true. And given the choice between truth and self-preservation, he could live with feeling less macho. For now.

"No. But it shouldn't have to be like this, not for us or for anybody."

"Shouldn't be, but it is. Living and working around something's better than sitting there and wishing you had a magic wand to wave and make it all go away. The proof of that is big, red, furry and has nine tails."

She sniffed, but there was no malice in her eyes (for which he was profoundly grateful). It was now safe to talk again.

"One day, that's going to stop working on me."

"One day," Yamazaki Naruto muttered, "I won't need to use it anymore."

"Daughter, please don't tell me you actually waste your time with that junk."

Yuki looked up from her copy of the latest Stone Snitch magazine to see her father giving her reading material the stink-eye. The Jounin went back to reading, as nonchalantly as possible.

"It's for a good purpose, Daddy, really. I'm catching up on Tomoyuki's case."

"Didn't you say he hadn't been seen in six months?"

"Yes, but the Snitch has narrowed down the list of suspects who might be holding him. This month they're down to five. I plan to check some of them out."

Kantaro let loose a very un-Kage-like groan and planted his face in his hands. Daimaru's information lockdown in the Earth Country had made tabloids much more rampant and uncontrollable. There was nothing quite like exaggerating information when very little new info ever got into or out of the country. Yuki somehow managed to look offended by his reaction.

"Get off my back, Daddy! The protection of hunkiness is important business!"

"So is the protection of your nephew, last I checked."

"Honestly. Kaori would crush one of these old hags into the size of a marble if they even tried to fondle Naruto."

"Yes," the retired Kage growled, "completely destroying the purpose of a DIPLOMATIC MISSION!"

"Some things just weren't meant to be," Yuki said.

"Suddenly the idea of a vacation isn't sounding so good."

"Oh, honestly, Daddy. Leave off. Even if I did find Tomoyuki, who's to say he'd want to be rescued? I hear Waterfall girls are very persuasive. Still want to miss out on the fun?"

Kantaro grunted a curse, shouldering his bag and preparing to turn down a fork in the road.

"They only like 'em young, daughter. So keep your eyes on your team. I've got enough headaches to deal with already before spending any time with these harridans. One slip-up, Yuki. That's all you've got keeping Shira from taking your job. I suggest you keep that in mind before you start thinking about that musician of yours."

Then the old shinobi was gone, leaving Yuki to fume at her father's failure to understand the power of the Pop Idol.

Juzo contented himself with snickering under his breath.

"Hey, Aunt Yuki, I almost forgot to ask. What's the schtick of the Waterfall, anyway? I mean, besides havin' no Kage and kidnapping singers, anyway."

The Jounin, still muttering curses at her father, took a while to not answer Naruto's question.

"What schtick?"

"The thing that makes 'em unique. Like we have the one with Nature thing, the Sand's in the middle of the desert, the Leaf has those gigantic stone heads, the Mist has the Seven Blades."

"Oh, that." The older kunoichi waved a hand in dismissal. "The way I hear it, the Hidden Waterfall has a couple of unique features. They're hidden behind a big waterfall – hence the name – and they've got this weird thing called Hero Water. Take a drink of the stuff, and you can temporarily multiply your chakra by ten times or more."

Juzo spit out the mouthful of water he'd just swigged from his canteen.

"A trump card like that and they're still a minor Hidden Village?"

Their sensei laughed.

"It's not much of a trump card if it kills you."

"Say what?"

"Drink it, your chakra gets boosted to superhuman levels, you overtax your body, and you're pushing up daisies a few hours later. Think they call it Hero Water for no reason? Plenty of invaders have found out the reason, all right. Come to think of it, maybe that's why they don't have a Kage. Nobody wants to have to drink that stuff."

"Sure," Juzo snorted. "No point being a hero if ya can't enjoy the rewards."

Naruto rolled his eyes at that.

"Boy, are you the self-sacrificing type."

"If I die, nobody brings my brother back. Ya told me enough yourself, back at the exam, and I told ya what I'm out to do. Until that happens, that's just how it is."

"Suit yourself. But one of these days, you may not get a choice. Try not to have any second thoughts then, will ya?"

"Second thoughts? Come on, you know me."

Naruto shook his head slowly.

"Why do you think I asked?"

Kaori sniffed.

"Just let him play the martyr. He does it enough as it is. There's a bigger question. If this stuff is in the water, what does the Waterfall drink? Are we just supposed to go dry until this mission is over?"

"Quit the hysterics." Yuki snorted. "Hero Water's only made through a special process in a certain area of the village. It's all natural, completely secret and only a few of their elders have ever known how it happens. The Waterfall couldn't have stayed a hidden village if they had to keep importing water from all parts. Too much dependency on others."

Naruto ticked off a few points on his fingers.

"So they can't be attacked easily, but they don't have enough power to do any expansion, unless they have somebody – maybe more than one - willing to die in order to accomplish it."

"A good ally to guard your flanks, but that's about all we can ask for."

"Speaking of guarding something…"

"Oh, I know that tone. What's running through your head?"

"Some villages wouldn't think twice about forcing their guys to drink Hero Water in a fight. Haven't they tried to steal it or the method for making it?"

"Our alliance works both ways. The Waterfall may not have many men, but they've got some tough kunoichi. If an invasion gets too hot to handle, they can call us or the Hidden Rain in. There's never been a recorded instance of somebody getting away with Hero Water or its secret. Most people are sane enough not to try."

Naruto muttered a curse, remembering plenty of people in his past.

"The sane ones aren't what I'm worried about. Who knows what kind of idiot lurks around here trying to figure out how to get himself some Hero Water?"

A lanky form approached the Hidden Waterfall's entrance, cloaked in merchant's garb and toting a ludicrously large bag. Popping open an umbrella, the visitor strolled through the waterfall, finding the entrance to the hollowed-out caldera that held the Hidden Waterfall Village.

"Halt for inspection! Let me see some papers there."

The cloaked visitor extended a sheaf of ID documents and began an (obviously) rehearsed spiel.

"Papers are hardly necessary! You see before you the great, the incomparable Kaimaru, greatest merchant in the world. I bring a veritable cornucopia of items of all kinds and origins, guaranteed to stimulate the mind and enflame the senses! I ask only a minute of your time, and I will show you the world - for a small fee, of course."

The guards, being typical examples of their breed, ignored Kaimaru in favor of searching his bag.

"What's this 'Lil' Thinker Chemistry Set' supposed to be for?"

"One of my best-sellers! What child would not find delight in exploring the splendid natural forces of the world and expending their youthful power through increased mental acuity? Only fifty ryo!"

"For fifty ryo," one guard snorted, "the kid oughta be able to make the ultimate soldier pill with this thing."

Undaunted, the merchant continued his sales pitch.

"Is not knowledge and enjoyment worth more than mere physical strength?"

The senior guard massaged her temples, feeling a headache coming on.

"Wouldn't know about that. I do know my hearing is more important than rifling through a bunch of thrift store junk. Move to the merchant's quarter and don't let me see you hassling respectable people with that crap."

Shouldering his bag again, the merchant moved past the guard post without protest. Why would he, when he wasn't there to sell anything to begin with? Showing tremendous control of his instincts, he suppressed a loud series of bellowing guffaws.

Maito Gai, you'll surely win the next acting challenge with Kakashi!


Yamazaki Naruto had faced assassins, wild animals, a grandfather with somewhat sadistic training methods, and a boy with a demon sealed inside him. It wasn't nearly enough to prepare him for the Hidden Waterfall Village.

"KYAAA! Here, cutie!"

Hearing that once? Not too bad. He got that reaction in the isolated farms outside the Stone Village all the time. Hearing it ten times every city block? Not so fun. Kaori had been scowling so long he was starting to fear her face would freeze that way. Juzo was scowling too, for a completely different reason that went a little something like this.

"Phooey! A Stone team and only one cutie! Where's all the studs they used to send? You just know the elders will be monopolizing him all to themselves! What chance do we have?"

"Just be glad there's one they won't touch and we can snatch. Even if he is too plump to be cute."

Like all Takedas, Juzo was stocky with a tendency towards slightly pudgy. He was used to being ignored and belittled – within reason. After about the twentieth whispered conversation, though, he'd had enough.


The only reason he hadn't tried to collapse the entire Waterfall in a giant sinkhole was Yuki's threat to break each and every one of his fingers if he so much as made a hand seal. The Genin had contented himself with muttering curses fit for a dockworker under his breath ever since.

As for the Jounin, other than resorting to outlandish threats to keep her charges in line, Yuki had turned her attention to scouting for signs of captured idol singer, visions of falling cherry blossoms above pop sensation and rescuer dancing through her head. Naruto and Kaori spared each other a brief glance of horror before going back to trying to survive the Waterfall. Their sensei continued to have big googly sparkly eyes.

We're so doomed.

It was going to be a long walk to the elders' hall.

"Theories of Water Molecule Manipulation? I must say, this is a fine gift, Yamazaki-dono. I've never known your people to spare the effort to transcribe scrolls on anything but Earth jutsu, which isn't of much use to us if we're being honest."

Yuki never missed an opportunity to get even a subtle dig in.

"A gift should be useful, Elder Omori. Why give one otherwise?"

The chief Elder of the Hidden Waterfall cackled.

"Then shall I give you a jar of Hero Water, child? It'd definitely be useful…"

"I'll pass. This was a gift-giving mission, after all."

Naruto watched as the chief Elder and her compatriots cackled in unison. He relaxed – slightly. Apparently the older kunoichi of the Waterfall were content to look but were beyond the point of touching (at least where someone could see). Yuki had just about crossed them off her list of leads on Tomoyuki.

"Well, then, I thank the Tsuchikage, Yamazaki-dono. If you'd like, please go to the guest room. We're preparing a feast in your honor."

Juzo perked up for the first time in quite a while.

"Damn, finally something I like about this place."

Their collective sigh of relief lasted about three seconds, enough time for a human dynamo to come bounding through to land on the lap of chief Elder Omori.

"Oooo! Grandma, did you get me a gift from the Stone? It's a cutie! Now Tomo-chan will have a playmate!"

Several reactions were recorded to the unknown chibi-kunoichi's statement. Yuki blanched and pulled out her copy of the Stone Snitch. Kaori drew several dozen kunai and glared a bunch more at the girl for having the temerity to think of taking Naruto. Naruto groaned and just knew he'd jinxed himself back there by relaxing. Juzo simply went back to muttering curses about shallow women.

Chief Omori looked at her granddaughter in a mixture of indulgence and irritation.

"Azusa-chan, we don't kidnap diplomatic emissaries. Not even the cute ones."

"At least someone here has sense," Kaori sniffed. She was saved from shooting her mouth off further when another Waterfall-nin burst into the room.

"Chief! There's a problem down at the…uh…distillery!"

The old kunoichi stood up so fast her granddaughter landed in a pouting heap on the floor.

"Explain yourself!"

"I would, Chief, but we don't know what's going on! From the looks of things, two different groups of thieves tried to break in, figured out they had competition, and instead of continuing the break-in, started fighting each other. They're tearing up the whole downtown district!"

Chief Omori sighed and turned to Yuki.

"I know it's just a diplomatic mission, but I'd like to ask for your help, Yamazaki-dono. Thieves sent to steal Hero Water are seldom pushovers. And as my granddaughter let slip, some of our forces are currently a bit…distracted."

To her credit, Yuki managed to control her twitching and put the Stone Snitch away.

"I'll go, Elder, but my students will only fight if the opposition is deemed suitable. They're Genin, not Anbu."

"Agreed. Let's get going! Summon the rapid response team!"

"Kaimaru," still in civilian garb, backhanded another attempted slap from a barrel-chested (and bellied) man, probably a retired rikishi. What power could sumo have when he had youth on his side?


A fist to the gut over the liver; pain that could stun any human for a moment.


Knees to the side, over the kidneys. Even more pain.


A leaping, spinning kick to the temple. Three hundred or more pounds of bulky, clumsy muscle slumped to the ground in a boneless heap. Cloth tore away to reveal the swirl of ink spreading down the rikishi's shoulders, back and chest. A familiar style of tattoo, to say the least.


He had simply come here to scout the premises – scout it prior to ransacking it for what he wanted to research, but scout it nonetheless. This trash had almost certainly come with thievery on their minds. Thieves of any sort were an unforgivable blight on the face of the earth.


Naruto's team, Chief Omori, and the Waterfall reinforcements were treated to the sight of one of the combatants sailing all the way to - and through - the great waterfall.

"That," Juzo muttered, "is gonna leave a mark."

Quite possibly the only thing worse than feeding Maito Gai sugar was giving him an audience. Juzo's comment was enough to let Gai in on the secret.

"AHA! The Great Gai – er - Kaimaru abides not thieves, as do all good merchants! Witness now the power of PROFIT!"

One of the Waterfall kunoichi stepped forward, pointing at the disguised Leaf-nin.

"Hey! I thought I told you to stick to the merchants' quarter! What the hell are you doing in downtown with these thieves?"

"Kaimaru" thrust a finger to the heavens, striking a righteous pose.

"NONSENSE! It is the duty of all right-thinking merchants to deal with thieves where they may show themselves!"

"Deal with this, you posturing piece of crap!"

One enterprising yakuza had taken the time to get behind the merchant/spy/shinobi, brandishing a large hammer as he attacked. Easily within Gai's skills to take care of, had he been operating as himself. Did he dare risk reacting as quickly as usual and making himself more suspicious to the Waterfall? The Leaf-nin never got the chance to make a decision either way.

"Zenko Korou Ken (Double Calamity Fist)!"

Two Narutos converged on the yakuza and leveled him, one aiming high and the other low, swiftly smashing the underworld fighter to the ground, before the Naruto who'd attacked low turned back to dust and crumbled away, the clone accomplishing its duty.

"Next time, do the speechifying after they're all finished! Step back and let shinobi do their work already!"

Maito Gai's sense of duty and curiosity could seldom be superseded by other things. He wasn't a Jounin of the Leaf for no reason. A display of youthful power and grace, however, was a little too tempting to ignore. The Guardian of the Blossom of Youth could not admire such a display while in disguise. Kaimaru disappeared to reveal a shinobi in Leaf garb and green bodysuit.

"EXCELLENT! Spirit and bravery! The very flower of youth power, blooming in a foreign land! Proof that my beliefs are true, a gift from the gods! I look forward to your arrival in the Leaf, so I, Maito Gai, may show the world the power of youth! But I must be off, for I am discovered. YOUTH POWER, AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!"

Chief Omori and her reinforcements moved fast, but not nearly fast enough to keep Gai from becoming a blur in the distance. The kunoichi who'd been guarding the main entrance shouted a warning.

"Hey! Intruder! Stop him!"

She needn't have bothered. It took all of five seconds for Gai's presence in the Waterfall to become common knowledge - by himself, he managed to alert the entire city without the women resorting to gossip; a historical feat by itself.

"A MAN!"




Gai somehow managed to make a bad situation worse.


The only thing worse than being a man in a village full of love-starved women was being a man playing hard to get.

They tried grabbing him, which didn't work. Then they tried tripping him. Still nothing. That was when the whips, snares, chains, pit traps and nets started coming out. After the third time Gai evaded a "Man-Catcher" net, Juzo turned to Yuki.

"Now can I make a hand seal?"

The Stone Jounin's face developed a very nasty grin.

"Why, certainly."

"Doton: Takou Tsuchi no Jutsu (Earth Element: Porous Earth)!"

Gai's next cartoonishly high leap landed him in a sinkhole forty feet deep, with walls too soft and crumbling to climb. Yuki leaned over the entrance, still grinning.

"You've got two choices, Leafy-boy. Explain yourself and maybe get released, or say nothing and we leave you to the mercies of Two-Ton Tomoko and her BBW Brigade for their week-long vacation."

Her response was a bellow from the depths of the pit.


A green blur came sailing out of the sinkhole in the direction of the waterfall, bowling Yuki over in the process. Juzo goggled, not entirely in awe.

"Fuck me! That's the deepest hole I've ever made and the son of a bitch just jumps out of it!"

All three Genin felt the eruption of killing intent behind them, turning slowly to see Yuki glowing with inchoate rage in her eyes.

"Years of training, putting up with Daddy, being behind Daimaru, and this is what it comes to – getting knocked on my ass by some clown in a green, skintight bodysuit WITH A BLOODY BOWL CUT! Well, no more!"

The Stone Jounin disappeared in a blur of her own, joining the chase for Gai. Naruto muttered a curse.

"So much for smooth, easy missions."

Kaori made an incredulous noise.

"Since when have we ever had a smooth, easy mission that didn't involve compost?"

"It doesn't mean I can't hope."

Ten minutes passed. Property was destroyed. Gai kept moving, and so did Yuki and the Waterfall kunoichi. Twenty minutes passed. More property was destroyed. With the main village gate sealed, the Leaf-nin had very few options but to keep moving, and Yuki wasn't about to stop trying to assuage wounded pride. Naruto, Kaori and Juzo had attempted to follow, but at the rate both Jounins were traveling the three had fallen well behind the chase, watching it circle the downtown area.

Naruto surveyed the destruction and cursed.

"We don't stop this soon, there won't be a Hidden Waterfall Village left to ally with."

"If we coulda stopped this," Juzo grunted, "we woulda done it by now. Me, I'm happy as hell to let Yuki and Bowl Cut Boy tear this place down."

"Look, if this place goes down, we do too. This is a Hidden Village! There's gotta be bombs and explosive notes stored all over the place. One false step, one overpowered jutsu and the whole place goes up like a fireworks display, with us in the middle."

Kaori wasn't looking at either boy, but rather at the chase.

"You know, there's something weird about all of this."

"What is it?" Naruto asked.

"Other than when he attacked those yakuza, the Leaf-nin hasn't used any offensive moves. All he's done so far since we found him out is try to get away from Yuki-sensei and the Waterfall-nins. If he were a spy or an assassin, he'd have tried to kill the gate guards and escape by now. Why waste any time?"

"So what, he's harmless?"

"Not harmless," the red-haired girl muttered, "but he can probably be reasoned with. Thing is, we still have to find a way to subdue him before we can try that, and Juzo's best shot failed."

Naruto shrugged.

"Don't look at me. I'm not gonna be any use unless we're trying to kill him, and even then I'd need the Kyubi to do it."

"Whaddaya mean you're not gonna be any use?" Juzo grunted. "One good lava pit or earthen cage and we got him cold."

Naruto slashed his hand in the air.

"If he's on a mission, he's gotta have a team. Not even the Leaf's overconfident enough to send single shinobis to steal a Hidden Village's greatest secret. And if he's got a team, we all oughta think twice before we pull out our trump cards."

"What for?"

"Jutsu thieves. The Uchiha and Hyuga, the Sharingan and the Byakugan. One steals techniques, the other can see how your chakra flows while you're doing them and screw with your chakra if they touch you. Everything but a Bloodline Limit or summoning is basically an open book. Dunno about you, but I'm not about to give away Yamazaki family secrets that easy."

Kaori sighed.

"Naruto, the next Chuunin Exam is going to be in the Leaf. It's their turn in the rotation this year and next year, then the Sand, Cloud, us and Mist in that order. Are you telling me you're going to try and pass it using nothing but taijutsu?"

The blonde Genin's eyes grew hard and cold.

"I owe my parents everything. I owe the Leaf nothing. They're not getting anything from me. Unless I have to save either of your lives in the Exam, I'm not using anything but taijutsu. As soon as the rotation draw came out, Shira started me on advanced forms. I oughta be ready when the time comes."

His fiancée caught the omission.

"Rescue us? What about you?"

"They'll have to kill me if they want to get anything out of me. And if they try, Kyubi will come out whether I like it or not. If that happens, I'd expect either of the two of you to finish me off. I don't want that thing getting loose. If I die, it dies. Our people are safe."

Juzo went ghostly white.

"Dude, that's harsh, even for you. You think I'm just gonna whack you?"

"Yes, damn it! Compared to giving in to that thing, death'd be an escape!"

His rant was cut off when Kaori's open palm connected with his face.

"Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!"

"What the hell was that for?" Naruto snarled at the girl.

"I'm sick of hearing this crap from you!" she screamed. "Grandpa said it himself that the Hokage who sealed you was a master of the arts. What he did to you, he intended to do! If you can use the Kyubi's power, it's because he wanted you to have that option! Run from it if you want, but don't you dare use it as an excuse to die just because you don't want to take responsibility for controlling it!

"So the Sand kid's a maniac! That's his problem! You have something inside you that nobody else has and you can use it for a reason! Deal with it!"

He stared back at her, stunned into paralysis.

"Kaori, what…?"

She turned away, face flushed, body shaking.

"I've been through too much to marry a spineless wimp."

"What are you talking about?" he gaped.

Her response was muted.

"When they told me we had get married someday, I hated you, even if it was Grandpa who gave the order. Why did I have to marry someone I barely knew? I can't even think about going on dates, or having too many boys for friends, because my mother would go on and on about sticking to the arrangement. Then the assassins started coming. I realized how hard you had it. I didn't want for someone to go through that alone, so I stopped thinking about it like a duty and started seeing it as something I wanted to do.

"But if you're not even going to try and control your own destiny, why should I waste my time trying to help you reach it?"

"We can talk about this later," he snarled back quickly.

"We'll talk about it now, or you can go ahead and switch to one of my sisters, because I'm done!"

"FINE!" Naruto snapped. "You want to talk? We'll talk! Should we start at the part where I tell you about the look in my own mom's eyes when I went demon and killed that assassin, or about her finding me left out to die in the middle of the forest? This thing does nothing but hurt people and drive them away. Why should I want anything to do with it?"

"Naruto," Juzo muttered, "you scared the shit out of me too that day, and I'm still here. Same with your mom, your dad and your sisters. Your grandpa's never been scared of anything in his life, but the rest of us? We're smarter than that. And we're all still here. If the Leaf can't see past their fears, maybe that's one thing. But we know there's more to ya than some maniac with nine tails. So drop the excuses already and stop acting like a pussy. If you could survive ten years of training from Iron Balls Kantaro, controlling a sealed demon oughta be cake."

Yuki gave her fiancé the stinkeye.

"Well? What excuse do you have to counter that?"

The Ninetails' vessel threw up his hands in disgust.

"Absolutely nothing. Satisfied?"

"Not even close," the red-haired girl sighed. "but I'll take it for now. Let's stop the Leaf-nin first; that's the mission."

Naruto shrugged.

"Even if you wanted me to, I don't know how to just call out the Kyubi at will right now. Gotta find another way to beat the Leaf-nin."

Juzo made an irritated noise.

"You're the big shot. If we had an idea we'd have tried it by now."

"Look, combat ain't gonna cut it. If Aunt Yuki can't catch him, neither can we. Only thing that works on him is surprise, like when Juzo dropped him in the hole, or appealing to that whole youth power thing. So we can't just go straight at him."

"What's the plan then?"

"Gimme a minute. I'm thinking. It's gotta be something nobody would expect, something he could trust or at least not suspect too much too soon."

"So, what, like a demented exercise instructor wearing the same type bodysuit?"

"Close, but I don't think even this guy's dumb enough to fall for something that obvious. It's gotta be something that looks valid at first glance. Hey, wait a sec."

The blonde Genin turned to Kaori, snapping an order.

"Quick! What's Tomoyuki look like?"

His fiancée, never much of a pop music fan, was taken aback at the abrupt request.


"Tomoyuki! You know, pop star, Yuki's obsession, turned Waterfall-nin boytoy?"

"I know who he is! What do you think I am, some fangirl who knows all his dimensions?"

Both of them stopped cold when Juzo answered.

"Six feet tall even, blue eyes, dyed platinum blonde hair, with brown showing at the roots, and if he's been in captivity as long as Yuki says he has, a lot of it showing. Last seen wearing his signature blue suede jacket with a giant star stitched in sequins on his back, no shirt, and leather pants. Tight fire-red leather pants. If they got him while he was performing, he would have been wearing pointy-toed vinyl boots."

The stocky Genin's teammates stared at him with mouths gaping open.

"What? My mom reads the Snitch too. Out loud, even."

"Riiiiight," Kaori snorted. "And Two-Ton Tomoko is just big for her age."

"That's enough," Naruto said, pulling the two apart. "Yell later. Right now we got a job to do, and here's how it's gonna go down…"

In a Hidden Village, citizens were used to weird happenings on their streets at all hours of the day. They were a fact of life, after all. The Hidden Waterfall was no exception – except when it came to anything involving attractive men. So when what appeared to be Tomoyuki came barreling down Jinpachi Boulevard, jacket open and chest glistening with sweat from his exertion, heads turned. Many heads turned. Kaori and Juzo, chasing the pop star, aroused the mob.

"Stop him! He's escaping!"

Eyes young and old lit up with an inhuman glow that, frankly, scared the daylights out of Naruto (or Tomoyuki for now). Legs blurring, he vamoosed it down the street, keeping a look out for where Yuki and Gai were continuing their chase. The key was to keep his own chase out of plain sight until it got to the point where Gai couldn't help but want to help a fellow youth in trouble.

On one hand, that wouldn't take real long in the Waterfall. On the other hand…

"Get him, girls! If we let the Chief's people take him in we'll never see him again, those greedy bitches!"

"Release the hounds!"

That got his attention, all right.

Oh, shit.

He couldn't very well take to the rooftops and start bouncing around like he would have as himself. No jutsu either, not even taijutsu. Tomoyuki was a singer, not a shinobi. The slightest detail wrong about his portrayal, and the whole plan would go belly up. With his luck, the Leaf-nin was as rabid a fan of the pop idol as Juzo (or his mother, if you actually believed that). Gai had only avoided all those traps, nets and chains by being a shinobi. Speed was the only thing keeping Naruto from becoming the meat in a giant human sandwich.

So run, rabbit, run.

Working with Juzo had given him plenty of experience in feeling out vibrations in the ground. If you knew what to look for – a subtle wave, a sense of the bottom dropping out – you could sometimes anticipate a Takeda's sinkhole. Naruto put that knowledge to use in gauging his flight. Here a slightly impatient tapping of feet could be a woman with a net or tripwire. There, the lessening of the mob's thunderous pace behind him meant some of his pursuers could be trying to shift a few blocks over and cut him off up ahead.

It didn't much matter that he didn't know the city layout. That wasn't as important as knowing where danger lay. He kept running, not entirely knowing where he was going, but not blind either. Yuki and her cohorts' yelling kept him going in the right general direction anyway.




There was, as always, no problem telling which voice belonged to which kunoichi. Naruto grinned slightly, and went back to measuring the force of his own pursuit. Judging it good enough to get sympathy from Gai, the Stone Genin cut through an alley, ducked under a rope snare, and merged into the Gai-Yuki chase.

"Hey! You're not a Waterfall ninja, right? You gotta help me! These crazies have been holding me prisoner for months, making me do all sorts of weird shit!"

Naruto's intuition about Gai and pop stars was correct. Whether that was a good thing was up to individual opinion.


"Uh, yeah, whatever," Naruto said hurriedly as Gai threw an arm around him, both still running, but now at a normal person's speed. "Just get me out of this messed-up place, and you can have as many autographs as you want!"

Gai fell right into the trap.

"We must plan our escape well! Quickly, into the alley!"

Playing a nervous, fey wuss wasn't too hard – he'd seen plenty of those Uchihas in the Leaf section of the Ninja Almanac.

"No way, man! We go in there and they'll cut us off for sure! How do you think I got caught in the first place?"

Even helmet-headed Leaf-nins weren't immune to logic.

"Where do you suggest we go?"

"There!" Naruto pointed. "If we go into the shopping arcade and up a floor or two fast enough we might be able to lose them in there and get out the other side!"

"Fitting of such an active mind! I am, as always, in awe of your creativity!"

"Whatever, man! Look, you're faster than me, so go ahead and clear out anyone hiding behind the gates, and I'll be right behind!"

Gai leaped into action, disengaging himself from "Tomoyuki" and speeding towards the open arch of the downtown shopping arcade.


Gai managed to get five steps inside the arcade before Kaori's already-placed Onmyou Tenka pinned him to the ground with ten times the force of normal gravity.


Straining with the effort, the Leaf-nin turned to see a vinyl boot come into view, his idol looking down upon his defeated form – before he disappeared in a cloud of smoke to reveal a grinning Stone Genin.

"Youth treachery two, youth power zip. Might want to rethink that. Thanks for the attempted save, though. If we find the real Tomoyuki you can have him – if we let you live."

"And why should we do that?" Yuki muttered from behind them. Naruto turned to see his aunt walking up, kunai in hand and a facial tic twitching.

"We kill him and we don't find out where the rest of his team is, the Hero Water's still in danger, and we lose a bargaining chip."

Gai's answer surprised all of them.

"I will save you the time and tell you the truth. That, if you must know, is that I have no team."

Chief Omori cocked an eyebrow, the old kunoichi still breathing heavily from her exertions.

"I wasn't aware the Leaf operated that stupidly – or suicidally. One does not attempt to take a Hidden Village's trump card by sending a single shinobi unless, if you'll pardon me, that shinobi has more talent than you have displayed so far."

"And I would agree with you, if I had actually been on a mission."

Yuki snorted.

"Come again?"

Gai somehow managed to look self-righteous.

"I am on vacation!"

The Stone and Waterfall-nins in attendance all took a face fault.

"It's official," Kaori groaned. "We caught an ignoramus."

"Ignoramus? Who is an ignoramus? Did I not enter the village unmolested? I am a skilled shinobi!"

"Says the man who's being pinned to the earth by a ten-year old kunoichi, and got there after being fooled by a ten-year old Genin's Henge," Yuki sniffed. "Who the hell takes a vacation by trying to steal Hero Water?"

"Perhaps I am a fool for being defeated, Stone kunoichi, but do not presume that you automatically know what I was doing! Maito Gai is no thief."

"But you admit you were here for the Water?" Chief Omori questioned the prisoner.

"Aye, that I was, but merely to research its properties."

Juzo snorted.

"Research what? Drink it and you're dead! What else do you have to know about it?"

Gai's neck muscles bulged, the Leaf Jounin shaking his head slightly.

"That is common knowledge. I had intended to research something else. You see, I am a user of the inner Celestial Gates, and as well I have had the honor of teaching several Genin teams out of the Academy. I should have liked to see how Hero Water affects the body's chemistry, for I believed there might be a way to lessen or negate the physical effects that opening a Celestial Gate has on the body, if I only knew what areas to protect or how fast a chakra increase could safely be handled. How else could I responsibly teach such an example of the power of youth to my charges?"

"You think he's telling the truth?"

Chief Omori shrugged at Yuki's question, the two leaders huddled together around a corner.

"He certainly seems the type for it. I'm not arrogant enough to believe my people could easily stop an elite Leaf three- or four-member squad if they were actually assigned to steal some Hero Water. He's been pinned now for nearly half an hour, and still no rescue attempts, diversions, or attempts to steal Hero Water while everyone's distracted here."

"It doesn't mean they aren't still planning them," Yuki muttered.

"And that's certainly a possibility. But the longer they delay, the more people I send back to their posts. No, if they were going to strike, they would have done it by now. As they haven't, I'm inclined to believe that our prisoner really did come here on vacation, as insanely foolish as that sounds. We don't need to make unnecessary enemies of the Leaf."

Yuki wisely refrained from implying any other motives for why the Waterfall would spare Gai any overly rough treatment.

"It's your village. I think our job here is done, then. With one condition, of course…"

"And what would that be?" the Chief asked levelly.

"You can have Leafy-boy, but one temporary guest is enough, don't you think?"

The older kunoichi cocked an eyebrow, but sighed after a moment of mutual staring.

"I figured as much."

"Is that a yes or a no?"

"My granddaughter will throw a fit, you know."

"A lot of men aren't up to rough stuff. I think you'll find a shinobi more than capable of handling a little 'horseplay.'"

"If he objects?"

Yuki shrugged, turning to head back to the elders' hall.

"Even research costs money, Chief."

Behind them, a shout rose in Gai's voice.

"GYAAAAAA! Touch not my buns of steel!"

Yuki smiled and turned to leave, visions of pop idols freed from captivity dancing in her head.

Better you than Tomo, Leafy-boy.

"Halt! Let's see some ID, old man."

Kantaro bristled at the gate guard's query, even knowing that it was coming. Retire as Kage and suddenly everybody thought you were ripe for disrespecting. The old shinobi resisted the impulse to kill and pulled out his identification, dog-eared and yellowed almost sixty years after its creation.

The gate guard took one look at the "Kage" characters boldly displayed on one corner of the Hidden Stone card and just about wet his pants. For while the Stone had eventually been turned back by the Leaf in their advance against the Hidden Grass so many years ago, it had not been without casualties. And the one name that was still at the top of the Potential Threat list from the Earth Country now stood before him, at the very gates of the Hidden Leaf.

Yamazaki Kantaro, the Master of Seals, Fourth Tsuchikage of the Hidden Stone Village.

The man in question sneered, utter contempt written on his face.

"I see someone's been studying his cute little Leaf-nin 'bingo book.'"

The Leaf-nin said nothing, attempting to control his own unease in the face of the barely restrained rage flowing outward from the older shinobi.

"Stop your knees knocking, fool. If I were here to kill, you'd be dead already. Notify the Hokage I'm here to discuss the parameters of the coming Chuunin Exam. Take more than twenty minutes and I'll find him myself. Now go!"

"But the gate-"

"Will be sealed tighter than a cloistered nun's legs until you return. A mere trifle, courtesy of yours truly. Consider it a tip for your service. So go now, or step aside."

Explaining why no visitors had been inspected or let in for a few minutes was bad enough. But explaining why he had let a foreign Kage, even a retired one, into the village on his own without escort? He'd be lucky if Morino Ibiki didn't stick him on a spit to roast in his own juices. The Chuunin left – grudgingly.

Kantaro resisted the urge to rub more salt into the wound by roaring with laughter. Instead he fulfilled his promise, throwing a seal ward into each corner of the open Leaf gates.

"Fuuton Fuuin: Kaze no Mon (Wind Element Seal: Gate of Winds)!"

The air inside the confines of the gates shimmered briefly, concentrating itself but leaving enough transparency to see who might be coming and who was behind the gate.

"You always were a stickler for proper names and titles, Yamazaki-dono."

Kantaro harrumphed at the bland tone of the Third Hokage's voice.

"You earn a title, Sarutobi, people ought to call you by it. Respect the work, if not the person. Otherwise, every jumped-up Academy graduate and hot-shit Jounin starts to think they can be as informal as they want. And where would that get us?"

"Nowhere good, I assume. Might I ask what you are doing here, Yamazaki-dono, other than scaring unassuming Chuunin?"

Naruto's grandfather snorted.

"At least he's fast."

"Actually, I was on a walk around the village and spotted your seal. They're rather hard to miss."

"That's the point, Sarutobi. Not every weapon has to be tangible."

"Must every one of our discussions relate to war?"

"Humor me. I'd like to at least sound like I know what I'm talking about, even after your boy up on the mountain there handed my head to me in the last fight."

The Third gave him a humorless smile.

"Now that we have established your pride, to business?"

"Got an office or a secluded teahouse to retire to? You'll want to be sitting down for this."

The Hokage arched an eyebrow, but said nothing, preferring to point Kantaro towards his office.

"To be honest, I had been wondering when the first representatives would be coming to discuss the Chuunin Exam. Discuss, or offer their 'suggestions' as to how it should be run."

Kantaro snorted, watching his former counterpart rummage through a giant portfolio full of records for the Chuunin Exam.

"Oh, there's still an official group coming. Daimaru doesn't know I'm here. Came on vacation, so to speak."

The Third's curiosity was perked up now.

"I assume you do have concerns about the exam process?"

The old Stone shinobi made a noncommittal noise.

"The process? Not so much. It can't be too rigged, or else your people are going to have problems. I'm here to talk security."

The Hokage wasn't sure whether to be intrigued or insulted by that.


"You may be aware by now," Kantaro continued, "that I have but one grandson. He is the heir to the Yamazaki line, and by extension the Hidden Stone itself. Daimaru believes the best of people and figures he'll be safe coming here to try for promotion. I am not nearly so optimistic."

"I thought the other villages near you had stopped sending assassins after your son's rather grisly little message."

"Who said anything about assassins being the problem?"

"One would think that's the only point of having security, Yamazaki-dono."

The Fourth Tsuchikage turned weary eyes to the office window, looking out onto the Hidden Leaf from above.

"Having security is useless if the security itself has an incentive not to do its job."

This would require tact, the Third Hokage thought darkly. One did not simply respond to an insult with an insult – especially not when it was a Kage facing a Kage.

"I do hope you're not implying my people would try to give their comrades a 'home-field advantage.'"

Kantaro made a disgusted noise.

"Imply it? No. Expect it? Perhaps. The gods only know that the Sand and Cloud used to try to do it all the time, and the Mist has a natural ally in the weather. But that's for the official delegations to hash out or protest. My concern relates to a single Genin team from the Hidden Stone, no more. Do you have a copy of the Almanac handy?"

Intrigued and not at all sure he wasn't still going to be insulted, the Third consulted his bookshelf and picked out the book in question.

"Ah, good. If you would, flip to the Stone section and look at the nice little spread I designed for my family. You'll notice my grandson prominently displayed."

The Third noticed the boy – Yamazaki Naruto, was it? – but was nonplussed.

"He looks like his mother," the old man noted, trying to be polite.

"Ah, but you see, that's the problem."

"Excuse me?"

"Naruto doesn't have brown hair. That photo was digitally altered after it was taken, for his own protection. We also did some alterations to his face."

Now the Third was really curious.

"I understand you have but the one heir, but was that really necessary?"

Kantaro fished a photograph out of his pocket and tossed it on the desk in front of the Third Hokage.

"I don't know. You tell me."

Blond hair, cerulean eyes. Scars akin to whiskers. And that damned cocksure grin. A ghost no more. The Third had his answer, at last.

And so, too, does Suzuno.

Kantaro didn't bat an eye as the Hokage sat down in his chair with an undignified thud.

"Let me be brief. You left him out there, either to die or to be found. We found him. He's ours, my grandson, son of the Fifth Tsuchikage, and heir to the Yamazaki line. And if one of these irrational bastards you call villagers so much as singes a hair on his head, I will turn this place into a charnel house. You may kill me, but I swear I'll take every last one of you with me.

"Naruto will only come to this rotation of the Chuunin Exam if my conditions are met. I fully intend to accompany him. My son and daughter-in-law will accompany him, as will his Jounin sensei and private sensei. I will bring my own Anbu team, in addition to the usual security team assigned to the Kage's party. We will use lethal force to defend Naruto, if provoked. You may pick out a small two or three-person team to accompany us and make sure that incidents do not get out of hand. No member of that team may be ranked any higher than Chuunin. Those are my conditions. What say you, Sarutobi?"

It was wholly unreasonable. Wholly, completely unreasonable that anyone could demand that much protection in a foreign Hidden Village. But if the Kyubi's vessel was not entirely a unique case, he was still a special case. Perhaps his absence had erased some memories, but time healed wounds inconsistently, and even when it did so, it did so slowly. Ten years might not be nearly enough time.

But it's far more time than any of those who wanted a child killed should have gotten to themselves.

There had been no Kyubi sightings in ten years. Neither had there been reports of deaths in the Hidden Stone due to it, other than the thinly-disguised corpse pieces Yamazaki Daimaru had sent to all the villages to discourage assassins.

The rational would have to accept that. The irrational could be dissuaded with threats and guilt. And his mother – the Third hesitated to even think about the prospect – his mother would have to be told. But that was merely what should be done. Past time the lies stopped. The act was over with, the child lost to them, another village's hope. Standing in the way of his life again would be the ultimate insult to his birth father – and to the boy himself.

"Very well. Please notify me before your candidates set out for the Leaf. I'll begin my preparations and have them in place before you arrive."