Timeline has been switched and ages have been adjusted. Naruto returned to Konoha when he was 15 and became ANBU at 16. He never became Jounin; not b/c of lack of ability, but b/c of lack of time. Konoha was attacked a second time by the Sound when he was 19. Now he is 21, and it is 4 years before his birth.


Naruto's 'thoughts'

Kyuubi speech

(…Flashback scenes…)


At some point you might think, why so much on this OC? Well, heehee, it's to introduce another character we all love to hate. But well, you'll see for yourself. I wonder if you'll like the twist? I haven't seen anyone else incorporate it before...

As The Last Candle Burns

By: Falling Right Side-Up

"Sweet Misery"

When Naruto didn't report back from his solo mission one day during the first year since Konoha's destruction, most didn't think much of it. With his penchant for trouble, they'd merely brushed his tardiness off as a mild complication. After all, he always pulled through in the end.

But when one day became three, and there was still no sign or contact, people grew worried; they frowned and fidgeted, a restrained anxiousness growing steadily larger. Everyone dealt with the situation a bit differently.

Then when three became seven, Tsunade leapt up in anger, demanding an explanation from the other ANBU as to why they hadn't spotted her wayward shinobi yet. Shizune was spared the worrying as she was away on a mission of her own.

Iruka, now advisor to the Godaime-Hokage, whittled away his pencils with his bare teeth, unable to focus or dictate anything being said in meetings.

Shikamaru sighed and asked why the blonde always had to be troublesome as he walked through the camp, but out of view he pensively scoured over the mission plan he himself had assigned his companion.

Sasuke scowled as usual, but now it was much more pronounced, and one could sense his less than friendly disposition from a farther distance than before. People didn't bother trying to approach him then.

Injured shinobi in the medic tent quickly informed others that it was best to treat their own wounds for a time, as their two head medics both seemed out of sorts, distracted and generally aggravating wounds instead of patching them up.

Sakura was wound up like a tense coil, over-exerting too much strength, bandaging too tightly, stabbing the needle a little too deeply. And Hinata's once trademark clumsiness, something thought to have been outgrown, had returned full force as the littered glass on the ground from countless broken bottles testified.

Neji was more closed off than before if possible, hardly saying a word as the days of waiting increased. But if one dared to look at him directly for a period of time, one could see the veins around his eyes bulging - the tell-tale sign of the Byakugan in action - a little more frequently than usual, always gazing towards the forest.

The rest of the "Rookie-Nine", not generally accustomed to brooding in solitary confinement, chose to worry in a collective group.

Hotheaded as he was, Kiba showed an unusual amount of animosity, always a biting word ready to be said if aggravated. His partner, Akamaru, mirrored his master, fur bristling and teeth bared in a silent growl. Tenten usually stood a ways off from the group, steadily decimating whatever object unfortunate enough to be designated as her target as she worked off her anxiety. Lee was loud and outspoken as usual, but his speeches were a little too long and a little too bright, as if to make up for some unspoken doubt.

But no one was more worried and anxious than Hatake Kakashi. He often prowled the edges of the camp and unleashed his nin-dogs into the forest, frustrated when he ran out of chakra to support the summons and had to dismiss them. And when seven days became eleven, and the others began to reluctantly consider the idea that Naruto wasn't coming back, the silver-haired man grew even more agitated and furious.

He staunchly refused to even humor the idea. Instead, he graced those who did with a stony gaze whenever they tried to coax him from his vigilant post at the camp's outer perimeters. The only ones safe from his acerbic demeanor were Sasuke – who shared his conviction – and the Hokage – who was his superior and was decidedly neutral concerning what to think.

And so, to the rest of "Rookie Nine's" private shame for doubting and Kakashi's pleasure, if not a bit of vindictive triumph, they were absolutely relieved when they received news of Naruto two weeks later. ANBU squad 3 had found the blonde half drowning in a stream a mile off from the outer edge of Fire Country. Quickly, they carried Naruto back to base camp and into the medical care of Tsunade, Sakura, and Hinata.

Their diagnosis was succinct. The blonde was suffering from chakra exhaustion since his recovery was impeded by several severed chakra pathways, but luckily they could be healed given time. There were no signs of broken bones or bleeding wounds, not that the three women expected any, given Naruto's special tenant. Their only cause for worry, really, was the apparent concussion and symptoms of asphyxiation.

Tsunade brushed a tuft of dirty blond hair from the young man's face, a tender smile full of relief on her lips as she concluded, "He'll be fine. The brat just needs some time to recover."

To Kakashi's relief, Naruto was discharged from the medical tent and into his care for the next three days, during which time the jounin did not leave his lover's side unless it was unavoidable. It was on the end of the second day that Naruto woke up.

Sitting on a small cushion with his back resting against the cot occupied by Naruto, Kakashi was reading one of the last volumes of the "Icha Icha" series published before Jiraiya had fallen in battle. He was off duty, so he had replaced the ninja head-guard with a black bandana and had taken off the jounin flack jacket.

Absorbed in his reading material and memories of his sensei's and student's mentor, the jounin was unaware of his lover's affectionate gaze until he felt gentle fingers thread softly through his silver hair.

By habit, Kakashi leaned into the comforting gesture before turning his face towards the hand and kissing it softly through his mask. Naruto smiled and tenderly traced the jounin's lips through the thin black material. He fought off a blush as Kakashi turned around fully to face him, discarding the book on the floor and teasingly nibbling on Naruto's fingers.

"Miss me?" Naruto smiled cheekily.

The nibbling abruptly stopped and Kakashi pinned him with a smoldering gaze, fastening a tight grip on the blond's hand. Naruto's breath caught.

"Naruto, you have no idea." The words were mild, but the silver-haired man's expression was clearly displeased and his eyes presented mild rebuke. A strong arm curled around the blonde's slim waist, pulling him down into the jounin's lap so that his back was against the older man's broad chest.

They sat there in silence, their breaths synchronizing as they soaked in each other's presence.

The blond fiddled with the sleeve of his yukata and Kakashi sighed wearily, resting his chin on Naruto's shoulder. The younger man relaxed into the arms of his lover, sleep threatening to overtake him as the silence stretched on. Then, slowly, the jounin began to speak, his voiced measured and thoughtful.

"As shinobi, one of the first things we're taught is to detach ourselves from our emotions. We're taught to be tools to kill without remorse. But there is always remorse, there is always guilt. We merely bottle it up so we don't have to acknowledge it. The same is applied to the loss of companions…of loved ones."

Naruto leaned into Kakashi's embrace, offering silent comfort and encouragement when the older man paused and slipped into a pensive silence. The blond waited patiently as Kakashi ruminated on his thoughts, gathering the right words to say.

"When someone dies…in reality there's nothing more to it," the jounin began slowly, testing the weight of his own words. "No matter what you do you can never see them again, so there's no use in pondering over what you could have done as opposed to what you can do in the future to prevent it from happening again. That doesn't stop you, of course, from thinking – "What if" or "It's my fault" – anyways. And you'll always miss them." Kakashi paused.

"With people who are alive - it's different. You miss them and the knowledge that you can see them again if you can find them is empowering. But when you realize you can't find them; that you can't help them; that hurts more than anything else. To say it's unpleasant is an understatement. People say there's nothing more shameful than a helpless shinobi. A helpless killer, what a joke," the silver-haired man chuckled, but it was dark.

Kakashi buried his face into the crook of his lover's neck, and then softly, tenderly placed a kiss behind the blond's ear. He whispered teasingly, "So, you know better than to leave me, right?" But the arm around Naruto's waist tightened, an almost uncomfortable pressure that had the younger man holding his breath, and he could feel the slight tremor that ran though the larger frame molding against his back and the uneven shaking in Kakashi's breath against his neck.

Naruto's breathe hitched, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Despite Kakashi's casual words, the blond knew the deeper meaning implied by them; the infinitely more tender and vulnerable message that was being conveyed. Naruto could only imagine how hard it was for such a private man like Kakashi to vocalize his worries and his guilt, even in such a round-a-bout way to his own lover.

And the blonde felt all the more blessed for it.

Everyone knew Naruto as a happy, determined person. An outspoken goof-ball who wore his heart on his sleeve. Most of the time, it was no challenge for him to shout to everyone what he was thinking at any moment, whether it was the rare insightful thought or his musings of what flavor ramen to eat.

But Naruto left just as many things unsaid.

He wasn't the type to want to burden anyone else, so he liked to boast that he was the best, that he would never give up, and that he didn't need to lean on anyone even though he wanted them to lean on him.

So even when he ran around screaming about bonds and friendship, he rarely said anything about himself. He rarely admitted out loud that he didn't want to be alone. Like he used to be.

It was a deep seated fear that Naruto had harbored all his life inside of him. Hidden, but so painfully there. Undeniable and unbearable.

To those who looked closely, it had always been obvious in Naruto's valiant speeches and ruckus actions that he craved acceptance, understanding, and love. But there had always been few who cared enough to get that close.

He'd never said those painful words. "Don't go. Stay with me. I don't want to be alone."

Because saying them would only have made the hurt and suffering seem more real.

Because once upon a time, there had been no one who would have listened.

It was moments like this that Naruto realized just how much he needed and admired the older man. It was moments like this that despite those times he cursed whatever higher beings existed screwing up his life, that he thanked them for allowing him this one happiness.

In a whirl of movement that caught the jounin off guard, Naruto deftly lowered his lover's mask down and pulled him into a passionate kiss, pouring as much support, understanding and comfort he could into it. Kakashi responded with equal fervor, one hand trailing down the blond's back and the other pulling Naruto even deeper into their kiss by a firm grip on his nape.

Neither of them protested even when their lungs burned for air. Their only actions were to press even harder and closer to one another, seemingly as if to do away with even the slightest separation between them. But even when their clothes were off and their bodies draped almost seamlessly against one another, the distance was still too great.

They wanted more. It was a desire closer to need than simple want. Desperation seeped into their passion, a strange mixture of bliss and devastating sorrow that both couldn't help but love and curse.

Even so, it was moments like this that they were happiest. When they could pretend they were not two but one, unshackled from the duties and trials that faced them both. But even this happiness was tainted by the bitter sweetness of reality, because they knew this moment could not last, and soon they would have to plunge back into the grim truth of their dying home, dying companions, and dying hope.

But for now, just this short while, they would both pretend that there was no danger lurking just outside their camp. They would pretend that there was no looming shadow of uncertainty and doubt shrouding their future.

And as they pretended, they hoped that one day it wouldn't be pretend anymore.

Chapter 1: Rekindling the fire

Part B

Grunting, Naruto collapsed against the base of a decimated tree with his legs sprawled out in front of him and his arms dead weight in his lap. Almost reluctantly, he made the effort to reach into the small pack he'd brought for a water canteen. Drinking just enough to quench his thirst, he dumped the rest over his head in the hopes of cooling off just a bit quicker. Ninja or not, the blond didn't enjoy the sticky feel of sweat causing his clothes to suck onto his skin.

Naruto surveyed the area around him with a feeling of self-satisfaction and accomplishment. The small clearing in the forest - one he had set up for training - was now noticeably larger and in deplorable condition. A tangle of botched traps, fallen trees, enormous craters, and lingering scent of scorched organic matter were testimony to the long and vigorous training sessions he had held there.

'Looks like I'll have to relocate soon.' Considering that the area had been used routinely in the last two months, it was no surprise that the clearing wouldn't withstand much more abuse.

Since the day he'd woken up in the past, the blond had worked hard to establish a bond between himself and Tsunade, slowly working past the suspicion and painstakingly creating a niche for himself within her life; close enough to be trusted but always at arms length, for he could not afford for her to venture too close to his heart, too close to the still festering hurt that lay beneath the laid-back and welcoming persona he wore as much as for his own sake as hers.

That woman, that big-breasted woman with impossibly bad luck, freakish strength, pig-headed stubbornness and a temper to match, who hated diplomats, shirked all ceremonial duties and drooled on official paperwork…she was heart wrenchingly beautiful in his eyes. She always had been. She always would be.

He doubted she'd ever realize just how much she meant to him. Tsunade had been one of the few in his future-now-past that had seen in him something others did not. What she had seen in him Naruto didn't know, but whatever it was it had been enough for her to care and that was enough for him. And now the younger, infinitely more stubborn, and substantially less wise Tsunade seemed to see something in him as well; that was a gift horse that he would not look in the mouth.

As the blond had expected, getting closer at first to Tsunade and Shizune had caused him pain by reminding him of what he'd lost or left behind. However, in a twisted sense of comfort, the anguish reaffirmed his determination to live his new life dedicated to everyone he'd let down, and that in turn soothed him; he could not allow himself to burn out, to lose conviction of his purpose.

He sighed heavily. Training, as beneficial as it was, would be fruitless unless he applied his skills in the war. Konohakagure's struggle against Iwakagure was seemingly at a stalemate. Though Konoha's nin were stronger – of course they would be, Naruto snorted, they had the freaking original "Yellow Flash" – Iwakagure outnumbered them in terms of sheer cannon fodder.

Naruto's head fell back and hit the tree behind him with a "thunk" as he gazed at the stars in silence.

'One more month and I'll be done with the Tsunade's crash course. Just one more month…and I'll leave.' But until then, he could still enjoy his time with his female companions, couldn't he?

A month later…

"Shit! I thought this was only a FRIENDLY spar!"

At this point, Naruto didn't really care that he was cursing in front of a minor. Besides, Shizune seemed to find his current predicament amusing, if the little cretin's childish giggle was anything to go by. The harried blond spared the young girl sitting just outside the training area a peeved glance, to which she responded with a cheeky wave.

'I can't believe I thought she was cute!'

He grimaced and scuttled on the ground, barely avoiding a boulder that whooshed past his head. Without pause, Naruto propelled himself off the ground with an exaggerated handstand as a scalpel flew past his leg, flipped back onto his feet and dove into a large crater left behind from a previous attack earlier that day.

Taking a calming breath, Naruto racked his brain for a countermeasure against the full blown assault on his person, courtesy of the smirking woman who was currently trying to uproot a tree to use as a club. At the sound of a smug and heinous cackle, he peeked over the edge of the crater and groaned at the sight.

Tsunade's eyes were lit with unholy glee, swinging the aforementioned tree back and forth in her arms like a child trying out a new toy, while she advanced towards his position.

"Come out, Sansai~! It's almost been three months, surely you can stand a bit more pain after all this training with me," the sannin cajoled.

The blond man rolled his eyes as he collapsed back into a sitting position inside the crater. Naruto shook his head exasperatedly as he replied, "No freaking way!"

"Freaking" being the operative word. He'd thought Tsunade had been scary enough when she was a granny, but knocking 26 years off her was like seeing her on Supped up Ninja pills. His whole definition of "freakish strength" had been redefined.

Sometimes, he wondered about the conundrum that was Tsunade. Being a shinobi required stealth and precision, like a sniper in the dark. The sannin was more like a runaway tank.

But even so, she was a damn good ninja, Naruto thought exasperatedly.

"How 'bout this. I win, you buy me sake and Shizune ice-cream. And if, IF, you win, I'll buy you that unhealthy crap you call food," Tsunade wheedled. She smirked when she heard Naruto's affronted gasp.

"One, Tsunade-san, that 'unhealthy crap' is called RAMEN. Two, I agree it's unhealthy, but it's not crap! And three…you've got yourself a deal!" A blond blur sprang towards the sannin from the crater in front of the grinning woman.

"Fool, what did I say about rushing at your opponent head on! I can easily overpower you!" Tsunade leapt to meet the other shinobi mid-way, drawing her arms back to deliver a quick and powerful blow with the tree in her hands. A second or two before impact, she neared her opponent enough to see his smirk.

Irked, she began to draw even more chakra, planning to release it in a precise burst, but frowned when she found that she couldn't. In fact, Tsunade couldn't even move. She collapsed to her knees, the tree falling away from her hands with a tremendous thud. The sannin searched through her memories for a technique that could cause her sudden immobility but came up empty. She looked up at Naruto with the fiercest glare she could muster.

"What did you do?" Tsunade demanded. The young man merely smiled and wagged a finger.

"Tsk, tsk, Tsunade-san. That would be telling, and a shinobi doesn't just tell anyone his secrets," Naruto teased with a small smile. "But, since it's you, I guess I could make an exception." His eyes softened momentarily, and Tsunade's glare eased. "It was Shiatsu (pressure points)," he stated matter-of-factly.

"What!" the woman exploded, "You didn't even touch me!" she cried out in frustration.

At this point, Naruto settled for a decidedly fox-like grin as he crouched in front of the sannin. "Oh? I didn't?" He questioned innocently. Tsunade narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

"No. No, you didn't."

"Hmmm, are you sure?" Her glare returned. She really wished she could move so she could slap the man in front of her upside the head. Instead, she struggled to control her temper and answered him.

"Yes. I'm sure." He shrugged.

"Ok, I guess I didn't then," Naruto agreed. Tsunade smirked in triumph.

"So, it wasn't Shiatsu," she stated with glee, which quickly faded into confusion as he shook his head.

"No, it was definitely Shiatsu. And no, I didn't touch you," he spoke before she could protest. The sannin fumed and opened her mouth to yell but her bellow turned into a high pitched shriek of surprise as something teasingly tickled her sides.

"What the hell?!" Tsunade looked down at herself but saw nothing. Her gaze whipped back up at Naruto's repressed snicker. He mockingly wiggled his fingers at her in a wave, and the invisible something suddenly felt like somethings. Surprised once again, the blonde woman could do nothing to stop her sudden explosive laughter as she tried futilely to squirm this way and that to escape. "Stop!" she screamed between breaths. "Sto-OOOP~!" the sudden increase in pitch only caused Naruto to fall back on his butt and choke on his own laughter.

When the blond man had seemingly had his fill of amusement at her expense, the tickling sensation stopped, leaving Tsunade red-faced and breathless, sprawled across the ground. Naruto snickered once again, idly wondering just how much Jiraiya would have paid to see the infamous Slug Sannin like this. 'He probably would have had enough inspiration to write at least three more Icha Icha books,' the blond shinobi mused, a lewd smile spreading across his face. Unfortunately, Tsunade chose that moment to speak.

"Okay. Wha-what was that?" Tsunade questioned breathlessly.

"Nihihihi!" Naruto cackled. "It's my Super-Totally Awesome- Sexy Technique- Variation 3C!" He paused after the exclamation and leered at the blonde woman as he finished, "Zokutou Sansai's Magic Fingers!" He wiggled the fingers of both his hands to add emphasis.

Shizune and Tsunade were both dumbstruck, faces slack with disbelief. Naruto continued to cackle, waving his hands with the wiggling fingers back and forth in front of the blonde woman's face.

A twitch of one fine eyebrow and growing blush on the Slug Sannin's face signaled the impending explosion. "Magic. Fingers. Magic. Fingers?" Her voice rose with each word. "MAGIC FINGERS?!" With a roar Tsunade leapt up, miraculously overcoming her paralysis, and slammed a fist into the still leering man's face.

"Eergk~!" He went flying across the clearing and through the trunks of a couple trees. Shizune watched with wide eyes, frozen in her crouched position at the edge of the clearing.

Tsunade huffed, taking in deep breaths of air to calm her righteous fury. "YOU!" She screamed venomously while angrily jabbing a finger in the direction she'd sent the man flying. "I knew you reminded me of someone! At first I thought it was of people I tolerate, but no! It's him! That infuriating, sorry excuse for a ninja PERVERT!"

A muffled voice responded from somewhere beneath the pile of destruction, "He's not a pervert! And he'd be quite insulted to be called that!"

"Oh?" Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "So you know who it is I'm talking about?" A hand burst out from the rubble and she watched as Naruto dug himself out.

"Of course," the blond man grunted, bringing himself up on top of a fallen tree to look down at Tsunade. He took upon a condescending air and stance, hands on his waist. "The man of whom you speak can be only one person to evoke such strong reactions from a woman like you! He can only be the legendary JIRAIYA! The man -" A feminine scream of fury cut him off.

"I WAS RIGHT! You do know him! That PERVERT!"

"NO!" Naruto immediately rebutted, forming an "x" with his arms across his chest. "The man known as Jiraiya is not a pervert!" the blond man sneered. "He's the greatest man ever to grace the shinobi lands, a SUPER-PERVERT!" Naruto exclaimed fervently, ignoring Tsunade and Shizune's once again stupefied silence. "He is the only man brave enough to venture into the territory of the beautiful but dangerous and angry beauties in order to relieve that ailment that plagues all healthy males! Sexual frustration!" The blond man did a strange dance and finished with a flourish, voice seemingly filled with admiration and awe.

In truth, Naruto was nearly killing himself by holding in his laughter. Now he knew why Jiraiya had always done this disgustingly embarrassing introduction. It was fun, and the humiliation was well worth the shocked and pained expressions of his audience. But truly, he was only able to do this because he didn't really believe it. After all, he was firmly of the male persuasion. Or should that be Kakashi-suasion? Absorbed in his own contemplations, Naruto didn't hear the psychic screams of horror that rang across the ether from the Slug Sannin.

"Nihihihihi!" The blonde man cackled once more. "My aspiration to model Jiraiya aside, my technique is nothing to laugh at! After all, my 'Magic Fingers' were able to disable you, the fearsome Slug Sannin!" He pointed a damning finger in her direction, nose haughtily upturned in the air.

"Che!" Tsunade came out of her stupor at his statement, face turned down and away, an embarrassed blush stealing across her cheeks. Naruto smirked. "So, what exactly are your…your 'Ma-Magic Fingers'?" Tsunade felt utterly ridiculous even saying the name of his technique and painstakingly tried to suppress the growing blush as she saw Naruto's smirk widen from the corner of her eyes.

"Actually, the technique itself is quite simple," Naruto spoke as he leapt down from the tree trunk to stand in front of her. Shizune brushed off her clothes and trotted over to the adults, also curious of his explanation. "To put it simply, they're just extensions of chakra."

"What?" The blonde woman's head jerked up in surprise, round eyes full of curiosity. "Extending your chakra that far from your body? You must have an almost godly control of your chakra…" Tsunade trailed off in speculation. Naruto shrugged.

"No, not really. It's more brute force and imposing my own will on them. You see, I have a great deal of experience with the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu, so I'm used to having to split and spread my own awareness around. So the extensions just feel like limbless, invisible Kage Bunshins that are still connected to me." Tsunade blinked at Naruto's casual mention of using a kinjutsu. But the blond man continued to speak, keeping her from dwelling on that fact.

"I haven't put a lot of charka into them right now so they're not in the visible spectrum. I think only a Hyuuga would be able to see them at this point." Naruto rubbed his neck, tilting his head back to look at the sky. "But if I push all my chakra into them, they would visibly manifest to look kind of like tails." Naruto was still looking up, so he missed the sudden sharp look Tsunade threw at him when he mentioned "tails." It tugged on something in the medic's memory, but she couldn't quite grasp it.

"Tails…How many?" Tsunade questioned absently, still trying to remember what it was that was so important about "tails." This time, it was she who missed the sharp glance thrown her way. Shizune watched both adults quietly but thoughtfully.

"Four," Naruto answered cautiously, noting her preoccupation. Something told him it would be dangerous to let the woman think on it any longer. "Anyways," he exclaimed with sudden cheerfulness, startling Tsunade from her thoughts, "it's time to pay up Tsunade-san!"

"Yeah, yeah," Tsunade huffed.

Naruto grinned with an expression in his eyes that screamed "Praise me, I'm smart!"

"Alight already. You're good, Sansai," Tsunade acknowledged rather ungraciously. "Now let's go," she grumbled.

"Ah, ah. Remember our little wager, Tsunade-san~!" Naruto tsked, rocking on his heels.

"Aw shit. Fine. You'll get your crap." The woman rolled her shoulders and patted the dirt off her clothes, turning around with a grimace.

"It's Ramen! RA-MEN!" the blond male protested vehemently to his companion. Tsunade ignored him, tugging a smiling Shizune along as she walked out of the clearing towards the town.

"Yeah, yeah, crap is still crap," she retorted, smiling at the continued protests sounding from behind her as Naruto jogged to keep up with her.

Having coerced the two females into eating at a ramen stand for the eighth time in a row, Naruto sat quietly, feeling as if there was a great weight upon his shoulders. His chest felt constrained, his legs felt weak, and his thoughts were in chaos.

He could tell Tsunade was watching him curiously, but he ignored the inquiring gaze in favor of deciphering his wayward feelings. Scratching his chin, he turned around, resting his back against the counter as he appraised the quaint ramen stand.

It was time to go. Naruto had put off leaving for far too long.

Swiveling around, Naruto remained deep in thought as a large bowl of miso ramen was placed before him and mechanically said his blessings as he began to eat. Before he'd even begun to finish his silent musings, his food was finished. Appetite suddenly greatly diminished, he said a polite "thank you" and turned to the two females beside him.

Tsunade was done but Shizune was still eating, alternately staring worriedly at Naruto and her shishou, who was, in turn, gazing straight back at the blond male. And unlike the many times before when Naruto had put up a carefree front to reassure them, this time he couldn't bring himself do anything but stare.

Stare and wonder just how he would survive leaving them behind again.

Tsunade knew that Sansai would be leaving. She knew because of the pained and uncertain expression on his face all through dinner. So, really, she wasn't all that surprised when she woke up in the middle of the night to feel Sansai's chakra getting further and further away from the inn. She sat up and stared blankly at the door of the adjoining room until she could no longer detect the other's chakra. Slowly, wrapping the open sleeping robe tighter around her, Tsunade got up and opened Sansai's door.

The room was empty except for the neatly rolled up bedding and a small package on top of it. Tsunade picked it up cautiously and sat by the open window of the room, where the full moon's light shone through. She un-wrapped the coarse paper from the package while wondering what Sansai could possibly have left her.

It was a cherry wood box, beautifully stylized on the shallow lid. Tsunade appreciatively traced the artwork with her fingertips, paying close attention to the painstaking detail of the carvings and brush strokes depicting the many hundreds of individual leaves upon a great tree. Delicately, she lifted the lid off the box and peered inside.

There were four scrolls, three side by side on the bottom with a fourth on top, along with a small pouch. Tsunade picked up the fourth scroll on top and opened it.

Dear Tsunade-san,

If you're reading this scroll, then I've already left to rejoin the Iwakagure and Konohagakure war. Truthfully, I should have left much earlier, but I was hesitant to leave your company. Though you may have only known me for three months, I feel as if I've known you for many years. Presumptuous as this may sound, you and Shizune have already become very precious people to me and I hope I have become the same to you.

She smiled a bit tremulously. No, it wouldn't be presumptuous of you, Sansai, she thought. If she didn't think it would be crazy, she would have thought she'd known him for far longer as well.

Thank you for the extra training and spars. It never hurts for an ANBU to have medical training. In fact, I would say it should be mandatory for most.

Tsunade grinned fiercely at that. At least one shinobi agreed with her, even if her own sensei hadn't heeded her advice.

Forgive me for bringing up old wounds, but I know of your personal history with Konoha, and while I don't condone your actions, I do understand them.

The sannin frowned. Sansai hadn't mentioned her past at all during his stay. Why did he bring it up now?

Losing loved ones is a terrible experience, one that will never become easier with time. I know because I've lost many precious people, too.

She knew it! He was like her.

That's why I have to go back.

What? Why? Her mind raced in confusion.

I have to fight to protect those who are still alive. And even when they've died, I will still fight so that those who are precious to others might still survive.

What have I done, other than give my enemy less opposition, if I turn my back on the fight? He's gotten rid of two opponents by killing one. I'm not going give my enemy that kind of satisfaction.

I'll fight until my dying breath and find a way to fight even beyond that. That way I can strike fear into my enemy's heart and make him regret what he's done. No enemy, however strong and numerous, will convince me to go back on my promise, my nindo, my very existence.

If I'm truthful, I know that I might not survive. But everyone dies sooner or later, and I would rather have a glorious, if somewhat bloody death with purpose than to just kick it in old age. However, it's not my intent to preach to you or guilt you into anything. I just supposed you would have liked to know why I do what I do.

Yes, I would have, Tsunade thought solemnly.

I hope one day we will meet once again. Hopefully within the gates of our mutual home. And to that end, I present you with an incentive to come.

She cocked a skeptical eyebrow.

As I'm sure you've already realized, I have not been entirely truthful about myself or my circumstances, but rest assured that no matter what I'm still loyal to Konoha. I wasn't lying about being an ANBU captain of Konoha. But if you asked the Hokage who I am, he wouldn't even know of my existence. And I am not one of Danzo's ROOT pets. Interested yet?

"You bet your ass I am!" the woman hissed.

I assure you, my explanation is so wildly absurd, you wouldn't believe it even if I explained in this scroll. That's why for now I left you clues, so to speak, until a time we can talk in person again. The first scroll to the right in the box is your first clue. Of course, if you want to examine it you will have to brave your fear of blood, since it's quite soaked from its last use. Good luck!

Once you've deciphered the meaning behind the first scroll, you'll be ready to read the scroll in the middle of the container. The last, you won't be ready for a while, but I'd appreciate it if you kept it safe for me.

Tsunade's eyes darted to the three remaining scrolls in the container. Whatever it was that Sansai was hiding, it was starting to sound more ominous by the second.

And like any good mystery, what you find will probably give you more questions than answers. Answers you won't receive unless we meet again in person. How's that for incentive?

Until we meet again,

Zokutou Sansai.

Tsunade groaned as she read the last part. Hands shaking, she set the scroll aside and peered at the aforementioned blood soaked scroll in the container with trepidation. Positioning one of her hands to reach for it, she closed her eyes and snatched it out of the box. With all the speed she had at her disposal she whipped the scroll open with her other hand and set it on the floor before her. Tsunade wrung her hands together anxiously, trying to fight the psychosomatic pains from having touched the blood.

Time passed as she stared at it, first from the inability to decipher what was written underneath the stains of brown rusted blood, and then with growing disbelief. Her wide eyes sped across all the seals, unconsciously inching closer and closer to the scroll. It wasn't until the sun was first making its arrival known through the window behind her that Tsunade sat back abruptly, mouth gaping and hands limp in her lap.

"No way," she said breathlessly. "No way." Tsunade's eyes slid from the blood soaked scroll on the floor to the middle scroll in the container. Hurriedly, she grabbed the middle scroll and spread it out on the floor. Her fingers traced along the writing as she read and paused on one word.


A bark of incredulous laughter escaped her. "Well, Sansai, seems like we're going to be seeing each other very soon."

As she stared out the window towards the morning sun, she never saw the strange shadow reaching out from nothingness like a blind snake as it licked the open, blood soaked scroll on the floor. And as quickly as it appeared, it dissipated like ephemeral smoke and left no trace, so that even Tsunade was unaware as she walked briskly through the very space it had been before.

Naruto flicked dripping blood off his kunai with a grimace as he leapt through the trees. 'This is completely ridiculous,' he growled silently behind his ANBU mask. The journey should have been relatively simple.

It was supposed to have been a quick half-day dash to the northern port of Tea Country, in order to secure a boat ride across the bay to Fire Country. Once inside the borders, a mad six day run should have been sufficient to reach Konoha. From there, he would meet the Hokage (Naruto was looking forward to meeting Sandaime oji-san again) and convince him of his authentic relation to Namikaze Minato (a simple blood test used within most clans would suffice), which would open the floor to the fantastic explanation of his existence, thereby reinstating himself as an official Konoha-nin once again.

At least, that's what should have happened, if discord and strife weren't bosom buddies who loved to stick to his ass like a prickly spur.

What actually happened was more like Murphy's Law times a thousand, especially tailored to fit the Uzumaki Naruto brand of the "O-Shit-O-Meter." His once brilliantly simple plan had turned into a convoluted monstrosity of the world's greatest fuck-up, and he was still having trouble believing that he was in the middle of it all.

Looking back on the start of his journey now, Naruto could definitively say that everything had been shot to hell the moment he'd stepped onto old man Toji's boat. The beginning had been alright, although he'd been nervous about the loud sound of the motor attracting unwanted attention.

Tense and alert, Naruto had been prepared for almost anything, like pirates and for other enemy-nin…not two boats of crotchety old men who were more of a danger to themselves than to him and a pissed off sea monster.

Naruto waited tensely for the boat ride to end. He was safely disguised as an unassuming civilian male under a henge (disgustingly normal brown hair and eyes in his opinion), but something told him that despite all his efforts that his day was about to get worse. His intuition was proven right when he heard the faint sound of other motor boats in the water.

Soon, the boats were close enough that Naruto didn't even need to use his near supernatural eyesight to plainly see them catching up. The shinobi glanced at Toji to see what the old man made of it, but he seemed completely unaware and entirely focused on lighting the pipe in his hands.

"Excuse me, Toji-san, do you know them?" Naruto asked, pointing a finger towards the two approaching vessels. Toji continued to fumble with the pipe, cursing as he dropped a lit match, and did not bother to turn around and properly answer the young man.

"Do I know who?" he spoke around the mouth of the pipe, bending over to retrieve another match. The boats were close enough now that Naruto could see them brimming with old men, not unlike Toji in appearance, with scraggly beards and plain clothes fit for sailing… except for the fact that they were jerkily waving around what looked like harpoons and oars in a very, very angry manner.

'Actually, perhaps savagely menacing would be a better description,' Naruto thought with increasing alarm. The boats with the old men drew even closer, and now the shinobi could see the wild gleam in their eyes, coupled with their gnashing yellow teeth. 'Okay, bloodthirsty as well,' Naruto quickly amended. He didn't bother being polite this time as he addressed Toji; besides, the old man had to be deaf and dumb not to notice the approaching boats by now.

"I'm guessing even if you know them that they aren't your friends!" Naruto shouted and roughly grabbed the old man, forcefully turning Toji around to see the other boats.

Toji's eyes widened, the pipe falling from his gaping mouth. "Oh, lordy, dey foun' me!"

"So you do know them! Who are they? Pirates?" the shinobi questioned, but Toji didn't answer.

"Hold on, sonny, we gotta lose 'em!" the old man shouted. Naruto frowned.

"Exactly how do you expect to lose- erk!" the small boat swerved, knocking Naruto to the floor.

What followed was a wild race all over the bay, all three boats performing impossible maneuvers to evade and chase. Naruto had never been one to fall victim to sea-sickness, but at that moment he was sure he'd be capable of achieving projectile vomit.

Eventually, but not soon enough for Naruto, the chase ended when the two other boats managed to sandwich Toji's boat from the front and back. Roaring, several angry old men came aboard, gesturing angrily at Toji as he pleaded innocence to whatever grievance they held against him. Naruto, repressing his urge to hurl over the side of the boat, could barely make sense of their incensed shouting coupled with atrocious grammar and thick accents. The boat's rocking grew as the men argued, and the shinobi was getting sick of being sick.

"Stop, now!" he screamed almost hysterically, desperate to stop the rocking of the boat. Silence fell as the old men turned to the slightly green looking brunet boy. Unsteadily, Naruto stood up and sneered, although inwardly he was disgusted with himself that he'd succumbed to such a feeble weakness as sea-sickness. With an angry "Kai!" he dispelled the henge, revealing his blond hair and shinobi apparel.

Smirking at the surprised gasps from the group of old men, Naruto crossed his arms and put on his best "I'm a shinobi. An angry shinobi, and you'd best listen to me" face. Then the blond spoke, "Now, I don't know what you-"

"You'll nevah take me back alive!" Toji interrupted, seizing the chance to escape. The old man smacked the other old men off his boat with an oar and kicked the boat blocking the front away. Gob-smacked that a civilian had ignored his "I'm a dangerous shinobi" face, Naruto gaped at Toji's sudden actions and didn't register the fact that the old man was speaking to him.

"Sid' down, boy!" Toji smacked the flabbergasted blond's head with the oar. Naruto obediently sat down and had just enough time to grab onto the side of the boat as Toji started the motor. As they sped away, Naruto glanced back to see the other old men scrambling back into their boats to continue the chase.

"Git back 'ere, you yeller belly!" screamed one particularly vicious looking old man.

Naruto's head whipped back around to face forward. 'No!' the blond thought. 'I am not doing this all over again!' Toji and the pirates were driving him insane. Another nauseating chase and he was going to lose it completely, and Naruto couldn't let that happen. He was a shinobi. He had a reputation to uphold!

'I'll- I'll get them before they get me!' Naruto stood up abruptly with a manic smile, his hands flying through numerous seals.

"Katon: Karyuu Endan (Fire Element: Fire Dragon Flame Blast)!" The blond drew in a deep breath, preparing to unleash his deadly attack-!

And choked on the flames as Toji smacked him with an oar again.

"Wha' do ya think yer doin' boy?! You can't attack 'em!" The old man screamed, eyes bulging. Naruto coughed pitifully, tears leaking from his eyes from the pain of his burnt mouth.

"Why the hell not?! Do you want those pirates to kill you?" The blond shinobi clutched his throat while staring at Toji incredulously.

"Pirates?! Wha' do ya mean, pirates?" Toji spat. Naruto pointedly gestured at the two boats of old men.

"Do angry old men frothing at the mouth and shouting death threats at you while wielding many deadly weapons not mean anything to you?!" Naruto screamed. Toji looked back.

"Er, well-"

"That's what I thought! Now, stop whacking me with the oar and let me get rid of them!" Naruto stood back up.

"No!" Toji grabbed the blond's cloak, pulling him back down. "Dey look a bit rough, but dem geezers ain't pirates!"

"Oh, yes, I'm sure they're just harmless old men!"

"Don' ye talk back like tha' to me, youngin'! De're jus' a bit expressive, dey don' mean no har-"

"TOJI! You lyin' potbelly!"

"I'm a gonna kill you!"

Toji's mouth snapped shut, but before Naruto had a chance to look smug and say "I told you so," a harpoon sailed through the air and shaved a few hairs off the blond's head. Naruto gaped a few seconds before his face flushed red with mounting anger. Toji gulped and laughed nervously at the blond's darkening expression.

"Now, now, dey didn' mean it!" the old man placated. "De're me family! Brothers, the lot of us! You can't 'arm dem!"

The blond shinobi paused, quirked an eyebrow and peered at the old men in the boats for one long moment.


So based on appearance alone he could believe there was some relation between all of them. That still didn't explain the situation though, and frankly, Naruto didn't have time to be dealing with it. He sighed, a mixture of exasperation and annoyance.

"Look, Toji-san, family or not, this can't continue. I'm stopping this now."

Naruto ignored Toji's protests and killed the motor, letting the boat slowly drift and lose momentum. Then he stood up to face the two other boats, now barely a boat's length distance away. Allowing the reservoir of Kyuubi's charka to leak around him, he snarled viciously at the old men.

The blond knew he must have looked extremely frightening with glowing crimson eyes, wild hair and elongated canines, but at this point he couldn't afford to have the old men not fear him. He awaited the thick scent of fear and the sight of their paling faces, but all he got were wide eyes and pointing fingers….that were not pointing at him. It was at that moment that he finally noticed Toji's silent but earnest, almost frantic tugging at his cloak.

"What?!" he snapped. Toji whimpered and pointed up. Naruto turned half-way around to look and was not amused at all by what he saw. What he first thought was a strange solid blue wall, was a pale blue sea serpent/dragon, about half the size of Gamabunta, rearing out of the water and over the boat.

"You have got to be shitting me," the blond deadpanned. The sea monster emitted a threatening hiss seemingly in response, the fins on the side of its head flaring open and its tail skimming the surface of the water agitatedly.

As if the sudden appearance of a giant sea monster wasn't enough, Naruto could feel rapidly approaching chakra signatures from all sides. Quietly as possible, Naruto spoke to the petrified old men. "If you value your lives, don't say or do anything."

Silent shadows flit across the waters and converged towards the still boats, and only Naruto was unsurprised when black clad shinobi rose from the depths of the sea to stand on the waters. The old men remained quiet and had seemingly forgotten their quarrel with Toji as they huddled together, eyes wide with fright and confusion.

Naruto's eyes narrowed as they took note of the twelve Iwa (Rock) and seven Kumo (Cloud) nin. Shinobi from two different villages working together meant they had an alliance, which meant Kumo was also involved in the war. And the only reason why such a large group would be so far from the main battle taking place on the borders of Fire and Rock country was if they were planning a pincer move by attacking the Konoha force from behind their own border.

Quickly, the ire he had felt towards the old men and the sea serpent faded as the more pressing issue of the war and enemy nin became evident. Naruto tensed, reinforcing his balance in the boat as it began to rock again due to the sea serpent's agitation. The foreign shinobi tensed in response, drawing weapons and readying hand seals as they focused alternately on the giant sea monster growing steadily more incensed and the lone shinobi from Konoha. Neither the enemy nin nor Naruto were willing to make the first move, unwilling to draw the sea serpent's undivided attention.

Suddenly, the beast lashed out with a roar, swiping its tail across the waters. Several of the enemy nin jumped out of the way, and Naruto quickly tossed Toji into one of the other two boats as the one he'd been in was instantly smashed to pieces. The blond pushed the two civilian filled boats away to a safe distance near the shores of Fire Country with a charka enforced foot as he stood on the churning water. Again, all the nin came to a standstill, unable to engage in battle with the raging serpent so close by, liable to lash out without warning.

'At this rate, the fight will never finish,' Naruto thought. The sea serpent had to be taken out before the blond could focus on dispatching the Iwa and Kumo nin, but he couldn't do that safely without getting rid of the enemy-nin first. The only choice left was to get rid of them all at the same time. He hoped some of the enemy nin survived what he planned next, not out of mercy, but because he needed at least one of them alive from which to beat out information.

Naruto's determination seemed to deepen his emotions and chakra like a dark abyss, whirl pooling down, down, down until a time it could hold no more and would have to explode out once again; the deceptive calm before the storm. But for now, the only sign of the growing danger was Naruto's voice, a foreboding and serene, yet guttural dual tone as he raised a hand toward the sky and calmly announced, "Raiton: Ikazuchi no Kiba (Lightning Bolt Fang)."

No one had a chance to react as the sky darkened with dark, ominous clouds rapidly gathering overhead, and the very air shook with the rumbling of thunder. The old men flinched, the energy and static in the air so thick that it stung their skin. Then, after one tense moment of silence, the world exploded into a blinding vision of white, a solid column of lightning striking down from the heavens.

Toji was not a normal person since he didn't come from a normal family, but he wasn't outlandishly abnormal or extraordinary either. So if he'd been asked at any point in his life, if he'd ever imagined even the possibility of the current situation, his answer would have been a blank stare or maybe an incredulous laugh.

He was fifty-seven years old this year and believed that all the good in his life had already come and gone. Hailing from a large and primarily nomadic family, his life had been spent mastering numerous trades to make a living. A carpenter, a fisherman, a food stand owner, a tradesman, and currently a ferryman. All his siblings and relatives had lived similarly. The success and failure of one family member was the success and failure of the family as a whole. It only took one mistake, and Toji had been the one to make it.

It had been six years since Toji had invested in a shipping and trading company with another man. The company had been successful, extremely so, and with the amount of surplus expected, Toji had convinced the rest of his family to invest in it as well. All had been well until his partner had double-crossed him, swindling him out of his and his family's share of the company. They were left with almost nothing.

Afraid to face the disappointment and wrath of the family, Toji had disappeared into the lower countries, aiming to live as unremarkably as possible in order to avoid discovery. He'd been successful until today. Today had started off like any other monotonous day, and he'd been expecting to spend his time smoking his pipe while ferrying another civilian across the bay.

Toji hadn't expected two boats filled to the brim with his estranged brothers. Only seven of them, so he supposed he was thankful to a certain degree. And he certainly hadn't expected the appearance of a fabled sea monster or that the nice looking young man he was ferrying was actually a shinobi in disguise.

Toji had always heard of the assassins of the shadows with strange abilities, but had never seen one until today. The blond man was not what Toji had imagined of a stereotypical ninja by any stretch of his imagination.

A harmless civilian, a crimson beast of hell, and a veritable god commanding the might of the heavens. Three completely contradicting natures. But then again, from what little Toji knew of shinobi, they were masters of disguise, so which aspect was the true nature of the blond man? Toji couldn't tell; he just hoped he survived. Something told him that those other shinobi wouldn't.

So even though he was scared out of his wits, Toji was glad his less-than-happy brothers were huddled together fearfully around him. If he died, it was with family, at least. For one long moment after the blond shinobi had raised a hand to the sky, Toji thought he was witnessing the destruction of the world, because the world went brilliantly white, and then it shook with an explosion of sound so great that he did not hear it, but instead felt it by the trembling marrow in his bones.

But shortly after, he began to feel a tingling sensation spread throughout his body. And then he could hear himself groan as the tingling became painful, and the choking smell of burnt flesh and ozone rushed through his nose and filled his lungs. Soon he began to see bright spots of colors, the brightest of which soon solidified into the form of the very shinobi he'd been musing about.

The blond shinobi was sighing, attempting to pat down his electrified hair while shifting his weight.

It was then Toji noticed the slack body of one of the other assassins tucked carelessly under the blond man's left arm. As if that was an invitation of sorts, Toji's eyes were suddenly drawn to the floating and charred bodies of the shinobi floating in the water. His nose scrunched as the smell of burning flesh seemed to double with a vengeance at the sight. However, the sea serpent was curiously absent….Toji froze in fear.

"Yeah, I guess you noticed, huh?" said the blond shinobi as he dumped the body he was holding into the boat beside Toji. The old man would have complained except that he was still too afraid to make any noise. The young man began to loop a rope through the holes meant for the oars and fastened a leash of sorts for the two boats. Then he proceeded to drag the boats behind him while walking on top of the water, like child dragging his sleigh in the snow.

"I got the other shinobi, but only managed to injure the monster. It's probably gone to lick its wounds, but it'll be back. That's why we need to get to shore. Besides, the air is still charged and the water is still ionized. You think that tingling sensation you have is painful, wait 'till you touch the water."

Toji shivered, imagining death by electrocution. Except for the occasional groans from the other old men, everything was silent as the group made its way to the shores of Fire Country.

Naruto stood with his arms crossed, staring at the unconscious Kumo-nin at his feet. Tilting his head this way and that, he contemplated just how he would go about extracting information. As he thought, he dug out some wire from his pouch and bound the kumo-nin to a sturdy tree. If the guy struggled, the wire would bite into his skin and Naruto would smell the blood instantly and know that he was trying to escape.

Having secured his captive, the blonde turned around and sat in a comfortable squat as he stared thoughtfully past the partial clearing, past the beach where he'd left the old men to lick their wounds, and out to the horizon.

'What to do, what to do…'

Shikamaru had turned out to be a surprisingly effective interrogator despite his laziness, out-boring his victims and causing meltdowns – 'Stop staring at me! Ask me questions, god dammit!' - with his infuriating trademark "Mendokuse." Naruto brought up Shikamaru's attitude in his mind and tried to imitate the lazy eyes and slouching posture, with the slight hint of bothered annoyance.

He held it for a few moments. And then huffed with actual annoyance. 'Gah, it takes more effort to be lazy. Besides, I can't out think people like he can.'

Next, the blond recalled Ibiki's intimidating presence. The menacing eyes shrouded in darkness by his bandana, the aloof manner in which he described every little step and accompanying sensation to be caused by his next torture method – 'You see this thing here in my hands? It doesn't seem like much but it'll make your organs liquefy at a snails pace while you cry' -, and the dark, anticipatory smirk on his scarred lips – 'I'm going to enjoy this, hehe' - as he approached you from the shadows…

'Oh my god. …I'd piss myself before I even get a word out of the kumo-nin.'

There was still Anko…Voluptuous body oozing sex and danger, low husky voice – 'kukuku' -wicked, wicked tongue, narrowed, coy eyes with a manic gleam, hinting at something so pleasurably painful… And then a flash of light and kunai to the crotch – 'Kyahahaha, scream for me, bitch!' – and pain, pain, pain!

"Ahhhhh~!" Naruto let out a horrified scream as he fell back on his butt, hands clasped protectively over his manhood.

By the time Naruto had gathered his wits again, his patience with himself ran out and he decided to wing it. After all, he knew he had no skill in interrogating. So he fell back to basics: the crude method of bullying. It probably wasn't as psychologically damaging or even as physically painful as true torture methods, but Naruto figured that if he kept trying something would give eventually. Nodding decisively, he sprang up from the ground and turned to face the kumo-nin with his usual care-free smile.

"So- "

"You shouldn't even bother," the kumo-nin half-heartedly sneered, wary of pulling too much on the burnt side of his face. "I won't tell you anything." The man glared, light gray eyes flashing with contempt and fear, though the effect was lost since his hair was frazzled in a strange, brown poof about his head.

Naruto opened and closed his mouth a few times, before tilting his head in a thoughtful manner, guileless eyes boring into his captive. The kumo-nin twitched.

"Hmm, you're right," Naruto declared, seemingly unbothered by his conclusion. The kumo-nin snorted, turning his face away with an obvious air of condescendence.

"Well," the blond sheepishly smiled, "I don't know any interrogation techniques, so the only thing I can do is ask and hope that you answer." Naruto shrugged and then comfortably crouched before his captive.

"What?" the kumo-nin asked incredulously. "As if I'd ever ans-"

"So, what's your name?" Naruto asked, ignoring the other man. The blond smiled pleasantly as the kumo-nin grit his teeth, determined not to say anything yet irked that he was cut off.

Pregnant silence reigned for a long while.

The muscle twitch in the kumo-nin's cheek was more pronounced and he became increasingly rankled as his captor continued to smile, his large blue eyes fixed on him, as if the blond really expected him to answer.

Finally, the kumo-nin's pride wrestled a response from his lips, "I'm not going to ans-"

Naruto punched the other man in the face, his smiling never faltering as his captive howled more with indignation than with pain. The blond waited patiently for the man to quit his angry mutterings and focus on him again or, at least, stare mistrustfully at the blond's fist.

"So, what's your name?" Naruto chirped. The kumo-nin's face went an interesting shade of puce as he sputtered.


Naruto punched him again, harder this time, and with an even bigger smile. The kumo-nin's howl was noticeably louder, joined with colorful expletives. Once again, Naruto waited for the kumo-nin to quiet down.

The kumo-nin hissed, scrunching up his face as he tried to judge how much damaged had been dealt. His face was partially burnt, he now had a broken nose, and his lips were split in three places. He glared at his captor, still resting comfortably on his haunches with that damnable smile on his face, acting as if he wasn't torturing someone for information. Che, if the blond was any good, the kumo-nin thought, then he would know by now that his captive wasn't going to answer the question and would try another.

"So, what's your name?" Or not. The kumo-nin growled. He was being cow-towed by a fool of shinobi that couldn't even interrogate properly. This was completely undignified!

"Go to He-"

Naruto punched the kumo-nin harder still and was rewarded with a sickening crack. This time the howl was broken with half-chocked sobs. The kumo-nin was just damn pitiable now as a broken cheek bone was added to his list of injuries.

"So, what's your name?" This time the kumo-nin didn't bother resisting.

"Hitaka," he wheezed through his clenched teeth. Naruto gave an encouraging smile and a small pat to the kumo-nin's shoulder in reply.

"Good. Now, my good man, Hitaka, let's get to the actual questions." Hitaka stared.

"Tha-that wasn't a question?"

"Of course not," the blond waved a hand negligently. "What your name is hardly matters. I need to know your mission and stuff. For the purposes of the interrogation I could've called you 'fishsticks' and you would've eventually learned to reply to it. But, heh, I like to take a personal approach with my captives. After all, it'd be sad if you just faded away in obscurity as 'the man I tortured.' Ya know?" Naruto paused to crack his knuckles. "The hits till now were just love taps. It's time we both got serious, ne?" Blue eyes turned sly and hard.

Hitaka shuddered but resolutely shut his mouth, his bleeding lips pressed into a thin line. Naruto clucked his tongue in exasperation.

"Well, if that's the way it's going to be, let the beating commence." The blond let his fist fly towards his captive, ignoring the man's whimper.

Unnoticed by either shinobi, the old fisher men stared in horrified fascination.

Quarrel forgotten in light of the rather surreal situation – the unexpected family reunion, the boat chase, the sea monster, the shinobi, the world nearly ending, the interrogation, by god, the shinobi – the old men were uncharacteristically but understandably silent. Though all the old men were suffering from overexposure to the fantastical, Toji retained a bit more cognitive ability than his brothers and used the tense but peaceful silence wisely, going over the day's events in his mind.

By all accounts, he had just lived through what amounted to a fairy tale. And the hero was here before him, golden hair alight in the sun, crouched menacingly before the minion of his enemy and beating the snot out of him. The young hero was undoubtedly working valiantly to save his country and king and the minion had the vital information needed to thwart his nemesis' plans, and – a princess! Yes, there was assuredly a princess, the love of the young hero's life that needed to be saved!

Toji felt awe suffuse him; he was a part of the tale, too! He and his brothers, the persecuted peasants in need of assistance – a side quest! What good fortune, Toji thought. The shinobi could fix his financial blunder and contract a side quest at the same time. After all, what well-rounded hero didn't stop for side quests to assist the poor? And here was Toji's chance, for the blond man was stalking back out onto the beach, his expression appropriately grim and filled with righteous determination.

"Young hero-" Toji called out and stumbled in his haste, kicking up clumps of wet sand, hands stretched out imploringly before him. "Young hero-" the blond's face scrunched, "-er, Shinobi-san!" Said shinobi raised a fine brow and waited for the old man to reach him.


"Would-wouldst you-er…thou assis' the-the mos' unfairly impugned-" Toji stuttered, doing his best to convey his most humble plea for the hero's aid, but the shinobi's brows merely bunched in confusion.


"You-Dost aid thou in a ques', to assis' me broth-er, brethren, to rescue yer-thy fine lass-er, princess-"

"Princess?!" The blond's eyes went round with shock. Now even Toji's brothers watched avidly at the outburst.

"Er, Lady?"

"What lady?"

"Yer Lady Love?"

"Lady love?" The shinobi repeated dumbly.

"Yes, thy lover."

"Oh!" The blond's face cleared with understanding. "You mean Kakashi?" Just as instantly his expression closed off and became suspicious. "How do you know about Kakashi?"

I don't, but Kakashi is a very strange name for a Lady, Toji bemusedly thought. "Er, I don' know thy lover, m'lord, only tha' thou mus' 'ave a wondrous love awaitin' thee-" Toji stopped as the blond man cut him off with an agitated wave of his hand.

"Okay, just-just stop for a second. Stop calling me 'hero' and 'lord'. My name is Zokutou Sansai, and for kami-sake, speak normally." Sansai pinched the rise between his brows, warding away a headache.

"Sorry abou' that, Zokutou-san. Was jus' tryin' t'be curteous," Toji replied meekly.

"Uh-huh," the blond nodded with a doubtful look on his face. "So, what was all that babble about?"

"It-well-er…" Toji paused then reluctantly turned towards his huddled brothers. "You migh' as well come 'ere and listen, too." The other men glanced at one another and ambled over, willing to set aside their differences in face of this strange turn of events. Toji sighed, wringing his hands as he began to explain. "You see, Zokutou-san, me brothers an' I, we be a large family an' I made a mistake years ago trustin' some no good outsider with me family's fortune. He swindled me out'a me fair share and ruined the lot of us. So, I was hopin' you'do a noble thin' an' thrash the man an' his grunts fer us."

Toji's brothers 'oohed' with sudden understanding, giving hearty slaps to their estranged brother's back, both in apology and encouragement. Sansai watched the strange family interaction quietly before speaking.

"So, you want to hire me?" A sheepish and strained smile stole across Toji's face.

"Well, more like I was hopin' you'do a side quest?" Sansai's brows scrunched once again.

"What, like some hero?"

"Er, yes?" Toji replied tentatively. The blond shinobi groaned, smacking his face with his palm.

"Look, old man, I'm no hero. Seems like my jutsu fried more than just the snake and the other shinobi," Sansai looked up to see the collective faces of all the brothers falling into despair and had to turn away before getting sucked into the sudden hole of depression. He gave a gusty sigh. "I'm sorry, really, but I can't afford any side quests right now. And even if I had time, I'm not for individual hire. You'd have to go through the mission request office at Konohagakure." With one last apologetic glance he strode away.

"Wait! Please! I'll reward you somehow! Somehow!" Toji desperately pleaded. Even if Zokutou Sansai wasn't a hero, he was the closest to it Toji would ever get. He just had to secure this man's services. He had to. It was his family's only hope. Toji was just an old man and his family was all civilian. There was no way they could even dare to oppose Sakamoto and his entire criminal empire. But if Sakamoto, at least Sakamoto was out of the way…! Toji made one last desperate bid. "Jus', jus' get rid of Sakamoto an' we'll deal with Gato an' his goons on our own!"

The blond's head swiveled around so quickly that Toji felt a phantom sensation of whip-lash and was startled into silence. He waited anxiously for the shinobi to say something as blue eyes drilled into him.

"Gato, you said?"

Toji seized upon the shinobi's interest shamelessly. "Yes! Gato, a connivin', no-good back-stabbin' little troll! Jus' like his partner! He handles all of Sakamoto's employees an' makes sure the merchants use his company ships."

"Saa, so this is how it began…" the blond muttered to himself. He absently rubbed his chin in thought, a sudden liveliness compelling him to walk rapidly back and forth, infecting Toji and his brothers with a nervous, anxious energy, wondering whether they had finally turned the tide in their favor. Just as suddenly as he started, the blond stopped and the old men held their breaths. They winced at the hideously loud cracking sound of the shinobi cracking his neck.

Then, slowly, Sansai turned towards them, his expression dark but his eyes glowing with scheming anticipation.

"I have several conditions."

Toji grinned fiercely.

And that was why Naruto was currently speeding through the forest, cursing his inner child for succumbing to the temptation of pre-emptive payback. He really did have more pressing matters to attend. From Hitaka he'd discovered that Kumogakure had several small encampments around Wave Country shores, waiting for ally signals to attack Konoha from behind. And compared to the danger of the enemy ambush upon his home, Gato was only a cruel tyrant who starved a poor nation and killed his would be first friend…actually, his inner child had done right Naruto reflected and gave himself an imaginary pat on the back.

Besides, fulfilling Toji's request wasn't completely out of his way since he was heading towards Wave anyways. Even so, the blond thought ruefully, he was on the path of becoming the "young hero" he denied being by taking a side quest to help poor peasants, all the while moving towards fulfilling his ultimate goal of serving Village and Kage by destroying minion forces.

'Che,' Naruto scoffed. 'Yeah, I'm a regular Prince Charming with my very own princess.' Though said princess was still a snot-nosed little kid that was most definitely not waiting to be rescued and was likely on a mission slaughtering enemy nin.

'Discord and strife love me, but I'm the moron who voluntarily stuck the prickly spur on his own ass,' Naruto lamented. Absently, he twisted in mid-air while jumping to another branch, neatly avoiding a barrage of kunai while retaliating with his own. He didn't even need to check to know it was a kill, his senses so finely tuned by a heady rush of adrenaline. That was the fifth attack since Naruto had departed from the old men, and each one he dealt with in a rather mundane manner – silent, quick kills without needlessly expending chakra. The blond had already learned during his own war to discard flashy moves and attacks when the only purpose was to kill.

The encounters were occurring with less time in between, meaning he was coming up shortly to his destination, one of the three Kumo camps Hitaka had said would be there. Each one was supposed to have around 30 nin; usually a distribution of 10-15 jounin and the rest chuunin, unless there were some unlucky genin tossed to the wolves to play war. Of course, he knew that some genin weren't helpless at all; some could be dangerous, like Gaara, Sasori, Zabuza, Haku and Kabuto. But in the end, children were still children, and they were only as dangerous as one allowed them to be; underestimation and mercy allowed them to best grown nin without warning.

A flicker of chakra on the edges of his senses caused Naruto to freeze high in the canopy of the forest where what little light shone through would blind those who looked up. Cautiously he gazed down, looking for ninja playing hide-a-way within the shadows. 'There,' he thought as his nostrils flared upon finding his prey. There was more than one nin, three positioned in a near half circle, most likely the last sentries before the base proper. He killed them without trouble and hid their bodies; this close to the base he couldn't leave the bodies as they were, since someone with a keen nose might detect all the spilt blood.

Twice he circled around the camp, noting several things – entry and exit points, the main tent, supply tent, the established chain of command, and the chore rotations – before finally settling down in a chosen position to plan his infiltration. He didn't have much time if he wanted to destroy all three Kumo camps and deal with Gato and his partner. So, despite how carefully he had made his way to the camp itself, he was going to have to resort to using excessive, if a bit flashy, force to completely annihilate the enemy nin. By etching seals into the trunks of trees along the perimeter, the blond had already established a "cage" of sorts in order to keep the Kumo-nin within his attack range.

It was just as he was about to launch himself into the encampment in a flurry of jutsu – after having secured his weapons and the familiar ANBU fox mask upon his face - that he noticed that something was off. It was happening slowly, but one after another Kumo nin on the opposite edge of the camp from him were dropping like string-less puppets. Naruto watched suspiciously, eyes trained on the fallen bodies as a flash of metal caught his attention. 'Oho, someone's taking pot-shots at the bastards.' He looked up from his fallen enemies to the tree-line opposite of him and the camp, making out a dark outline of another person carefully hidden with the foliage. 'So, there's someone besides me who's after the Kumo-nin. Is it a Konoha-nin though?'

Suddenly, the person catapulted out of the trees and into the camp, weaving in and out of Kumo nin who were just starting to realize the imminent danger. Angry and surprised shouts filled the air but the figure was not deterred, quickly and deftly dispatching opponents. The Kumo nin fought back but their punches and kicks missed their target and Naruto began to realize it was less because of the their incompetence and more because the opponent was so small – barely past most men's waists, small enough that most nin couldn't fight back once the figure got within the boundary of their own limbs. 'A child,' Naruto appraised and he continued to watch, breath abated in fascination.

The blond kept his eyes trained on the quicksilver little sprite flickering in and out of sight, always in motion except for the brief moments of dead-locked clashes of kunai and sparking metal. Clad in dark navy blue from head to toe, Naruto could only see small glimpses of skin on the hands, wrists, and ankles of the child, whose head and face were covered by a hood.

Genderless on the surface, there was something rigid, something mechanical about the child's movements that suggested not only relentless training but a childish arrogance of invulnerability that lead Naruto to believe the child was male. A boy, suffuse with the jaded impression that he was all grown up having seen the depravity of men, and playing a man's game by a mistaken child's rules.

So Naruto watched over the boy, each physical clash causing a bit of anxiety and anticipation to build up in the blond's chest. A child could hold no contest against a full grown man in a physical stand-off, and each clash was just one more possible mistake – one more window of opportunity for a Kumo-nin to exert his strength and overpower the child. Naruto would have liked to scold the little nin, 'Stupid brat, get away, get away' for his brash actions, yet remained quiet lest he distract the boy and lead him to his death.

And then, the moment he dreaded began to unfold. A kumo-nin purposefully attacked head-on, forcing a battle of strength upon the little nin, and from the side another kumo-nin unleashed a douton-jutsu upon them both, a tidal wave of earth bearing down with a grumbling roar of mud and rocks. Naruto could see the moment the child realized his own folly, head jerking up in momentary panic, unable to flee and unable to best his opponent.

But then the little nin regained his calm, and Naruto decided this would be the moment the child would learn whether he could survive in a grown man's world. So against his own inclinations, the blond forced himself to stay aside and watch as the earth swallowed them both.

The world held its breath as everyone knowingly or not awaited some sign of victory or loss. But the earth remained even and undisturbed through the quiet. A kumo-nin clutching his bleeding forearm straightened up, a triumphant exhalation of breath breaking the silence. Others followed his example, slowly uncoiling the tension within their bodies and looking at one another in commiserating relief.

'You fools,' the blond thought as he remained vigilant, watching the Kumo nin congratulate themselves for not having died at the hands of a single, child assailant. 'It's not over.'

A man's panicked scream rent the air, and the Kumo nin snapped back into tense positions, looking frantically around to find their screaming comrade and his source of fear, yet neither could be found. So they watched one another, frozen with indecision as the scream continued to sound, a disembodied phantom of terror until it died in a strangled gurgle, leaving the clearing eerily bereft of any sound except their own cautious breathing.

'There!' Naruto's eyes zeroed in on a flash of silver, and both he and the Kumo nin stared in bizarre fascination as wires spooled down from the trees like a double helix of drifting spider silk. And just as deadly, they entangled the intended victim in a deceptively frail looking net before pulling deathly taught and rending a kumo-nin into a splatter of body parts and blood.

Descending head first from the trees into the center of the blood-mist was the little nin, bruised and bleeding but alive. The boy's clothes were muddied; his head and face partially exposed by the now torn hood, and Naruto got his first glimpse of the child's face. Haphazard hair – color-less silver like the fur of polar bears in Snow Country-, eyes – opaque, gray-slated cobalt – and pale, still chubby cheeks flushed a delicate pink with exertion.

Something thudded loudly in Naruto's chest, like an anvil falling to the pit of his stomach and crushing his heart beneath it. Then, as if spurred by some internal explosion, blood rushed through his body but the blond was paralyzed, watching the world move on in a blur of sound and movement. And all Naruto could think was that he knew the child. Knew in a way so intimate and intrinsic of himself that there was simply no way for him to consciously describe it, and all he could think was, 'It's him, it's him, it's him!'

So when the boy was blindsided by a kick to the face and his fragile head snapped back, and he staggered, falling to his little knees while waving a kunai uselessly to ward off attacks he couldn't see through unfocused eyes, Naruto moved.

Jirou grinned savagely. He was strong, he always had been due to his larger muscle mass, able to easily crush shinobi weaker than he. And he wasn't stupid either; he knew most people thought he was physically slow due to his size and prejudice lent the belief he was slow in the head, too, but he was smarter than that. He didn't complain, he worked hard and was faster than someone his size should be. So when the camp was attacked – by a kid, a stupid fucking kid – it hurt his pride badly, because he'd bested grown men up to this point and he'd be damned before he lost to this brat.

So while Kaga – the poor bastard – was literally falling apart after that wire stunt, Jirou wasted no time going on the offensive. He slammed a foot into the brat's face just as his feet reached the forest floor and felt no guilt, even knowing that his leg alone out-massed the kid. And just when he was about to let loose a bark of laughter, there was suddenly no air to draw in and make the sound, because in the space of a heartbeat, a flicker, there was suddenly something there in front of him, a colossal being of strength and danger that ruthlessly suppressed him with nothing but its presence.

When Jirou had gathered his scattered wits, he noted in passing that he was no longer standing but sprawled on the ground, and he fought the humiliating urge to crawl backwards as he forced his eyes to look up to see his attacker. Jirou was a proud man, a jounin, but when his eyes locked onto his assailant he no longer felt like a man, or perhaps, he felt too much like a man – a helpless man – in the maw of something terrifying and inhuman.

Before him was a being that his eyes said was a man – just another masked shinobi, probably from Konoha - but his instincts begged him to flee, because the man did not seem like a man, crouched low to the ground, tense and so very angry that his existence towered over the large kumo-nin sprawled before him.

Blue eyes glowed through slits of an animal masked painted with dark, violent colors of a lupine snarl, and bore into Jirou, whose thick frame was swathed with sweat and the stink of fear. The kumo-nin trembled, eyes wide and hands trembling towards his thigh to reach futilely for a weapon. His fingers fumbled around a shuriken and he swallowed, the sound enormous to his ears.

And still the shinobi just watched, and Jirou imagined that underneath the mask was an even more terrifying visage. A bubble of hysteria clogged the kumo-nin's throat. How humorous, he thought, that a demon was using a human-made demon mask to play among the humans. And suddenly Jirou felt that he would burst with the intensity of his emotions, fear and hatred warring against each other as he spied the boy – it was all his fault! - cradled safely against the demon-man's chest. Jirou could see the same struggle taking place within his comrades; some had already succumbed, fear having overwhelmed the anger and leaving them as impotent, useless cannon-fodder.

The man's aura commanded obedience; that all the Kumo nin cease and desist; no, just cease to exist. But the eyes, the eyes demanded they attack him and attack him now, not because it was a sign of weakness but because he wanted them gone and the quicker they moved the quicker he could kill them. And something in those glowing eyes said they did not want to disappoint.

So Jirou charged in a fit of hysteria because he had to do something, armed with only the knowledge that he was going to die clear in his mind. He didn't even see the attack; he only felt as if something invisible but burning had torn through his chest, flinging him away like a rag doll across the camp. And as his vision faded to black he felt profound regret – shinobi always died with regrets - but no shame, because someone like his killer wouldn't care if his dead prey had been manly or not.

And none of the other Kumo nin would be walking away to rat out his cowardice anyways.

'Hurry up!' Naruto scowled beneath his mask, willing the Kumo nin to attack. The sooner he got rid of them the sooner he could focus on the boy in his arms, still dazed from being kicked, yet refusing to relax even in the arms of his apparent savior, and the blond couldn't help but feel pride at what a good little shinobi the child was.

The large kumo-nin on the ground in front of him leapt up and attacked with a bellow of rage, and the others followed his example as if galvanized by their comrade's kamikaze attack. No plan, no defense maneuvers, no hope of survival; merely facing death in the face.

Naruto obliged by unfurling the iron-control on his raging chakra, letting it strike out violently and wantonly at anything that approached. They screamed, flung about by an invisible force, like the turbulent winds of a maelstrom where only he and the boy were safe in the eye of the storm. The blond watched conversely with a dispassionate air, unmoving until he felt the child shift, his gray hair – still soft with youth but smelling of blood – tickling the underside of Naruto's chin.

He looked down and his gaze locked with a pair of questioning, gray-slated eyes, dark and unfocused. Naruto could hardly breathe as they searched what little could be seen of the blond; his hair, his mask, his eyes but offered no verdict or inkling as to his thoughts. And throughout it all the Kumo nin kept screaming and dying. The child's eyes flicked from the camp back to the man holding him, and silently, slowly began to relax.

Naruto kept staring and the boy stared back. The blond was anxious and giddy and full of disbelief and he wondered if any of it showed. He wanted to do a great number of things - say the child's name, embrace him fiercely and never let go, to cry into his hair with relief because he was just so happy but also brimming with fear because it was just too soon and he wasn't ready, and he had no idea what he should do - and...it just hurt, really, really hurt. Hurt to be so near and unable to do anything.

'It really is too soon.' Naruto thought sadly.

So he settled on cautiously – so as not to alarm the boy – using his free hand to gently card through the child's untamable mop, covertly indulging in the contact while checking for further injury. Satisfied that there was nothing life-threatening, the blond reluctantly withdrew his hand and slowly set the boy down on his own two feet, gave him a cursory check-up with a quick glance and then somehow managed to pull himself away and step back.

The child wavered for a split second before pride and training straightened his back so that he stood ready, expression resolute even covered with dirt and blood and a flapping, torn piece of cloth that barely did more than cover the right side of his jaw. For a moment, Naruto admired the child's control but wondered at the strangely docile behavior. He wasn't about to complain, however. He motioned with a hand for the boy to stay and rest and wasn't surprised when he received a curt nod in response, despite the fact he used ANBU code and a child shouldn't have known it - but, of course, he'd know it, the blond thought ruefully and with great affection.

Then Naruto let training take over. He turned and walked out from the center of the camp in a circular path, killing off any wounded but alive Kumo nin in his search. After confirming there were none alive but he and the child within the camp, the blond searched through the main tent for information and any scrolls that may prove useful. Once that was done, he set everything ablaze - the heat and fumes spreading like lightning - and made his way back to the child awaiting his return.

The child watched as Naruto approached, back still ramrod straight though his shoulders were strained, his small hands clenched into fists, and trying to look like he was prepared for anything even though the blond could tell a small breeze would be enough to knock the boy over. By the time Naruto had gotten within arms distance of the boy, his thoughts had marginally calmed, and he finally allowed himself to name the boy and acknowledge his inevitable role in the blond's life.

Some part of Naruto was at peace, so very much relieved that he was seeing and had held a dead loved one seemingly brought back to life. And the other part of him ached fiercely for things past and things to come, because he knew nothing was going to be easy after this point.

And the boy himself would certainly be of no help. 'This is so not fair. Why'd Kakashi have to be such a cute little bugger?' Some of his internal whining must have shone through somehow, because the boy's eyes narrowed in question and a glimmer in them told the blond he would be demanding answers very soon. Naruto held back a sigh.

'It seems I've rescued my princess after all.'

End of "Rekindling the Fire"

Part B

AN: Wow, finally an update after 3 years…I hope it lived up to expectations. My writing style has been going through a change, too.

I apologize profusely for having made everyone wait so long. I promise there will never be such a big gap between updates ever again. I've been able to flesh out the plot with the help of several people, AbeoUmbra, MysteryLady-Tx, and my very lovely-sweetheart, Zhang Sizheng. Thank you so much!

I will also be posting several other fics soon, some of which I have previewed brief summaries in my profile. The next one most likely to be posted is an XXXholic/Naruto crossover. I hope you stick around to read and review!

That having been said, please, please review! Leave a comment about what you liked and what you disliked. Maybe what you'd like to see/read more of and any questions that need clarification. Advice and encouragment is always appreciated!

Have a Great New Year!


Falling Right Side-Up

AN: This is a preview of one of the new fics I am planning to post, a Drama centered XXXholic/Naruto fic. It's a change in writing style and it may not even be an official part of the new fic, but I wanted everyone to see it and give me some feedback. Enjoy~!

The Wish

By: Falling Right Side-Up


"Wishes…Surely, if you keep wishing, they'll come true. That's how strong the power of people's wishing is. But for everything you desire, you have to pay an equal price in return. You can't get more nor give more. Can't be more or less…all must be in balance. Or else, they'll be 'mishaps.' Whether it's to a person's physical self, or the hidden fates, or spirits from another world."


A stray wind interrupts the calm of the summer night, bursting suddenly and strongly through the trees of the deserted Zen garden. Just as quickly the winds are quiet and the world is still, but change has already begun. Through deceptively frail, decorative shoji screens, walls of concrete, and layers and layers of unseen protections, the ripples have already spread deep. Ringing silently until the message reaches deep into the center of the compound where there is a chamber.

It is dark, the air thick and choking with incense. Wisps of smoke play, curling, swaying, striking out. An otherworldly domain of mystery, with a heavy presence resting in its midst, beckoning come hither.


The chamber is sealed. There is no wind, yet the incense and candles snuff out as swiftly as if someone has wetted the lick of the flames all at the same instant. There is movement. Slow and weary, a weight of burden dragging down beyond the physical senses. Protective amulets and chains clink against each other, accompanied by the soft sound of ruffling silk. Endless black hair pools down, tangling in pale fingers adorned with hand ornaments, fingers capped with delicate but cruel, ornamental gold claws. Eyes of red-wine open, looking beyond the darkness of the chamber. Silent and waiting.


Outside, the world holds its breath. In the Zen garden, the crack of the bamboo shishi-odoshi disturbs the quiet as the fountain fills with water and tips over, water flowing into the basin of the tsukubai. A branch snaps from a sacred tree, the sound sharp and painful. The shimenawa around its trunk unravels and the white gohei flutter to the ground. A ward is broken. Wine-colored eyes close and do not open.


The branch drifts along a nonexistent breeze into the Koi pond, floating, shining with water droplets. They are red, red like the light of the crimson moon. Finally, the branch sinks and ripples distort the images on the water's surface so that only the red, the red of the ill omen, can be seen.

A man.

It is night, but it is not peaceful. Nervous, fearful energy is felt everywhere by every animal, man, woman and child, though they do not know the cause. Only one man knows and he is in a dark secluded office, reading ancient scriptures by the light of a single dying candle. He's been hunched over in that chair reading the scroll for three days, knowing he won't find an answer. But it's his duty and so he continues even though his mouth is parched, his lips are cracked and bleeding, his eyesight failing from strain, and everything is useless, useless, useless.

He knows that since the beginning there has only been one solution. A solution that leads to outcome he has been trying with all his might and soul to prevent.

He wonders if it is fate.

The man stands up stiffly from his chair and walks to the window but does not see the view. Instead, he sees his loved ones and all the people depending on him. And he thinks of the innocent life he is going to condemn. He wonders what life will be like for that innocent who has no choice but the one he is going to bestow.

He wonders if that is the child's destiny.

Finally his mind clears and he sees the world ahead. Towards the edge of the horizon the sky is crimson, its color so vivid that its shine reaches even to the window in which the man is standing. It is not the moon. And it is not the dawn.

The man's form sags and he falls, sliding down so that he is seated beneath the window. Drawing his knees up, he buries his face in trembling hands, filled with bitter acceptance and despair. His entire body shakes.

He curses the gods, then begs, then cries.

And finally when his body is too exhausted to tremble and his heart too weary to plead, he stops. His hands have already fallen away some time ago, resting limply in his lap. When he lifts his head he sees that his office is bathed in angry crimson light, tainting and distorting his shadow across the floor.

He is exhausted in mind and body, but his soul cries out one last time before it, too, falls silent.

Someone far away hears it.

A Wish.

A woman.

She is uncharacteristically still while lying in the hospital bed, one hand gently gliding over her rounded stomach and the other twisted tightly in the sheets. It's early morning, but she doesn't have to look outside the window beside her to know that it's not the sun that's shining.

Biting her lower lip and hunching over, she stifles a pained gasp and whispers to the little life within her to please, please just wait a little longer. Just a little longer, because she knows that once she's given birth, she won't ever see that precious child again. She just knows. A premonition perhaps, triggered by the intense shroud of danger hovering over the village and the future of her family.

She knows that child-birth comes with a certain amount of pain. Tom-boy she may be, but she's a shinobi and well prepared for any trial she may face. As a killer, a lover, a woman, and a mother.

But somehow, no amount of preparation has given her any idea of what to do now. What do you do when your duty requires you to damn those most precious to you? In battle, certainly, the answer is clear. But now?

It all seems so unfair. To survive the destruction of her birth-land, to overcome the trials of war and prejudice, only to succumb to this strange, colossal force of malevolent nature, razing countless lives down in its path. Is life really this cruel, she wonders, because she knows no mere human can even put up a fight against this approaching herald of death.

It's even more unfair, because she knows she won't die out there defending her home with her lover. Instead she'll be in this hospital room, screaming while giving birth before fading away in delirium. And her last consolation will be hearing the echoing scream of her child, announcing his entry into the world and foreshadowing the anguish he will soon face without the protection of his mother and father.

This time, she gasps with an altogether different pain, breath short and ragged as she clutches her heart. Hot, bitter tears pour down her face, dripping onto her stomach and she imagines her child is soaking in her sorrow on top of his own and this causes her to cry harder.

She's a shinobi. Well-prepared to face any trials in her path. But she still doesn't know what to do now. If there is anything she can do. Shinobi rely on skills, on facts and logical possibilities. Luck, prayer, and superstition will get you killed, but she allows herself this momentary weakness to plead to anything, anyone, anywhere.

Please, please protect my child.

It's futile, she thinks, because if higher powers did exist she wouldn't be in this situation to begin with.

But someone far away doesn't think it's so futile.

A Wish.

...to be continued.

AN: So, like it? Hate it? It's an experiment. I wonder if you got who the three people were. Feedback, please!