Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. I'm just telling some stories about them.

Author's Note: This fic is written as a birthday gift for the wonderful and amazing Lellian, whose fic "Secondhand Faith" I've been enjoying immensely. Her request was for a fic that had the Sound ninja in it... and this is what I came up with. Like Lellian's own story, this one assumes that the injuries that Jirobo, Kidomaru and Tayuya sustained during the Sasuke retrieval mission were not, in fact, fatal.

Also, a very special thanks to Lathis, who beta-read this fic!

Finally, one last note: due to Tayuya's particular penchant for profanity, the language in this fic will be quite a bit more raw than what I usually write.

And so, without further ado...

A Secret Little Game

Somewhere between the band's fourth and fifth song of the night, Tayuya decided that she really missed assassination missions.

Her fingers moved mechanically up and down the length of her flute, playing her notes in perfect synchronization with the talentless-but-pretty hacks sharing the stage with her, who somehow had the gall to call to call themselves "musicians." It was humiliating, being forced to lower herself to their level—even if only for a few evenings.

As she played, she surreptitiously scanned the crowd in front of her. Most of them were seated at the various tables scattered through the large room, although there were quite a few milling through the spaces between as well.

She examined face after face, keeping up a steady string of obscenities at each and every one that wasn't their target. Bastard better show up soon... she thought darkly. For his own sake. Each night that she spent performing in this shitty Lightning Country bar—each night that she spent "dressed" in these shitty pink strips of cloth—was another night she had to think of ways to make Hideaki's existence that much more painful when they finally got him.

And they would get him—at least, as long as their intel was right about how much the scientist liked this place. Conventional wisdom, of course, said that a crowded bar was not a good place for the quiet abduction of a well-protected target. Just as well, then, that Tayuya had never set much stock in conventional wisdom.

Her only regret was that she couldn't just kill him and be done with it. They needed him alive to accomplish their goal.

She really missed assassination missions.

And Hideaki steadfastly refused to show, no matter how much she wished or threatened within the privacy of her mind. And so she was forced to wait, her fingers tapping out a melody that she would have found boring at the age of seven and—

Suddenly she froze, surprise causing her to actually miss a note. Her mind had been so focused on looking for Hideaki that she had almost failed to notice it when her gaze drifted across a different, but no less recognizable face. She did an almost-imperceptible double-take, certain she was mistaken. Praying she was mistaken.

But no. There he was, slouching his way through the crowd. He was dressed in civilian clothes now, but his hair was still done up in that idiotic pineapple style, his eyes still wearing that resigned, apathetic look.

A resigned, apathetic look that vanished a moment later, his eyes bulging in shock, as he caught sight of her as well.


The song didn't last for too much longer, although it lasted far too long for Tayuya's liking. The instant it was done, she mumbled some lame excuse to the other players and dashed off the stage, completely ignoring their glares.

"Tayuya?" Jirobo's worried voice sounded in her ear as she walked, courtesy of the tiny earpiece that was disguised as part of her earring. "Why are you out of position?"

At last, she reached an out-of-the-way corner of the room, and some amount of privacy. "Shut it, fatass," she murmured into her collar microphone. "We've got a problem here."

"What kind of problem, Tayuya?" came a soft, mild-spoken voice of their team leader. Tayuya flinched a little, despite her best efforts. Kabuto had set her on edge from the first moment she'd met him, and the effect had not gone down since then.

"The Leaf-nin kind," she snapped, her eyes scanning the crowd, looking for where their enemy had gotten to. Suddenly she caught sight of him, tucked behind a distant table, his back to the wall. "Nara Shikamaru, the one I fought when we brought Sasuke to Lord Orochimaru. He's here, and he's seen me."

She heard a short curse—Kidomaru's voice this time. "All of you down in the bar had better get in a henge as fast as you can," he warned. "There might be other Leaf there, and we don't want to give anyone else away."

"Right," Jirobo agreed. Then he went on. "You realize, they've got to be after the same thing we are."

"Obviously." Then the temperature of Kabuto's voice dropped to freezing levels. "And just as obviously, they cannot be allowed to obtain it. There is no room for failure here. Am I understood?"

"Yes sir." Kidomaru spoke for all of them. "All right, then. Remember, Hideaki could show at any second. We need to adjust the plan to account for this, and we need to do it fast."

Plan... The word echoed in Tayuya's mind, until suddenly she pushed herself off the wall and began to make her way through the crowd once more. This time, she was heading directly toward the ninja who had aided in her most humiliating defeat ever.

"Tayuya!" Those who knew Jirobo well enough could detect the note of quiet panic in his voice. "What are you doing?"

"Going to have a talk with the little punk, that's all," she muttered in reply.

Kidomaru sighed. "You realize," he said, "that this is the exact opposite of a plan..."

The Sound kunoichi rolled her eyes. "You worry about coming up with your plan," she told him. "And I'll see what I can do about stopping him from doing the same thing..."

The Leaf brat was still sitting behind the table, a contemplative expression on his face, his hands cupped together at the fingers in an odd square position. For a moment Tayuya had been worried that he was casting some kind of secret jutsu—but the closer she looked, the less likely it seemed. In the end, she concluded that he was simply thinking.

Which, in his case, was just as deadly as any jutsu. She yanked out a chair and dropped herself into it, glaring at him across the table.

It had the intended effect. He glanced up at her, breaking out of his meditative position. "Hello," he said blandly.

"Hello yourself," she spat, making sure to keep her voice quiet all the same. "So tell me, what's a little punk like you doing so far from home?"

"I could ask you a similar question," observed Shikamaru. Then his voice lowered, a hint of steel creeping into it. "You're after the boy, of course."

Tayuya shrugged. "We're after the new kekkei genkai," she corrected. "The kid just happens to be holding it at the moment."

An uncharacteristic anger flashed through the shadow-nin's eyes at that. "Yeah... and I bet you just can't wait to get him back to Sound so you can rip it out of him, can you?"

"Feh. As though you aren't trying to snatch him for the exact same reason," Tayuya shot back. "You know just as well as me what that kid's ability could do to the balance of power for whichever side gets their hands on it."

"We... might end up running a few tests..." allowed Shikamaru. "But between our Shizune and your Kabuto, I don't think it's any contest who has the better... bedside manner."

Tayuya ignored the comment. Partly because she had no interest in debating combat ethics with a pansy Leaf-nin. Mostly because—having seen the grisly results of Kabuto's "bedside manner" herself—she couldn't really dispute the claim.

But she pushed all such thoughts to the back of her mind with the ease of long practice, started at far too young an age. This was war, after all. It was only the more prosperous villages like Hidden Leaf that could afford the luxury of principles in such times.

Anyway, she was here to screw with his head, not to let him screw with hers. "All right, listen," she snapped. "I'm only going to tell you this once. You'd better leave here now if you want to make it back home in one piece. You don't have your Fan Princess around to bail you out this time."

If the threat had any effect on Shikamaru, he gave no sign whatsoever. "A little troublesome to kill me in a crowd like this..." he remarked. "Even if you could do it, I don't think you could do it without brining half of Hidden Cloud's jonin down on our heads."

Tayuya ground her teeth, but of course, the brat was right. Both he and she were foreign-nin, deep within Lightning territory on a mission of espionage, with a truly nasty fate awaiting them if their cover was blown. That mutual need for stealth severely limited the overt actions that either side could take against the other, and she knew from experience that Shikamaru was far too slippery to kill quietly.

Although, if everything went as planned... She resisted the urge to smirk. Soon, the Leaf-nin might find the crowd to be less protection than he expected...

And then suddenly, Kidomaru's voice was squawking in her ear. "Tayuya! Target is incoming! Repeat, target is incoming, accompanied by two guards. Bingo book has them both as high-level Cloud jonin."

Fuck! Of course, after days of waiting, the scientist had to pick now to finally crawl out of his hole and put on an appearance! She shot up from her chair, hastily putting some distance between her and Shikamaru. She couldn't risk being anywhere within shadow's reach of him once he realized that everything was about to go down now.

But he didn't try to stop her, and she cut through the crowd as fast as she could. "I really hope you've come up with something..." she muttered.

"Just follow the original plan." Kabuto's voice was as glacially calm as ever. "This simply gives us one more target. I'll take the two jonin. Jirobo, you kill our friend from the Leaf."

Tayuya winced. She would have liked nothing more than to be the one going after Shikamaru. For payback, of course... but also because Jirobo didn't have nearly her experience with the Leaf-nin's convoluted strategies. "Watch yourself, fatass..." she warned darkly. "He's damned fast with those fucking shadows of his."

"Tayuya, your language..." was the hefty ninja's reply—in the pained voice of a man facing a battle he had fought many times before, with no more expectation of success than on any of the previous times.

Meanwhile, Kabuto continued to give out his commands. "Kidomaru, I want you to go into a henge of your own, and come down from your spotter's post. We may need the extra backup if things go badly. Tayuya, you get back into position."

Obediently, the Sound kunoichi jumped back on stage, entering right in the middle of the song. That kind of stunt probably wasn't going to earn her any goodwill with the rest of the band or her supposed boss, but with the target about to arrive it wasn't like she cared. She only had to hold onto this shitty job for another few minutes.

She had barely finished getting back in place when she saw three men enter the bar. The one in the middle she recognized immediately as Hideaki—a short, middle-aged man, with scrunched, rodent-like features. She didn't recognize the men flanking him on either side, but she recognized their type all right: hard-faced, hawk-eyed, constantly searching the room for potential threats. Even with them dressed in civilian clothes, she could tell they were ninja, and very powerful ones at that.

She was just glad it was Kabuto who would be handling them.

The new arrivals threaded their way to a table near the front, one that gave the scientist a good view of the scantily-clad band. His escorts seemed less than happy with such an exposed choice, but they said nothing. Tayuya smothered a smirk. Well, at least something's going easily for us.

She let her gaze drift across the room as she played. She couldn't see Kabuto or Jirobo anywhere—obviously, they had gone into their henges as planned. The crowd milled to and fro, defying her attempts to pick out likely candidates.

And it wasn't just her own teammates that she was looking for. Despite how obscenely difficult it was to insert agents into Hidden Cloud, she still very much doubted that Shikamaru was here alone. Who else in the crowd might be Leaf-nin, possibly in henges themselves, waiting for their own chance to strike?

There was no way to know for certain. That was the paranoia-inducing part of it. Anyone out there could be a friend-or an enemy. The only way she would know would be when they made their move.

She looked over at Shikamaru, angrily focusing her thoughts on the spiky-haired boy, as though she could read his strategy by sheer force of will. Just what the hell are you thinking this time, punk? she thought. What kind of tricks are you planning to hit us with? But her efforts met with no success; he remained apathetically inscrutable.

"All right, I'm down," came Kidomaru's voice in her ear. Tayuya tensed. It was almost time.

"Good," was Kabuto's reply. "Keep your eyes open for any other Leaf-nin. Jirobo, Tayuya's jutsu will give you the element of surprise; make sure you make the most of it. In a place with so many shadows and so little room to maneuver, your target's techniques will be very dangerous."

"Don't worry," Jirobo said. "I won't even give him the chance to use them."

"See that you don't." Kabuto took a deep, cleansing breath. "All right, everyone into your final positions. We begin in ten seconds from my mark. Ready..."


Immediately, a quiet countdown began in Tayuya's mind, the seconds ticking away one by one. Tension gnawed at her stomach, but an almost giddy sensation swirled there as well. This was it. With seconds left, she spared the other performers on either side of her a quick, contemptuous glance.

All right you miserable pieces of shit, she thought. Time for some real music.

Her fingers began to pick up speed, sliding up and down her instrument with newfound passion and precision. A second, subtler melody began to build under the main one, carrying with it the strains of the musical genjutsu she had designed specifically for this mission.

Without activating her curse seal, it was nowhere near strong enough to be a problem for any of the trained ninja out there—whether Leaf, Cloud or Sound. But that wasn't its intent. As it entered the ears of the civilian listeners their faces went just slightly slack, staring off into space absently, in the middle of whatever they had been doing.

And then everything happened at once.

"Genjutsu!" The Cloud jonin realized what was going on immediately, shooting to their feet, ready for action. Just as quickly, a balding, pot-bellied drunk from the crowd leaped at them from behind, both hands glowing, an explosion of henge smoke revealing him as Kabuto.

Simultaneously, a pretty young girl burst into an all-out run toward Shikamaru's table, hurling a kunai knife as she did so. The Leaf-nin flung himself sideways, the knife embedding into the wall behind him. But in dodging, he had allowed his foe to reach close quarters.

His henge vanishing, Jirobo vaulted over the table between them, swinging his massive fist down at Shikamaru's scrawny body with a look of triumph—

—just as Shikamaru vanished into his own burst of henge smoke, revealing the powerful frame of Akimichi Choji.

Jirobo's eyes widened, trying to adjust to the change in combatants, but it was too late. Choji's own fist was already swinging around, using his family's art to expand his arm and deal a blow to the Sound-nin, knocking him back the way he had come.

Jirobo only growled at the punch, righting himself in midair. Unhurt, he landed in an aggressive fighting stance...

...directly onto a waiting shadow, stretching in from behind him. His motions immediately ceased as he stood there, frozen in place.

Still keeping up her all-important melody, Tayuya whirled back to where Kabuto stood. The two Cloud-nin were dead, bodies lying sprawled out on the floor, with no marks on them whatsoever—victims of Kabuto's chakra scalpel. Kabuto himself stood over them, motionless... which was understandable, considering the thin tendril of shadow that had snaked in from behind to connect with his own.

A sick feeling filling her, Tayuya followed the shadows back with her eyes, to where they both led—to a wizened old man slumped over an out-of-the-way table, a sake bottle clutched in his hand. As she watched, the old man rose to his feet. "Kagemane no jutsu..." he said, dropping his henge to reveal the real Shikamaru. "...success."

Shit! Despite the turn of events, Tayuya continued to play, knowing that the slightest mistake at this point could upset the tenuous hold she had on the minds of the crowd, revealing them all. Inwardly though, her mind was racing. This was not good. Only Kidomaru was left free to act, and she didn't know where he was. With the crowd, he might not have a good shot at where Shikamaru was casting his shadow from. Worse, the second he moved, he would betray himself as not being one of the hypnotized masses. Whatever he does... he'd better make it good.

Shikamaru, meanwhile, was looking up at her. "Musical genjutsu..." he said, a look of satisfaction on his face. "About what I figured. Having you in the band didn't make any sense otherwise—it limits your movements, and you can't even talk while playing. But as a way to start up a jutsu like this without anybody noticing... it fits perfectly."

Up yours, asshole! was the response that ran through Tayuya's mind, and she tried to convey that sentiment through her glare. He simply smirked and continued. "And so when I entered the picture, you decided to use the genjutsu as cover to launch a surprise attack on me as well. Two birds with one stone. A good plan... if I'd been where you thought I was."

Down on the floor below, Jirobo glared daggers at Choji. "When...?" he growled.

The stocky Leaf-nin positively beamed back at him. "Shikamaru was never at the table to begin with," he said. "I was impersonating him the whole time. It was easy; no one knows him as well as I do."

"Hey, hey," said Shikamaru, waving his hand back and forth in a gesture of negation. Even in such a grim situation, Tayuya found some dark humor in how Kabuto and Jirobo were forced to mimic the action. "Don't take all the credit. I was coaching you over the radio too."

Kabuto's mouth set into a thin line. "So what happens now?" he asked mildly.

Shikamaru smiled. "Now," he said, "I kill you." As he spoke, shadowy hands began to creep their way up Kabuto's body, reaching out for his neck. The medic-nin's only reaction was a slight frown.

Tayuya tensed. Kidomaru, she thought, whatever the hell you're planning, you'd better do it soon! The dark fingers rose closer and closer to their leader's throat, only moments away from cutting off his air. If the spider-nin didn't do something—

—and then, just before the shadows began to strangle him, Kabuto spoke calmly. "Hold position, everyone. Repeat, everyone, do not engage."

Abruptly, the shadows halted. "You might want to reconsider that order," said Shikamaru. "You're dead if you don't."

Now it was Kabuto's turn to smile. "Oh, I doubt that..." he replied. "You see, part of my training as a medic-nin involves the detection of lethal intent. Even Tsunade herself wasn't able to deceive me in that respect. And I can sense no such intent in you. You don't intend to kill me at all. Nor have you left your back as temptingly open as it appears, either. It's all simply a bluff, to lure out any backup I may or may not have, so that your backup can complete your little trap."

For a long moment there was only silence. Then Shikamaru sighed, and the shadowy hands slithered back down Kabuto's body. "I could tell that you were going to be troublesome..." he muttered.

"I try to be," replied Kabuto. "Although I confess, even for a Leaf-nin, I am quite shocked at your squeamishness."

That caused Shikamaru to raise his eyebrows. "Squeamishness?" he echoed. "Believe me, I'd like nothing better that to take you out right here and now... but that would be even more stupid than you trying to kill me in the first place."

Jirobo's face scrunched into a look of puzzlement. "What? Why?"

Shikamaru let out a tired sigh. "Because, at this point, both sides know that the other side probably has players left in reserve," he explained tiredly. "What do you think would happen if we did manage to kill you three... but didn't manage to draw out Kidomaru, or whoever it actually is? I know I can think of one thing that might go through his mind in a situation like that."

Something flashed through Kabuto's eyes, and Tayuya knew he'd figured out what the Leaf-nin was getting at. So had she, for that matter. "On his own, he would be unable to complete the mission," the medic-nin said. "But since that was no longer an option for him, he could foil your attempt just as thoroughly... by informing the Cloud-nin that there would be an attempt on the boy."

Shikamaru nodded—which forced Kabuto and Jirobo to do so as well. "Exactly. Hidden Cloud isn't nearly as hostile to you as Hidden Leaf is, so if it came down to one side or the other having the kekkei genkai, the choice is pretty obvious." He paused. "Of course, the same goes for us as well. For all the trouble that Hidden Cloud has given us in the past, I'd still much rather see the ability in the hands of the Raikage than a maniac like Orochimaru."

"So if you don't intend to kill us, then what do you intend to do?" Kabuto inquired. "You can't keep your jutsu up for much longer. We merely need to wait, and soon your advantage on us will disappear."

"Actually," responded Shikamaru, "I plan to disappear before it does. Choji, take Doctor Hideaki and then give us some cover."

The hefty ninja nodded, walking over to the glassy-eyed scientist and throwing him over his shoulder. Then he pulled out a smoke bomb from the pouch at his belt. Shikamaru glanced up at Tayuya, who was still playing. "Well, this is goodbye for now," he said, giving her a lopsided smile. "Catch us if you can."

Then Choji hurled down his bomb, filling the area with thick grey smoke. It dissipated after about ten seconds... but by then the two Leaf-nin were long gone.

Tayuya's thoughts plunged into a litany of obscenities that put even her earlier displays to shame. Kabuto, however, was still the picture of composure. "Everyone pay attention," he said. "We can recover from this, but we're going to have to move fast, and we'll need to improvise from the original plan. Tayuya, get ready to release the genjutsu, while I clean up here. Everyone else, head out and start tracking our target. Go!"

Jirobo nodded and dashed toward the exit, joined quickly by a nondescript businessman type from the crowd. With a satisfied grunt, Kabuto ran over to where Jirobo's kunai had embedded into the wall and pulled it free, stashing it in his pouch. He then went back to the bodies of the two Cloud-nin, throwing one over each shoulder and carrying them out of the room.

He was still gone when Tayuya heard Kidomaru's voice. "We've found them. Heading straight for the research facility along one of the main thoroughfares. They're sticking to the crowds; this isn't going to be easy."

"Stay with them," was Kabuto's order. "We'll be there soon." Soon he reappeared, minus the two bodies, and glanced up at Tayuya. "We're clear. Cancel the genjutsu, and meet me outside."

Tayuya nodded, relaxing her playing back to the simple melody that the bar's music director had assigned her. In seconds, people across the room began to blink, resuming their normal trains of thought, picking up what they had been doing. From their perspective it had been merely a brief moment of disorientation, a small hitch in the band's playing, quickly smoothed over by their minds like a passing dream.

Her jutsu had worked perfectly. Hideaki had been spirited out of the crowded bar as though he had simply vanished off the face of the earth.

The only problem was, it had been into Leaf hands.

She'd waited until the end of the current song again, just to minimize unnecessary disturbance and the unwanted attention it might attract. Still, it had been a profound pleasure to turn and inform her fellow performers that she was quitting, effective immediately. She'd punctuated her resignation with a few biting observations on their collective intelligence, musical ability, and sexual proclivities, and had left the stage feeling unduly good considering how fucked up the operation had been so far.

She quickly threw on a coat over her ridiculous performer's outfit, then left the bar altogether, stepping out onto the streets beyond. As usual, she grimaced as she looked out at her surroundings.

Seen from the outside, the village of Hidden Cloud was a truly awe-inspiring sight. Its huge structures were built into the very mountaintops themselves, shrouded in the misty white clouds that were its namesake.

Seen from the inside, however, it was damned depressing in most places. To give itself more space to grow in such a location, the village had tunneled progressively deeper into the mountain as the years had gone on. The result was a twisting, complex network of warrens, where natural light never touched—such as the one they were in now.

Kabuto was waiting just outside the front door. "Let's go," he said shortly. "We have a lot of catching up to do."

Together, the two of them dashed off into one of the side tunnels. While the Leaf were following the crowds for safety, the Sound-nin took a slightly more roundabout—but much more obscure—route through Hidden Cloud's numerous back alley-tunnels, allowing them to move at high speed without attracting undue attention from the general populace.

As they ran through the claustrophobic passages, Tayuya turned to look at Kabuto. "What did you do with the bodies of those two Cloud-nin?" she asked. "I thought the plan was to seal them in your scroll so that they wouldn't be found."

The medic-nin gave a thin smile. "Ah. Yes, that was one of the improvisations to the plan that I mentioned back in the bar. I have... something special planned for those bodies. Call it an ace in the hole, against whatever our Leaf friends are planning."

Tayuya opened her mouth to inquire further, but Kabuto pressed on. "That, however, is merely a safeguard; I don't expect to have to use it. What we should focus on now is how we're going to recover Hideaki. Especially given that we have to deal with the Leaf in a non-lethal manner."

Jirobo's skeptical voice crackled over the radio. "So you really buy what he was saying about us not being able to kill each other?"

"Absolutely." Kabuto's response was emphatic. "Unless we can be sure of killing them all at once, we risk them deciding to cut their losses and set the Cloud-nin on us."

"But that applies to more than just killing them, then," put in Kidomaru. "We can't even pull too far ahead of them in terms of success. In any way."

The medic-nin nodded. "That's exactly right. If we are to succeed, our opponents must always believe that they still have a chance to win—until it is too late."

An unpleasant apprehension began to grow in Tayuya's stomach. "Then we're playing right to their strengths," she said, unpleasant memories flooding back over her. "That's exactly what this Shikamaru guy does—wraps you up in a mind game where you think you're in control... right up to the very end."

Kabuto nodded. "Yes... I'm well aware of his... signature style," he said shortly. "But remember this—it is by no means insurmountable. His supposed genius wasn't enough to recapture Sasuke from us, it wasn't enough to defeat Tayuya without assistance, and it won't be enough to give him the victory here."

He looked her straight in the eye. "And his situation is worse than before. Now all of us—especially you, Tayuya—have seen how he works. This time, we won't underestimate him. Keep that in your minds, keep your wits about you, and you can keep from getting trapped in his schemes."

"Well, I guess we'll find out soon enough..." muttered Tayuya under her breath. Still, Kabuto's words had actually been encouraging for once. He's right. The bastard isn't invincible, no matter how smart he is. We've beaten him before, and we can do it again.

"Besides," Kabuto continued. "There's a key difference between now and the last time you crossed paths with him." Then the medic-nin's mouth bent into a smile that sent a small chill running down Tayuya's spine.

"This time, I'm here."

The two of them joined up with Kidomaru and Jirobo in short order. All four of them had assumed henges, allowing them to spread out into the crowded main tunnel undetected, while keeping a close eye on their targets.

Hideaki was in front, eyes twitching left and right nervously as he walked. Close behind him were two other figures—spitting images of the two dead Cloud-nin that had been escorting Hideaki previously. The one on the left was walking particularly close to the scientist, in a way that—to Tayuya's experienced eye—suggested he had a hidden kunai to the older man's back.

The six ninja and their mutual prey wove in and out through the mass of people in a slow, silent game of cat and mouse. Tayuya knew that the Leaf-nin would be on the lookout for anyone who seemed to be following them, so she used all her skill to remain inconspicuous... while at the same time scanning the crowd for anyone who might be Shikamaru's backup.

"Any ideas?" Jirobo's voice said through her earpiece. "I can't pick out anyone else besides the three." Neither could Tayuya—and that worried her.

"Maybe these three are just a diversion," Kidomaru said. "Maybe the real Hideaki is somewhere else, and these three are fakes to keep us busy."

"You really think they'd use three of their guys just on a diversion?" asked Jirobo. "I mean, they obviously aren't bunshin—I've seen them all bump into other people in the crowd. They're solid."

"Henged kagebunshin?" suggested Tayuya. "They used that trick on us during the Sasuke extraction. Maybe he's got his orange friend with him."

"But then what did they do with the real Hideaki?" Kabuto asked. "He isn't a ninja; he couldn't henge even if he wanted to. They still have to get him to the facility somehow, and this is the safest route for them to take."

"Yeah," agreed Jirobo. "And besides, this is the only lead we've got. The sooner we grab them, the sooner we can take a closer look at what's going on."

"Good point, fatass." Tayuya paused for a moment, then continued. "And I think I've got an idea how we might be able to do it..."

Tayuya followed the two disguised Leaf-nin and their captive closely, cutting through the crowd with ease. They had probably marked her as a pursuer by now, but at this point it hardly mattered. Indeed, the more their attention was focused behind them, the less time they would have to react... and the more rushed that reaction would be.

There was no way that a group of Sound-nin could make a grab in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, of course. Tayuya's genjutsu wouldn't work in an exposed situation like this, and they couldn't risk revealing themselves to the Cloud-nin. That was clearly what Shikamaru was counting on.

But if all went well, they were about to turn the Leaf's supposed advantage right back on them.

Up ahead, Tayuya heard a small commotion, and a few moments later she saw the figures of two Cloud-nin pushing their way through the crowd. They were grabbing people left and right, examining them, barking questions. Tayuya managed to make out the words "anonymous tip", "enemy nin" and "careful search."

She had to admit, Jirobo and Kidomaru were putting on a very convincing show. And of course, there would be nothing particularly strange about a pair of Cloud-nin making an arrest in public, especially when the three targets were all dressed in civilian clothes...

Tayuya moved even closer to her prey, quietly hemming them in. They tried to keep their distance from her... but they only ended up getting pushed closer to her oncoming teammates, giving them only seconds to react before they were caught in the pincer.

The two Leaf-nin exchanged a quick glance—then suddenly switched positions. Now it was the one to the right who had a hidden weapon to Hideaki's back, while his partner was free to move. Immediately, he bumped into a passing man, redirecting him smoothly at Tayuya with a muttered "Excuse me..."

It only took a moment for the Sound kunoichi to shove the pedestrian aside as well, but her prey had taken the opportunity and made a quick turn to the left, toward a small side tunnel that led off the main passage. Tayuya increased her speed, but it was clear they were going to make it.

They entered the tunnel, breaking into a flat-out run the moment its curve took them out of sight of the crowd. Tayuya followed right on their heels. Hideaki was being dragged along between the two Leaf-nin, but he was slowing them down, and she knew she would catch up quickly.

Then the tunnel took a bend... to reveal Kabuto, blocking the way forward. She heard one of the Leaf give a quick curse, as they realized that their evasion had been anticipated. A smirk of satisfaction crossed her face.

The Leaf-nin on the right released his hold on Hideaki's arm and put on a burst of extra speed, charging toward Kabuto. As he ran, he dropped his henge, revealing himself as the Akimichi boy. With a roar, he raised his fist to swing it at Kabuto's face—despite his partner's too-late cry of "Wait, Choji, no!"

...and then, without warning, the hefty ninja pitched forward, his legs tripping on a nearly-invisible thread of spider-silk, strung across the tunnel floor in preparation. And, when the hefty ninja tried to pull himself to his feet, he found himself stuck fast to the ground by the further layers of webbing that had been spread out there.

The other Leaf-nin skidded to a stop, along with Hideaki—which allowed Tayuya to catch up with him. She spun him around, driving a fist into his gut, doubling him over. To her immense satisfaction, the hit had the added effect of knocking Shikamaru out of his henge.

She followed the punch with another, this one catching him across the jaw. Then she grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and hurled him through the air, to land on his back in the webbing next to his friend.

Kabuto jumped over the webbed area, landing next to Hideaki. The frightened scientist kept looking back and forth from his old captors to his new, mouth moving rapidly but not saying anything.

Kabuto raised one hand, and placed it against Hideaki's cheek, a look of concentration crossing the medic-nin's face. Then he looked up. "It's really him," he announced. "There's no sign of a henge or genjutsu-based deception."

Tayuya let out a breath of relief. Kabuto, for his part, addressed their quarry. "I'm afraid, Doctor, that there's been a change of plans," he said. "We're going to have to ask you to come with us now."

With obvious effort, the scientist brought his fear under control enough to respond. "A-and who are you?" he stammered.

"That's not important," Kabuto replied. "What matters is that you do exactly as I say, if you want to live."

The words didn't seem to reassure the scientist. "It's... it's my research, isn't it?" he said, his voice skirting the edge of a whimper. "You're all after m-my kekkei genkai work. You and them. H-how do I know you won't k-k-kill me once you've got what you want?"

Tayuya resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Kabuto, however, evidently decided to be more diplomatic. "Oh, there's no way we would squander such a valuable resource as yourself," he replied smoothly. "We have a great appreciation for a brilliant mind like yours. In fact, part of our orders were to recruit you for a new position with our employer. A much more lucrative position than your current one."

Hideaki's eyebrows went up a bit. And, while the fear was still very definitely there, Tayuya was sure she saw a cautious-but-greedy little glint flicker through Hideaki's eyes. So much for loyalty, she thought, full of contempt for the man. Still, it fit with the profile that Intelligence had given them of him: a cowardly yet massively self-important opportunist, with little to no personal scruples. He'd go whichever way he thought the wind was blowing—no acts of heroic self-sacrifice from him.

Kabuto's little speech had been complete bullshit, of course. They were supposed to bring Hideaki back, all right—so that any discoveries he had already made about the kekkei genkai could be extracted from him. But the rodent-faced man wasn't anywhere near noteworthy enough to make the risk of divided loyalties worth keeping him alive long-term.

Still, if the greedy fool thought he could find a happily-ever-after ending by cooperating with them, he'd be that much easier to control.

And the medic-nin's honeyed words seemed to have mollified Hideaki enough to let Tayuya drag him back down the deserted side tunnel the way they had come. She and Kabuto both went into henges, taking on the same appearances of Hideaki's guards that Shikamaru and Choji had been using.

As they left, Tayuya glanced back over her shoulder at where Shikamaru lay. "Catch us if you can," she said mockingly, throwing his earlier words back in his face.

"I will," he replied, his voice quiet. "I promise you, I will find a way to stop you. That kid doesn't deserve what your sick friend over there would do to him."

Involuntarily, Tayuya glanced over at Kabuto, who did not appear to have taken any notice of the comment. Then she turned away, dragging Hideaki along with her, the stupid, bleeding-heart Leaf-nin's words echoing uncomfortably in her ears.

The route to their destination lay through the deeper levels of the mountain city, and the deeper they got, the thinner the crowds became. Eventually, there were only a few scattered handfuls of pedestrians meandering by at any given time—two of which were always Kidomaru and Jirobo, keeping watch at a distance.

Tayuya and Kabuto walked their prisoner through the tunnels, knife held firmly at his back, every sense alert for their foes. They knew that the chakra holding Kidomaru's webs together should have long since faded to the point where even the two in the alley could have cut themselves free.

And yet they could detect nothing. No sign of observers. No sign of pursuit. The absence of a threat ground at Tayuya's nerves even more than its presence would have, as her mind chased itself in circles trying to anticipate what the Leaf-nin were planning.

At last, Kabuto spoke softly. "Kidomaru. Jirobo. Anything?"

"Nothing," answered Jirobo's static-filled voice, confirming Tayuya's expectations. "It's almost like they've given up."

"No. Not this easily." There was no uncertainty whatsoever in Kabuto's voice. "If none of them are monitoring us now... it's because they're devoting all their resources to preparing for a future move instead. They're setting up their trap somewhere else. Somewhere they already know we're going to end up."

"The facility," Kidomaru said, his voice grim. "They're going to hit us at the facility itself."

"Or maybe after we leave it," suggested Jirobo. "Maybe they're planning on following our exit, and attacking us after we've done all the work for them."

Kabuto pursed his lips, bowing his head in thought for a long moment as he walked. "No..." he said at last. "No, I don't think so. They don't know how we're planning on making our exit, so it would be difficult for them to set up a trap that they could be sure would catch us. I don't think our friend Shikamaru would take that risk. Unless..." He paused. "Unless he were convinced that he already knew what we were going to do."

Then he turned to Tayuya. "You're the one who has the most experience with him. Exactly how much of our extraction plans do you think he might have figured out?"

The kunoichi shifted uncomfortably at Kabuto's question, trying to perform the unpleasant task of putting herself into the mind of the Leaf genius. "He... knows where we're from..." she said at last. "So one thing he might guess is that we were planning to escape by sea, considering how much safer that route back is."

"That might be what they're doing now," mused Kabuto thoughtfully. "Searching the coast, trying to find a boat that looks suspicious. Do you think there might be a danger?"

Tayuya shrugged. "Unless they're also searching the far sides of the islands, they'll never see it. And I don't think they have time to cover all that ground. Of course, if they tried to search, they might get lucky..." She hesitated. "But... no. I don't think Shikamaru would leave that much to chance. He'd choose a plan that relied on his own smarts, not on luck."

"Agreed," said Kabuto. "Whatever he's planning, it will most likely happen at the facility."

And with each step, that facility was growing closer and closer. "So how are we going to play this, then?" asked Kidomaru.

"By ear," the medic-nin replied. "You and Jirobo will take up positions on the city's exterior wall. Maintain surveillance for any Leaf actions, and be ready to provide backup whenever it's needed. Tayuya, you're with me. We'll take Hideaki in."

A chorus of assents rang out from the other members.

It ended up taking several more minutes of walking, but at last Tayuya, Kabuto and Hideaki came within sight of their destination: the Hidden Cloud jutsu research facility. It had been constructed on top of its own separate, isolated mountain peak, accessible only by the long bridge that spanned the gulf between it and the main village. Starting from the level of the bridge, the actual structure loomed ten stories above it.

Without a word, the three of them began to walk across toward the facility. After all the time spent in the enclosed passages, the cold wind was an unpleasant shock, but the only outward sign Tayuya gave was a slight grimace.

After a while, another layer of security came into view—the bridge gained a thick metal cage enclosing it above and on both sides. Tayuya knew that it was heavily electrified, enough to be lethal even to her. Her skin crawled with apprehension. They had just left the rock tunnels, only to enter a tunnel of metal—one far more dangerous, and leading straight into the lair of their enemies.

But even so, they entered it. Minute after minute of walking dragged by, and even through the metal lattice they could see the building's outline growing gradually nearer. Every so often, a patrolling Cloud-nin would pass by them on the bridge, sometimes with a quick nod.

Even safe in her disguise, such encounters never failed to set Tayuya on edge. Worse, they meant that they could no longer risk holding Hideaki at knifepoint, even concealed. They had to simply stay close to him, and make sure he knew who would be the first to die if their cover was compromised.

At long last, they approached the base of the facility—and found their path barred by a metal gate, part of a checkpoint built into the bridge. Without a word, Hideaki flashed his ID to the bored-looking Cloud-nin who was sitting in the small booth. The Cloud-nin gave it a cursory glance, nodded, and pressed a button on the panel beside him. With a rattle, the gate swung open. He waved them through, then shut it behind them.

Past the checkpoint, the bridge became a walkway that ran all around the building's edge, still wrapped in the deadly cage. They followed the path to the other side of the building, where they came to the facility's entrance. This door had a keypad beside it, which Hideaki approached. Kabuto leaned in closer as the scientist did so. "We know all about the distress code," he whispered menacingly. "Make sure you enter the real one."

With shaking fingers, Hideaki entered an eight-digit sequence into the keypad, and that door slid open as well. They stepped through it into the building proper, finding themselves in a large atrium. Even here there was security present—Cloud-nin standing in all four corners of the room.

In front of them, at the main desk, the receptionist looked up. "Oh, Doctor Hideaki!" she said, sounding a little surprised. "I thought you'd left for the evening?'

Hideaki let out a laugh that—to Tayuya's ears—sounded painfully nervous. "Ah... It's nothing..." he said. "I just... left some tests running that I realized I had to make some modifications to... It'll just take a little bit." In her peripheral vision, Tayuya could see looks of mild suspicion cross the faces of the Cloud-nin, and she resisted the urge to clench her fists.

The receptionist, however, merely responded with a practiced smile and a nod. Moving past her, the three of them turned right, and made straight for the door leading to the stairs.

"Doctor Hideaki!"

A call from their left stopped their progress. They turned to see one of the room's guards, a fresh-faced young chunin, jogging over to them. "You seem a little... tense, Doctor. Is there anything wrong?"

Shit! Shit, shit, shit! It took every ounce of Tayuya's self-control not to tense visibly, as sweat began to pool in her palms. Make it good! her thoughts threatened desperately. Make it good, you old bastard, or I swear I'll kill you myself!

But Hideaki's composure was slipping by the second. "I... uh..." he floundered agitatedly. "I... No! I'm... not tense! Not at all!"

The chunin, however, didn't look like he quite believed that. Desperately, Hideaki continued to ramble. "Well... I mean... That is... It's just... My work lately, you see, it's—"

Kabuto—who had up to that point been a mask of calm indifference—suddenly fixed a furious gaze on Hideaki. "He's not cleared for that information!" he snarled. Then he rounded on the chunin. "And you! I would have thought someone of your rank would have more discretion than to go around interrogating our highest-ranking scientists about what may or may not be making them 'tense' while they are involved in top-secret projects that could affect the course of our nation for the next decade!"

The chunin paled a little under the reprimand, bowing. "I... I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to pry into sensitive areas. I just thought it might have been... related to something else. I'm very sorry."

Kabuto held his gaze for another few seconds, then grunted, nodding. "Apology accepted."

"Thank you, sir." The chunin then turned to Tayuya and offered up a smile. "Just take good care of him, whatever it is. Like you once told me, sir: 'A ninja's foremost duty is to those he is charged with protecting, and it extends to all areas that are within his ability to assist in.'"

Tayuya raised an eyebrow. "That's strange," she said levelly. "I don't remember saying anything like that to you."

The chunin gave a very nervous chuckle—and Tayuya's heart started beating again. It had been a test. "Ah, sorry, sir..." he said. "I... must have been thinking of Master Shiro instead. My apologies."

"If you're quite done...?" growled Kabuto, with the voice of someone dealing with a subordinate who was treading on their very last straw of patience. The chunin nodded vigorously in reply, backing away while bowing repeatedly. Now unhindered, the three of them turned, opened the door, and began to walk up the long, spiral flight of stairs that lay beyond.

Only when they were well out of sight did Tayuya let out the long, shuddering breath that she had been holding in, relaxing at long last. Even Kabuto, she was surprised to note, looked rather rattled from the experience.

The first floor, Tayuya knew, was the administrative section, and the next three were the lower security labs, where the less-sensitive jutsu research was performed. It was on the fifth floor where the truly high-security labs began. The three of them ascended the stairs in silence, until at last they reached the seventh floor, where the object of all this effort was kept.

A reinforced steel door barred their way, no doubt rigged with alarms as well. To the left of the door was a blank square of dusky grey metal. It was this layer of security that Hideaki's presence was so necessary to circumvent. The door was keyed to that chakra-sensitive plate, ensuring that only the individuals whose chakra signature it recognized could open it.

Kabuto nodded to Hideaki, who reached forward and pressed his palm onto the plate. Nothing happened for a moment... and then, without any dramatics, the door slid open, granting them access to the labs beyond.

They walked down the long, antiseptically-white hallways, nodding at the occasional patrolling Cloud-nin, until finally they reached the door to Hideaki's lab. The doctor opened that door too, and the three of them ducked inside. Tayuya shut the door behind them, turned, and caught her first glimpse of the boy they had come here to abduct.

Even Tayuya, long used to grim sights, couldn't keep herself from flinching slightly at what she saw. It was him, all right—young, maybe five or six, with the light blue hair that marked him as being from the Land of Water.

The genocidal hatred of that nation toward those who could wield kekkei genkai was well known, and in most cases, such a boy would have been killed shortly upon his abilities being recognized. This boy, however, seemed to have escaped long enough to be taken by Cloud forces instead.

He would have done better to let his own people catch him, Tayuya thought darkly.

The boy lay asleep on a simple hospital bed, wrists and ankles fastened to its sides by tightly bound leather restraints. Countless IV tubes, electrode wires, and other medical paraphernalia had been attached to him, pumping fluids into him, pumping fluids out of him, displaying the results on the glowing monitors clustered around him. His mouth had been gagged, apparently to stop him from screaming or crying.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Now in his own element, enthusiasm had actually managed to displace some of the fear in Hideaki's voice. "I've never in my life had a subject quite like this! Some of the data we're getting is... well, amazing, to say the least..."

Kabuto, already the closest of the three to the boy, took another couple steps to stand directly over the bed. For a long moment he simply stood there, his back toward them, looking down at him. Then, finally, he turned to face them, a wide smile on his face. "You're right, Doctor," he said. "He truly is a marvelous specimen."

Tayuya looked back and forth between Kabuto and Hideaki, her eyes settling at last on the boy. It's none of my concern... she told herself harshly. This... is the way the world works. We all do what we need to do to survive.

Except... that wasn't quite true, was it? A counterexample sprang into her mind unbidden—five idiotic kids, charging off to rescue a single one of their own, losing one of their group at every turn... but still pressing forward all the same, for the sake of their one friend.

And at least two of them were somewhere out there right now, trying to stop her from doing this.

"Start disconnecting him from these machines and prepare him for travel." Kabuto's voice, directed at Hideaki, broke abruptly into her thoughts. "And do it carefully. If he is damaged in any way, I will be very displeased." Obediently, Hideaki bent over and started removing the tubes from him one by one.

It was partway through the process that the boy woke up. His blue eyes shot open in fear, and he began to thrash around as much as the restraints would allow him. "Tayuya!" Kabuto snapped.

Tayuya dropped her henge momentarily, pulled out her flute, and began to play. It was another basic genjutsu, but it made the boy's struggles subside as he fell into an extremely deep unconsciousness that would last a full twenty-four hours. Hideaki also slumped forward, his eyes starting to close... but Kabuto cuffed him roughly behind the head before the justu could take full hold.

Who would have thought? Tayuya couldn't help asking herself bitterly. Me, playing fucking bedtime lullabies to a little kid. Give him nice pleasant dreams, so Kabuto can take him home and vivisect him.

Suddenly, Tayuya decided she didn't want to be watching this anymore. She turned away, inspecting the other details of the room for no good reason. It was in so doing that she noticed the door to another, adjoining section of Hideaki's lab.

Curious, she walked over to it, swinging the door open. Her eyes immediately widened. "Kabuto..." she said. "Kabuto! Over here!"

The medic-nin ran over, dragging Hideaki along so he could keep him at knifepoint. When he looked inside, his own eyes went wide as well. "What... is this?"

Hideaki blinked, puzzled. "You mean... you didn't know?" he asked. "But... I thought you were here on a kekkei genkai raid..."

"We are..." Kabuto said quietly. "But we only knew about the one..."

Inside the room were two additional beds, duplicates of the one in the first room. On one was a little girl about the first boy's age. On the other was a boy a few years older.

Tayuya's mind whirled. Three new kekkei genkai? Cloud had somehow managed to get their hands on something like that, and had kept it secret this well? It staggered the imagination.

"From what I understand, they'd formed some kind of community in the wilderness, or some such thing," the scientist observed, untouched by the two Sound-nin's shock. "A little ragtag group of outcast kekkei genkai users. That was how they survived as long as they did in a place like the Land of Water."

Then the scientist sighed. "Supposedly, there were also two older ones that led the group... but they were killed fighting the covert Cloud cell that stumbled across them. Quite a shame, really—from what I understand, their abilities rivaled even those of my primary subject. In comparison, these two have actually been quite a disappointment."

There was a very long silence. Then Kabuto spoke. "All right, then. Finish disconnecting the first boy, and then start on these two."

"What?" demanded Tayuya, stunned. "You can't be serious! The extraction plan is for one kid! Not three!"

"Then we improvise," replied Kabuto coolly.

"How?" Tayuya was struggling to keep from yelling. "The supply cart we were going to use to get them out will barely hide the smallest of the boys, and anyway, I sure as hell don't think we'll be able to get away with making three separate runs with it before someone gets suspicious! We should just..." She hesitated, her gaze flickering involuntarily to where the children lay. "We should just kill those two, destroy the bodies, and take the boy as planned."

It wasn't a plan she liked—killing two kids in cold blood. She tried hard to ignore that part of her, telling herself that quick death was probably preferable to what Kabuto would do to any of them he got back to his lab.

It actually helped quiet her conscience a bit, as long as she didn't think too hard about it.

"She's right, sir." Kidomaru's more diplomatic voice said over her earpiece. "We just can't afford to take on added risks. Not with as much against us as there already is."

But Kabuto was having none of their reasoning. "This is not up for discussion," he said flatly. "I will not pass up a research opportunity like this. We will bring them back with us."

Even Hideaki piped in nervously. "Um... Those... other two... As I said... they... really aren't as interesting as the primary subject. Especially the girl. I've... I've just about given up on finding a practical application for her ability..."

"See?" said Tayuya. "They're useless. We have no reason to extract them. Let's just take the one we came for, and—"

"I will be the judge of whether their abilities are useful or not," interrupted Kabuto coldly. "And I will do it in my own time. Now start disconnecting them."

Hideaki hesitated for a moment longer, then quailed under the glare Kabuto shot his way and went back to following Kabuto's command. Tayuya had to cast her sleep genjutsu twice more, but otherwise remained silent, fuming. Finally, Hideaki looked up. "They're all ready to be moved," he announced, standing.

Desperately, Tayuya made one last try. "Look, we won't even make it out of the hallway, not to mention out of the building!" She pointed at Hideaki. "We won't even be able to keep a close enough guard on him if we're both tied down carrying those three!"

The medic-nin glanced at Hideaki as well, then pulled out a kunai and stabbed it straight through the scientist's throat. Hideaki's eyes bulged in shock and incomprehension, his hands clutching at his neck in a vain attempt to stop the blood pouring from it. He dropped to his knees, making wet gurgling noises all the while, before finally flopping down, body twitching, into the red, ever-widening pool on the floor.

Kabuto looked back up at Tayuya. "Any other objections?" he asked mildly, while wiping off his kunai. When she said nothing-only looked at him, her eyes wide and wary-he continued. "Then let's go."

Picking up the two children in that room, they carried them out into the first section of the lab, Kabuto closing the door behind them. Then, setting down his child, the medic-nin spoke up. "I... do have an idea of how we might be able to get out," he told her. "But I need to check on something first. Wait here; I should be back soon." With that, he turned and walked toward the door.

As he was about to open it, he paused, then glanced back over his shoulder at her. "If it's any consolation," he told her, "there is one advantage to doing it this way."

Tayuya gave him a disbelieving look. "What's that?"

"The Leaf are still out there, remember?" A wry little smile crossed Kabuto's features. "And I expect this new development is going to be just as big a wrench in Shikamaru's plans as it is ours."

As per her orders, Tayuya waited, anxiety and frustration churning inside her until she could barely think straight. It was all going wrong, their simple plan spiraling hopelessly out of control, utter catastrophe growing more and more likely with each complication. Unexpected opponents, unexpected objectives, unexpected obsessions of her commanding officer... Each minute felt like an hour as she waited.

Then, after what felt like an eternity, Kabuto returned. "I know what we're going to do," he said confidently. "Follow me."

Tayuya picked up the boy—their real objective—while Kabuto grabbed the two he had insisted on bringing, one under each arm. For several long minutes they waited by the door leading to the hallway, listening for the footsteps of the patrolling guards, getting their timing. Then Kabuto, nodded, and they crept quickly out into the hallway, dashing down it with absolute silence, yet with blinding speed.

Kabuto led them to a room in the far corner of the building—some kind of break room, with several tables, and a large window. They slipped in, closing the door behind them, although Tayuya noticed that Kabuto carefully left it just slightly ajar.

Then he turned to her. "With all the guards below, they'll obviously spot us if we try to exit from down there with our stolen goods. So instead... we're going to go up."

"Up?" echoed Jirobo over the radio, sounding puzzled.

"To the roof," Kabuto clarified. "Kidomaru, if you briefly went into the second state, could you fire one of your cord-guided arrows all the way to the roof of this building?"

"That... would be a very tricky shot..." Kidomaru's static-tinged voice replied. Tayuya knew that for him to admit that it was "tricky" meant it would be damn near impossible for almost anyone else. "But I think I could do it. And then you'll come across on the cord?"

"Exactly. We'll slip out right over their heads, and then vanish from there before they can figure it out."

"So is there a roof access?" asked Jirobo.

"Yes, I found one," Kabuto answered. "Unfortunately, it required a maintenance keycode to open, which we do not have. And of course, it would almost certainly have set off alarms if we tried to force it. No, we're going to go out through the window." He drew a kunai and pointed it at the window in question.

Tayuya could hear the frown in Kidomaru's voice. "The window will be rigged with an alarm too," he said. "They'll know if you try to cut or break the glass."

Kabuto nodded. "But unlike forcing the roof hatch, it will be much less obvious where we're headed. That will buy us crucial time."

"Not that much time," was Tayuya's skeptical response. "There's only so many places for them to look outside the building."

A quiet chuckle was Kabuto's only reply. "Who said anything about them looking outside?" He then walked over to the window, pulling out a blast note from his pocket along the way. "Get ready."

Quickly, Tayuya dragged the three kids to cover, flipping over one of the tables and packing them in behind it. She watched as Kabuto wrapped the note around the handle of his kunai. For a moment, he ran his fingers along the window, as though gauging it.

Then, drawing his arm back behind his head, he stabbed his kunai into the heavily reinforced glass with just enough force that the point penetrated through to the other side. Immediately, he yanked it back out again, triggered the timer on the blast note, and flipped it in his gloved hand so that he was gripping it by the blade. Then he stabbed it again, hilt-first this time, driving it through the spot he had already weakened. The result was a blast note, burning down on the hilt of a kunai... outside the window.

Kabuto dove for cover, and a second later, the note detonated. The explosion shattered the window inward, spraying glass all around the room, and taking out a good-sized chunk of the surrounding wall as well. Tayuya pulled the three children tightly to her, shielding them as best she could.

Then Kabuto was there, grabbing the two boys, one under each arm and leaping for the new opening in the wall. Tayuya grabbed the girl and followed, getting her first good look at the devastation as she did so. Glass and debris were scattered everywhere, and the door to the break room—which Kabuto had left slightly ajar—had now been blown wide open. All in all, it looked exactly as though the explosive kunai had been thrown from the outside.

As though attacking forces had just broken into the research facility.

The earsplitting howl of the alarm klaxons began to blare, even as the Sound-nin shot out the hole in the wall and blurred up the side of the building. In a heartbeat they had landed on the roof, and Kabuto barked a single, sharp command: "Kidomaru, now."

Tayuya turned to look at the scene spread out before her. Far, far below, she could see the walkway running around the building and the bridge connecting it to the main village. The electrified mesh that shrouded it all looked as imposing as ever—but then, they weren't planning on leaving that way anymore.

She raised her eyes to look at the main village, where Kidomaru was. She swallowed, hard. It was a long way off. There was no way to pick out individual human figures at that distance; she had to trust that the spider-nin had found a good position, and could make the shot. She held her breath, as second after second ticked by. Come on, come on, where the hell are you...?

Then, arcing in from overhead, she caught sight of Kidomaru's arrow shooting down through the air, cord trailing behind it. It slammed into the roof with a crunch, drilling deep into it. He had added spin to the projectile, just as he had done while fighting the Hyuga boy.

"All right!" came Jirobo's voice a moment later. "We're ready whenever you are!"

Kabuto carefully set down his two captives, then knelt and gave the cord a tug, testing how firmly the arrow was fixed. After satisfying himself, he looked up at Tayuya and smiled. "We're almost there," he said. "And even better: with this kind of unplanned exit, we'll likely avoid whatever trap Shikamaru was laying for us as well."

Tayuya gave a little half-smile in reply. Indeed, it looked like they were going to pull it off. In spite of everything—Cloud, Leaf, their own leader's asinine research fetish—what was left of the old Sound Four had come through once again. The kids were as good as in Sound already.

So she should feel glad, right?

Setting down the girl she carried, she knelt and examined the arrow herself. Kidomaru had really planted it in there, all right. "You go first," she told Kabuto. "And I'll—" she broke off suddenly, noticing something. There was blood on the cord where Kabuto had touched it.

"Your hand," she said, pointing. "It's bleeding. Pretty badly, actually."

Kabuto looked down at his palm, his eyebrows going up in an expression of surprise. Then he chuckled. "Oh. It must be from putting the kunai through the window," he said. "In all the rush, I didn't even notice. I thought these gloves were thicker than that."

Tayuya rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Just heal the damn thing and let's get on with this."

"No time." Kabuto shook his head. "I'll do it after we're clear. Let's go."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" The Sound kunoichi's face twisted into a perplexed expression. "You want to leave a blood trail everywhere that stinks to high heaven just to save a few seconds?"

Kabuto opened his mouth, hesitated for a moment, then shut it again. "Yes, you're correct, of course. I'll heal it right now." Then he gestured back the way they'd come. "Keep watch over there while I'm doing it. Make sure none of the Cloud-nin decide to come up the wall the same way we did."

Tayuya nodded, turning away to walk toward her assigned position. She resisted the urge to swear under her breath at how idiotic their team leader was acting. Why the hell would such a supposedly-brilliant medic-nin not want to...

She froze.

It was an epiphany of the most horrible kind. In that single, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moment, she understood everything. Every missed clue, every tiny, overlooked fact was blasted into her mind with excruciating detail.

Kabuto making excuses not to use his healing jutsu.

Kabuto killing Hideaki with a kunai, instead of his much cleaner chakra scalpel.

Kabuto not following their plan for disposing of the two Cloud-nin's bodies.

Kabuto refusing to leave any of the children behind in Cloud hands, even though one of their kekkei genkai had no practical use.

And in that moment, she knew that they hadn't escaped Shikamaru's scheme. They hadn't outmaneuvered him. They'd only been dancing to his tune.

The whole. Damn. Time.

She flung herself sideways with all the speed she possessed—even as Kabuto thrust the kunai knife into her back from behind. She let out a short cry, but her last-second dodge had kept the weapon from finding her heart. Immediately she whirled, despite the blade in her back, and slammed her elbow into the medic-nin's face, sending him staggering back.

"Tayuya!" Kidomaru's frantic voice echoed in her ear. "Tayuya, what's going on over there?"

"It's Kabuto!" she rasped out, clenching her teeth against the pain that assailed her. "It's not really him! Fucking Leaf replaced him somehow!"

The medic-nin watched her, appeared to consider for a moment... and then something about him shifted. Not the burst of smoke from a henge, but something subtler. Eerier. His appearance was still exactly the same, but his body language, the way he carried himself, had become suddenly feminine.

"Well, looks like you're onto me!" Kabuto said, grinning. "Guess I don't need to keep up the act anymore. Oh, and I should probably warn you: this is still your teammate's body, so anything you do to it..." his voice trailed off. "Well, you know."

Tayuya's face twisted into a snarl. "Then it's a good thing I don't like the bastard!" she spat, and lunged toward their possessed leader with a punch.

But while this Leaf-bitch might not have gained Kabuto's skills or jutsu knowledge by taking him over, his body's raw speed and reflexes were still very much there—and Tayuya was hurt from his backstabbing. He slipped around her attack, retaliating with a spin kick that caught her in the side, flinging her away.

The Sound kunoichi hit the ground in a roll that carried her back to her feet, albeit unsteadily. As she righted herself, she saw that Kabuto had broken off and was running toward where the kids lay. Reaching behind herself, she grabbed hold of the kunai he had stabbed into her, wrenched it out, and hurled it after him.

But he ducked just in time, the bloody knife shooting over him. Tayuya took the opportunity to charge at him again, wishing desperately that she could unleash her curse seal, but knowing its massive chakra would almost certainly give away their location.

She collided with Kabuto in a rapid-fire exchange of blows, letting her rage at being manipulated give strength to her vicious swings. At the same time, she kept on the move, hopping in and out of range, circling, maneuvering, trying to find an opening.

And then she got one. Kabuto jumped backward to avoid a punch of hers, and she dove around him, aiming for the young boy—their true objective, the Leaf's deception notwithstanding. Kabuto mirrored her lunge, both reaching desperately for him.

Tayuya's hand was just a split-second too late, as Kabuto latched onto the boy's ankle and dragged him out of her reach. Tayuya got back to her feet, ready to try again...

...and then, behind them, there was a creaking noise. The roof access hatch opened, and a Cloud-nin poked his head out of it, looking around. His eyes widened when he saw them, and immediately he began to yell at the top of his lungs. "They're here! On the roof! Quick, don't let them get away!"

Kabuto hurled several shuriken at the newcomer, but the Cloud-nin made an impressive leap, out of the hatch and high into the air, where he began a series of hand signs. Whatever his jutsu was, Tayuya could see that he was targeting the arrow—trying to cut off their escape route.

And with that, she knew that the time for subtlety was over. She triggered the first state, feeling the jagged lines creeping across her body, feeling the sudden, euphoric surge in power, feeling the pain in her back dull. At the same time, she bit into her thumb, and began making some extremely rapid hand signs of her own.

The Cloud-nin released his jutsu, sending a ball of lighting crackling down toward the arrow. But as it closed in, there were three simultaneous explosions of smoke, and Tayuya's monster summons burst into existence, the armless one appearing directly in front of the attack.

It took the lighting sphere head-on, arching its back in a silent howl of pain. But the jutsu had not been nearly powerful enough to take it out; it was smoking, but very much usable.

Tayuya whipped out her flute, fingers flying across its length with breathtaking speed. In response, her club-wielding monster pounded across the roof at the now-descending Cloud-nin, even as the monster with the spiked gauntlets lunged at Kabuto, trying to grab him.

The Cloud-nin tried to defend himself, but he never had a chance. The huge club swung into him while he was still falling, crushing his pitiful attempt at a block as though it wasn't there. His body crumpled like a broken toy, and he was flung through the air, off the edge of the roof, to fall down, down, down into the misty void between the mountains.

Kabuto, however, dodged away from the monster coming after him, managing to pick up the other boy at the same time, now holding one under each arm. He tried to run toward the girl as well—though how he realistically thought he would handle all three and still escape, Tayuya had no idea. Either way, she anticipated his move, shifting her gauntlet-wearing monster to make a series of grabs along that path. They didn't succeed in catching him, but he was forced to fall back.

And then more Cloud-nin began to swarm onto the roof, some coming up through the hatch, others through the hole in the wall the Sound-nin had made. With a stricken look on his face, Kabuto turned and ran with the two children he had, jumping onto the cord. He gathered chakra on the soles of his feet, securing his footing, and then he began to race along it like a tightrope.

Playing for all she was worth, Tayuya had her monsters engage the Cloud-nin, trusting Kidomaru and Jirobo to apprehend Kabuto. She went into her Makyo no Ran almost immediately, adding the long white streams of hungry chakra to the fray. The terrain vastly favored her—wide open, with nowhere to hide, and limited room to maneuver. She swept the rooftop back and forth with the hungry chakra, punctuating it with the monsters' devastating physical blows, sending Cloud-nin after Cloud-nin to their deaths.

But she knew she could not keep it up for much longer. She was bleeding badly, spots flashing in front of her vision as she forced herself to keep playing. They had her trapped. If she tried to escape on the cord, it would be left undefended. The Cloud-nin would cut it long before she reached safety, dropping her onto the electrified cage below.

Although... Now that stealth was no longer an issue...

A new plan shot through her mind, and she quickly decided to act on it. With a leap, she jumped up onto the shoulders of the club-wielding monster, ordering its hungry chakra to retract. Then, she sent the monster charging toward the edge of the roof. Its feet thundered along the path she commanded, an unstoppable juggernaut...

Then she caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. Small, curled up into a tiny ball on the ground. The girl they had freed from Hideaki's experiments.

Inexplicably, it arrested her gaze. The girl was unimportant, after all, useless even as a test subject. Not even worth the time to kill, since even if Cloud got her back it would affect nothing. It would mean nothing.

Nothing, except the insignificant ruin of the insignificant life of an utterly insignificant child.

Tayuya hesitated, then with a savage series of notes, she stopped the monster's run and sent it pounding back toward the kid. It took only a moment. The monster's hand shot down and swept up the girl in its grasp, then resumed its previous course.

This time, there were no interruptions. It reached the edge of the roof, whereupon Tayuya had it leap out into space.

The Sound kunoichi sheathed her flute, reaching down to take the girl out of the monster's hand and into her own arms. Soon, the monster reached the apex of its jump, and with a sickening lurch, they began to fall.

Beneath her, she could see the bridge to the main village encased in that deadly cage. They plummeted toward it, building up speed. Tayuya licked her lips. This was going to be tight.

The monster hit the cage with devastating force, smashing through it in a shower of sparks and arcing voltage. Tayuya smelled the stench of burning meat, but its huge body had shielded them from the lethal current.

Then the monster hit the bridge itself. It crashed through that too, but at the last moment Tayuya leaped from its shoulders, twisting through the rain of debris, carrying herself and the girl clear. Behind them, the monster continued to fall, it's body tumbling down into the abyss.

The kunoichi and the girl landed on the far side of the new hole in the bridge, Tayuya rolling to absorb the impact herself. The force of the landing, together with her wound, made white-hot stars explode in her brain, but she knew she could not afford to lie around. Doggedly, she staggered to her feet. Through the haze of pain and weariness, she heard running footsteps coming at her, and she tried to summon up the will to fight, to run, to do something...

"Easy! Easy!" Kidomaru's voice. She sagged with relief, her knees buckling, but Jirobo's arms caught her before she could fall. Kidomaru took the girl from her grasp, allowing Jirobo to sling Tayuya over his shoulder. Immediately, they turned and fled.

But even as desperate as the situation was, there was one thing Tayuya needed to know. "Kabuto..." she muttered, trying to think over the rushing noise in her head. "Did you catch...?"

Jirobo shook his head. "We lost him. He was... just too fast."

Tayuya closed her eyes, the bitter taste of defeat filling her mouth. Yes, Kabuto was easily one of Lord Orochimaru's greatest servants... and now that strength was being oh-so-neatly used against them. And so, rather than chase after someone they had little chance of catching—not to mention whatever ambushes Shikamaru would have prepared—her teammates had withdrawn, and come back to save her instead.

The smart thing, of course, would have been to simply leave her to Cloud's tender mercies. Then the other two could have just slipped away. But instead they had revealed themselves as well, and now had an army of ninja hot on their trail. It had been stupid. Stupid and sentimental.

But then—and here she glanced over at the girl—this did seem to be the day for stupid and sentimental actions.

Fifteen minutes later, after a great deal of running, hiding, ducking from tunnel to tunnel, and a few henges, the three Sound-nin sat together in the darkened, empty store that they had broken into after losing their pursuers. The unconscious girl was currently lying in Jirobo's lap, while Kidomaru used strips of his own tunic as a makeshift bandage for Tayuya's wound. It wasn't much, but it was definitely better than nothing.

It was Kidomaru who broke the strained silence. "So... a mind-control jutsu, eh? Nasty move."

Tayuya nodded wearily. "My guess is they did it under the cover of the smoke bomb they used back in the bar. Applied the jutsu... and maybe even slipped one of their own radios to Kabuto so he could stay in contact with them. Did you notice—" She flinched, biting back a cry of pain as Kidomaru tightened the bandage.

After a few seconds to gather herself, she continued. "Did you notice how he went off by himself in the facility, right before he came back with his new plan? I'll bet that was an excuse so that he could inform Shikamaru of what had happened... and get a new strategy from him."

Silence reigned for another long stretch. Finally, Jirobo spoke up. "Look, enough about Shikamaru's strategy. We need to come up with a strategy of our own," he urged them. "Cloud's going to find this place eventually. If we don't have a plan, there's no way we'll make it back to Sound."

Kidomaru laughed bitterly. "Even if we did somehow get out of Lightning Country in one piece, what would we do then? Do you really think Lord Orochimaru would welcome us back after screwing up a mission this badly? His pet Kabuto, sure... but us? He'd probably kill us himself."

"We... could go missing-nin if we made it out..." Jirobo suggested. "Find someplace a long way from Sound and try to—"

He was cut off by a distant, but nonetheless frightening sound. A long howl, echoing through the tunnels. "Ninja hounds," Kidomaru said, with matter-of-fact grimness. "Well, whatever we're going to do, we're running out of time."

Tayuya stared blankly at the floor. The wound in her back was a dull throb, her thoughts tumbling through her mind in an uncontrolled jumble. She looked up for a brief moment, glancing at the girl in Jirobo's lap, then looked down again. "I..." she began, then broke off.

Jirobo and Kidomaru turned toward her, curious. "What is it?" Jirobo asked. "If you've got an idea..."

"Sort of." Tayuya didn't meet their eyes as she spoke. "I was just thinking... We probably couldn't make it out overland, but... if... two of us stayed behind and delayed the Cloud-nin... one of us might be able to make it as far as our extraction boat."

Both her teammates' eyebrows shot up in surprise, and immediately Tayuya regretted voicing her plan. "Look," she said. "I know what you're thinking. It was... just a stupid idea; I don't know why I suggested it..."

There was another long silence, broken by Kidomaru's sudden chuckle. "What the hell?" he said, laughing. "Why not? I guess I wouldn't mind going out like that. Jirobo, give the kid to Tayuya, and let's get ready to welcome our Cloud friends."

Tayuya's head snapped up angrily. "Are you fucking kidding me?" she demanded. "This was my idea! I should be one of the ones to stay the hell behind!"

Kidomaru shook his head, a small smile on his face. "And hold off an army of Cloud-nin? In the condition you're in? Come on, Tayuya, be reasonable."

"No!" she shouted, jumping to her feet, her voice growing increasingly agitated as she spoke. "This is bullshit! You two... fucking assholes think you can just... decide that you're the ones to fight the damned Cloud-bastards? What is this? Some kind of fucking, macho, sexist, lame-ass piece of—"

With a gentle motion, Jirobo touched his fingers to her shoulder. "Language, Tayuya," he said softly.

Tayuya's jaw snapped shut with an audible click. For a few seconds she just stood there, trying to somehow change the reality of what was happening by sheer force of will. Finally, she turned away from them, clenching her eyes shut as hard as she could. "All right," she said, her voice rough. "You win."

She wordlessly accepted the girl, as Jirobo handed her over. Then Kidomaru pointed out a direction. "If you take that tunnel, you can cut across and reach the exterior wall quickly," he said. "From there, go down the mountain and make for one of the river valleys. You can use the water to hide your trail. They won't get past us until it's too late to catch up."

Tayuya nodded, once. Kidomaru smiled, and clasped her on the shoulder with one of his arms. "Good luck," he said. Then he turned to Jirobo. "All right! I'm going to run out and lay down as many webs as I can on the tunnels leading in here—see how much we can gum them up to buy us some time. You see what you can do about making this place more defensible."

The Sound kunoichi took that as her cue to leave. She made her way over to the shop's door, opened it, then paused. "Kidomaru... Jirobo..." she said, glancing over her shoulder.

They returned her gaze, understanding in their eyes. Tayuya wanted to say something, but found that she couldn't. Maybe there was just nothing to be said.

With a curt nod, she turned and exited. Ignoring the throbbing pain from her wound, she broke into an all-out run in the direction Kidomaru had pointed out, and forced herself not to look back.

Tayuya reached the outer wall of Hidden Cloud in short order, and gathering chakra to her feet, began to run down its face. She clutched tightly onto the unconscious girl, gritting her teeth. Even a simple task like this was an exertion in the state she was in.

But she forced herself to ignore her weakness, continuing her descent down the wall, then making the leap to the face of the mountain itself. When she finally reached the solid ground far, far below, she was shaking with fatigue, her breath coming in shudders.

She didn't rest, though. She had no time. Trying her best to push the weariness aside, she broke into a run once more. Not the most graceful or steadiest of runs, but speed was more important than elegance right now.

Fortunately, the river was nearby. Gathering chakra to her feet again, she ran out on the water's surface, following its twists and turns, forks and bends. But the water-walking was sapping her strength, the gnawing pain from her wound was interfering with her concentration, and she didn't know how long she could keep it up.

When she finally slipped, it was without warning. One moment she was running along the surface of the river, the next her leg sunk straight into the ice-cold water almost up to her hips. She struggled for balance, almost dropping the girl in, but managed to wade back out onto the bank. Upon reaching it she dropped to her knees, sobbing for breath, her legs numb. But, with a small scream of rage, she forced herself to stand up again and continue running.

The landscape flew by on either side as she charged drunkenly forward. She had very little sense of time. The seconds blurred into minutes, which blurred into hours, but she couldn't have said which was which. She ran and ran and ran, conscious of little besides the throbbing agony in her back, the overwhelming fatigue in her legs, and the small weight in her arms.

But however long it lasted, eventually she found her progress halted by the sea. For a long moment, she simply stared at it, blankly, the significance slowly sinking in. She had made it to the coast. She was almost there.

Stumbling around in a slow, circular turn, she tried to force her brain to take in the surrounding landmarks, comparing against the maps of the area she had memorized. It took her a long time, but finally she decided on which direction she needed to follow the shore. Upon doing so, she wasted no time in stumbling that way.

Her breath was coming in pained wheezes. She could feel every heartbeat thudding in her chest. Her blood had soaked through the bandage Kidomaru had applied, and she could feel it trickling down her back, mingling with her sweat. But she continued to move forward. And forward. And forward.

And then... she saw the island. Relief like she had never known pierced her, and she opened her mouth—hoping, praying that she was in radio range. Her first couple tries, she simply made soundless croaks, but soon she got the words out. "Transport... This is Tayuya. Do you read me?"

The silence that followed seemed to last a thousand years. But then she heard the voice of the Sound ninja assigned to the boat. "Copy, I read you. Stand by for pickup."

Tayuya watched intently, her legs trembling, but refusing to buckle. Eventually she saw a small, dark shape round the corner of the island and move silently toward her. He was rowing; she knew he wouldn't use the motor this close to land, where it might be heard.

Still, slow though the boat's progress was, it reached her in the end. The ninja on board jumped out, and approached Tayuya. "Are you all right, ma'am? What happened to Kabuto and—"

But now that she had reached her destination, Tayuya found that she had also reached the limit of her strength. She slumped forward, like a puppet with its strings cut.

The other ninja caught her as she fell, propping her up, while at the same time shifting the girl into his own arms. In an unforgivable display of weakness, she let herself sag limply against him, her head buried into his shoulder as her breath shuddered in and out.

He maneuvered her to the boat, putting the girl in first, then helping Tayuya in. He settled the kunoichi in the front of the boat, where she could lean against the sides. He himself sat in the middle of the boat, in the rower's seat. The girl, he placed in the bottom of the boat, between them.

Then he looked at Tayuya. "The others..." he asked again. "Are they...?"

Tayuya shook her head, having regained some semblance of composure. "Not coming," she said dully. "None of them."

The other ninja nodded solemnly, then began to row, each stroke carrying them farther out into the water. After a while, he spoke again. "Ma'am, you should let me take a look at that wound of yours. It should really be re-bound."

Tayuya snorted. "You don't need to bother."

"What do you mean?" The other ninja was frowning, worriedly. "If you don't treat it—"

And then suddenly, Tayuya was tired of playing around. "Look," she told him. "Just... drop the henge already. It's insulting."

The ninja froze, pausing in his rowing as he looked wordlessly at Tayuya. Then, at last, he sighed. There was a burst of smoke, and then in the ninja's place sat Shikamaru.

"How did you figure it out?" he asked.

Tayuya rolled her eyes. "What, you were hoping that we'd forget how your little mind-control witch just happened to worm the information about our extraction plans out of us? We all realized that we'd told you enough. All you had to do was look at a map of the coast and figure out which islands would be best suited for a pickup point, and search only those. With the head start you had, we knew you'd find it before we could get there."

Shikamaru looked deep into her eyes. "So then... why?"

Tayuya opened her mouth to reply, then doubled over as a fit of coughing seized her. As she painfully straightened herself up, she noticed that there were trails of blood running down her chin. "I... I don't know why the others did it..." she finally answered, looking at the girl. "I don't even know why I did it, really. She's got a kekkei genkai... but it's practically useless. It wouldn't have helped Lord Orochimaru any. It's not going to hurt him any either, or help the Leaf. It's not going to do anything at all. Except..."

She hesitated, then went on. "Except if it didn't make any other difference anyway... I guess we just figured... it would be worth it for her to go somewhere where she might have a half-decent chance at a life."

Then the tiniest ghost of a smile crossed her lips. "And..." she said, her voice weakening. "Heh. Do you remember the first time we fought? When you were chasing after Sasuke?"

Shikamaru nodded, and so she went on. "What was it I said to you back then? Something about your whole rescue attempt being 'sweet, but a useless gesture'?" She shook her head ruefully at the memory. "Well maybe... just maybe... I wanted to see what it was like. To do something like that... even if it was only just once."

The Leaf-nin's face bent into a frown at her words. "Look..." he said, urgency in his voice. "You really ought to let me treat that wound..."

Tayuya shook her head. "Forget it. It wouldn't do any good at this point anyway. Even I can tell that much." Then, seeing the stricken expression that crossed Shikamaru's face, the kunoichi raised her eyebrows. "What's that look for?" she asked him. "We are enemies, remember."

"Are we?" asked Shikamaru, inclining his head toward the girl lying between them.

Tayuya gave a wet chuckle, then shrugged. "Well it's not like it really makes much of a difference, at this point..."

The shadow-nin took a deep breath. "Then..." he said quietly. "If it doesn't matter one way or the other... I think... I'd prefer it if we weren't."

Shikamaru pulled at the oars, moving the boat through the water. Although his outward appearance was placid, his mind was analyzing the situation from a dozen different angles. But to no avail. That was the terrible thing about his genius. Sometimes, being able to take in every single facet of a situation only meant that you saw in that much greater detail how hopeless it truly was.

So he rowed on. The only sounds that could be heard were the lapping of the waves against the hull of the boat, and Tayuya's labored breathing.

And then, in a shift so subtle he almost missed it, the only sound was the sound of the waves.

He stopped rowing, looking up at where Tayuya lay, seeing the stillness of her body, seeing the way she stared unblinkingly at nothing in particular. Then he leaned over, raised a hand to her face, and gently closed her eyes.


The sun shone brightly down, filtering through the windows of the Hidden Leaf's most top secret medical ward. Tsunade watched as Shizune inserted the needle into the young girl's arm—the last of the three children to have their blood drawn today. The two boys were off playing over to the side—currently engaged in a two-on-one wrestling match against Choji, who was letting them manhandle him in good humor. A smile crossed the Hokage's face at the sight.

Then she glanced over at Yamanaka Ino, who was watching the spectacle along with her. "It looks as though they're settling in well," she said. "In fact, quite frankly, I'm surprised at how well they've adjusted."

Ino's face darkened at that, an uncharacteristic look of cold fury crossing her features for a moment. "You didn't see the way that bastard Hideaki was keeping them," she said venomously. "Believe me, this is like paradise compared to the way they had it back there."

Tsunade nodded. "Well, we're going to do everything in our power to make sure they never have to worry about that again. I've already had their cover identities put together, and Shizune is almost done making preparations for the jutsu surgery to give them their new faces."

Which was, Tsunade reflected, altogether appropriate. While the tests Shizune was running might prove somewhat useful, the likelihood of a substantial benefit was small without going to the unconscionable lengths that someone like Orochimaru or Hideaki would employ. No, the true benefit of their kekkei genkai would be given to Hidden Leaf in the same way it had been from the village's earliest days—by enveloping them into its motley, disparate family.

Drawing her thoughts back to the present, Tsunade addressed Ino again. "Speaking of medical ninjutsu... I hear that you've been pestering my newest apprentice to teach you some of it lately."

Ino blushed. "Oh! Yes, well... It isn't much... Just some pointers, really. I thought it might be a good idea, since our mission nearly fell apart because I didn't know it. And Shikamaru always says that a team ought to always have at least one medic in it." Then she clenched her fist, a sudden fire burning in her eyes. "Besides, if Sakura can do it, then I definitely can!"

Tsunade chuckled, shaking her head at the strange relationship that the two girls shared. They watched Shizune give the girl a bandage for the needle-prick, and send her back over to her bed, where she began to rummage through the small box of toys that Team 10 had scrounged together for them.

After a while, Tsunade spoke up again. "Incidentally, our intelligence division has confirmed the report. Kabuto did make it back to Hidden Sound."

At that, Ino's face fell. After handing the two rescued boys off to Asuma, she had proceeded to take Kabuto's borrowed body on a bit of a joyride through Hidden Cloud, making hit and run attacks, and just generally acting as a diversion to help keep the Cloud-nin occupied while the others slipped away. When she finally released her technique, she had made sure to put Kabuto in as hopeless a position as she could possibly manage, surrounded by well over fifty Cloud-nin. And for the next week, she had walked around with an extra strut in her step, her pride buoyed by the thought that she had taken out Orochimaru's right hand man.

That pride had been abruptly punctured when a report came in that Kabuto had actually managed to escape from where she had left him—making it all the way back to his master.

"I just don't see how he could have pulled it off!" Ino wailed exasperatedly. "I was sure there was no way he could get out of it! They had him!"

"He's an amazing prodigy, there's no doubt about that," Tsunade agreed. "Even I had a great deal of trouble fighting him. And I'm told his skills at using corpses for diversions fooled even Kakashi. That's probably how he managed to slip through their fingers." Ino's only reply was some indistinct grumbling about stupid Sound-nin who were too stupid to know when they were supposed to die.

Tsunade was about to say something further... but then she caught a small movement out of the corner of her eye. Giving Ino a pat on the shoulder instead, she turned and walked out the door of the medical ward, and into the hallway beyond.

Her instincts had been right. Shikamaru was standing there, looking into the room from an angle that mostly shielded him from sight. The Hokage frowned a little, concerned in spite of herself. Ever since he had come back from the mission, he had been... a bit more withdrawn than was usual. Even for him.

"Stopping by to see the children?" she probed lightly. The shadow-nin replied with a grunt, and a small nod of the head.

They stayed there, silent, for several minutes, until Tsunade spoke again. "The latest news from abroad is very encouraging," she told him. "It seems that Hidden Cloud is still furious about the attack Sound's agents made on it. From what I hear, they're threatening very serious reprisals unless Orochimaru returns the three children that his forces abducted."

Shikamaru glanced over at the Hokage. "And what about Orochimaru's claim that he doesn't have them—that they were actually taken by Leaf agents?"

Tsunade sniffed disdainfully. "Too transparent an excuse for anyone to take seriously. It's obviously a poor attempt to shift the blame onto his most hated enemies. In fact, just yesterday I received an assurance from the Raikage himself that he doesn't for a moment believe those baseless and unsupported accusations."

Another silence fell, before Tsunade continued. "Of course..." she said. "If it had been a Leaf operation that had done all that... If one of our teams had managed to rescue those children, despite unexpected obstacles, and even arranged it so that our enemies took all the political fallout... then obviously such an accomplishment would be worthy of the highest commendations we can offer."

Then she turned away from him, looking back into the room. "No such commendations will be given, of course. Because Leaf forces were never there."

Shikamaru nodded again, absently, and Tsunade wondered if he had even truly heard what she had said. Then, after a few more minutes of watching, the shadow-nin drew himself up. "If you'll excuse me, Lady Tsunade," he said quietly.

"Of course," Tsunade told him, whereupon Shikamaru turned and began to walk away.

Then, abruptly, she remembered something. "Oh, wait a moment," she said. "There was one question that the Research Division wanted me to ask you, since you were the last one with that Sound kunoichi. They wanted to disassemble that flute of hers, to see if there were any details of its construction that we could use."

"Seems like a reasonable thing to do..." was Shikamaru's emotionless response, glancing over his shoulder.

"Yes..." Tsunade agreed. "Except they couldn't find the flute anywhere on her body. Do you know what might have happened to it?"

The shadow-nin shrugged. "Sorry, don't have a clue," he said. "Although, now that you mention it, I don't think I noticed it on her when she was in the boat. Maybe it just... got dropped somewhere along the way?"

Tsunade nodded. "Yes, that would make sense. Well, it's not a large loss anyway."

Shikamaru made no further reply, only continued walking off down the hallway. After a while, Tsunade turned to walk off in the other direction. As usual, she had mountains of paperwork to get done, and—

A sudden noise made her stop in her tracks—a wavering, discordant little squeak. Then came a second, and then a third—similar sounds, but in different tones, coming from inside the medical ward.

Looking back inside, Tsunade saw that one of the children—the girl—was off by herself, sitting on one of the beds. Held in her hands was a plain, weathered flute, which she was making a faltering attempt to play.

"Shikamaru..." Tsunade growled warningly. But she knew even without looking that it was a wasted threat. The shadow-nin was already long gone.

For a few moments she simply stood there in the doorway, her face betraying no emotion as she watched the little girl wrestle with the instrument. Then the Hokage turned and walked away, the hesitant, off-key notes echoing in the hallway behind her.