A/N: Well, well, well, it has been sometime, hasn't it? I'm sure many of you will be spitting out a string of curses in both admonishment and excitement. But that's OK, I deserve it. Somewhat. Mostly. Completely - You know what? That's not important! What is important is that... lookie-lookie! A brand new chappie!

But, in all fairness, to those four or five of you (is that being generous?) who might care about the whats and the whys, I graduated from Huntington University this summer. I know right? Two years in community college then three and a half in normal college. Finally over! And then promptly after that I married my beautiful wife! Yaaaay! I'm married now! But between being married, my wife needing my help onher classes since she's still got a few more years of her own, and working a job, I've had seldom chance, and seldom less motivation to write for any of my stories.

But I recently got a job on air at a radio station, and between breaks I have a little time to sit down and write; the internet's not good enough for decent quality YouTube, much less gaming. But I suppose in this case it works out in my favor.

So the long and short of it is that I've been busy. But all things considered, it's been a pleasant while since I've worked on Konoha's Silver Shinobi, and coming back to it has been a bit of a trying effort; I'd forgotten a lot of the story's nuances, and in addition to reading back through my own story, I also sifted through my notes making sure that I was backon track with where I wanted to take the story and what I wanted to do with the characters in it.

However, in the time since I last released a chapter, I've been fortunate to have many excited and inqusitive reviewers posting and messaging their comments and questions,and I'd like to take the time, as I've traditionally done, to acknowledge those people: Jose19, mellra, Quick-n-Popular, Chewie Cookies, Demosthenes2211, kraken5, ACSkywalker, flamelegendvargas (which I just realized was a Brave Frontier reference!), yukicrewger2, BloodMoonWanes, bankai777, BlackRequeim, OBSERVER01, Leaf Ranger, NorthSouthGorem, Hail Lord Archanfel, ultima-owner, BoogaBingBangBow, Alfonse08, Kuwasu, Madara123, 19shade0180, Dreaming of the Phoenix, Shisarakage, Skullduggery Goodfellow, FlameDragon14, dispair17 Iceflame55, Sephiroth Cresent-Valentine, Cross Marian, SPeCTeR-ll7, XenotheWise135, NarutoXHonoka, , Orange3WhiteSkew, narmulti, blasterdog, Hevel, LioPyro7890, Inmsodiac, Laud de Saturno, Swift, Dragon0905, DraconesUzumaki, and to all the anonymous guests who pichted their lovely two-cents in! I'd especially like to thank Pyromania101 for being a long time reviewer of my stories, and for piquing my interest with their in-depth reviews. If I could give your physical cookie, I'd give you ten! And honestly, it's your all's reviews which keep me coming back (read: obligated to update)!

So without further adieu, I'll leave you fine fellows/folks to the main event!

Chapter 18,
Dark Clouds

"I think that went rather well," Naruto said, aiming his gaze to the Hyuuga beside him. Hinata would have to be literally blind to miss the sheer smug satisfaction on the blonde's face right now. To say he was proud of himself would be an understatement. And truly, she couldn't say she didn't feel at least a little of that same pleasure. It was relieving to know that, come what may, Naruto would make sure to keep her his. If she had anything to say about it, she'd make sure he did!

"I-I'll be honest, I was kind of scared for a minute. I thought they might blow up in your face," she shyly admitted, rubbing her fingers together at the nerve-wracking memory still fresh in her mind.

"Well, if you're going to put two bombs in a room, you at least need to make sure yours goes off first, right?" Naruto gave a smile, clearly proud of himself.

Being able to finally stick it to the man and get his real feelings off his chest really felt like he'd been lightened by half a ton. He'd almost been tempted to skip out of her family's residence, had his pride (to say nothing of his dignity) not wisely dictated otherwise.

"Honestly, though," he began again, his tone bearing a hint of somberness, "I'm worried how they might respond. I mean, we both know they'll try something. It's just a matter of when and what."

Hinata contemplated it for a moment before shaking her head. "N-No point in dwelling on it f-for now," she said meekly, smiling lightly. "How about we go and get some ramen? You always like ramen to celebrate, don't you?"

From the way Naruto's once-serious expression turned stupid-goofy and sparkly-eyed, she'd have thought she'd just suggested a trip to the Holy Land of foods. Well, reflecting on it….

"Really?! Aw man, you're, like, the best girlfriend ever!" She blushed at his praise as he pumped his fist in the air victoriously. "Alright! Let's get to-"

Whatever the boy had been about to say died beneath the startling crash of air that hit them. The blast was followed by a loud boom that got the attention of nearly everyone in the street.

"The hell was that?" Naruto exclaimed mildly, turning to his girlfriend. "Well, Hinata?"

Without needing the prompt, she brought her Byakugan to life, examining the area several streets away. After a war with the Sand, however mistaken it might have been, there was no guarantee other nations wouldn't take advantage of their weakened position. And even if they were just kids, it became exceedingly clear during the post-exam chaos that they weren't just children; they were soldiers of Konoha.

Hinata's eyes narrowed as she sifted through the scene. There was damage everywhere. It wasn't an accident that was for sure. There was residual chakra in the air, and strangely, it looked awfully, familiar; she'd seen it enough after all.

"I-Its Sasuke!" she cried in alarm as she instantly tried to find him.

"What?!" Naruto asked, his eyes wide in concern.

He wasn't in the explosion, thank God, but what worried Hinata was that he may have been caught up in it, or worse, created it. Finally her vision focused on the speedy, fleeting tail of her black clad teammate as he dashed madly through the streets.

"H-He's running! He… H-He's…!" She couldn't voice it; the look on his face was one she'd never seen before.

"C'mon then, after him!"

Hinata almost started as Naruto leapt into action, clambering onto the roof of the nearest building and dashing across its tiles before leaping to the next. She quickly followed.

"N-Naruto, wait up!"

She quickly reached him keeping her focus on Sasuke as he too made his way to the roofline, his attention intensely focused on… something.

"I've n-never s-seen him like this before," she stated worriedly. But then the thought dawned on her. She had seen him like this once before. The look on his face, the aura he was exuding, the way his body moved ever so subtly different than normal…

'Just like in the Forest of Death,' she realized, 'Just like when he fought Naruto.'

The violet chakra she only vaguely remembered was absent, but it did little to comfort her as he bolted ahead.

After his display of speed during the Chunin exams, she'd thought his speed was quite impressive, but now, as she watched him, she realized just how much Sasuke hadn't shown at the time; if he ever felt like he'd been late in his life, it certainly looked like he was going to try to make up for every lost second. But the real question was, "What on Earth's gotten into him?!" as Naruto so aptly voiced a moment later.

Thankfully, he wasn't looking for a real answer; she certainly didn't have one for him. She was trying to catch some sort of glimpse of his target, but whoever, or whatever he was chasing eluded her vision.

But something had triggered Sasuke, and as his friends, they were determined to find out what it was.

The small man rushed through the streets, moving just fast enough to outpace his pursuer. He had anticipated this very event, but he hadn't expected it to happen like this. Just behind him was his larger counterpart, cloaked as he was.

"This doesn't seem to be going all that smoothly," his partner began. "We were supposed to acquire the target first." Any noise they made after that would be excused. The objective was all that mattered.

"I'm aware," the smaller man acknowledged. "Complications do happen."

"On that topic," the large one continued, taking a deft glance behind him, "that kid looked awfully similar to you…"

Whether he suspected or already knew, the small man didn't know, but there was no point in keeping his partner in the dark. "That boy is…" he paused, many memories flowing through his mind of the child he'd grown up with years ago. "…Uchiha Sasuke…"

The big man looked at him in shock.

"…My little brother."

The large man seemed to grow a grin that showed shark-like teeth beneath his blue lips. "Hoho, so that's the lone survivor of your old clan! What an interesting pinch we've gotten ourselves into. Now I see why he flew into a rage the second he saw us. I imagine he's not too fond of you, Itachi," he said with a chuckle in his voice.

Itachi gave a short look backwards, dryly remarking to his companion as he did so, "Obviously." But that said, they now were going to have a much harder time accomplishing their mission. There were only a handful of people in the village who would even recognize him, and they'd just had the misfortune of running into he who had the greatest chance of doing so. At the very least, Itachi was somewhat grateful he hadn't been forgotten. That would have been a little offensive.

"So, what do we do now? This is quite the merry little chase, but if we keep this up…"

"I know," Itachi nodded. "We'll move out of the municipal zones and into the suburbs. We should be able to confront him in isolation there."

"Sounds like a plan to me. I'm not one for all this sneaking around anyway."

Itachi made a knowing sound in the back of his throat and continued on in silence. It was too early for their reunion, but it was unavoidable. There was no avoiding it now.

Lightning danced across his skin as he held the bolt in his hand. The light it cast flashed across the face of his opponent. So many thoughts rushed through his head as he stared, eye to eye with his family's murderer. But there was only one emotion. Rage.

With a flicker of movement, they slipped by each other, Itachi proving to be more slippery than anticipated. Without wasting a single second, Sasuke whirled, his electrified hand swinging in an arc even as he tried to decapitate his brother.

Itachi leapt back, one hand reaching out to grapple his younger sibling, only to be made painfully aware of the blade in his other hand. A kunai quietly slipped from his sleeve and impacted the sword with a clang. For a moment, he wondered if Sasuke might have progressed beyond his expectations, but the sloppiness of his retaliatory attacks made it blatantly obvious there was no thought put into his moves; no form. Sasuke was running on pure adrenaline and fury.

Pushing off the ground, he leapt over a large sweeping swing, one of his hands reaching out and snagging his brother's head. With a twist, he attempted to snap Sasuke's neck. No luck, as Sasuke turned with him, his crackling, energy filled hand a dangerous appendage to be near.

This would go nowhere. He leapt away, putting some significant space between them.

Sasuke seethed as he glared into the eyes of his most hated relative. "Uchiha Itachi…!" he growled through clenched teeth. "I've spent my whole life hating you, just like you said," he said with disdain on his breath. "Now here I am; now here you are… I'll kill you, you bastard."

Itachi didn't even blink.


The cry echoed in the wind as the young Uchiha rushed forward, all his weapons to bear, his incomplete Sharingan blazing into the crimson orbs of his brother's mature kekkei genkai.

The next instant, the whole world seemed to turn upside down and an intense pain shot from Sasuke's… everywhere. Before he could even react, his throat was caught and the air crushed from his lungs.

Itachi stood as impassively as he always did, eyeing his younger brother. "After all this time, this is all you amount to…" he began, eyeing his brother up and down. He'd progressed, but to only reach this far was… disappointing. "I expected… more," the Uchiha stated harshly, staring down at his sibling. "Your so-called hate is… weak."

And then it began. That eye… that damnable eye! For only a moment, an infinite moment, Sasuke saw that eye, and then all was and ceased to be. He blindly saw what he hated to love, and loved to hate.

The gap was too great. Why? For what reason had he been training this entire time? For what reason had he even lived if he couldn't exact vengeance on his family's killer?

'You… scum…!'

And with that, he disappeared.

Itachi sighed as his brother's body went limp. He let his still form to the ground, the gentle crunch of leaves the only sound besides the wind as he did so.

…Except his partner.

"Oh? The Tsukuyomi, huh? What a rare sight. It's been some time since I've been privileged to see it."

Itachi kneeled down, staring into the unconscious face of his brother, remaining silent. He was so young… There was still so much more potential in him.

"Although, why didn't you just kill him? You killed the rest of your family after all."

"I left him alive on purpose, both then and now. As my little brother, I have high hopes he'll grow into a strong man…" His Sharingan blazed as he glanced back at his partner, "…and one day I'll truly be able to measure my strength."

His partner grinned, eyes crinkling in humor. "Ho? Well, I suppose for someone like you, Itachi-san, this world doesn't provide many rivals."

Before another word could be spoken, both figures leapt away, the fainting whining in the background they'd almost missed growing louder until it culminated in a series of explosions rocketing around the area.

They landed some meters away. "Looks like we've been found out again, Itachi-san," his partner said with a smile.

"Yeah," the Uchiha agreed quietly, his sharp eyes piercing through the smoke. "It seems so."

As the dust cleared, Itachi's eyes almost widened at what he saw. It was a young man. No older than Sasuke, likely. His sun-kissed hair shifted in the breeze as he stepped forward. Most strikingly, however…

'Those eyes…!' He knew of only one person with those same eyes. Just one. But, the description fit… "Are you… Uzumaki Naruto?"

The boy's eyes narrowed, their rings contracting dangerously. "I'm the guy who's gonna put you six feet under."

Itachi's eyes also narrowed. "I see… Then it seems our search is at an end. Uzumaki Naruto…" He took a step forward, pointedly eyeing him carefully. "You'll be coming with us."

Naruto scowled at his opponent, his mind a whirlwind of questions. Though he didn't show it, he was in a stunned stupor. The man in front of him looked so much like Sasuke it wasn't even funny, and even had the Sharingan to boot! Not to mention this guy knew his name.

He eyed his friend's unconscious body behind him before returning his gaze to the man in front of him. With a series of cracks, his finger joints popped as he flexed them, his hands splitting, segmenting and transforming.

Naruto felt his chakra drain as he prepared his new form. It was obvious from the way the man in front of him stood; he was no pushover. His Rinnegan could see the meridian chakra flow through his body, calm, collected, and tempered to a dangerous point. 'The chakra of an Uchiha other than Sasuke… I can feel the goose bumps already, but…' He couldn't afford to back down now. He needed to wait until Hinata extracted Sasuke before he could even think of retreating.

But that meant he'd have to use everything he had to hold these two off. His mechanized form still didn't have a name, though if he'd have to come up with one on the spot, he'd call it the Eat-Your-Chakra-Like-A-Bitch no Jutsu. He was changing the molecular composition of his body after all. And even then, he wasn't entirely sure how he was doing it; it was just a natural instinct. Even so, he had at least a rough, rudimentary control of it.

'These two are dangerous… and serious. No time to hold back now.'

If the man in front of him was surprised by the change in his body, he didn't show it. Instead, he took a few steps forward, calmly staring his younger prey down. "It's fine if you don't respond. Either way, like I said," he began, his crimson eyes coolly focused on one target, "you'll be coming with us."

"Heh, bite m-!" Without warning or courtesy, the man lunged forward with speed Naruto had scarce seen before. So fast was he in fact, that Naruto barely had enough time to raise a pseudo-metallic limb to block the kunai that nearly stabbed him in the lung. "That wasn't a request."

Naruto grimaced with strain as he fought to keep the man from pushing forward into his chest. He was strong, despite his lean build, however occluded it may have been by the cloak he wore. With a thought, the hand that held the stranger split in two, the new arm revolving into a cylinder, which promptly glowed. It instantly lit up with chakra infused light. The next moment, both of them were showered in pressure and debris as the blast went off point blank.

But Naruto wasn't going to give his opponent time to think. Without hesitation he, the real him, moved in, his clone having done its job, perishing in its attack. The man should have been injured enough to leave an opening he could exploit.

What Naruto hadn't expected however, was for the man to leap out of the smoke directly at him. Grimacing, Naruto made to fuse his hands into blades, only to realize, abruptly, that this was no man. It was a clone.

In a flash of light and sound, the air ripped apart with exploding force as the clone burst in Naruto's face. As the smoke cleared, Naruto's barely conscious body flew away from the smoke, tumbling across the ground painfully before finally coming to a stop a dozen meters away. To his credit, he rolled to his feet, brushing the blood from his lips with the back of his hand, dirt and boiled flesh coloring his skin variously.

The Uzumaki glared at the pair of Sharingan across the way, now standing well away from the explosion, as casually as if it hadn't even happened.

"Did you think you were the only one who could use shadow clones?" the man asked rhetorically.

Naruto gritted his teeth as he pushed himself to his feet.

"Or did you think your smoke screen would actually work?"

Naruto eyes widened as he heard the words spoken from behind him and whirled. There, clutched in the arms of another clone struggled Hinata, her neck pinned against the man's chest with his forearm.

"You bastard…!" he growled dangerously, turning to face the clone.

"This is an explosion clone. I wouldn't make any unnecessary movements if I were you."

Naruto's displeasure was evident as Hinata tried to pry his arm off of her. "That includes you too, little one. You may be a Hyuuga, but even you can't dispel an exploding clone without setting it off. And at this range, you'd also hit that boy over there," he said cocking his head at the immobile Sasuke on the ground only a few feet away.

"I have no wish to harm either of you. But my demand stands. I will only say it once more…" the original (or what Naruto presumed was the original) said with a pointed finger. "Uzumaki Naruto, you'll be coming with us."

Naruto ground his teeth painfully as he tried to think of a solution. His original plan had just been to distract the two interlopers, have Hinata grab Sasuke and then bolt. He hadn't expected to be seen through so easily. This other Sharingan user… Sasuke was good, but this guy was something else entirely. His ability to see through strategies and counter them was their undoing. 'Damn that Sharingan prowess! Damn me for not making observation clones before we ran in!'

"Now, decide."

Sweat slid down his cheek as he glowered at his opponent. This was a lose-lose situation no matter how he mentally sliced it. 'Shit! Think. Think! There has to be some way I can work this!'

Suddenly a familiar presence seemed to waft over him, and his eyes narrowed seriously as he stood up from his crouch. He would only have one shot at this.

"Will you let them go if I do?"

"Naruto d-don't!" Hinata cried as she tried to pry herself away.

The man's expression seemed set in stone. "Not immediately. But yes. Unharmed."

For several long seconds Naruto didn't speak. But finally, after what felt like an eternity, he complied. "…Fine. Not like your leaving me any fucking options. But I do have one stipulation."

The man raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"

Immediately, Naruto's frown turned into a grin. "Look up."

No sooner had Itachi's eyes widened in surprise and turned upwards than a flash of brown whipped across his vision, splitting and shifting like tendrils of earthen shadow. All too quickly, it collapsed on and smothered the Hyuuga girl, along with his volatile doppelganger. Almost immediately, it burst, sending a shower of fire and dust in all directions. But Itachi's eyes did not see any flesh amidst it all. The girl was not there.

His eyes shifted, noticing for the first time the shadow of a small form emerging from the tree line beside the walkway. It was a small boy, even shorter than the blonde. His head was a deep, burning red and his teal eyes were ringed with darkness and distaste.

A small bubble of sand rose from the ground beside Naruto, collapsing as soon as it appeared, revealing Hinata, safe and sound, coughing for air as she was deposited safely beside the Jinchuuriki.

Itachi returned his gaze to the small boy. His arms were crossed firmly, his fingers tightened around his biceps. But it was not not fear, trepidation, or even anger that reflected in his pale green eyes.

"Oh my, it looks like we have an interloper. And a passive aggressive one at that," the large one observed with a smile, his blue skinned head turning to the newcomer.

"I thought that was you coming, Gaara," Naruto said, a bit more relief in his voice than he'd intended to put. He hadn't expected the boy to appear at all.

Gaara didn't even respond, unless you counted his sand coiling around him and surging forth like bouncing waves a response. Both cloaked men leapt away, but if they'd thought the deceptively small creature only intended to force some distance them, they were quickly proven wrong. Without so much as a glance, the sand turned and slithered like snakes after their prey.

Itachi weaved between them, even as more tendrils of earth split off from the main bodies to stab or wrap around him. But they wouldn't be fast enough to catch him; not by a long shot. Even his partner Kisame wouldn't be bothered by streams of chakra infused sand, for obvious reasons; the man was a monster in his own right after all.

Finally the assault subsided, the pursuing sand crashing to a halt and slinking tauntingly back to the gourd container on the boy's back. Itachi's eyes narrowed. So there was a limited amount after all.

"Red hair, dark circles around your eyes, gourd of sand on your back… You're without a doubt Sabaku no Gaara."

The Uchiha's assessment only caused the red-head's eyes to swivel his way, the two making eye contact for the first time. "You know my name. So what?" Gaara's stare intensified. "You'll die all the same."

"I think you'd be surprised," the man countered calmly. "Even if you join this fight, you aren't capable of competing with the two of us; taijutsu, ninjutsu, genjutsu. You are inferior in every category. Regardless of that, we have no interest in you at this time." His arm shifted slightly for emphasis. "Step aside."

"Laughable," Gaara remarked in ironic stoicism. "You couldn't move me if you tried."

A sigh escaped the man's throat. "Then it seems force will be required." He turned his eyes behind him. "Kisame."

The large man, Kisame, stepped forward, hefting the giant, wrapped… thing over his shoulder. "With pleasure."

Crouching briefly, the giant launched himself forward, the cudgel coming around at such an arc as to, if not stopped, slam all in one great cleave. Without so much as a twitch from the red head, a wall of sand rose like a geyser in front of him, barricading the man's attack vector.

"Hurragh!" With a cry, he brought his weapon to bear, crashing it against the impeding wall, the impact sending a visible ripple through the structure. Although the bandaged thing didn't seem to have a blade, impressively, it managed to sink a good half a foot into the sand before stopping solidly.

If Kisame seemed disheartened by his failure, his grin confirmed the opposite. Almost immediately, the sand began to shift and slide down to the ground, contrary to Gaara's will. The weapon slide further into the wall.

The Jinchuuriki's eyes narrowed, but showed no signs of resignation or fear. With a swipe almost too fast for someone of his physique, his arm lashed out at the giant. Almost immediately, dozens of large spikes shot out of the wall, intent of spearing the man on the other side.

He quickly abandoned his assault, ripping his weapon free of the clutching sand and side stepping to find a new angle of attack.

But Gaara would have none of that. With a mental command, the ground beneath their feet buckled suddenly, rising and shifting as the concrete slabs beneath them ruptured. Kisame had to fight to keep his balance as the rectangles beneath him moved erratically. With a grin and a grunt, he jumped, pulling away from the violently tumultuous ground. But Gaara's intention hadn't been to just reshape the sidewalk. From within the creases of the slabs shot thin, knife-like blades of sand, rising unperceptively fast to lance the robed man above.

"I told you," The boy muttered darkly beneath the shadow of his sand. "You'll die all the same."

But the larger man had other ideas. With a grimace (and surprising swiftness) he tucked his weapon beneath his arm and brought his hands together. "Suiton, Suikōdan no Jutsu!"

No sooner had the water begun to churn than the many, now airborne concrete slabs stopped still for a moment before careening toward the fish-man.

"Hado no Gojūnana, Daichi Tenyō!"

A swift, deceptively fast flourish shattered them all, sending the debris flying like shrapnel in every direction. Gaara's sand interposed itself between himself and the flying chunks of stone, also covering Naruto, the blonde's hands outstretched and breathing from exertion. Itachi spun away, dodging with a deft ease that would have made Sasuke jealous, were he conscious.

"So the reports were true; he uses strange jutsu." In truth, Itachi knew they were not ninjutsu. Though he could see the chakra radiating off of the boy, an extended, clenched fist pointing in the Akatsuki's direction, he saw no change in its nature. Though there was a flicker of something...

'Uzumaki Naruto... Where did you learn these things?' No ordinary genin, even if he were the Kyūbi Jinchuriki, could possibly have learned or developed these techniques on his own. Mystical techniques, enigmatic doujutsu that surely wasn't inherited, strange body modifications, rough sword-play, but refined enough to show practice... Something was amiss. These were not Kakashi's techniques, nor the Third's either. He knew of no jounin capable of such feats. Not in Konoha's ranks.

Sand raged wildly as Kisame fought to escape its whirling mayhem. It was probably time Itachi intervened. In a blur, he vanished, reappearing behind the blonde. Even if Gaara's sand would react regardless of the boy's will, Naruto has no such convenient defense. Pulling out a single senbon from his sleeve, he weaved it between his fingers and slammed it into the boy's neck. Laced with enough tranquilizers to cripple a full grown ox, Naruto reeled, stumbling as he tried to regain his balance.


He turned in time to sidestep the Hyuuga girl's sword as she stabbed for his belly. Stepping again, he avoided a diagonal slash for his chest. A deft toss of a kunai was blocked by her blade, and he saw the trademark bulging eyes of the Byakugan boring into him. Ah right, that pesky vision of theirs. It had been some time since he'd encountered it. His Sharingan stared back icily. Behind her, Naruto was tripping over himself trying to stand upright, but failing. Although he'd already pulled the offending object from his neck, the toxin was already working its way through his system. He collapsed to his hands and knees, a bleary, hazy look in his eyes as he fell on his face, his movements slowing to a stop.

"Naruto!" the girl shouted without turning her head.

Gaara's eyes shifted from Kisame in front to Itachi behind him. The sand roiled about, chaotically, moving here and there, disorientation being the red head's probable goal. Itachi watched with careful eyes as the sand seemed to focus on him, even as it battled against Kisame beyond. 'Seamlessly changing from defense to offense, and a keen multitasking mind. He was right; the amount of tails means very little.' And the way the girl fought, twisting and slashing with one hand while shoving her palms at him intermittently, it was like she were mixing two different styles, which made sense considering... He'd never known a Hyuuga to use anything but their taijutsu in battle. This girl must either be very bad at Jūken, or she was very new to sword fighting. Either way, while obviously practiced, she was a far cry from anything solid. Given time, she might make something out of it. Though time was the key word.

He would give her no more than this.

Sliding into one of her attacks, he raised his elbow, catching her chin and knocking her head back, immediately her stance fell apart, her body recoiling up and backwards, while her feet remained in place. Twisting around, he stabbed his foot out into her gut. She flew several meters before actually making contact with the ground again, landing decidedly near the sand wielder.

"Hehe, these children aren't half bad, being children after all," Kisame praised, resting his weapon on his shoulder. "But I'd say recess is about over. Wouldn't you, Itachi-san?"

The Uchiha's eyes hardened affirmatively. "Indeed." He stepped forward. "It's time they've had their nap." Chakra surged to his eyes, his Sharingan glowing with energy as he worked his doujutsu's infamous magic. It was fortunate that the girl was such a young one. Were she older, her Byakugan might have been mature enough to pierce his genjutsu, or at least she might have had the sense to avert her gaze, enhanced or otherwise. As it was, she instantly fell prey to it, her body freezing and falling to the ground in a heap. Gaara, for his part turned to regard his suddenly unconscious peer. That was his mistake.

Itachi blinked. "This is..."

All around him was desert. Not the sandy, course desert he might have expected from the mind of a denizen of Sunagakure, but a dry, hard desert, with cracked earth and dead sky. This was not a place that consumed life; it was a place where life had once existed, and then died. Save the single, gargantuan figure in front of him.

"Huh? What the hell? Get outta here you punk! Who the hell said you could pay me a visit, huh?!"

Itachi raised an idle brow as he processed the creature's words. "I see. So this is the Shukaku. It's bigger than I thought." He regarded the monster thoughtfully even as he railed against his presence.

"The hell are you muttering about? Get the fuck outta here puny human! I'll crush the shit out of you!"

It became evident why the boy was so feared even in his own village. Even perceiving the seals attached to the Ichibi's body, though he was far from even proficient with the sealing arts, revealed the inherent danger in their structure. "Curious. It's a wonder the boy can even sleep with you railing about in here." He idly commented, not expecting a response.

He got one regardless. "Eh? Sleep? I wish! The seal's designed to give me control the instant that little shit dozes off! Hahahaha! You better be careful where you aim those damn eyes of yours, human!"

Itachi raised his other brow. "Oh, I see. That simplifies things," he announced, realizing the beast's intent. He likely wanted Itachi to free him; to put Gaara to sleep with a genjutsu. But Itachi wasn't known as a master of genjutsu, even among his own clan, for nothing. "Since you seem so concerned for my well being, allow me to ease your fears." His Sharingan wheeled in their sockets. "I'll simply hypnotize your host. Freeze him in place... along with you."

"Hahaha- Wait, what?! Don't you dare you mother f-!"

But it was already too late.

The boy stood there, eyes wide, unblinking, his gaze distant and empty. The sand has calmed to meridian movements, circling his body dangerously, though also quietly. Without draining the boy's chakra completely, the sand would likely continue to misbehave even if the child himself were unaware of it. If they were ambitious, they could try to take both Jinchuuriki alive, fulfilling both of their tailed beast quotas in a single stroke. Kisame was probably thinking the same thing. However, as proficient as Kisame might be at draining chakra, it would take time, and time was not on their side.

"Leave the red one. We take Uzumaki Naruto alone."

Kisame lifted his weapon to rest on his shoulder, huffing in annoyance that he'd have to pass up such an opportunity, but didn't press his partner. "Pity. I've been needing to shake the rust off of Samehada for some time."

Itachi gave his partner a quizzical look.

"...So to speak."

The Uchiha brushed off the missing ninja's humor and grabbed the Uzuamki below him, lifting him over his shoulder. The boy was still conscious, though the most he could bring himself to do was part his twitching lips.

Reaching up, he closed his eyes, frozen open as they were. "Kyūbi acquired. Let's get a move on," he ordered turning to leave. "We've wasted enough time already."

Kisame gave a short nod and followed after, stepping past and over both immobile children. They didn't make it twelve paces before a single figure interposed himself into their path. Itach stopped and eyed the man. His uniform revealed him to be of the general Konoha military, the green vest indicating his rank as chunin, or even higher. He wore his headband around his neck.

"Look't what we got 'ere..." the man hummed smoothly, his upturned lips and squinting eyes implicating amusement. His expression didn't change, even as Itachi scrutinized him. "Sorry, but I'm gonna have ta ask ya to put my kid down."

Itachi blinked in confusion before another presence touched the fringe of his senses. Turned the other way, he saw a woman. She wore a loose black shirt, her combat vest unzipped to reveal her ample bosom. Her headband was pinned to her left shoulder. She was angled with her right side toward them, a sword in hand and readied. On her face was a fierce countenance. "I'd do as he says if I were you," she warned, a minuscule twitch tugging at her lips.

Itachi returned his gaze to the man before him, and nagging sensation that accompanied him. The man shouldn't be smiling.

It had been many years since Itachi had last walked the dirt and stone streets of Konoha, back when he was a captain in the ANBU black operations division. As an ANBU agent, it was his job to be aware of many different aspects of the village. One of those aspects were the trusted and capable members of the military. Although the ANBU fielded the best of the best when it came to soldiers, not everyone was cut out for a life of constant subterfuge. Among the general army were exceptional men and women who quite easily could have been great boons to the assassination unit. Itachi was also aware of many of the rising stars of the junior corps like Hatake Kakashi who'd served alongside him in the ANBU, and Sarutobi Asuma who would go on to serve as one of the Daimyo's Twelve Guardians.

More to the point, every team captain, that is, chunin, were given an up-to-date bingo book for them to keep. In every bingo book were listed hundreds of the worst kind of criminals and dangerous soldiers from all villages. Every village had their own version of it featuring their own high priority targets. But while the bingo book was widely believed to be a list of potential military bounties, it was better known in the military as a warning; chunin were expected to study it on their own time, learning the faces, names, and whatever relevant information they could find to utilize in avoiding the listed individuals. Chunin of average stock couldn't even begin to come close to matching even the lowest ranked target in a bingo book, and so tended to learn to look out for them.

Itachi knew for a fact that his face was smack dab on the front of every Konoha bingo book printed in the last half decade. Everyone who had a bingo book knew just how dangerous he was, and just how important it was to either avoid him. Or at least have the sense to coordinate some form of assault with others. Men of Itachi's ilk were almost always marked to be left alone, save for special missions issued to ANBU units.

This man was either very brave, or very, very stupid.

However, Itachi could tell, even without the need of the Sharingan. He was dangerous.

But there was another point of interest. 'My kid?' The Uchiha knew for a fact, a secret most were silenced forever for knowing. Uzumaki Naruto's parentage. This man was certainly not his father. Itachi narrowed his eyes at the man first, then regarded the woman. Adopted parents then...?

It would explain why they were the first to arrive, ahead of even the ever watchful barrier corps.

"And if I refuse?" he queried, not the slightest intention of releasing his prize. His Sharingan peered at the man dangerously. Itachi could count on one hand, by name, the individuals who had the power to fight him toe-to-toe. This man wasn't one of them.

The man's grin didn't falter in the slightest, nor did his blank, bemused expression. Instead, he reached into one of his elongated sleeves and withdrew a short blade. "Well...Don' say I didn't ask nicely."

In a blink, the man was gone. A white flash of steel shone across his vision as a blade pierced straight through his chest from...behind?

His head turned shakily to look behind him, noting how the man had taken care to avoid hitting the blonde boy slung over his shoulder. "D-... Did you-..."

The man's eyes widened when the body he'd just impaled vanished, like blackened mist.

"...Did you really think I couldn't follow your movements?"

The silver haired man whirled, meeting a speeding white-clothed weapon, and being thrown clear of either cloaked criminal.

Gin twisted in the air, landing on the water that flowed beside the stone street. That was... unexpected. The blue haired man hadn't been there a moment before, and he was certain he'd felt Shinso shish-kebab the dark haired one. There was a certain sensation when one's blade met flesh and muscle, the sickening, satisfying feeling... He felt it clearly for a moment, but yet...

It wasn't an afterimage. Fast as they might be, Gin had yet to meet a single human who could keep up with a Shinigami. 'Well, Kurosaki Ichigo is the exception I suppose,' he thought to himself. In this world however, no such human had presented itself. This wasn't a matter of speed. The demon arts were usually straightforward in how they worked, either binding, sealing, or dealing damage in varying manners and degrees of efficacy. Ninjutsu, genjutsu... these "ninja arts" were still a mystery to him; their applications seemed to be limitless, which concerned him. Whatever that mist was, it was enough to deceive even him, a [former] captain. Besides Zabuza who'd been more of a swordsman than a ninjutsu user, Gin hadn't actually fought with this world's shinobi. And if his gut had anything to say about it, men like Zabuza were just the tip of the... Oh, what were those things in the human world? Those giant mountains of floating ice? Bah, he'd remember later.

He let his thoughts focus on the men in front of him. Uniformally cloaked; part of an organization? Armed, certainly. One with a great cudgel and the other with only his fists, as far as he could tell. But he knew shinobi to use a plethora of weapons hidden up their sleeves. In either case, armed or armored, they stood between him and his son.

"Well, I seen what Sasuke c'n do with his Sharingan. Kinda curious what you can do with yer's," he taunted carefully as he readied himself.

"I see." The raven haired man seemed to regard him quietly for a moment before speaking.

"Then this must be the 'other' we were told about, eh Itatchi-san?" spoke the giant blue man. "What was it? Hatake Kakashi and..." he trailed off, searching for a name somewhere ion his mind and coming up short. "Well, this guy, in any case."

"Ichimaru Gin." The Uchiha spoke without an ounce of forgetfulness, now aware of who he was actually facing.

The blue man's eyes sparked in recognition. "Ah right! The stranger from nowhere who we know nothing about. What are the odds of that?" His tone spoke volumes of their lackadaisical suspicion. Their information gathering skills were good, better than most to the point they should have known more about him... had he been any ordinary man.

Gin grinned playfully. "Well, y'know how much I like m' privacy." His grin didn't falter even slightly as he regarded the woman across the path.

"Rangiku," he began seriously, "these two're gonna be a handful. Y'prolly don' wanna hold back."

The strawberry blonde nodded forcefully at the hint, her eyes steeling as she readied herself. "Understood, captain. Dibs on the handsome one?"

Gin let loose a humored laugh. "Sorry love..." He blasted forward. "The little one's mine!"

With a blur of steel and sparks, both men met in a tremendous clash, tit met for tat as Gin sought to drive his enemy back, only to be met with efficient counters and ripostes, attacks pinpointing his weakest moments and movements. No attack could land, and no defense could crumble. For the few seconds they railed against each other, their gazes met frequently, realization dawning to both men. Neither were as weak as they were presumed to be.

Gin slashed wildly, his swift strikes met by small knives impossibly capable of competing with his Zanpakuto, the measured look in the Uchiha's eyes indicative of his cold-headed countenance; his analytical nature; his adaptive strength.

A flash of movement beyond Gin's vision threw him painfully into the river beside them, only for him to skip across the water onto his feet, where he zipped side to side, sending pressure waves of force either way as he surged back at the raven haired man. But as soon as he was within range, his vision doubled, along with the amount of blades intent on skewing him as he approached. A quick decision brought a flash of gold energy into an outstretched hand, a shield of reiryoku bursting to life, large enough to block either blade, illusion or not.

"Bakudō no Sanjūkyū, Enkōsen!"

If his opponent seemed surprised by the move, he didn't show it. With a clean movement, he spun around the impromptu battering ram aiming to slam his blade into the Konoha soldier as he passed by.

"Unare, Haineko!"

Itachi's eyes widened as the dust-like substance whirled around him, his visual prowess revealing the imminent danger he was in.

Emphasis on "was."

"Suiton, Suijinheki."

A torrent of water burst from beneath him like a geyser, infused with chakra and shielding him from the harmful soot swirling around him. But a familiar clenching of his gut gave him pause to his safety. Then he heard why.

"Ikorose, Shinso."

Like a beam of light, the steel blade pierced through his watery wall like a knife through paper. He quickly brought up his kunai knife to block the attack. All too late.

The weapon struck true, stabbing straight through his heart. His eyes were wide as he peered through the broken defenses at the man on the other end of the blade lodged inside him.

Gin grinned ever so slightly wider and he beheld his handiwork. "One down."

"Keep your eyes on your opponent why don't you?!"

Gin backed with a start as the body of the Uchiha warped, swirling into water and coalescing into another, larger form; the giant of a man with the giant of a weapon. He quickly retracted his weapon to block the great, over-headed strike which drove him, shockingly, to his knees, the concrete beneath him buckling 'neath the raw power the blue man wielded.

Additional steps brought his attention to the duo of identical looking blue men from either side, their weapons brought overhead to hammer down on his already occupied guard. The entire area crumbled into rubble as debris exploded into the air.

"Gin!" Rangiku called out, feeling her lover's reiatsu fluctuate in her sense.

"You should listen to my companion."

She blinked as the large man in front of her spoke, only not with his own voice. Her eyes widened as she stared into his crimson, pinwheeling eyes. "W-what...?!"

His form, along with everything in her vision, melted into a red and black world that wrapped around her, an instant wave of vertigo and nausea sending her tumbling to her knees.

The large man faded away revealing the elder Uchiha who should have been fighting the former captain. He looked down on her calmly. "A superior fighter doesn't let his opponent choose when, where, or who they fight."

Rangiku snarled as keeled over and vomited violently, her head pounding in agony from the unnatural geometry of the illusionary world she was forced to behold.

"Now," the man continued, his eyes burning brighter than the red world around her. "Sleep."

Gin backed away swiftly, putting considerable distance between himself and the dissipating clones beyond. He cursed inwardly as he settled back into a suitable stance. As experienced as he was, he was familiar with the demon arts, not the shinobi arts. He knew very little about ninjutsu and even less about genjutsu. He hadn't had any difficulty fighting against the Sand and Sound soldiers that he'd come across during the chunin exams debacle, and perhaps he'd let some of that ease settle him into a sense of false capability.

These two were grunts, and he knew that. But he hadn't expected such a swift and storming reversal; not only had the two men swapped positions at some point during the fight, maintaining their deception with an illusion (he supposed safely), but they'd also done so without so much as a signal or sign of having done so. Not to mention their skill with their jutsu.

All shinobi had to weave the appropriate hand signs to cast a jutsu, much like how a Shinigami had to speak the words of the spell they wished to cast. However, it seemed that, much like a kido incantation, the more proficient you were with a particular ninjutsu, the less signs you needed to weave, and as far as the actual weaving of said signs, these two men were too fast to either see or counter. It was no doubt how they managed to conjure their walls of water, hydro-clones, and cast their illusions.

No, these certainly weren't grunts. These were specialists; the cream of the professional crop if Gin had to wager.

Even with his speed, his strength, and his Zanpakuto, he'd been heartily pressed back. At least with Zabuza he'd been able to fight on par with for a short time, although neither had been especially serious at the time. Speaking of which...

That blue man's weapon. In a single exchange, he'd met that weapon with his three times, one on top of the other as they sought to crush him beneath a compounded triple-strike. And the sensation that seeped into his very core felt eerily familiar, just like it had with Zabuza.

"Y'know," Gin began as the dust settled around him. "I've heard stories of a group o' 'ticularly skilled guys from Kirigakure. What'd y' call yerselves again?"

"Ohh?" came the lightly amused voice from the dissipating cloud of dust in front of him. Out emerged the large man, weapon slung over his shoulder, much like how a certain orange haired kid had tended to do back in the day... "So you recognized one of the Mist's Seven Swordsmen? I'd say I'm honored, but you can imagine how that might cause problems for me in the long run."

"Well, not you person'lly, but the sens'tion o' crossin' swords with one... I'll nev'r ferget that."

Kisame seemed to regard that statement for a few seconds before his eyes widened in realization. "Don't tell me..." His grin spread excitedly. "I'd heard little Zabuza got done in some time back. Don't tell me you were the one who did the deed."

Gin gave a short laugh. "A'right, I won't then."

But in reality, Gin's grinning façade was a simple cover, as it almost always was. But this time, the thoughts that ran through his head so many weeks ago were coming back to trouble him. The odds of a human possessing a Zanpakuto was slim to none, especially with no outside spiritual influence, but the fact that Zabuza not only possessed, but also was capable of wielding one to great effect broke many a Shinigami law.

"Outside the Seven Swordsmen, I've never seen a sword with its own ability."

Zabuza's words echoed in his mind as he looked at the large man's weapon with analytical scrutiny. 'Another member of the Seven Swordsmen, with a weapon that feels the same as Kubikiribōchō…' Ever since he realized the connection between Kubikiribōchō and the nagging, familiar sensation he felt everytime he crossed blades with it, that being its identity as a Zanpakuto, Gin had done some serious consideration of the physical/spiritual laws he knew to be true. Only spiritual beings could possess a Zanpakuto; humans weren't capable of spontaneously developing one. The certain orange haired young man was a notable exception only by way of his father's (former) Shinigami blood.

As far as he was concerned, a single human possessing a Zanpakuto in this world was pure chance. Two humans possessing a Zanpakuto in this world, and being from the same region was coincidence. But if by some twist of fate all Seven Swordsmen each possessed a unique Zanpakuto… that went beyond reasonable doubt.

But then, chakra, as far as he understood I, was one partly spiritual, but diluted with physical energy. Being humans, they could never harness the same level of spiritual prowess a Shinigami could, so the conversion physical energy along with spiritual energy made up for their lack of potency. Ordinarily it took decades for the average Shinigami to evolve their Asauchi into full-fledged Zanpakuto. For an ordinary human it would take likely twice as long. Meaning both this man and Zabuza would have to be at least fifty, maybe sixty years old. Obviously they weren't, but that left even more questions than answers.

"So if y' don' mind me askin', what's your sword's name?"

The man's eyes narrowed in irritation. "Your parents must have forgotten to tell you... It's rude to ask the name of a man's sword before you ask for the name of the man."

Gin gave the back of his head a sheepish scratch as he laughed disarmingly. "Hahaha, did I do that? M' bad, m' bad!"

The man grinned past his exasperation and brought his weapon behind him, lowering into a stance from which he could charge. "You must be someone people don't really get along with, aren't you?"

Gin gave an oblivious shrug and backed away a step. "Well, I mighta pissed a couple o' folks off back in th' day… But hey, at least Jesus loves me, right?"

A veiny tick-mark formed on the blue man's temple. "Oh you're a funny one, huh? I'll enjoy cutting you to ribbons." The killing intent began to pour from the giant, the pressure on Gin's mind a testament to the danger this man presented.

"That's enough!"

Both combatants started as the boisterous voice of cut through their intense banter. There was a great burst of smoke and out stepped the unmistakable form of the legendary figure. His wild white hair blew in the win, his smirk speaking volumes of his own skills; he was confident the fight was as good as over by dint of his very presence.

"Never fear, Jiraiya of the Sannin is here!"

His voice echoed across the empty water he stood on. Empty because both men had vanished.

"Wait, what?

"What's the big idea Itachi-san? I was about to shred him to bits," Kisame complained as he and his companion made great leaps across the roofline of Konoha.

Itachi eyed his ally warily. "That man was Jiraiya of the Sannin. He's not someone who can be trifled with."

Kisame's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "…It's not like you to be afraid of someone… I guess he really must be strong."

"Not fear. Respect," Itachi corrected. "If it were just us versus him, victory would favor us greatly. However our mission was meant to remain covert. We aren't here to wage a war. If our commotion could draw him out of his brothel, there's no doubt more soldiers are on their way."

"But couldn't we have just grabbed the Kyūbi and then ran?"

"We'd never have gotten away with the extra baggage. In addition to Jiraiya, Ichimaru Gin was still there."

Kisame huffed in annoyance. "That small guppy? He'd couldn't hold a candle to us."

Itachi gave Kisame a long look. "Can you say that with complete honesty having crossed swords with him?"

Kisame gave pause and considered it. The man was certainly skilled with a sword, and fast enough to keep up with Itachi. Not to mention strong enough to guard against a triple hammer-strike from his clones, even if they were only ten percent of his full strength… Actually, that was pretty damn impressive. Rasing his fingers, he began counting quietly to himself. After a short time, he gave up and returned his attention to their flight.

"Not many, are there? People capable of doing what he did?" Itachi prodded, correctly guessing what Kisame was thinking.

The fish man gave a short smile and nodded. "Well, I guess he was pretty good. At the very least, he could shake the rust off of Samehada."

There was a shifting movement from the bandaged cudgel on his back, along with an inhuman growl of anticipation.

Naruto stood silently in a great cavern. It was large, as far as caves went, with a single lit lantern flickering in its center. He didn't know why he was waiting here, only that it was… necessary. He was patient.

Presently, like illusory light casting strange man-like shapes on misty waters, figures glimmered to life. First one, then two, then four, then seven, then eight. They stood where they appeared, not moving, but each looking at him.

"Report," he commanded, though he didn't know why.

"We failed in our objective to capture the Kyūbi," one of the shades spoke, shocking… and yet not shocking him. His voice was distorted like the static often caught in wireless radios. Only his eyes were visible, the familiar shine of the Uchiha's Sharingan. "Konoha has increased their security, and will no doubt continue to do so as they find their footing again."

Considering the news he was hearing, Naruto was surprised that he wasn't…well, surprised.

"I see. Do you have anything else to report?"

The small shadow spoke again. "We were able to confirm several vital pieces of intel. Firstly, our suspicions that the Kyūbi was being overseen by Hatake Kakashi was only half right; he is also being taught by a man named Ichimaru Gin, who I also suspect may be the boy's father."

Naruto's eyes narrowed. "That's not possible. The boy's father has been dead for thirteen years."

"Adoptive father," the shadow clarified.

Naruto seemed to consider this. "Is he a threat?"

"I believe so."

"He was able to keep up with both of us physically, if that's what you're asking," said a larger shadow with small black eyes.

"And he displayed a foreign technique consistent with what the boy had demonstrated in the past. He is likely the one teaching him what Kakashi does not."

"What kind of technique?" he asked curiously. If it was a jutsu he hadn't heard of, he be surprised.

"A shield of light summoned from his palms capable of deflecting physical attacks. Bakudō no Sanjūkyū, Enkōsen."

Well, color him surprised.

"What, he told you its name?" one of the other shades asked sarcastically, his violet eyes narrowed in amusement.

"I saw him weave no signs; I believe it to be some form of incantation for a spell," the Uchiha deduced. "I couldn't fully copy it."

Now that drew Naruto's attention. A Sharingan user who couldn't copy a technique? "So either a kekkei genkai, or as you say, a spell."

"Oh, so I guess we're all believers in magic now, huh?" the violet eyed one complained again.

"I don't want to hear that from you, with all your annoying rituals," a fourth chastised.

"…Are you fucking equating my god to fucking magic?!" the third cursed, rounding violently on the fourth, even though he didn't move to strike him.

"Enough," Naruto commanded silence. "There are many forces in this world that are unusual and unorthodox, even unlikely." His words seemed to dissuade anymore argument on the matter. "Whatever it is, we will uncover its secrets."

He eyed the Uchiha. "Zetsu will begin looking into more about this Ichimaru Gin and into the Kyūbi Jinchūriki. Until then, you have your individual assignments."

His words were a dismissal, and one by one the figures vanished until naught but the Uchiha and another figure remained, the other outside of his vision, but whose presences was no less felt.

Naruto eyed the Sharingan wielder. "What is it, Itachi?" How did he know that was his name?

The Uchiha was quiet for several seconds before he spoke. "The Kyūbi Jinchūriki…" He blinked before hardening his gaze at Naruto. "…He possesses the Rinnegan."

Naruto's eyes widened, shock wracking his brain. And yet, a strange sense of… affirmation. Like something that had long been tormenting him had been explained.

"I thought you'd like to know."

And they were gone.

He was alone in a dark room, a hand on his shoulder, but ignored in light of this discovery. "Naruto…" he spoke, though he didn't know why. "Uzumaki… Naruto… Naruto…"


His eyes surged open, the bright light of the window beside him streaming in the beaming warm sun above the village outside. He blinked deliriously. Where was he?

"You're at the hospital."

Had he asked that out loud? He turned his head, a feat that took a surprising amount of effort. He caught a blurry sight of a white-clad man with what looked like a clipboard in hand. What happened? This time when he thought it, he heard his own voice croak out the same question.

"You don't remember?" the doctor asked with a raised eyebrow.

Naruto silently shook his head, searching… His eyes widened as the memories returned. "H-Hinata… Sasuke…!"

"They're fine," the doctor assured. "You've been out for two days. They knocked you out with a unique blend of tranquilizers. Fast acting, slow metabolizing."

Naruto reached up to rub his neck, the phantom pain of the senbon piercing his skin still pinging through his torso.

"Ms. Hyuuga has been by your side almost the entire time. I convinced her to eat a meal, but she'll be back soon. She suffered…" he put his clip board down, vanished behind a curtain and returned with another. "Several contusions, two broken ribs and a hairline fracture in her jaw. She's been awake for the past… thirty-three hours, minus her regulated naps."

"How's she doing?" Naruto asked as he tried to sit up in his bed.

"Very well, all things considered. She should make a full recovery in a few weeks. Mr. Uchiha on the other hand..." The doctor trailed off, his expression grim, though not grim enough to suggest to Naruto that Sasuke was in critical condition.

Naruto narrowed his eyes at the man. "I thought you said they were both fine."

"As far as their physical prognosis go, they are. Mr. Uchiha however was subject to intense mental strain during the incident. I'd wager genjutsu, and a powerful one at that." The man hesitated, his years of experience in choosing the right words coming into play. "He's gone into a coma... I don't know when he'll recover. If he'll recover."

Naruto's eyes widened. "What do you mean 'if?!' People get hurt by genjutsu every day and walk away fine, and Sasuke's better than all of them!" Naruto railed. He refused to believe that for all Sasuke's touting and embellishment that he'd kick the mental bucket to a genjutsu. Delirium in his old age maybe, but genjutsu? That wasn't possible, let alone likely.

With impressive speed and strength, Naruto's fist found a handful of the doctors white coat. "Listen here! That's Uchiha Sasuke you're talking about; last of the revered Uchiha clan, member of Team Seven, and my best friend and rival! There's no way he'd lose to a fucking coma!"

The doctor seemed taken aback with the blonde's outburst, and to be honest, so was Naruto himself. The thought of Sasuke lying helpless in a hospital bed, barely capable of breathing on his own... For whatever reason, it simply enraged him. Then he said all of that... Not that it was untrue, but he hadn't expected himself to voluntarily praise his teammate like that.

The physician gave a soft smile and removed Naruto's fist from his coat. "Well, in any case, you're recovering rapidly. I recommend you rest for now, if you can. I'll be back later to check up on you."

Naruto reluctantly settled down, allowing the man to walk away as he stared out at the clear blue skies above the village. Save for the shadow which eclipsed his vision.

The young man blinked as a human figure wrapped his knuckles against the glass, his long white hair and red haori ever the identifier. With a starting surprise, the blonde opened the window with a shove to the side. "Ero-sennin? What are you doing here?"

The elder lecher gave a warm smile as he straddled the windowsill. "Oh, just checking up on my favorite pupil. Good to see you're finally awake."

Naruto raised an eyebrow at the man. "And you decided to come in through the window... whyyy?"

"Doors exist. Windows exist. I try not to pick favorites."

Naruto sweat-dropped at his teacher. "Uh-huh. Not buying it."

To his credit, the Sannin looked genuinely offended. "What? Are you saying I'm only using the window so I won't be seen? Why on earth would I do that?

Naruto narrowed his eyes skeptically. "How many nurses are in this building"

Unfortunately, the brain moves faster than the mouth. "One hundred and twe-twe-we-whyyyyyy does that matter?" the older man caught himself.

Naruto's victorious smirk spoke volumes of "why it mattered." Jiraiya grumbled at the victorious look his student was giving him and crossed his arms in a huff. "Well you don't have to be so smug about it."

Naruto smiled slightly and leaned back in his bed. "So? What was the real reason you came up here?"

"I wasn't joking when I said I was honestly checking up on you," Jiraiya explained as sincerely as he could. "I'd be lying if I wasn't concerned for your wellbeing, all things considered."

Naruto's eyes twitched irritably. 'The hell's that supports to mean?'

"And I wanted to speak with you about something important," he continued, his eyes hardening into serious-mode, a state in which Naruto knew joking ended and business began. "Long story short, the council has decided that, for the strength and stability of the village, we need to elect a new Hokage."

"Yeah, told me about that before." A stray throught wormed its way through Naruto's head, his face went a shade paler than his betrothed's. "Please tell me they didn't ask you."

Jiraiya gave a smug grin, echoing the boy's only moments earlier. "Well, I am the most qualified person in the village right now." His smile dimmed as he continued. "However, I'm not much one for leading or making tough decisions. Tsunade on the other hand..."

Naruto raised an eyebrow.

"Tsunade," the pervert repeated. "She was my old teammate back in the day. She's better suited to this job than me; she has the strength to support and defend the village by dint of reputation alone." His face darkened as he relaxed against the window. "Though with Sasuke's injuries, her presence becomes even more necessary."

Naruto frowned deeply. "...If she's as good as you say, then Sasuke's injuries must be just as conversely bad. Are you saying we absolutely need her?"

Jiraiya looked out over the village, his eyes distant as he spoke, as if he were recalling fond memories from long ago. "Tsunade is what you'd call a medical genius. Most of the structure of the medical system today and how it functions with the military is thanks to her. Not only that, but she's one of the best healers - probably the best - in the world."

Naruto let his eyebrows rise. "I guess that's... pretty impressive."

Instead of nodding like Naruto figured the old man would do, Jiraiya simply shrugged noncommittally. "Who knows? Maybe she'd be able to, and maybe she wouldn't. But if I was you, and I was forced to put Sasuke's life in someone else's hands, I'd choose her's ten times out of ten."

Naruto remained silent as he let the information settle. He felt a sense of worry develop in his gut; he knew that Sasuke wouldn't kick the bucket so long as he had a fighting chance, but was he actually as damaged as Jiraiya seemed to be implying? The doctor hadn't seemed to be too overly concerned...

"The truth is," the Sannin continued, "Sasuke's brother, Itachi..." The image of the young, fair-faced man who so handily kicked his ass reappeared in Naruto's brain. "...possesses a unique ability called the Mangekyou Sharingan. Unlike ordinary Sharingan, it gives him immense power and access to techniques beyond most shinobi. Even I'd fall prey to them if I wasn't careful. Whatever genjutsu he cast on Sasuke isn't coming undone, and Sasuke's mental health is in a state of flux. Whatever he did to him in there... it hurt him bad."

Pon hearing that, Naruto's gaze fell, his fists clenching in his lap. Sasuke had been damn impressive during the invasion and during the actual chunin exam prior to. It was hard for him to imagine a technique so strong even Sasuke would suffer this much because of it.

"So... Where is she?"

Jiraiya's eyes twinkled with light as a smile crept across his face. "I haven't a goddamned idea. But I'm heading out soon to find her."

Naruto frowned but nodded. He expected that. If she was actually here, then Sasuke would already be up and about.

"I'd already wanted to get moving as quickly as possible; less time with the council's eyes looming over me... But now we've got a time limit to find her. If we're not fast enough..."The old man trailed off; he didn't need to say any more.

Naruto growled in his throat. He flexed his muscles subtly, testing their strength. His joints creaked and popped in protest, but he felt his strength return to him. "He glanced down at his palm, clenching it into a fist determinedly. "Gimme the day. I'll be right as rain by morning."

Jiraiya smiled down at his pupil. The boy really was like his mother, a point he intended to raise when the time was right. Maybe this excursion would be that moment.

Koharu and Homura felt the cool air of the mild summer day rustle the leaves that bordered the clearing of the remote field in front of them. Behind them, hidden in the shadows of the canopy were numerous ANBU security. Silent. Aware. Ready. And with good reason too, if the two characters approaching were who they expected. Their blue and grey clothes matched the general color scheme worn by a certain militaristic village in the east. Not to mention their headbands. Both councilors breathed steadily as they approached, clothes flowing in the wind. But what really concerned them was the ominous, unnatural mist that seemed to roll in behind them, not occluding their vision, but doing enough to blanket the area completely.

The two figures stopped just short of a dozen feet from the two elders. All four were silent until the taller of the two strangers spoke.

"So... looks like you got the message."

Koharu nodded, though mostly still surprised the man was actually standing so nonchalantly in front of them. "Momochi Zabuza... You were reported dead at the hands of Hatake Kakashi in the Land of Waves. How are you even alive?"

The man shrugged noncommittally, rustling the bandages that were draped over his shoulders and around his face. His Mist headband twisted the side and cocked at an odd angle over his head of black hair. Beside him, a young boy stood, Mist headband worn in the standard manner. Veterans of war like Koharu and Homura were easily able to notice the uncanny sharpness with which the young man (or was it girl?) eyed the surrounding area, even as he/she wore such a disarming bright smile.

"Technically speaking, I'm not," he said, fingering around his eyes, drawing their attention to the unnatural black sclera. "I imagine rumors have been running wild about me since the chunin exams."

"Wild and free, unfortunately," Homura agreed. "We've sifted through dozens of reports of enemy troops wiped out without any confirmation from our forces. Not to mention sightings of your village's signature mist blanketing the combat area during the invasion. There are even one or two reports of direct visual contacts at the stadium."

"You can imagine rumors of undead S-class criminals wandering, evidently aimlessly through the streets of our already paranoid village unsupervised might disturb the populous at large," Koharu added.

Zabuza gave a huff and made to reply, only for the boy to cut in in his stead. "I hardly think a military as structured as Konoha's wouldn't put out a gag order on such rumors, which, as you can obviously see, aren't actually rumors at all," the nuke-nin corrected, sliding his hands into his pockets.

"Obviously," the old man parroted as his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "This begs the question, 'how are you here?'"

Zabuza gave another shrug. "I think he called it..." He paused, searching.

"Edo Tensei, I think it was," the boy offered.

Recognition sparked in his blackened eyes as the confirming memory returned. "Yeah, that's it. Edo Tensei."

For their part, very little could have surprised both councilors more than those two simple words. "Edo Tensei?! The Second's technique? Impossible! It's an S-class forbidden jutsu!"

The man laughed slightly and waved off their concern. "Relax you old farts. It's not like the caster has it out for your village."

Koharu steeled her wizened features as she spoke. "And who exactly is the caster of this jutsu? And how did they acquire it?"

"Uzumaki Naruto," spoke the child with a smile more genuine and brighter than what either Leaf citizen would have expected given the situation.

"Haku..." Zabuza warned, surprised that the boy would oust their summoner so easily.

Haku gave a reassuring look towards his master, the confidence in his eyes enough to convince the swordsman of the safety of such information being shared. "It's alright Zabuza-san, the exam proctor was with us when we were summoned. I doubt he'd omit our existence in an official report."

The senior Mist ninja eyed the two with renewed suspicion. "Then why ask the question...?" he asked rhetorically, annoyance seeping into his voice as he crossed his arms.

"Just confirmation." Homura explained simply, her features schooled, though still noticeably rigid. "Some time ago, Uzumaki Naruto was involved in the unwitting theft of the Scroll of Seals from the Hokage's Tower. Duped into believing he'd graduate the academy if he were to learn a jutsu from it, we knew that he'd learned the Shadow Clone technique… But to think he'd also deciphered the Edo Tensei as well…"

Koharu placed a reassuring hand on her partner and spoke as diplomatically as possible. This was new information, but based on it… "At this point in time we have no reason to believe the boy is a threat to the village, but if he were to ever turn, the Edo Tensei is too great a weapon to be left in his hands."

Zabuza gave a short laugh, the smile beneath his mask almost visible. "That's a pretty big 'if', don't you think? Or do you just assume everyone will potentially jump ship at some point?"

"Oh, we don't doubt Uzumaki Naruto's loyalty to this village. However, given his… condition, it's not unreasonable to plan in case he's ever abducted."

Haku cocked his head. "Condition…? Does it have anything to do with his newly awakened kekkei genkai?"

The way Homura shifted his shoulders uncomfortably as he glanced at the old woman at his side was not lost on either shinobi. "In part yes, but that is only recent news. The boy's true status is as a jinchūriki."

Zabuza's eyes widened in shock, though he quickly schooled his features into a scowl. "Jinchūriki… I see. That explains his ridiculous chakra capacity."

"And should explain our concern over his safety…and more to the point, loyalty. As you well know, there are a myriad of ways other villages might attempt to deceive, manipulate, and control the boy to their own ends. As a jinchūriki, his use against us would be bad enough, but with the Rinnegan and now the ability to summon the dead? I hope you can now sympathize with our concerns."

Zabuza frowned, aware indeed of where the two councilors were coming from. Yagura had been the fourth Mizukage and a jinchūriki as well; his erratic decision making and policies had nearly ruined Kirigakure beyond recovery. Worse, when Zabuza had learned that he'd been manipulated by someone in the shadows, he'd begun planning for what would eventually become an (unfortunately) unsuccessful coup d'état.

"I wouldn't worry about Naruto if I were you." Zabuza blinked at Haku's words and the confident smile on his lips. "Even the two of you can recognize his devotion to those he considers comrades. And so long as we're under his control, we willboth protect him with our…"

He trailed off, realizing the words on the tip of his tongue weren't exactly accurate anymore. "…immortality?" He looked to Zabuza questioningly, receiving only a shrug of indifference as an answer.

Upon hearing that, both councilors seemed to ease. "So you're saying you're working for us now?"

The Edo Tensei was a jutsu hidden in the Scroll of Seals that Naruto had unwittingly stolen half a year prior. It was known that he'd learned the Shadow Clone technique from it, but that he'd also learned the Edo Tensei? Of all things, they could live with the knowledge that Naruto, a genin had impressively learned an A-rank jutsu.

But the Edo Tensei?

That was a sufficiently tough pill to accept, let alone swallow. First of all, he shouldn't even have been able to decipher the technique; it had been encoded when written as an extra layer of security, to keep all but those who were authorized from accessing the jutsu from actually doing so. Of all the techniques in the Scroll, Edo Tensei was one of the most dangerous. How he'd even managed to do so, given those facts, was beyond the two retirees.

"Not consciously, no," the swordsman said simply, causing the two councilor's brows to rise. Seeing their mix of confusion and surprise, the elder ex-Mist nin continued.

"I imagine if this Edo Tensei shit is as forbidden as you seem to imply, then you know that we summoned dead only have so much autonomy; it's simple chain of command and Naruto's at the top. We work for him."

Homura gave a sidelong look towards the once/still dead shinobi, his eyes focusing primarily on Zabuza. "If that's the case, then why didn't the boy use either or both of you against Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame? I would have thought you'd enjoy a reunion with your old comrade."

At the mention of the former ex-Mist terrorist, Zabuza snorted derisively, rolling his eyes at the idea. Although both had rebelled against their motherland, and both having previously been a part of the same prestigious organization, the reasons for their betrayal couldn't be more different. Unlike Zabuza's coup of justice, the monster called Kisame Hoshigaki went on a rampage, killing several political individuals including daimyos, with no ultimatum or apparent reasoning for his actions. The man was mayhem incarnate. However, his personal opinions were beside the point.

"We would have. We were on the other side of the village when we received orders to rendezvous at the causeway. The whole shitstorm was over and done with by the time we got there."

"I see," Homura mumbled ponderously, picking up on the deeper implication in the man's words. "So there's a form of mental connection between the Edo Tensei and the jutsu's caster as well."

Haku blinked at the two Leaf elders. "You weren't aware of the fact? Strange that you know so little about your own jutsu."

"Strictly speaking it's the Second Hokage's jutsu," Koharu said with an admitting grimace, "and was only used a handful of times before his untimely death. It's intricacies and nuances were never fully mapped."

"Well, I'm sure the boy'll do a great deal of 'mapping' in the coming years." The swordsman gave a laugh and crossed his arms casually.

"In the meantime though, so long as you're aware of our presence," Haku interjected, "we will continue to do Naruto's bidding."

Koharu and Homura shared a careful look for several seconds before turning and eyeing the tree line, filled with hidden ANBU. They might be able to take the two nin out in one swift stroke, but just as Orochimaru had proven against the Third only a few short weeks before, the Edo Tensei immense resilience. In addition to being unkillable, any sort of wounds like amputation or chakra depletion were only inconveniences. The dead had access to an infinite store of chakra and could regenerate limbs at a moment's notice. Even immobilization, like impaling, wouldn't stop them forever. Nothing short of a self-sacrificing extraction of their souls could possibly destroy them, and there was a rather large shortage of Kage-level shinobi who knew of, let alone could perform the Shiki Fūjin. Fortunately, unlike Orochimaru who craved knowledge and power, the Uzumaki boy seemed much more benevolent. At least, that's what his recently updated psychiatric profile indicated. With him, they could at least rest assured that so long as the boy was given no reason to turn against them. Of course, that meant they now were forced to dance on a tightrope. Thankfully though, it wasn't overly thin.

No. As capable as the ANBU were, they weren't prepared to fight S-class criminals of Zabuza Momoche's caliber. Well, S-class undead criminals of Zabuza Momoche's caliber. Their eyes returned to each other and they nodded in unison; a silent agreement.

They turned to their guests a final time. "If what you say is true, then we have no real choice but to permit your movements, albeit reluctantly. However, if your chain of command begins and ends with Naruto Uzumaki, a Leaf shinobi, then that makes you, by subservience, a part of the Konoha military as well."

Homura reached into his pocket and withdrew a small parcel, holding it out to the both of them. Both man and boy took one each, opening them and beholding what lay wrapped within. Zabuza raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You're kidding right?"

Haku, for his part, seemed genuinely surprised he'd been given such an item. In his hands was a blue headband, the metal plate branded with the iconic Leaf of Konoha's military insignia.

"Regrettably not," Homura said, eyes closed in resignation. "As many qualms as we might have with mass-murdering, traitorous undead criminals serving in our military, so long as we don't have any choice in the matter, we might as well make it official."

Haku's grin seemed to brighten. "I see… At least this way, you maintain some control over the situation."

"In other words, damage control," Zabuza said with derision, carelessly tossing the headband back at them. "Sorry. I'll play along with your little charade for now, but I'm not giving up on my real home." The former criminal raised his left hand and brought it to his headband, skewed as it was on his crown. With a swipe, he ran his fingers over the metal plate, the four distinct lines marking him as a shinobi of the Hidden Mist replaced by an illusion of Konoha's leaf.

Haku however removed his Mist hitai-ate and tied the foreign identifier to his head. "So long as I'm with Zabuza-san, it doesn't matter what village I work for," he said with a simple, confident smile.

The sidelong glance from his superior waslost on the boy, but there seemed to shine something in Zabuza's eyes that bespoke his appreciation for Haku's loyalty… or perhaps just a mild curiosity for Haku's rationality. The boy had always been loyal. To a fault even. Zabuza had never been able to fully comprehend the way he thought; the way he made his decisions, or how he truly viewed those decisions. If nothing else, this pseudo-life was an opportunity to experience more of what he didn't see until it was too late… the last time. Who said dead dogs couldn't learn new tricks?

The grimaces that developed on Homura and Koharu's faces at Zabuza's dismissal lessened at Haku's acceptance. "We'll keep your un-death on a need to know basis. At the very least, you can go about your business in the village. But there's so much as a hint of mischief on your end-"

"-We're dead?" Zabuza cut in with a visible smirk beneath his mask and a lifted eyebrow.

Koharu shrugged her shoulders, revealing a miniscule twist of a smirk on her lips as well. "In a manner of speaking." The humor left her almost instantly. "Dead you may be, but you are only two; Kakashi already beat you once before. We may not be able to kill you, but we can certainly keep you locked up indefinitely."

Zabuza seemed to cogitate on her words before shrugging unconvincingly. "Maybe."

"Now, that bit of business concluded, you're free to return to the boy and brief him."

Zabuza gave a knowing smile toward Haku, which was returned mischievously. In a blink, the ex-kiri nin's eyes shiften in color, their pupils turning a stark, almost ethereal white. He spoke, but it wasn't his voice that came out.

"Oh, I already know."

Naruto's eyes opened narrowly, a slight grin spread across his face. Dropping his hands from the ram seal they'd been clasped in in front of him, he allowed his body to relax. Bit by bit he was beginning to understand how to use the jutsu in his arsenal. He wondered if it was the Rinnegan's innate nature that allowed him to rapidly come to understand the nature of jutsu that he saw. Unlike the Sharingan that allowed instant imitation, he couldn't just copy a jutsu with a glance. However, he was beginning to realize that with extended exposure to a technique, he began to understand how it worked, how to perform it himself, and how to make it better. His mind automatically made connections to concepts and notions that, prior to gaining the legendary dōjutsu, he was sure he'd never make on his own.

He wondered how far that would actually take him…

Nevertheless, it was nice, after having stared at the wrinkly old faces of the two councilors, to open his eyes to the angelic beauty of the milky-white face of his beloved woman. She was half sitting on the hospital bed, scissors in her hands as she clipped the last of his belligerent hair from his overgrown head.

He looked down, noticing and shaking his hair-covered hands, brushing off his shirt and shaking his head.

"All done! How was it?"

Naruto ruffled his own hair, messing it into position with a grimacing smile. "Well, it could have gone worse. They don't like the fact that I know a super forbidden jutsu, or the fact that I resurrected two bingo-book criminals back to life, and can compel said criminals to serve my every whim if I want. At the very least, they're willing to tolerate the fact that I know it, and that I'm using it so long as I'm loyal to the village."

"Understandable," Hinata said with an air of very mock seriousness.

Naruto grinned at her in agreement. "Yeah, 'cause I'm totally going to betray the place where all my friends, girlfriend, and - oh yeah! - I live."

"Where else could you get Ichiraku Ramen? Yukigakure?"

Naruto rolled his eyes, nodding. "I'll tell you what; if I lived in a land of perpetual ice and snow, hot ramen would be the only thing I'd want to eat."

Hinata giggled beautifully. Her gaze soon darkened, her smile dimming as her pale eyes glanced over at the white haired man flirting with the nurse. "Are you sure you need to go with him? Surely he can figure out how to find lady Tsunade without you, right?"

Naruto shook his head unknowingly as he eyed the man at the other end of the room. "I dunno. But I'd guess he has something else in mind for us to do if he is insisting. Maybe he wants to train me more or something."

Hinata seemed to deflate, as if she'd been hoping, though knowing better, that Naruto might reassure her.

Naruto smiled empathetically, reaching out to stroke her cheek. "Hey, don't worry. It's not like it'll take us a year to find her. I give it a two weeks, tops," he said confidently.

The girl's countenance rose slightly as she leaned into his touch. "I wish I could go with you…"she said sadly.

Naruto nodded. "Yeah,I do to. But hey, look at the bright side! I hear dad'll train you personally, along with Miss Rangiku. Maybe by the time I get back you'll be as strong as me," he saidpuffing out his chest proudly.

The Hyūga heiress gave him a playful shove with a shake of her head. "Please. We both know I'll never be as strong as you…" Naruto grimaced disappointedly at her words and made to admonish her before she continued. "But… I'll never stop trying!" her smile beamed brightly, her eyes closed in genuineness.

Naruto felt her grin spread to him, and he griped the back of her neck, bringing their foreheads together. "You'd damn well better." He let a playful chuckle escape his throat. "That's my girl."

Without any more prompting, he caught her lips in his and brought her on top of him, her legs straddling his hips as they embraced passionately. Her blush spread like the plague, turning even her shoulders a bright red, though she made no motion to stop either her man or herself.

After several seconds, they were drawn out of their reverie by the irregular tapping of pen on paper, and Naruto's eyes narrowed in irritation. He turned to he left.

"Really, asshole?"

Jiraiya looked up from his notepad innocently. "What? Your young, semi-innocent love is prime research material!"

A tick mark formed on the blonde head as the pen and pad flew from the older man's hands into his as he held it aloft. "You want me to set it on fire? 'Cause I'll totally set it on fire."

Jiraiya smirked victoriously. "Hah! An experienced writer always keeps his notes safely stored away in his God-made vault of knowledge!" he said with a proud tap of his forehead.

Naruto raised an eyebrow. Not at the man but that irritably ignored nurse behind him, rearing back with a rather dangerous looking clipboard in hand.

The CRACK! That reverberated through the room made Hinata jolt in surprise, half of the shattered clipboard clattering to the ground next to a freshly wounded Sannin.

"W-wasn't that clipboard… metal?" she asked breathlessly, wondering how the man was even conscious.

Naruto simply smile pleasantly, staring down at the self-proclaimed pervert in satisfaction.


A/N: And there we have it! A nice action packed segue into the Search for Tsunade Arc, or as I like to call it, "Look Ma! No Hands!" arc, as we watch Orochimaru trash his fellow colleagues with naught but his tongue. And nothing from Souls Society this chapter, sorry to say, but considering the time difference, Mayuri may have only just gotten his equipment, so look forward to that in the next chapter! So, if you would, leave a nice review on your way out! Feel free to ask questions, make observations, and rant about the general decline of a certain first world nation (don't actually do that plez).

If you have more in depth questions, feel free to send me a PM! I try to respond to all personal messages as they come in, so hopefully you wont be ignored :P

And since I probably wont update this particular story before Christmas (a month and a half from now, but hey, no promises) I'mma go ahead and wish y'all some happy holidays! Should be generic enough to cover all of them I think. And I'll see all of you next time!

~K.H. out! o7