weeaboobs: let's get married (Default)
weeaboobs ([personal profile] weeaboobs) wrote in [community profile] narutobang_fic2010-11-22 05:20 pm

day two part one: space piracy: lessons in love, ass-kicking, and instant noodles (1/2)

Title: Space Piracy: Lessons in Love, Ass-kicking, and Instant Noodles
Pairing(s): Naruto/Sasuke, side Ino/Shikamaru, Sakura/Sai, Gaara/Neji, Kakashi/Iruka, Haku/Zabuza, past Naruto/Gaara, implied past Neji/Sasuke
Rating: NC-17
Word count: ~ 64,200
Warnings: Violence, some gore, some crack, a creepy Kyuubi, m/m sex
Summary: Ninjas IN SPACE! Join Soragakure's pirate ship captain, Uzumaki Naruto and his crew of misfits on an epic adventure, spanning whole galaxies as they fight to gain control of a viciously dangerous viral mainframe, parts of which are contained in the partly-cyborg bodies of nine men and women all over the known universe. Enemies become friends and friends become something more in a frantic race to outrun the unscrupulous Akatsuki organisation and the corrupt Alliance of space cities and steal a weapon that may mean the end of creation as they know it.
Notes: This started out as a fun and silly 20K story, a word limit we were a little worried we might not make when we started off. And then we got to writing, and then it sort of ran away from us a lot. It's still a love story, though, and we had an almost obscene amount of fun writing it.

Space Piracy: Lessons in Love, Ass-kicking, and Instant Noodles

Naruto's footsteps echo through Orochimaru's ship as he runs. He can feel the burn in his calves, and an ache in his shoulder beginning where he has one of the ship's residents in a fireman's carry.

Naruto could have sworn that the person he picked up was some kind of princess (he'd heard legends about a snake princess on this end of the galaxy), but closer inspection had revealed a male. A homicidal male. Naruto had to knock him out to stop him from causing further damage to the ship and himself.

Ahead, one of the ship's doors cuts him off. He makes a left and hopes that his own ship is tracking his life signs.

"Ero-ship better have me docked and ready to fly off this heap of junk, or I'm gonna make sure it takes him years to hack back into that recording of Tsunade showering," he mutters to himself. He feels a twitch from the weight on his shoulder and speeds up his pace, practically flying past doors welded shut by escaping-oxygen-induced vacuum. He reaches a dead end again and powers through the partially open door on the left, on the basis that a labyrinth can only be successfully negotiated by taking constant turns in one direction. Only trouble is, he can't remember if it was supposed to be left or right.

"Naruto! Get your ass back on Soragakure this instant!"

Naruto snorts. Does Sakura think he's on a carnival ride or something? He makes a quick decision--right.

Finally, success! He jumps out of the last corridor and into the docking space where his shuttle is, for once, ready and waiting for departure. He shouts in relief and throws the unconscious lump in the back seat, straps him in before proceeding to do the same and start the engines. He blasts off the disintegrating ship with a deep sigh of relief, clutching at the shift as a plume of flame blazes to the right, barely missing the tiny vessel.

"And that's me out of there! Damn, that was close. All right, Sakura-chan! Reel me in!"

Moments later, Naruto is re-entering his baby, the Soragakure. "I'm hooooome," he calls. Then, to Sakura, "Oh, by the way, I picked up some weird guy. I had to knock him out, but only because he was trying to kill me."

Sakura sputters. "You were gone for thirty minutes! You blew up the ship and kidnapped someone?" She takes a deep breath, looking into the back of Naruto's shuttle. The passenger is good-looking, at least. Pretty in the face, with artfully messy dark fringe over his eyes, and--Sakura's not sure what the hell he thinks he's wearing; it looks like the sort of horrid attire worst suited for a serious voyage through space. On the other hand, he's wearing an open shirt, she thinks, taking her time admiring the stranger's chest. "Jiraiya, send in a bot to help me get our prisoner to the infirmary. He'll probably need to be strapped down." She turns back to Naruto. "So, what did you pick up? At least a few solar crysts, right?"

Naruto rubs the back of his neck.

"A handful of gold," she tries.

"Space gold?" he offers.

Sakura sighs. "There is no such thing as space gold."

"Yeah, that's all I've got," Naruto admits.

"...Space gold?" Sakura replies.

"No--the other thing."

"Nothing," Sakura amends.

"That'd be the one."

Sakura punches him, hard. "You're on cleaning duty for the next two weeks," she snarls.

"You can't put me on cleaning duty! I'm your captain--not the other way around, however much you like to fantasize!"

Sakura hits him again.

The bot arrives and saves him from the dubious pleasure of being hit on by Sakura; unfortunately, it's not the kind of 'hit on' that he would have preferred. Sakura is, after all, a pretty girl, all lean lines and pink hair and lovely green eyes; she doesn't have a cock, but nobody is perfect, Naruto thinks sagely. Anyway, that would be just weird, even if it is the latest craze on that Frond planet over at Alpha Centauri.

The bot picks up the stranger, causing his excuse for a shirt to gape open even more. He is unceremoniously dumped on a motorized stretcher and pushed away to the infirmary by a drooling Sakura. Naruto's much atrophied sense of obligation makes him trail after her, intent on providing at least a shred of dignity to the newcomer. He's not sure he wants to know what Sakura might do if left alone with him. She'll embarrass herself, best case scenario.

"We have a new arrival and you don't see fit to call me? I'm hurt, Naruto."

Naruto cringes. Busted! He turns to his security officer with a wide, toothy grin. "Eheheh, sorry, Kakashi-sensei, I forgot!"

Kakashi rolls his visible eye and sighs. It is entirely possible that Naruto simply did forget; however, Kakashi is well aware that it's much more likely that Naruto has taken an instant liking to the male and his protective instincts have kicked in. It is almost supernatural, the way Naruto can look at someone and in a split second make the distinction between 'friend' or 'foe'. For some reason, this newcomer appears to have tripped his 'friend' sensors, and nothing in the known universe and beyond will be able to dissuade him now.

Kakashi pulls a book out of his pocket. The top reads, "Historical Wars". Naruto is not fooled; he recognizes that shade of green. He lifts a finger to flick the second "a", deactivating the holographic shield. The book shimmers for a moment, before revealing a cover of the same color, reading "Icha Icha Zero Gravity".


"Whatever, Ero-ship. Take us out of here, top speed," Naruto commands.

Jiraiya's voice grumbles from every corner of the room as the ship takes off at a leisurely pace. Naruto sighs. "No respect," he grumbles.


In the infirmary, Sasuke wakes up tied down. He freezes, reaching into his sleeve for a tiny blade to cut his bonds. He finds nothing.

"Welcome to the Soragakure, stranger," a girl with pink hair says, grinning. She has a giant syringe in her hand, and an evil glint in her eye.

The woman holds his elbow in place long enough to inject him with the liquid in her syringe. Sasuke feels the effects of the drug almost immediately. He's asleep in moments.


The next time Sasuke comes to, there is a vile blob of orange floating in front of his face. He blinks rapidly and his vision sharpens once more. The ugly color belongs to a longcoat worn by a young-ish guy currently arguing with the pink-haired girl from before. Sasuke frowns. The sedative must be slow in wearing off, because his hearing seems unnaturally strong; the guy's voice booms around the room and seems to bore into his oversensitive ears. He tries not to move too much--his head is unusually heavy and he feels groggy and sluggish. What the hell did that bitch dose him with? He moves his head towards the overwhelming noise and glares.

"Usuratonkachi, is there a reason why you're trying to scream until my head explodes?"

The guy freezes; his spiky blond hair seems to take another moment to still on his head. The pink-haired girl looks at him apprehensively and whispers something in the guy's ear--Sasuke's too-sharp hearing distinguishes, "double dose", and "throwing it off", and "mutant or something", by which he determines that she had drugged him to the gills and that is why the damned sedative is taking so long to wear off. One thing the scaly bastard had done for him was build up his natural immunity to various poisons and sedatives. Sasuke smirks vindictively. He'd like to see Orochimaru recover from that combination of poison and sword-hacking. No, he is quite sure that the old snake is very much dead. Now, to sort out these two impertinent whelps...

The blond scratches the back of his head and looks helplessly at his companion. "What do I do?" he hisses. She sighs loudly and throws her hands into the air. Then, louder, "Oh--uh, an apology, right. Look, I'm sorry about the whole being-tied-to-the-table thing, but you kind of tried to kill me back there, so I had to improvise. Anyway, welcome to my ship, the Soragakure!" The stranger beams, his smile seeming to make his eyes shine a brighter blue. Sasuke thinks he might be sick.

"You're the captain," Sasuke deadpans. This is going to be so much easier than he thought.

The stranger nods. "Uzumaki Naruto," he replies. "That's Haruno Sakura."

"Untie me," Sasuke replies.

Naruto frowns. "You should introduce yourself, at least," he insists.

Sasuke scowls. "Untie me," he repeats.

"Or what? You're on my ship, asshole." Naruto folds his arms.

Sakura moves to Sasuke's side. "He can't go anywhere, anyway," she reminds Naruto, beginning to loosen several of the straps holding Sasuke to the table.

Sasuke narrows his eyes and smirks. That's where you're wrong, Pinkie, he purrs inwardly and flexes his arms, ready to spring off the damned stretcher and slit her throat the second the carbon fiber loosens. He's more than ready to kill the entire crew of this ship very dead if anyone has the bright idea to stand in his way.

"Sakura, hold up a moment." Pinkie stills, but that's nothing to Sasuke's reaction. He freezes. His body goes painfully rigid as he processes the voice. Oh, shit. Of all the ships in all the worlds, he had to walk (actually--not walk at all, but be dragged) into the one he's on.

"Ah, Sasuke-kun, I see you're back with us." Three pairs of eyes bore into Kakashi, lounging lazily against the wall, nose firmly stuffed into the inevitable green book.

"WHAT? You know that guy? Why are didn't you say something sooner, Kakashi-sensei? I'm still the captain, damnit!"

"Sorry, Naruto. I wasn't sure it was really him at first; I didn't want to say anything before I was certain. Naruto-kun, Sakura-chan, meet Uchiha Sasuke."

Sasuke feels their eyes dig into his skin, but he still can't force his body to move. Kakashi. Well, that certainly puts a spanner in the works. He re-evaluates his chances of escape; they have swiftly dwindled.

"Kakashi," he growls in response. He wonders if he should bring Obito up, whether that would make his chances better or worse. On second thought, maybe he'd keep that for later; he can't escape if he's dead and/or dismembered.

"Will someone explain to me why this idiot thought it was a good idea to kidnap me and have me tied to the bed?"

He glares even harder as Kakashi starts chuckling in a rather filthy manner, while Pinkie blushes and leers at the same time and Blondie goes incoherent with what is either rage or constipation.

"I believe Naruto's story was something like this: he assumed that you were a princess who could bring us wealth and fortune. You see, your hair is very dark and your skin very pale, not unlike a certain Hyuuga heiress..." Kakashi manages.

"OKAY, THAT'S ENOUGH FROM YOU!" Naruto insists. "Sakura, let's go. The ship can untie him itself. Later." He exits the room with Sakura, his cheeks maybe slightly pink, maybe not; he'll never admit to anything.

Kakashi stays behind. "You know, there's no need to get all upset over a little misunderstanding like this," he says.

Sasuke stares at the ship's walls, willing them to open and allow him to leave. He counts to ten in his head. It does not do much to curb his homicidal rage, but it does remind him that he has to limit himself to only what is possible; for example, painting the entire ship with the crew members' blood would take more than three bodies. He focuses on Kakashi's words for a moment, and loses himself again. "A little misunderstanding," he says. The first thing Sasuke plans to do is to take out the captain. He does not look like the Hyuuga heiress.

"I must say, you really have grown up since I saw you last, Sasuke-kun. Looks like Orochimaru failed to kill you before you got too strong for him. It's amazing how well he managed to hide you, considering he had the combined forces of the Alliance, the space pirates and Akatsuki on his tail to get you back."

Sasuke considers. The Alliance obviously wants him for associating with Orochimaru, and now for being more of a threat than Orochimaru because the dead are no threat at all. The space pirates want the now-even-more-sizable bounty on his head, and perhaps whatever treasure they might assume he salvaged from Orochimaru's ship, but Akatsuki... "What the hell does Akatsuki want with me?"

"Well, that should be more than obvious. Itachi has joined forces with them." Kakashi raises his visible eyebrow.

Sasuke, if possible, grows even paler. Kakashi feels a momentary twinge of concern before remembering to whom he is speaking, and that he is already lying down.

"It's okay. I see that this entire day has come as a bit of a shock for you, so I'll leave you to rest for a bit. I'm sure Naruto will be by to shout at you later. You should know that despite the 'misunderstanding', he did save you from a burning ship. Even with your extensive training, you would have had a hard time getting away. You should try being at least a little appreciative of his efforts."

Kakashi leaves. Sasuke glares at his back all the way out the door. Perhaps Kakashi has moved up on the rather extensive list of people Sasuke would like dead; the moment he is free, he's going to rip the bastard's throat out. Or die trying.


"Releasing the prisoner now," Jiraiya's voice echoes in three rooms: the mess hall, where Sakura is nibbling at a sandwich that tastes not unlike cardboard; the bridge, where Naruto is poring over several of the older, more dubious maps supposedly leading to ancient wreck sites, possibly filled with valuables, probably filled with nothing but death and debris; and the library where Kakashi is currently reading one of Jiraiya's latest masterpieces.

Only Kakashi responds verbally, "Keep an eye on him for us," he says, before returning to his book.

On the bridge, Naruto shuts off the map displays and begins making his way in the general direction of the infirmary. He is sure that Sasuke will be glad to hear that they are making land soon. He can get off Naruto's ship, then. Unless, of course, he wants to stay, which Naruto will also accept, because that move he did with his sword and one of Orochimaru's guards' heads right before Naruto had to knock him unconscious was totally fucking awesome.

Maybe, if Sasuke wants to stay, they could spar together? Naruto knows he can hold his own, but also knows that he still has plenty to learn, and Kakashi seems to have gotten bored training just him and Sakura, whatever he might say to the contrary. Sasuke also seems to be about his age, which is not something to be sneered at in space. His crew of misfits that he's picked up here and there are pretty much all the same age, but a new face is always a bonus.

Naruto frowns as he makes the right turn into the corridor that will take him to the infirmary. If he's honest, there's something about Sasuke, something that intrigues him. He's a pale, skinny, poncey-looking guy, but Naruto is certain that Sasuke can still wipe the floor with him. It's the way he moves, like he dances through the air. It's... stimulating. Naruto grins. Perhaps the new guy might not be adverse to another form of dancing? It's been ages since he's managed to get laid, not with the dozen or so cock-blockers that inhabit the Soragakure.

His first clue that his plan might not be realistic is the blade that whistles through the air where his head was just nanoseconds ago. Crouching on the floor, he cautiously peeks through the infirmary door. The room is completely empty, the restraints flopping uselessly down by the stretcher. There are no signs that anyone has been in there for the better part of two days. Huh, still homicidal, then. Damn. There goes the training together option.

He quietly lifts his wrist communicator to his mouth and hisses, "Kakashi! Sai! Security breach in the infirmary. The prisoner has been released and just now tried to kill me again. What the hell is up with that guy? You two, get your asses down here and alert the crew to look out for the escapee. Do not engage! He is armed and seems unwilling to negotiate."

"Confirmed," comes in from the two, and Naruto drops his arm and sighs, shrugging off his longcoat for more freedom of movement. He wants to try incapacitating him here and now--he'd rather not risk the rest of his crew for his own miscalculations.

A whisper of a sound behind him makes him freeze, then silently lash out with his leg. He only hits air; he flips with the kick and barely misses a chop to his throat. He spins and comes face-to-face with a very pissed-off male. "That's a fine way to say thank you--hey!" He blocks the hit with his forearm and punches the other's solar plexus with everything he has. Sasuke doubles up for a second, but he still manages to land a hit on Naruto's shoulder that spins him crashing into the wall.

"Do you want to be sedated again? Can't you just talk?"

Sasuke smirks at him just before grabbing his hair and smacking his head into the wall.

"Hyuuga heiress?" he hisses.

Naruto laughs. "Well, from behind--I mean, you're not as curvy as Hinata, and your fighting style was a dead giveaway, but, the prettiness--I mean, you're kind of like a taller Hanabi. With shorter hair."

Sasuke snorts. "Where the fuck are we?" he demands.

"Uncharted corners of an unfashionable end of the west arm of the galaxy. We're heading home for a break."


"To Hoshiigakure. The village hidden in the stars." Naruto grins.

Sasuke's eyes widen. "You're lying."

"No, I'm not. This ship is the village's main source of income."

"Space pirates run your village," Sasuke corrects.

Under his hold, Naruto shrugs, his grin shifting to a smirk. "We're excellent pirates."


The crew are all gathered in the mess hall when Naruto manages to talk Sasuke out of beating him to death and into getting a bite to eat. Sasuke walks through the door still scowling; Naruto has a lovely purple shiner gracing his left eye, courtesy of the latest 'Hyuuga heiress' crack he hadn't been able to supress. Kakashi has his feet up and is tugging idly at Iruka's ponytail; Iruka smacks his hand away irritably and continues typing into the finance sheet open on his portable plasma screen. Ino is sitting in Shikamaru's lap and trying to wake him up, and Kiba and Shino are playing backgammon in the corner, dice and pieces making a hell of a clickaclacking racket every time they hit the board. Sai is sitting at the crew table, face blank as usual, jotting notes in his little black book that nobody has yet been brave (or stupid) enough to attempt to read. Sakura has her feet in his lap and is scowling at the door.

Everyone snaps to attention when the newcomer makes his appearance. Sasuke stops at the entrance, swiftly evaluating threat levels and where the first hit's going to come from. Naruto rolls his eyes when he passes him, going over to the nearest seat and flopping into it.

"We're almost home, guys. Princess here's staying with us for the duration of this flight, until Tsunade and Ibiki decide what to do with him when we make port. He's promised not to bite until then."

The crew sniggers as one man; Sasuke is not impressed. He cuffs the little tosser's head as he circles him and heads for the food generator. He orders a tuna sandwich and a cup of tea, ignoring the 'bleugh' faces that he knows Naruto is making behind his back. Painting the walls with the blood of the crew members will be exhausting work, and he's still undecided on whether or not he can get away with it. It might make more sense to wait until his perceived inaction lulls the morons into a false sense of security, and then kill everybody and take over the ship.

Across the room, Shikamaru finally jolts awake, startling Ino in his lap. Ino flails as she falls, slapping the table at her back, which skyrockets a plate of mash across the room and into a Hyuuga's hair.

Ino and Shikamaru pretend as if nothing has happened. The Hyuuga seethes. Sasuke snorts on his way to a table. He doesn't want to sit by Naruto, but Naruto is the only person in the room he has actually met. After a few seconds of quiet deliberation, Sasuke makes his way towards an empty table. He's close to the clickety-snick of two crewmembers' game of backgammon. The one with tattoos on his face talks animatedly at his companion, "Aw, no fair, man!" and "Fuuuuuck, Shino, look at that," with a wolfish grin. His companion, Shino, is nearly silent.

A few minutes after Sasuke sits down, Naruto takes a seat beside him. He gives no outward indication of how he feels about this; inwardly, he pictures his lightning glove going through Naruto's chest. Kakashi would be pissed--he invented the glove, there are only two in the world. Sasuke's was meant to be a gift for self-defense and the protection of loved ones, but that's what Kakashi gets for not remembering exactly what Sasuke's goal in life is.

"So, what were you doing on that ship anyway, Sasuke? And why were you so hellbent on destroying it?"

Sasuke considers. Tell the idiot or don't, he's bound to get it from Kakashi at some point. "I was training. Orochimaru was teaching me some techniques in exchange for my help with a few of his trickier projects."

"Training? That's awesome! Do you want to spar sometime? I could really use another body to pummel." Naruto's grin is wide enough to charm most people into anything.

Sasuke glares at the arrogant little shit. Still, he has a point. His muscles feel stiff and achy after days of laying about in one position, and he would give his right lung for a good stretching session. He'll try not to kill Naruto; Kakashi would be furious, for one. For another, he really needs to stay on Naruto's lukewarm side, so that he can needle him into allowing Sasuke to borrow a shuttle and retrieve his team from the dying wreck he had marooned them on when it had become clear that it was time to kill Orochimaru or die himself; and then, of course, there's the matter of killing a charismatic captain in front of his crew, which never goes well.

"You're on," he murmurs quietly enough that only Naruto hears him; he hates to concede. His implied confidence is shattered by Naruto's loud yelling in response. He only just manages to finish his tea before Naruto drags him away, yet again. Sasuke deliberates between tripping him and breaking both his arms. He doubts that it would discourage the idiot, so he saves his energy for the fight. It doesn't escape his notice that the entire group from the mess hall is trailing behind them, eagerly placing bets on who bleeds first and what weapons they will choose.


"KICK HIS ASS, CAPTAIN!" Konohamaru shouts.

Naruto grins, twirling a practice knife in his hand. The knives are one of the most genius inventions of the 51st century; the hilt is the only tangible part of the knife, while the blade is only a projection. The knife is known for being an excellent indicator of who has landed the most blows due to its ability to project the wounds at the end of battle.

Sasuke takes a phaser and sets it to stun.

Sai stands at the edge of the arena, ready to count down. He raises his hand. "Three... Two... One..." He brings his hand down in a dramatic gesture, "Fight!"

"You are so cheating," Naruto taunts. "A phaser! I knew you were scared!"

Sasuke glares, stuffing the phaser into the waist of his belted baggy trousers. He eyes the distance between them carefully; three seconds later Naruto is staring up at the ceiling, back aching against the hard floor.

Fuck, I didn't even see him move, he thinks, pushing his weight up on one arm and flipping in the air to land very close into Sasuke's personal space. He looks into his eyes and there is something deep in his belly that goes, ping! He feels very dizzy all of a sudden; he is only half aware of someone catching him as he sways and loses touch with the ground, shouts erupting all around him. He wants to tell them he's ok, but he's not half sure if that would be the truth. The world is whirling, and his insides seem to be fighting to rearrange themselves. He thinks he might throw up and tugs weakly at the material clenched in his fist, trying to convey his urgency.

"Hawking, I hardly touched you! You are such a loser," he hears on his left. His weight is resettled and the world moves again--he is very much aware that he is being carried as if he weighs nothing. Either he's lost half of his body weight in the past thirty seconds, or the person currently cradling him to his chest is very strong indeed.

"Sasuke?" he tries to say, but only a weak groan comes out.

"Here, bring him to the infirmary. Jiraiya, have a full body scan waiting when we get there. What the hell did you do to him, Uchiha?"

Sasuke glares at Sakura. "Nothing--he just looked at me and fainted."

"Hey," Naruto protests quietly. Sakura looks incredibly relieved. Kakashi, keeping pace on his right, seems unsurprised and somewhat resigned.


Sakura slams her clipboard onto a table, causing Konohamaru and Kiba to jump. "It's not showing anything." She whirls on the extra crew members in the room. "Get back to work, I'm sure it's just a malfunction or something. I'll check him the old-fashioned way."

The small crowd of crew members leave, sans Konohamaru. He folds his arms and glares at Sakura.

"You, too, Kono--"

"I'm not leaving until I'm sure the captain's all right."

Sakura sighs and gives him a smile. "It's probably just something he ate. Now, you have to leave or else risk seeing the captain in various states of undress, and I'm not sure Naruto would appreciate that." She winks.

Konohamaru blushes. "Fine. You're sure he's okay?"

"Positive," Sakura insists, pushing him out of the room.

As soon as the door clicks shut, she hits the code to lock it. As a senior staff member, it is her code alone, and only Kakashi, Naruto, Iruka, Sai, and Yamato know the correct counter-codes.

"It's not a glitch," Sakura tells Kakashi.

Sai cocks his head, frowning. "Your smile was so convincing."

Sasuke ignores him. "If it's not a glitch, what is it?"

"I don't know." Sakura sighs again. "It's not food poisoning, or anything too mundane to be picked up on the main scanner--we have a secondary scanner to check for basics like that. It's not direct poisoning or--"

Naruto sits up at last. "One-seven-three-four-four-four-four-six-three--" at the same time a second voice emanates from the general area of Naruto's face, "Booting access codes for finding coordinates of--"

"Kakashi," Jiraiya booms.

"On it," Kakashi agrees, covering Naruto's mouth. "Sakura-chan, a sedative...?"

Sakura fills a syringe and moves to Naruto's side. Naruto doesn't protest, which is a first; even mostly unconscious and nearly dying after a run-in with the wrong group of Suna pirates, he'd protested Sakura sticking any kind of drugs in his body. He always insists that they make him feel like he isn't himself.


The sedative doesn't have the desired effect. Yes, Naruto slumps back down onto the infirmary bed, but his eyes remain open. The usual sky blue bleeds very slowly into fresh blood-red, pupils focused and aware. Not-Naruto turns his head to the right where Kakashi is standing, looking a little pale. The face that is Naruto's-and-yet-not grins at him, an almost feral grin showing Naruto's sharper-than-normal incisors that have never seemed so ominous before.

Not-Naruto's voice beams from his face; the effect is even more sinister because Naruto's mouth isn't forming words; it's simply hanging open, as if transmitting the sound. "Voice recognition match: Hatake Kakashi. At last. I take it the Uchiha brat has found him? Finally. I'm ready. Take me back to the mainframe."

Silence follows, the sort of silence that foreshadows a deadly storm.

"Fuuuuck," Jiraiya's exasperated voice sounds from the speakers. "I thought I locked down that program tighter. I can't believe it managed to override my firewalls and gain access over its host. I must be slipping in my old age."

"Program? Firewall? Host? You two, explain. That is an order. Or, am I no longer the second-in-command on this ship?"

The rest take a slow step away from a livid-looking Sakura. Kakashi makes soothing motions with his hands; she glares at him until he straightens and seems to snap to attention.

"Hatake Kakashi, Squad Leader, ANBU Black Ops. Identification code zero-zero-nine-seven-two-zero. I am hereby taking over the command of this ship until this situation is resolved. We return to Hoshiigakure immediately; Jiraiya, plot the fastest course, full speed ahead. Meanwhile, notify Tsunade and the Clan leaders. Send the following message. Recording: The situation has escalated alarmingly due to unforseen circumstances, which have resulted in us taking custody of one Uchiha Sasuke, to be secured in the infirmary until we dock. The U/U Project is go; I repeat - The U/U Project is go."

"Confirmed, Hatake Kakashi, Identification code zero-zero-nine-seven-two-zero. Your authorization is accepted by this vessel. Destination: Hoshiigakure. Estimated time of arrival: three hours, forty-five minutes."

The silence that follows is heavy with shock and betrayal. Sakura gapes at her former teacher, who is looking reluctant but determined; Sai, unnervingly, is standing to attention just behind him to his left. Sasuke's eyes narrow. The U/U Project? That had better not be what he thinks it is.

Not-Naruto closes his eyes. "Hatake Kakashi, Identification code zero-zero-nine-seven-two-zero. Your authorization is accepted. Rebooting host now."

Twenty seconds later, Naruto wakes up flailing and promptly falls off the bed.


"What's that supposed to even--" Naruto sputters incoherently, stumbling over the words in his rage. "You can't just--This is my ship!"

"We were going home, anyway," Kakashi reminds him, turning a page in the latest volume of the "Icha Icha Zero Gravity" series.

"After we stopped by the wreckage of Whirlpool's biggest ship, and found a place to drop off our space princess!" Naruto stares at the ceiling. "JIRAIYA."

"Sorry, kid, it's beyond my control," Jiraiya's voice booms from the ship's speakers, which is a lie; Jiraiya freed himself the single time they were attacked from the inside by a pair of engineers with no affiliation to a ship or alliance or city, despite most of the assault shutting down any control he had over the ship.

"Fuck," Naruto shouts. As he exits the infirmary, he passes Sasuke.

Sasuke snorts. "Hoshiigakure, eh?" There's a soft look of curiosity and fondness that seems to make Sasuke look several years younger, and several degrees prettier.

"Looks like you won't be able to get off the ship yet, princess," Naruto replies, because if he's thinking about Sasuke appearing prettier, he needs to reclaim some of his masculinity through manly exchanging of insults.

Sasuke grunts his acknowledgment, but makes no move to hit him. Naruto vaguely recognizes this as an improvement in the tiny part of him that isn't seething and is actually just a little bit scared of the new developments. There is something inside him, has been for fuck-knows-how-long, and he never even realized that he was cohabiting in his own body. Sakura has recounted what happened while he was out, and the very idea of him being a host to some fucking program is messing with his head something fierce. He reaches a bathroom and ducks inside quickly. He stands in front of the mirror, staring at himself. Nothing looks different; he doesn't feel any different. How is he supposed to know it's all true?

The door snicks open and Naruto whirls around, still on edge. He relaxes ever so slightly at the sight of Iruka keying the door shut. Oh fuck, Iruka. What must he think of him now, when he's nothing but a shell for the contaiment of a bunch of ones and zeroes?

Iruka looks at him, and it hasn't changed from the way he looked at him yesterday, and the day before, and a year ago, a mixture of fond exasperation and fierce affection.

"You doing all right, Naruto? I know it's a lot to take in, but Tsunade will explain when we get back. It really isn't as bad as you think."

"You... you know about this, Iruka-nii?"

"I've known ever since you've been born. I was very close to Sarutobi-sama."

"Konohamaru's granddad?"

"Yes. He was my sensei when I was younger, and he grew to trust my judgment. He was also a bit of a mentor to your father; he was the first person your father went to when it was clear what had to be done."

"But--but you never said anything... You were always so nice to me..."

"I never saw a reason not to be nice to you. Do you?"

"But I'm just some kind of freaking robot!" Naruto wails and smacks his fist down on the chrome sink hard enough to rattle the mirror.

"Naruto... Stop it. Don't say-- You have never been, nor will you ever be, just some kind of robot. You are my brother, you always will be. That blood-kin crap is overrated. I love you, okay? Now stop with the angsting, it'll give you premature wrinkles."

He pretends not to see when Naruto discreetly wipes at his eyes.


The announcement that they have arrived at Hoshiigakure booms over the loudspeakers in Jiraiya's voice. "Oi! You lot best get ready, we're landing in five minutes. Kakashi, be aware that ANBU Team Sigma have been deployed and request that you have your report ready for an immediate debriefing."

"Is Tsunade there? She's got some explaining to do," Naruto snarks. The bitterness in his voice is unexpected and jarring in a speech heretofore devoid of it.

"Tsunade-hime is indeed present, as are the heads of the Five Clans. They have requested an audience with you as soon as you are able, Naruto."

"Oh, don't you worry. They're going to get one."

Sasuke stands to the side, hands clasped in front of him with forcefield restraints. Kakashi sure knows his stuff--there is no way he can get out of those with enough time to spare to hijack the ship before it lands. This should have made him furious, but he is strangely complacent in the whole being-a-captive scenario. The mention of Hoshiigakure sets off strange harmonics in his mind, ones he can't easily discard. There is also the inescapable fact that he seems to be involved with whatever took over Naruto's body, and that Kakashi is fully aware of it.

Sasuke dislikes being lied to.


Hoshiigakure is everything the legends say; from the outside, as they enter the city, it looks like nothing more than a field of stars, not unlike the billions behind it. The camouflage technology being applied is, in itself, a miracle of modern science. Naruto's ship, the Soragakure, enters Hoshii's port. As the wall slides shut behind him, Sasuke knows all hope of escape is gone.

Seconds after the ship stops moving, the air is re-pressurized and the wall in front slides away to reveal a hangar. Naruto is at the ship's air lock, waiting to be released into the room before the ship can be brought to a halt in front of a group of mechanics and Hoshiigakure residents.

"Naruto," Kakashi calls, calm as ever. "Tsunade is coming on board."

Naruto frowns. "Tell her to hurry up."

Sasuke stares at the ship's controls, figuring out the engage, eject, and other escape-related buttons until, at last, the door opens, revealing Tsunade of Konohagakure's infamous trio of space pirates. Her glare makes him feel seven years old all over again. Sasuke scowls in defiance.

"Uchiha! Do you know how much trouble you've caused us, trying to find you all those years? Itachi has been singularly unhelpful, the sneaky weasel! And Orochimaru! I should have known."

Sasuke stares, dumbstruck. Tsunade knows Orochimaru and Itachi? Itachi passing information over to her? What? He opens his mouth to say--he's not sure what exactly, but he is preempted.

"And you!" She points a red-tipped, manicured finger at Naruto, who glares defiantly, and a little desperately. "Stop freaking out! That's an order!"

Naruto's eyes goggle, almost popping out of his head. A vein starts pulsing on his forehead and he slowly turns an orangey-red colour. He opens his mouth, and no one in the room has a doubt that the explosion will be spectacular. Then everyone freezes when Tsunade closes the distance between them in three strides and wraps her arms around the livid boy, squishing him to her ample chest. Naruto doesn't make a sound apart from a small squeak, though no one knows if that's by choice or because he can't breathe. He is still for a brief moment, then his arms lift to clutch at Tsunade's back.

"I remember what that used to feel like... Oh, how I miss the softness of those breasts on my chest! Some days not having a physical body is too much to bear!" Jiraiya's voice moans dramatically.

Naruto sputters and yanks himself away. "Jiraiya, you old pervert! No one wants to hear it!"

Tsunade glares at the screen and folds her arms, making her breasts jut out even more. A strangled squawk comes from the speakers. "Hm," she sneers and grabs Naruto and Sasuke by an arm each, dragging them away through the door and out into the splendour that is Hoshii. "We'll be in a meeting with the heads of the Five Clans and the elders, until further notice. Kakashi, you and Sai debrief the ANBU team, then join us. Iruka, have the crew begin unloading the ship. You'll be heading out again in less than twelve hours."

"Twelve hours?" Naruto screeches. "But--we're already home, that's not even enough time to rest!"

"We're all on a tight schedule, brat. I hope you brought home enough loot."

"You stopped the mission before we got to the best ship wreck!"

"Tough," Tsunade replies. "We're in a tight spot right now."


"The safest course of action would be to remove the problems," Koharu says.

Tsunade glares. "And how do you propose we 'remove the problems'?"

Koharu shrugs. "One of the issues is the Uchiha's eyes, is it not?"

"Are you suggesting we blind a young man who has just become our ally?"

Sasuke opens his mouth to protest being referred to as an ally, but Naruto elbows him. "The other option is that they kill you," Naruto hisses.

"He is not the only one capable of activating the program sleeping within Naruto," Tsunade continues. "Perhaps we should just lobotomize our best captain for the good of the colony."

Homura raises his eyebrows. "Something needs to be done."

"WHAT?" Naruto covers his face. "NO ONE NEEDS TO LOBOTOMIZE ANYONE."

"The program cannot be deactivated without causing irreversible damage to Naruto; death would be a kindness. That is not an option," Nara Shikaku says. "Carving out Sasuke's eyes would also be a waste, given that his brother carries the same technology in his head. There are rumors circulating that the group that has been hunting Naruto have an upgraded version of the eyes in their ranks, as well."

Tsunade steeples her fingers. "As evidenced by the failures of Kumo to keep Yugito Nii out of Akatsuki's hands, regardless of how strong or clever one of the program carriers is, they must never be left alone. Alone is vulnerable."

Koharu narrows her eyes. "Gaara of Suna was not alone," she points out.

"And he is still alive," Tsunade agrees.

"Nobody is going to be maimed. Okay?" Choza Akimichi has that look on his face that his enemies (and barbeque joints everywhere) have learned to fear. "I will not let Minato and Kushina's boy be victimized and disfigured to satisfy the meddlings of two old crows who should have stepped down years ago. That goes for Fugaku and Mikoto's boy, as well."

The Elders bristle but quiet down very quickly when they see the other Five Clans' Heads nodding in agreement. Naruto peeks over his hands to peer over at Choza. "Um, thanks, Akimichi-san? I'm really not too keen on the idea, either."

Sasuke sits to the side quietly, somewhat stunned to be protected by the very people who, he has been told over and over again for years by Orochimaru and his lackeys, were responsible for his parents' deaths and his exile and persecution. He notices Shikaku eyeing him consideringly. Just when he's about to look away, he could swear he is being winked at. It's gone in the blur of an eyelash and he has no idea if it's actually real or a figment of his imagination.

"It's decided then," Tsunade concurs. "The two boys will leave with a suitable escort, and we will get to the bottom of this Kyuubi thing once and for all!" She slams her fist on the table in emphasis, nearly cracking the thick wood plank in two. "They can have Kakashi, obviously, and Gaara, because he's dealt with this before, and..." Tsunade gets a gleam in her eye, "Gai is currently shipless after the Green Beast was shipwrecked in a fit of flight training. How many times do I have to tell the idiot not to let that runt, Lee, pilot without supervision, I really don't know," she sighs deeply. Something is off about her behavior, Sasuke thinks, though he doesn't really know her. She seems to be taking every criticism a bit too easily. "Gai's free--Kakashi, don't give me that face, you're taking him and that's final--they can have Haku and Zabuza's ship as well, to watch their backs. Does anyone have a problem with this plan?"

The Elders open their mouths to argue, their faces an ugly purple colour. Homura speaks first, "But that's practically our strongest force! And you want to send them out to protect what is practically a lost cause? That demon boy will never amount to anything, and you'll just end up dooming our defense to his 'black hole' tendencies--he devours anything and anyone around him and spits them out like so much space dust!"

Tsunade draws herself up to her full height. "You would do well to remember to whom you are speaking, Homura, Koharu. My decision is still final on this ship. Don't like it--take it up with the pirates out there who are sick and tired of Akatsuki interfering with their livelihoods. We have to make a stand--we have to make this stand, otherwise this will never be over. We have a real chance to fix this, once and for all. I have the support of the people, and so does Naruto. I'm taking it and running with it. It may have escaped your notice that the 'demon boy' has grown up to be our best captain out there. There is no one I'd rather have fighting on my side than him."

Kakashi stands, wary of the impending battle and keen to seize advantage. "Right. I'm off to round up the troops. We leave in three hours. Badger, release Uchiha Sasuke. He is, as of this moment, a part of Konoha's force whether he likes it or not. Chip him."

Much as he approves of Tsunade and Kakashi's loyalty and hardassedness, Sasuke is damned if he's going to let them stick a tracking chip under his fucking skin. He narrows his eyes at ANBU Special Ops' Badger, who is heading his way with the forcefield codes. He calculates furiously. The two elders have their heads together; his still oversensitive hearing distinguishes "Danzou", and "gets here", and "twelve more minutes", and he knows they have to make a run for it or Tsunade is going to get shut down faster than she can break through the wall. The masked soldier gets closer and reaches for the keypad, typing in the code; Sasuke looks up straight into Kakashi's eyes. He sees the tiny, almost-not-there-at-all nod and head shift to the side. Kakashi is already busy whispering into his communicator; Sasuke thinks very, very fast for a moment. Fight or flight? His choice does not sit well with the tiny, bloodthirsty core that longs for these people's destruction and death at his hands. Then, he looks at Naruto, grinning happily at him without a care in the world, and his choice is made for him before he even realizes.

Nanoseconds later, everything changes. He sees the shift from relaxed to faked nonchalance behind Naruto's eyes and realises that he may be an idiot, but Naruto is far from clueless when it comes to reading situations. Sasuke supposes this is what has kept him alive all this time. He gets ready. Six seconds later, his restraints come off, Naruto reaches for his arm, and all hell breaks lose.

The doors to the meeting room glide open from all sides, the signs of an obvious hack into the ship's controls. Naruto darts out the nearest door, which shuts behind them. Seconds later, it opens again. Sasuke follows Naruto down the hall, back to the ship hangar, doors opening and closing all around them seemingly at random.

As they round a corner, Naruto nearly plows into a masked man and his very feminine companion. "Time to go!" Naruto calls, not bothering to slow down.

"Hey, you little shit, stay the fuck away from our ship!" the masked man calls.

"Can't!" Naruto replies. "Fleeing, now!"

"Fuck," the man growls, charging after Naruto and Sasuke. He's faster than Sasuke expected, catching up with Naruto quickly and taking the lead.

Naruto grins at Sasuke. "Follow me," he mouths, making an abrupt right after the masked man.

The man lopes down the corridor like the fires of hell are at his heels which, in a manner of speaking, is not an entirely unfounded comparison. Sasuke risks a glimpse back and notices Kakashi running after them, making shooing motions with his hands urging them to go faster, Sai hard at his heels, his naked short sword gleaming in the hall lights. They quickly catch up and race alongside the smaller man? Woman? Whatever, Sasuke has no time for guessing games. They reach the end of the pathway and get spat out in Hoshii's huge hangar. Aircrafts of all descriptions clutter the vast space; people are absolutely everywhere and the noise is nigh intolerable. Sasuke's head pounds but he keeps his pace--he can't afford to slow down. They weave between the ships and people and machinery and cargo until Sasuke is almost dizzy from all the distractions. His body reminds him of his recently sedated state more insistently than he appreciates; he almost trips as the dizziness threatens to overwhelm him. What the fuck had those idiots dosed him with that hasn't worn off in so many hours?

At the far end of the hangar he blurrily spots a very, very large vessel whose body is a sandy-yellow color; the ship seems to be vibrating, its enormous engines geared up and ready to go. Sasuke wonders briefly what happened to the Soragakure, but he's willing to go with it. At the last moment, though, the huge man accelerates off to the left, Naruto in hot pursuit. Sasuke has no choice but to follow. Less than twenty seconds later they reach a much smaller ship, barely enough space for the five of them. The masked man keys a code into his wristpad while still maintaining his speed. A space opens in the side; the runway lowers so fast it looks like it falls off the shell. They thunder up it and inside the belly of the ship; the runway slams shut behind them. The engines are already running and before Sasuke knows it they are taking off, not waiting for the Hoshii's permission. Sasuke yelps in a very undignified manner as they head straight for the forcefield that separates the hangar from open space, at almost space warp speed. He braces for the impending impact, head still spinning.

Naruto reaches for Sasuke's arm and drags him into a seat, clipping his seatbelt and yelling "Check!" louder than is necessary. He does the same to himself; dimly Sasuke notices that everyone else is already strapped in. He wants to kick himself--he totally, honest-to-Hawking spaced out in front of all these people? Naruto will never let him live it down.

The forcefield parts like it isn't even there and Sasuke notices that they are not the only ships to slip past the already reinforcing field. The huge sandy ship has just overtaken them, followed by a greenish hulk that looks familiar. The large man and his companion are pressing buttons frantically at the pilot console and yelling at each other at the same time.

As soon as the ship calms down, Sasuke turns to Naruto. "Explain," he says.

"Weeeeell~" Naruto begins. "There's this guy from Konoha who has been trying to shut us down for a while, and then the elders, so we had Haku and Zabuza hack Hoshii, and the Soragakure's in orbit somewhere out there, with Sakura piloting, and we'll be meeting up with allies near our previous destination." He glares at Kakashi for a moment. "Not like there would have been a problem at all if we'd just gone with my plan to finish our usual rounds."

Sasuke raises an eyebrow.

"We were sold out by the two elders," Kakashi explains.

"Ah." He gestures at the two pilots. "And--?"

"Momochi Zabuza and his companion, Haku!" Naruto says. Haku gives a slight wave from the front. Zabuza grunts.

The radio crackles to life, "Fruit Basket, respond." It's Tsunade's voice, Sasuke realizes after a moment.

"That is the worst codename ever!" Naruto replies.

Haku giggles. "Fruit Basket, clear. Has the base been secured?"

"Yes, but I'm afraid the Soragakure is being detained. Part of the crew managed to get out, and are replanning their destination. You will need back-up, and a larger ship. I'm opening a line to the Puppeteer."

Tsunade's voice is gone, replaced by a male voice. "Communications could be intercepted. Fruit Basket, do you read?"

"Loud and clear, Puppeteer!" Haku replies.

"We're receiving communications from Sora's crew. Meet at rendezvous point 13, Little Bro's favorite swim spot."

"Location confirmed," Haku replies.

The radio goes silent.

"What." Sasuke scowls.

"Is the radio clear?" Naruto asks.

"We are neither receiving, nor sending any signals."

"Okay, Little Bro's favorite swim spot is Gaara's favorite oasis. It's a secluded place, since a lot of Suna residents think it's cursed," Naruto explains. "We used to go there a lot."

"Gaara, of Suna?" Sasuke asks. "Suna's leader?"

"Yeah, him. He's one of Hoshii's strongest allies. Before this incident where I may or may not have accidentally been kidnapped by Suna, due to an incident where I may or may not have drunkenly boarded the wrong ship, Suna were only our allies because they hated Konoha. Now, though, it's because Gaara is awesome."

Sasuke nods. He makes a mental note to do himself a favor and just murder the next person who mistakes him for a space princess. The crazy is clearly contagious enough to affect even mighty leaders of countries.

Zabuza shifts a huge stick in the side of the pilot console and the ship lurches.

"I told you to stop using the handbreak every time you want the ship to stop! Why did we even bother to get the upgrade if you wouldn't let us get rid of that primitive device?" Haku wants to know.

Zabuza turns in his chair and gives him a Look. "You weren't complaining last night," he growls and Haku flushes.

Naruto snorts. "Flirt on your own time! We need to get to the Whirlpool ship's wreckage so we can meet up with our back-up. I'd really like to get back on my own ship, thanks."

Sasuke thinks fast, then decides the more hands on deck the better. "Half a lightyear away in the Delta quadrant there is another wreck, an old Mist ship. There should be three very pissed off people waiting to be picked up. Could the two of you fly over there while we meet with the rest of the crew at the Whirlpool wreck?"

Zabuza snorts. "What are we, your lackeys? Why don't you and Blondie here pick them up yourselves?"

Sasuke grimaces. "I would, but we are heading in the exact opposite direction. Unless you'd let me borrow your ship and go myself..."

Zabuza's howl of outrage almost pierces his eardrums before Haku sidles over to him and slaps a palm over his mask, cutting the noise levels in half. "That's fine, we'll go ourselves. It's not too far off the way to the rendezvous point, anyway, is it, dear?"

Zabuza scowls, grumbling loudly behind the restricting hand.

Sasuke smirks and turns around only to smack straight into Naruto's glowering face. "What now?" Naruto yells. "There's more of you? I thought you burned that ship to a crisp!"

"I did," Sasuke smirks in satisfaction. "I just left my crew out of harm's way beforehand, and I need to retrieve them."

"What? NO! No more mouths to feed! Do you know how few food supplies we have on Sora? There's hardly enough ramen to go round at the best of times!"

"...There's a medic on my team? C'mon, think of how much Sakura would enjoy comparing notes with her!" Sasuke knows a weak spot when he sees one. "Think of what she'll do if she finds out you could have let her compare notes with my medic, but chose not to. Karin is made of revolutionary technology."

Naruto wonders just when the bastard learned all his soft spots. His aim is dead on. "How come you didn't said anything before?" he bickers in the hope of rediscovering his cojones.

"Before WHEN? We only met less than three days ago!"

"...Really?" Naruto is stumped. He can't believe he's only known the asshole for such a short time, and already he can't remember what he did with himself before Sasuke showed up.

Sasuke shrugs. "There were other things happening. Why would I reveal my crew's location to potential enemies?"

Naruto opens his mouth to protest, then closes it. He gives a slight nod of acknowledgment. "Okay. So, what are they going to contribute to my crew that my crew couldn't do on its own?"

Sasuke smirks. "Juugo is a communications/combat expert. He was working on a project to speak with animals, but out of the subjects, he was the only one who was a success. He was formerly employed by Orochimaru. Suigetsu is a combat expert with a good record in hacking into ships, and--"

"Tch, he's an amateur," Zabuza snorts. "Trust me, kid, Suigetsu isn't even half as good as me."

Sasuke sneers. "He has been in Orochimaru's base for over ten years. I'm sure he is far above what you recall. The last member of my crew is Karin. She knows everything there is to know about the human body, because she is in constant communication with the nanomachines in her bloodstream. She can track people from over a galaxy away if she implants even one, and she's the best surgeon in the universe because of them."

Naruto's eyes widen in awe. "Your crew is so cool!"

"Juugo, known for having wiped an entire colony on the western sector of Epsilon Eridani. Suigetsu, hijacked no less than seventeen A-Class ships transporting--" Kakashi says, not looking up from the backlit copy of "Icha Icha Zero Gravity" etched in digital ink across his iZetta.

"Fourteen," Zabuza corrects, relaxing as the pre-planned course takes over the ship's controls. "Three of those were mine, he was sitting back at the ship with Haku."

"--Right. Transporting supplies including but not limited to food, medicine, water, information regarding the former head of Kirigakure, solar crysts, and, of course, money. Karin, found by Orochimaru after her colony was wiped out in an attack. She willingly worked for Orochimaru," Kakashi punctuates his list with a little clicket sound as he mashes the Next Page button on his iZetta.

"...So, they're all criminals?" Naruto clarifies.


Sasuke sighs.

"COOL. SO ARE WE." Naruto beams. "That's why Hinata couldn't come--she was too nice to steal valuables from people. Sometimes, though, you've gotta loot a ship crash to get by."

"Looting the ship is not the same as hijacking it, kid," Zabuza says.

"No, but that's why we have you. We don't hijack the ships unless we need to."

"Now where's all the fun in that?" Zabuza smirks, pulling out a huge sword and setting off to polish it lovingly. Haku rolls his eyes.

Naruto's jaw drops audibly. "Where the hell did you get hold of that? You definitely didn't have this last time I saw you!"

"It's been a while, huh? I won this baby in a bet!"

"Who from?"

"Some guy in a pub."

"Oh, crap. Please tell me you didn't let him get smashed and gamble again?"

Haku shakes his head. "I was asleep. He wore me out and slipped away while I was recovering."

"Dude, not cool!"

"I didn't give away any codes this time, all right, so get off my back! Jeeze, made a mistake one time-"

Naruto cuts him off. "Finally! There's Sora-chan! Home, sweet home!"

Sasuke looks between the weird couple. "So--I can leave my crew's recovery to you?"

"Yeah, sure. Fuck, you whine too much."

Sasuke glares at him. Naruto sniggers and hods him back, so he can't eviscerate Zabuza before they board the Soragakure.


"Sakura-chan! I'm home!"

He gets a thump to the back of his head for his troubles.

"I can't believe you agreed to have more people on this ship! This lot is enough!"

"C'mon, Sakura-chan, I couldn't leave them stranded, could I? We need more people, you know that." Nearly a quarter of Soragakure's crew was left at Hoshii. That's a greater loss than Naruto or Sakura had expected; limitations on space and food supply be damned, they really could use the extra help.

Sakura folds her arms and glares at Sasuke. He is dirty, and sweaty, and dusty from all the running, and Sakura wants to lick him. Sasuke narrows his eyes back at her.

"Can you neanderthals tell me where I can wash? And it would be really nice to see a bed sometime today." His head is still blurry and he really needs to lie down before he collapses right in front of the enemy. Sakura looks at him for a moment, deciding whether she cares enough; apparently her irritation wins out and she exhales heavily.

"Naruto, show him to D549. I've had Jiraiya clean it up and take off the antibacterial sheets on the furniture."

Naruto splutters. "But that's right next door to me! I don't want Princess that close! A captain needs his privacy!"

It only earns him another whack on his head.

"Fine. Come along, you," he grumbles and leads the way out of the mess hall. Sasuke grabs a sandwich off of the plate on the nearest table and tries to walk out sedately behind Naruto, with limited success. He can feel his knees starting to give already. Why did he let himself get this exhausted? He is absolutely NOT fainting collapsing in front of Naruto.

They make it to his designated sleeping space with minimum interruption, which for Naruto means being stopped at least twice by various crew members to say "hi" or be congratulated on his escape. At least it gives him the chance to munch his sandwich away. Finally they get to the right door before Sasuke makes a fool of himself all over the floor. He realizes he is already making enough of a fool of himself when he catches himself ogling said idiot's broad shoulders and toned ass that are walking ever so close in front of him, getting even closer as they stop in front of the door...

Sasuke trips and slams full-body into Naruto's back, grunting at the impact. He can smell musk, and sweat, and soap, and something he's not entirely sure of, but which has an extremely vivid effect on his nether regions. Naruto flattens himself to the wall, taking Sasuke's weight, a surprised 'oomph' escaping as he is winded by the blow. Sasuke is horrified when all he can feel is smooth, hard muscle beneath the thin jumpsuit. Not. Good. He must be more exhausted than he thought if he's getting turned on by the blond moron. The extremely fit blond moron... Shut up, libido!

He pushes away as fast as his shaking legs allow, muttering a quick 'sorry'.

"That's okay," Naruto tells him, still breathing harder than normal. "The code is 549800. The bathroom is just down the hall to the right there, D546, there's a shower sign on the door... Well, you can find your way around. If you need anything I'm right next door, okay? Okay. Goodnight then."

Sasuke grunts, barely able to focus on anything but Naruto's moving lips. He twitches uncomfortably and practically falls into his room when Naruto keys the door open.

"Are you alright?" Naruto wants to know, concerned with Sasuke's lack of balance.

"'M fine," Sasuke slurs, suddenly absolutely exhausted and unable to keep up his pretense. "Just need a shower and then I can sleep."

"Don't be ridiculous, you can't have a shower when you're this out of it, you'll slip and crack your head or something. Have one when you wake up in a few hours."

"But I'm disgusting," Sasuke points out; to his horror it comes out more like a child's whine.

Naruto smirks. "Well, I can't let you go in the shower alone in this condition, and I'm not going in there with you... unless you ask very nicely."

Sasuke recovers enough to glower darkly at him. "Fuck off," he tells him and passes out across the perfectly made bed.


Sasuke enters the dining hall the next morning smelling of cheap, probably stolen shampoo and high-quality, definitely stolen soap. Naruto is nowhere to be found, but he is the captain and there is no reason for him to be mingling with the crew when he could be captaining his ship.

The breakfast line is gone, but the crew's still mostly-present, seated at tables scattered about the room. Sasuke can't remember most of the crew's names--Nara Something, related to the clan head who had winked at Sasuke yesterday sat with the blonde... whatever-her-name-was, and a larger teen, both of whom are likely related to two more of the clan heads from yesterday.

Sasuke grabs a plate, placing an apple and a bagel on it. He glances over his shoulder, wondering if any of the crew will notice or care if he went into the kitchen to scavenge for a few tomatoes.

After a few seconds' debate with himself, Sasuke vetoes the idea. The apples aren't quite fresh, and tomatoes are a rarity. They would surely be in the food if there were any available.

Sasuke takes a seat at an empty table, away from the rest of the crew. Sakura takes a seat across from him, moments later. "Kakashi tells me you have a friend with nanomachines."

Sasuke looks up. He grunts his agreement, taking a bite out of his bagel.

"So. Where is this person?" Sakura asks.

Sasuke waits until he finishes chewing to reply, "Karin is currently about half a lightyear away. Zabuza and his companion said they would bring my crew back here. It will probably take a few days."

Sakura frowns, raising one eyebrow. "You... don't know much about Hoshii's ship work, do you?"

"What?" Sasuke takes another bite of his bagel, chewing slowly. "One half of a lightyear--if you've got a particularly good warp drive, it will take just under two days."

Sakura laughs. "We don't have any particularly good ships," she purrs. "We have customized ships, built by pirates like Zabuza and Haku who make their living by outrunning the rest of the universe. The estimated time for half a lightyear, round trip, is twelve hours. You've slept for eleven."


Naruto stumbles out of the second cold shower he's had to take today. One was due to hot, sweaty weapons practice with Kiba. The other was... not. It was that pretty bastard's fault. Pretty much everything had been for the past few days. Why did he have to go and be all... Sasuke-ish? He huffs a lungful of steamy air in irritation.

"Captain, your presence is required on deck," Jiraiya says, and Naruto instantly dislikes this new, more formal side of him that the Incident (capital "I") unlocked.

"On my way," he says loud enough for the microphone to pick his voice up twice over. The ship with Sasuke's crew must have arrived. "Hey, Jiraiya, how long until we reach the Whirlpool crash site?"

"About six hours, give or take a bit."

Right. So he only has to put up with the impostors for six hours at worst. He is curious, true, and they did sound awesome, but as the captain of a ship and having the well-being of ten crewmembers to look out for, it's a different bowl of ramen altogether.

He makes it to the bridge just as Kakashi is coming up as well, Iruka striding swiftly beside his slouching figure.

"Status?" Kakashi barks.

"Haku and Zabuza have landed and the passengers are disembarking into the cargo bay. There are five life signs at present; Haku and Zabuza are confirmed to be among them."

"All right," Kakashi addresses the gathered crew members. "We're going to go down there nice and calm, relieve the three strangers of their weapons, and offer them some tea. Understood?"

A chorus of grunts is his answer and everyone troops out of the door towards cargo bay. When they get there they pour out and circle the three unknown characters, taking in their bizarre appearances. Having Sakura on their ship has inured them to weird coloring, but the bright blue hair is a surprise even to those most used to the strangeness.

Naruto shoulders his way to the front. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto, captain of the Soragakure. Welcome to the ship. You'll understand, I hope, that we have to run some weapons checks on you before we allow you free run of the vessel. Sasuke, you have five minutes before we take them away for debriefing. Iruka--take away their weapons, please."

A handful of crew members stay nearby just in case something goes horribly awry, but only Sasuke and Naruto stand near enough to Sasuke's crew to be in any potential danger.

Iruka steps forward to the tallest one first. "Hello, and welcome to the Soragakure," he says pleasantly. "My name is Umino Iruka. Please hand over any weapons that may be in your possession. You may have them back after we have confirmed your loyalties; this is just a safety precaution."

The first crew member turns out his pockets. "I fight hand-to-hand, mostly," he explains. "My name is Juugo, nice to meet you."

Iruka shakes his hand, smiling back. He waves a metal detector over Juugo. "You're clear!"

The next stranger looks sullen. He scowls at Iruka. "Zabuza already got mine," he says.

"Mine, actually," Zabuza corrects, leaning on an even larger sword than the one from yesterday. The position of the drooping mask over his face suggests a wide grin.

Iruka swipes him with the metal detector before waving him on. The last is Karin, he presumes. "Hello," Iruka says, smiling. He always hates these procedures; they alienate strangers. On the other hand, it would be stupid not to do them, so he does.

Karin gives a forced smile. "I don't fight, if I can help it," she explains. "I'm a medic."

Iruka nods, waving the metal detector over her. It goes wild.

"Nanomachines," Sasuke explains.

Naruto grins. "She'll need to be strip-searched."

Karin sputters, before focusing on Sasuke with a dirty leer. "But, you trust Sasuke, right? He can give me a strip-search. Then I wouldn't feel embarrassed by exposing myself to strangers." She looks hopefully at Iruka, biting her lip and batting her eyelashes. The sheer range of emotion she goes through in so little time astounds Naruto.

"Procedure," Iruka says with a darkening blush, "dictates that a trusted, female crew member does the deed, so as not to risk sexual harassment. Sakura-chan?"

Karin looks immediately put-out. Sasuke appears almost relieved, but maybe that's just relief at the safe return of his crew members that Naruto is seeing.

Sakura steps forward, her cheeks pink like her hair. "Really?" she deadpans.

Iruka nods, unable to meet hers or Karin's eyes.

Naruto snickers. "We'll see you both in a minute, then, right?"


Sakura returns, even redder in the face than ten minutes ago. Naruto takes one look at her and bursts out laughing, bent in two and almost falling over with the effort. Sakura strides straight past him, knocking him in the ribs hard when she comes near. Naruto lets out a loud "oof" and falls over, still laughing his head off. "Does the carpet match the curtains?" he wheezes and disolves in guffaws again, rolling over on his back facing the ceiling. Sasuke watches him, amused and embarassed in equal parts though he's rather eat sand than show the latter.

Sakura stops. Everyone around her freezes, suddenly incredibly wary of her temper. She turns in place very, very slowly, to face Naruto again. The idiot is still giggling, completely unaware of the danger he's placing himself in. At the sudden absence of sound the laughter trails off bit by bit; he turns over on his stomach and looks at Sakura, who practically has steam coming off the top of her head. At the sight Naruto finally comes to his senses; he stares at her for a few more seconds before getting up ungracefully and dusting himself off with faked nonchalance. Sakura starts growling; Naruto takes that as his cue to leg it.

"No, no, please! Eheheh! You know I was only kidding, Sakura-chan! Help!"

Sakura runs after him with single-minded determination. The rest of the crew shake their heads at them, too used to this to even comment. Karin chooses this moment to come back in, adjusting several straps and buckles on her uniform.

"Er, sorry about that," Iruka scratches at the back of his head and sighs. "Shall we?" He leads them out of the cargo bay and into the mess hall to wait for Kakashi's orders and to arrange the interview places.


"I assure you, I am being entirely honest; I stay with Sasuke because he can reign me in, in case my bloodlust gets out of hand. I am fully loyal to him. If he is in turn loyal to you, they you have my word I will fight with you and abide by your laws."

"Thank you, Juugo." Kakashi stands and moves on to the next one. "Suigetsu. You know what? I'll spare you the recounter of everything you've done. My question to you is this: can you follow Hoshii's orders, or can you not?"

"Maaan, this is so boring. I hack into shit. That's what I do. You want a ship taken over--great. Just don't tell me I can't do this or I can't do that. I'm my own man."

Kakashi just looks at him.

Suigetsu blows out a puff of air. "Fine. Yes, I'll lake your orders--as long as you station me with Zabuza. There's a few tricks I want to blackmail him into teaching me. Plus, he has my sword and I'm not going to stay away from my baby."

"He says it's his sword."

"Hey, I looted it fair and square! If he's passed out in a bar, he can't complain that his stuff gets taken, now can he? Anyway, I'm gonna win it back from him."

Kakashi scratches his head and decides that's as good as they're going to get from Suigetsu. "Welcome to the crew," he says, not unkindly. "Go find Zabuza, bug him to brief you. Tell him you're part of his crew now. I'm sure he'll just love that!"

Suigetsu grins, showing teeth sharper than is strictly natural. "Fantastic!" he yelps and is gone in a swirl of blue and white. Kakashi smirks. He should get a most entertaining visit tonight.

For now--the last one, and the most valuable in his opinion.

"Karin," he says. "It is to our understanding that you have valuable medical knowledge."

Karin holds his gaze. She does not respond.

"The cost of staying on this ship will be for you to share this knowledge with our medic. Is this acceptable?"

Karin raises an eyebrow. "What, no bullshit about how I should obey Hoshii's orders?"

Kakashi smiles under his mask. "You'll be working with Sakura. I don't believe you'll have a choice."

Karin narrows her eyes. "Right."


At lunch, Sasuke's crew gathers around Sasuke. Naruto and Sakura take seats at the same table. There is a brief staring match between Sakura and Karin before the conversation picks up.

"So," Naruto says. "Working with Zabuza and Haku. How did that go?"

Suigetsu sneers. "Miserably."

"You know, when Zabuza starts getting handsy with Haku, that's just a method of keeping people away. He probably figures you'll give them their space." Naruto takes a sip of the canned... he's-not-sure-what juice. They're down to the questionably-flavored liquids; they need to make another hit for food and water, preferably soon.

Suigetsu frowns, clearly thinking this over. "So, if I ignore him...?"

"It'll get worse," Naruto admits. "But then he'll get annoyed and nine times out of ten, he'll give you what you want just to make you shut up. It's foolproof."


"How much longer?" Naruto yammers, terribly antsy and wanting to land already. The wreck is bound to have some canned food supplies left over, and he is desperate at this point. They are scheduled to come up to the Whirlpool crash site any minute now--Jiraiya is already slowing Soragakure down to intercept the orbit. The Power of Youth, and Naruto has absolutely no idea how someone could come up with such cringeworthy name and actually mean it, because Gai did, is already waiting at the rendezvous point just a couple hundred miles off the crashed ship.

"Jiraiya, set us down and open a communication channel to the... fuck, I'm not calling it that, I might vomit if I have to say it again; to Gai's ship."

"Comms open; go ahead, captain."

"We're setting down now, Gai, can you come in, too? Haku wants to have a go at your ship so you don't embarass us in front of the Suna crowd."

"Of course, Naruto! And may I say it is a singular pleasure to hear your youthful and energetic voice again? I have longed for many months for our next meet, when I could get the chance to quiz you on your always present exuberance--"

"Hello to you, too, Gai," Naruto sighs in defeat. No matter how many times he wants to go straight to business, it never quite works. "We'll have no more than three hours, tops. Okay? This wreck is not exactly in the most hidden of places; in fact, the wreckage is very close to intersecting with a major pirating route. There will be others apart from us after it. It's a good thing that we've got the fastest ships around, or someone would have already torn this place up ages ago. We've got to be in and out as quick as possible."

"Okay! It is just as you say, young captain, and may I say that it honors you to think so far ahead, and be so concerned for the safety of your crew--"

"Yes, Gai. See you in a minute, then." He turns around to face the others waiting for his signal.

"Everyone! Let's go! Three hours tops, remember? Iruka, would you brief the crew that's just now catching up? Then rip this ship apart, alright, guys?"

A thunderous roar greets his words; Naruto is always amazed that such an imposing sound can be projected by merely three mouths. Then again, if they are Kiba, Ino, and Choji, nothing can surprise him. Sai's wordless agreement is drowned out, but Sai doesn't count; the moment Sai starts yelling it'll be time to run from the end of the known universe.


The looting goes pretty much as planned. Each crew member takes a quadrant and an anti-grav, self-expanding backpack that can take up as much as 500 lb at a time, and goes at it with will. Naruto can hear the crashes from all the way across the ship. He takes a corner at random and comes across a sealed door that for some reason he finds irresistible. Busting it open, he is only a little disappointed to find it an old storage cupboard full with rich, perfectly preserved silks and satins. He shakes out a yukata at random and is delighted to find it in his favorite orange color, with a dark red obi and swirls etched into the sleeves and back. Even better--it is light and reassuringly solid at the same time. Naruto grins. Finders keepers is a fantastic law to have in pirating circles. He tucks it away for later. The rest go into the backpack along with some wood-and-gold writing boxes that he found in the previous room.

He takes a last look around the quarters and, satisfied, makes his way to the kitchens and pantry. "What have we got?" he yells out, almost salivating at the thought of something not peach-flavored.

"Loads, captain!" Kiba barks, victorious. "There's at least half a ton of supplies that we can avail ourselves of! I've already had half of them sent out with Konohamaru and Shino; this is the last lot."

"Excellent! We'll have ourselves a feast tonight, boys!"

He bounces back out of the door, heading in Haku's direction. He is curious to see how far Haku has got with ripping Gai's ship's engine apart and putting it back together so that it goes vroom in the distance. He's almost at the platform when a huge crash hits the wreck hard, shattering the stern and throwing the entire bulk forward by a few feet at least.

"Fucking hell, what now?" Naruto grouches as he runs towards the Soragakure. He knew this wreck was too juicy to go unnoticed! He catches a glimpse of a huge black hulk of a ship flashing past, and... are those red clouds painted on the sides? "Oh, shit," he swears, with feeling.


"Akatsuki is outside of the wreckage," Jiraiya booms over the speakers. He sends the same message over the communications channel so that Naruto, Chouji, Ino, Sai, and Kiba get the news, as well. "All hands prepare for an emergency combat situation. Engaging transporters. Clear the transporter pad for the captain and his companions."

"W-wait, Jiraiya, if you transport us, we won't be able to take the loot," Naruto says over his communicator.

"Safety of the crew and its captain over material possessions," Jiraiya responds. "Confirmation?"

Sakura stares at the intercom above her room.

"Sakura-chan, tell him no. I do not fucking confirm this. Take Ino, Kiba, and Chouji back, I'll grab the loot."

"Confirmation?" Jiraiya prompts.

"Confirmed," Sakura replies, biting her lip.

Seconds later, Naruto storms out of the transporter room and down the hall to the med lab. "Sakura!"

Sakura folds her arms. "Don't you start with me, Naruto--!" She scowls. "They're after you, and if Ino or Chouji or Kiba had volunteered, it would have been different, but--"

"Shit," Jiraiya's voice rings out. "Breach in security," he snaps. "The Power of Youth," and even though Jiraiya doesn't have a face, Naruto can hear him grimace at the name, "has just taken off for the Whirlpool wreckage."

Naruto pumps one fist into the air. "Who's piloting?"

"Uchiha Sasuke," Haku says over the radio. "As soon as he saw Akatsuki's ship, he went berserk. Shall Zabuza and I go after him?"

"He'll be fine," Naruto replies.

"No, I'm afraid he won't." Kakashi enters the room with his usual punctuality. "Prior to joining Orochimaru's crew, when Sasuke was very young--about eight years old--his brother murdered his entire clan."

"Who, Itachi? But he's on our side--Granny Tsunade--" Naruto protests.

"Yes, but Sasuke doesn't care whose side Itachi is on, he cares whether or not he is still alive." Kakashi pockets his copy of "Icha Icha Zero Gravity", revealing the severity of the situation. "He would much prefer that Itachi be dead by his own hands."


Sasuke clenches the battered ship's controls in a death grip, staring unseeingly at the landscape. He only realizes he is about to hit the open hangar space when he is a hundred meters off; he takes lightning-fast evasive maneuvers that, surprisingly, work--Haku may not look strong, but apparently he's a whizz with mechanics. He lands, light as a feather, just where he meant to. He unclips the seatbelts with practiced movements. He stands, taking out his phaser, setting it to kill. He drops the runway, which opens much more smoothly than those of Kirigakure's average ships, and exits. He takes a deep breath and tries to reign in the rage, the anger, the hurt and betrayal simmering through his veins instead of blood. This time--this time it's final.

A noise behind him makes him jump several feet in the air. Completely wired, he spins around, gun flashing in the sparse lights, only to come face-to-face with a pale Karin.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he snaps, nerves strained.

Karin shuffles her feet, looking at him from under her eyelashes. "You looked really grim when you left, Sasuke, I didn't want to leave you alone out here."

"This is personal, you have no part in it! I can't believe you fucking trailed me! This is a total invasion of my privacy! Go the fuck away!"

"Now, now, little brother, is that any way to treat a lady?"

Sasuke's neck almost snaps with the speed his head whips round. How did he never hear Itachi land? He hadn't realised the damned drug had worn off until this very moment, and that's really not like him. He glares at his older brother, his family, his vengeance, his everything. He hates him so much, so very much, that he can hardly speak. He chokes on Itachi's name, has to stop and swallow before he can force it out of his suddenly-too-dry mouth. The brothers lock their gazes; Sasuke feels like there should be lightning sizzling between the two of them. Sasuke lifts his phaser with a too-steady hand, points it between Itachi's eyes, and completely fails to shoot. He takes in the black-and-red robe, the deep valleys etched into his face, his relaxed stance, his hands hanging by his sides and fights the urge to cry, and scream, and just ask him, why?

"You never told me you had a brother, Sasuke!" Karin leers, sashays over to where Itachi is standing, hips swaying from side to side. She shakes her long pink hair over her shoulder and puffs up her chest so that her almost nonexistant breasts jut out further. She stops right in front of him and trails a hand over his arm and higher on his shoulder. Itachi looks at her, blinks, turns to Sasuke again with a delicately-raised eyebrow that translates to a clear what the hell? marring his typically-reserved face. Sasuke wants to smack his palm to his forehead, but that might result in shooting himself--he settles for rolling his eyes instead, grimacing at Itachi and Karin.

Itachi seems to shudder and Karin's hand slides off of him like water. She seems taken aback, but takes the opportunity to circle him and ogle his toned backside. Sasuke would laugh himself hoarse at the look on Itachi's face if he wasn't too busy fuming. "Karin, get away from him! For fuck's sake, move out of the way, I'm trying to kill him!"

"Have you not stopped deluding yourself, little brother? You could never kill me if I didn't let you. Now, let's be serious. We hear that you are traveling with some very interesting companions these days. Tell me about Uzumaki Naruto."

"What makes you think I would tell you anything about Naruto?"

"'Naruto'? That sounds like first-name basis. You two aren't getting close are you?" Itachi says in the teasing way only an older brother can.

Sasuke's face gains a delicate pink tinge across his cheekbones; Itachi's eyes fasten on it and he grins, like a spider at a fly. "Interesting," he purrs.

Sasuke raises the gun again, leveling it at Itachi's face with no hesitation. "Karin, get back," he instructs.

Karin leaps back at his words, not questioning the sudden darkening of his facial expression. That's why he never talks about his brother, she decides. If that's how Sasuke feels about Itachi, she's not sure she wants to see him much more, either. A pretty face doesn't make up for whatever he must have done to Sasuke.

Sasuke fires.

The shot goes cleanly through Itachi's head; the phaser ripping through Itachi's skull like--

That's not Itachi's skull, Karin realizes. The person in front of her flickers for a moment, like static on a radio, complete with a softfsssszht noise. It's not Itachi anymore, it's a blond man, hair slicked back. Sasuke sneers. "Where is Itachi?"

The blond reaches up to wipe away a drop of blood rolling down his nose, only managing to smear it. "Fucked if I know. We suspect he has defected. His partner's gone, too, though, and we know Kisame is loyal," the man coos.

Sasuke's mind reels, flickering over memories of 'Wanted' posters and signs. Orochimaru had a whole wall for the Akatsuki ones. "Hidan," he says at last.

"Oh, look at that, I'm fucking famous," Hidan replies.

Karin backs up farther. This man just took a head shot. She wants no part of being close to someone like that.

"But enough about me--let's talk about Naruto. Captain of the Soragakure, a former resident of Konoha, ex-lover of Gaara of the Desert. We know a goddamn lot about him, but what I really want to know is how the fuck to get him out here. He's got a program inside of him," Hidan taps his temples, "and we want a copy of it."

Sasuke widens the radius of his phaser's beam as Karin steps as far away from Hidan as she can get without falling off the platform. He fires again, no remorse. He'd prefer not to kill if he can help it, but--

Hidan coughs up blood as the hole in his torso closes. "Damn, what the hell was that for? You know, shooting people leads to killing people, and killing people leads to hell, unless you're with the right religion, of course." Hidan grins, blood covering his teeth.

Karin slams a large hunk of metal into the back of his head. He falls unconscious. "Should we take him back to the ship?"

Sasuke shakes his head, heading for Akatsuki's shuttle.

"Sasuke," Karin tries, receiving no visible response.

Over their communicators, static fizzles.


"Goddamn it, I can't reach him," Naruto growls in despair. He has no idea if the idiot is even still alive. Karin seems to have slipped out with him as well; Jiraiya can't reach either of them through the communicators Sasuke stole from Haku and Zabuza.

"We should attack," Kakashi says. "That, or run for the hills."

"We fire on that ship, they're going to fire right back at us. In fact, I'm amazed that they haven't already flamed us to ash," Jiraiya opines. "You prepared for that option?"

"Damn it, we have to do something! Not to mention that the loot is still down there... Hey! Maybe I could go back down there, fetch the stuff and collect Sasuke while I'm at it--"

"NO!" Sakura and Iruka glare at him; Kakashi looks bored in a I'mma break your neck if you make as much as a move for the cargo bay kind of way, and Sai just looks bored.

The comms crackle. "Uchiha to Uzumaki. Uzumaki, do you read?"

"Oi! Where the hell are you? Get back on this ship right now!"

"Naruto, two things. One, since when have I taken orders from you, or anyone? And two, I can't come back just yet. Akatsuki are after you. Repeat, Akatsuki's target is you. Do not leave the ship! I'll be back in a bit, I'm just going to break their plasma boosters so they can't follow. Over and out!"

"No, wait! Wait, goddamn it!" Naruto hits the console hard enough to rattle the screen. "That fucking prick! When I get my hands on him..."

"Naruto! Do not worry yourself, I am here! How can I assist you in your worthy endeavor--"

"Not now, Gai! Unless you have a way to get my loot back on board, get Princess to stop acting like an absolute moron and return to the ship so that we can escape!"

"I may have a solution to at least one of those problems, my youthful companion! Fear not! You can leave the retrieval of the needed goods to me! Teleport me and my beloved student Lee back onto the Whirlpool wreck and we shall take care of the supplies shortage presently!"

"That's actually--yeah. Thanks, Gai." Naruto grins, feeling closer to stable ground again. "Jiraiya--you heard the man. Do it. Gai, make sure you report on the situation when you're down there and have visuals."

Gai salutes, Lee eagerly following suit. They are beamed down; seconds later communications between Gai and the Soragakure are established. So it's just Sasuke's comm that is malfunctioning. Naruto wonders for a moment what could set off a localised frequency blocker before deciding the bastard is probably doing it himself, so that Naruto will be denied the pleasure of yelling himself hoarse at him.

"Supplies and valuables are untouched on the ground. No sight of Sasuke or Karin. One unconscious body on the ground, dressed in Akatsuki gear; it is not Uchiha Itachi. Visuals confirm a blond man who has been shot several times. Awaiting instructions--should we dispose of him?" Gai says, as utterly professional as he usually is when deployed in the field.

Naruto considers for less than two seconds. "Throw him out into space, then pick up the goods and get your asses back here! I don't want to risk it. We'll have to go back for Sasuke once he deigns to let us know his position."

"Copy, Captain Uzumaki. Over and out!"

Twelve minutes later Gai and Lee are back, and a body can be seen drifting in orbit of the crash site. "It won't be enough, you know," Jiraiya says darkly. "Some of those bastards have nanobytes in their blood, filtering through the discarded oxygen and keeping their lungs inflated and blood-supplied. I'm not even sure if the vacuum would be enough to kill him."

"Yeah, well, it's the best we've got for now," Naruto huffs. At least the loot is safely on board. Now, if only Princess would get his ass in gear and call in so they can pick him up and leave the wreckage! He knew it was way too close to the pirate trading routes to be safe!

"Everyone, report your status!" he orders, for something to keep him occupied and stop him storming over the Akatsuki ship and blowing it up.

"Kiba, Ino, Shikamaru, Shino, Chouji, all present in cargo deck storing away the loot!"

"Konohamaru, assisting Sakura in sick bay with Juugo and Suigetsu's mandatory check-ups!"

"Haku, upgrading the emergency pods!"

"Zabuza, in the weapons deck with Gai and Lee!"

The rest of them are in the room with him. Everyone present and correct, except for that--that--augh!

"I'm gonna kill him! What's he doing over there anyway? And where's his brother? Would you send a lackey to do your job if it was your own brother who wanted to kill you very dead?"

Sai says nothing, smiling politely and vacantly at him as he flails around the bridge, cursing viciously at Uchihas and their ancestors.


Sasuke, contrary to what Naruto would say given the two days he's been getting to know him, is actually quite stealthy. Karin is not as stealthy, but Sasuke, in his limitless genius, has come up with a solution for that, as well. He moves forward, incapacitates another Akatsuki member, then turns around and waves Karin over.

Unfortunately, someone should have told him that if it seems too easy to infiltrate the ship of a crew of pirates wanted by every colony, country, world, and small gathering of people coming together just for the purpose of proclaiming the undying value of youth, knitting, or other inane things--it probably is.

If Naruto had been on board, he would have snapped "Who's the dumbass now, princess?" after deflecting the carefully aimed tranquilizer. As it stands, Naruto was not allowed to leave the Soragakure, Karin is still two rooms and a hallway away, and the tranq lands square in Sasuke's backside.

Within seconds, everything goes black. Akatsuki doesn't hold back on their sedatives.


"Should we send someone to check on him, captain?" Lee asks, leaning over the console.

Juugo enters the room. "I volunteer. Karin and Sasuke have been gone for too long without contact."

"Let them rot," Suigetsu replies, leaning on Zabuza's sword like he owns it again. "Sasuke will come back when he wants to, and not before. Like he cares if we're worried."

"I apologize for the interruption, but perhaps your crew should be acting with more haste...?" comes from the speakers. Only trouble is, that's certainly not Jiraiya's voice.

"Who the fuck is that?" Naruto yells, spinning round to face the screen. An image is slowly emerging from the snowflakes of no transmission. Dark hair, dark eyes, deep valleys running down the blank face, Akatsuki robe... "Sasuke?" Naruto asks tentatively.

"No," Kakashi fills in grimly. "Hello, Itachi. It's been a while."

"I-Itachi? Sasuke's homicidal brother? I thought Sasuke went over to the Akatsuki ship to kill him!"

"He did. Unfortunately, my foolish little brother did not consider the possibility that I might no longer be on it."

"Yeah, the little shit's far too impulsive to be called an Uchiha." There's a face emerging from the background, a pale, fishy-looking face with weird sunken eyes and too-sharp teeth.

"What now? Oh, hey, any relation to Zabuza?" Naruto wonders, ever the ice-breaker.

"Don't talk to me about that failure! He's an embarrassment," the shark-toothed stranger snaps.

"Kisame," Itachi murmurs and Kisame is instantly silent, if still pouting. "You would be Naruto, I presume. You look just like Minato. You have Kushina's face, though," and there's something in his voice that makes Naruto's heart pound. He must have known them, Naruto realizes; nobody speaks of them like that unless they had been close to them. Naruto opens his mouth to ask about this, but Itachi cuts him off.

"No time for foolish gaping. The vital signs monitors in Sasuke's eyes are reacting; something has gone wrong, he appears to be unconscious. You must get on that ship and retrieve him; he won't be able to make it out alone. If it involves Deidara, it's something explosive. Go over there now. I will distract them and provide you with an opening."

"Wait, wait, wait. Sasuke's eyes? What the fuck? Anyway, why are you telling us this? Doesn't he want you dead? And how the hell did you hack into my ship?"

"Jiraiya-sama is getting too confident in his old age; it was much too easy. After all, I know his weaknesses."

"Well, un-hack him for fuck's sake, I can't take off without him. Hell, if I'd known how much trouble the Princess would get into, I never would have rescued him from that ship in the first place. What are you waiting for? Hurry! I need a diversion now," he shouts, already racing for the transportation pads.

"I think I like him, even if he is entirely too loud," Kisame muses as the picture starts to fade. Kakashi can't be sure, but he thinks he may have seen Itachi smile before murmuring an affirmative.

Naruto hears none of this as he accelerates. He hears footsteps pounding to his left and sees Juugo racing alonside him. "I'm coming, too," he says, and Naruto already knows not to argue with that tone. Emerging into the cargo bay, he legs it to the nearest shuttle, which happens to be Gai's ship. Fuck, he's damned if he's using the usual call sign! He thunders on board anyway; it's up-to-scratch at last since Haku's been tinkering with it for over three hours already. Juugo straps in next to him; he switches on the engines and is about to take off when he hears a faint, "Wait for me, damnit!" and a panting Suigetsu staggers up the runway at the last moment.

"I thought you weren't coming," Naruto taunts; Suigetsu grimaces.

"And miss all the fighting? Like hell." He rubs along the sheathed blade of Zabuza's sword lovingly. "What?" he says at Naruto's raised eyebrows. "I borrowed it."

"Does Zabuza know you 'borrowed' it?"

"He will eventually," Suigetsu grins a very toothy grin, glowing with satisfaction.

Naruto shakes his head and takes off at last. He thinks he sees a flash over at Akatsuki's ship; seconds later it's there again. "Are they shooting at it? Damnit, Sasuke's still on board that thing!" He fiddles with the comms. "Oi! Blond Ambition to Arrogant Bastard, your brother's still on that ship you're trying to shoot out of the sky!" he yells into the ether, with no hope of reply. He almost falls out of his seat when he gets one.

"Then you'd better hurry. You seem very concerned about my brother."

"Asshole!" Naruto bellows, but pumps up the accelerator. They zoom towards the already flaming ship, barely hitting the open gateway and skidding to a stop inside through the molecule-thin forcefield keeping the pressurised environment intact. The runway drops and the three peek out to see if they have been noticed, which, considering the noise their landing made, should be a resounding 'yes'. The comm fizzles static and Itachi's voice stops Naruto just as he's about to jump out.

"Take the scanner with you. I'm transferring over the signal from Sasuke's eyes. There are seventeen life forces on my screen, and since we know that two of them are Sasuke and his companion, that makes fifteen Akatsuki members to keep a lookout for. Do not go in overconfident or under-prepared."

Naruto bristles. "You are a royal pain in the ass, you know that? I can definitely see the family resemblance. You just keep distracting them, I'll do your job for you."

"Don't strain yourself," Itachi deadpans, and is gone.

"Right. Let's go. We have ourselves a Princess to save." I wonder if he'd throw himself at my feet in gratitude? Naruto muses, and then remembers whom he's thinking about, and snorts. Maybe Sasuke'll kiss him in thanks for the daring rescue while he's at it, he snarks to himself. Yeah, and Chouji will go on a diet.


"Fire is coming from a stray Alliance ship; all probability points to a hijacking," Konan reports, her fingers dancing over the controls of the ship. Their current ship, Hungry Ghost, is taking more fire than it can handle, but Nagato had planned for this. Konan flips the release on Hungry Ghost's escape hatch, steering the smaller ship into space under stealth mode.

"Why aren't we firing back at those traitors?" Deidara snaps. "Let me have the controls, c'mon, I'm a dead shot, I can take them out with minimal ammo!"

"Hush, Deidara," Nagato hisses. "Kisame's allegiances are still unknown."

"Shark-san?" Tobi coos. "But he is so cool! Itachi-san, too! Betrayal breaks Tobi's heart!"

"How did Itachi know that we have Sasuke?" Zetsu asks. He twitches, his voice deepening as he answers himself, "He probably tracks the brat. Sasuke is his precious little brother."

"We've left a few surprises behind for the traitor and the Uchiha. We're not going to make it easy for them," Nagato states, fiddling with the remote controls for Hungry Ghost.

"Oooh, you've left presents?" Tobi squeals.

"Close enough," Deidara smirks as explosions start going off in the distance. The firing from the hijacked vessel seems to have tapered off, and Konan concludes that the traitor must have swiped some of their software on his way out of the organization--their distinctive signatures have no other way of being spotted than with the quantum frequency detector, she'd made sure of that. Still, she's inclined to thing of this outcome as successful--one Uchiha down, the other on his way there if the clones have anything to say about it. And the ninth piece of the code so very close to their grasp! She hopes Nagato knows what he's doing. They'll never live it down if this plan fails.


Naruto creeps against the wall, Juugo and Suigetsu watching his back and side. The firing from the outside has stopped. Naruto is sure this means something, but with Itachi it's anyone's guess what exactly. He wishes for he umpteenth time that he had the presence of mind to grab the communicator, but he had wanted radio silence to stave off detection. Maybe everyone has a point when they say he doesn't think things through too well before charging.

Nah, he thinks. He's awesome. He can wing it.

A sixth sense tells him to duck; since it has saved his life more times than he can count, he listens to it. He barely dodges a sedative dart aimed at his shoulder. "Juugo! Suigetsu! Heads-up!" he shouts--no sense in staying silent any longer. Suigetsu jumps in front of him, sword drawn and ready. He deflects a second dart with his blade, hissing, "They're coming from up ahead on the right. On three. One... two... th--"

Naruto sprints up to the corner, Suigetsu's swearing ringing in his ears. He turns it at speed, already in a battle stance. He lands a flying kick at the figure waiting there for him, obviously taking it by surprise and sending it flying, smashing the tranquiliser gun against the wall. He takes quick note of the guy, clocking in the flaming orange hair, the piercings, the weird purple eyes staring at him in shock before he knocks him out with a well-placed hit to the side of his head.

"Clear," he yells and checks the signal from Sasuke's life signs monitor. Conveniently, it's coming from straight ahead and a little on the left. He rushes forward, keeping an eye (and a feel) out for more interference. He almost jumps out of his skin when the ship's communications crackle with static, and Itachi's voice rumbles out.

"Uzumaki, hurry! Most of the heat signals have abandoned ship; I count nine left, one down. I have to break communications; I'm being hacked. I am leaving this to you. Do not fail." And he's gone, just like that.

"You guys hear that? Eight more hostiles somewhere ahead. Watch your step!"


Sasuke is awoken by movement. He is unceremoniously slung across someone's shoulders again. After a moment, he recognizes the orange longcoat as Naruto's. He makes a mental note to never admit to being able to identify Naruto by ass alone.

They pass a body--orange hair, and facial piercings, very distinctive. There is no blood, just a snapped neck. Juugo's work, probably. There is a clang and a shot in the distance. "FUCK," Suigetsu wails, then another clang. Lovely.

"Hurk," Sasuke tries to push himself off of Naruto's shoulder. "I'm awake, dumbass, let me down."

"No can do--we're on the move and you're still not fully recovered. Where is Karin?"

"No idea--didn't we just pass that body a minute ago?" The one on the floor has a phaser burn through the chest. There is a puddle of blood under him.

Naruto takes a moment to reply between heavy breaths, "Yeah. Clones."

Naruto rounds a corner. Sasuke can see Juugo in the opposite direction, fighting... the same person Sasuke saw on the floor. Twice. "How many of him are there?"

Naruto shrugs under Sasuke. Fuck, but that's uncomfortable, Sasuke thinks as Naruto's shoulder digs into his hips. "There were eight."


Eventually they make their way down the corridor after counting six clones down. Sasuke is only just now becoming aware enough to realise they are one crew member down. He's right in time, too--Naruto is striding swiftly, Sasuke's weight bouncing over his shoulder.

"We can'- can't leave yet, Karin is sti--still missing. This i--is ridiculous. Put me down, you us--useless moron!"

Sasuke regrets his words when he is unceremoniously dumped on the floor, Naruto towering over him. Sasuke scowls, narrowing his eyes vindictively. He is so getting Naruto back for this. Ungracefully, he makes his way to standing position.

"Fine, Princess. Know how to locate her? Because seems to me we're still two clones down from the full set and I don't fancy her chances against them, they are quite inventive for a bunch of cells."

"You underestimate Karin." The defence comes from the most unlikely source--Suigetsu continues while cleaning up his sword, which he has been putting to very good use. "She's a whiny bitch, but even one of her nanobots in your bloodstream and you'll die in screaming agony with no chance of survival."

He's not wrong - when they eventually stumble on Karin's location using the trial-and-error search method (which essentially means sticking their heads through every door they come up to) the remaining two clones are lying in pools of cooling blood and Karin is healing a long gash in her arm. The bloody laser-edged knife at her belt suggests it's self-inflicted. "What took you idiots so long?" she bitches, immediately raising Suigetsu's hackles when she bats her eyelashes at Sasuke. "Are you alright, Sasuke? Why don't you take off your shirt so I can evaluate your injuries?" she leers.

"Get off your lazy ass, we have to get moving. We ought to have been gone hours ago, but we had to look for your bloated corpse before Sasuke would count you down."

Suigetsu's dig backfires when Karin drapes all over Sasuke, cooing her appreciation very loudly.

Sasuke sidesteps her with an ease that results in Karin falling off him to sprawl on the floor in an undignified heap.

"We have to go. We don't have time for games." Naruto stands a little way off. He is slightly disturbed by his newly discovered desire to smash Karin's nose in when she paws at Sasuke's chest. He shakes his head in resignation and walks off. It's not even ten seconds later before the loud bickering follows him like a bad smell. They make it onto the ship with no further mishaps, bar a couple of charges going off in the distance and completely frying the comm network and the data stores. Suigetsu is livid and almost gets his left hand blown off before Sasuke drags him amongst flailing protests off the electronics panel and on board the shuttle.

"Shut up, all of you!" Naruto finally yells after what feels like hours of circular arguments. "I've had enough--I'm landing us on Sora-chan, and we're getting the fuck out of this quadrant, are we clear? We got the loot we wanted in the first place, so we're done here. Read my lips: I do not care that your brother is insane, has defected from Akatsuki and seems to be on our side now. You two sort out your shit on your own time!"

It's the longest rant that the four have heard coming from Naruto, and they are slightly taken aback by the volume, if not the content. Sasuke scowls so hard that his eyes almost close as they bore into the back of Naruto's neck, but Naruto is unmoved. He's said his piece; he's truly reached his crap-per-day limit for the time being. They are going to go fetch Gaara and take care of this Kyuubi shit once and for all so he can go home and gorge himself on blessed ramen in peace, with no innuendo from strange villains, no fucking dark-haired scowling Princess to give him a hard-on he does not want nor need, no new crew members crawling out from the woodwork at every corner. Just no.

Naruto has no idea why the hell he's so annoyed; he thinks there's probably a good chance it's Karin's incessant passes at Sasuke and Suigetsu's resulting sulking. And not a single word of thanks for saving both their asses--not that he needs thanks, but it's just good manners! If they don't shut the fuck up soon, someone's going to get it, and good, he decides.


Naruto, along with Sasuke's team, is ushered into the med lab as soon as they return to the Soragakure.

"Sakura-chaaaaan," he wails. "I'm fine! This is completely unnecessary."

Sakura removes a tiny tracking device from where it has tried to burrow into his shoulder.

"Ow! What was that for?"

She holds up the tracker with an I-told-you-so look. "Konohamaru-kun, please check Suigetsu and Juugo."

Konohamaru nods, moving to Suigetsu's side.

Sakura makes her way to Karin in the tiny med-lab room, but is dismissed. "Nanites already cannibalized it," Karin says. She continues to file her nails, ignoring Sakura.

Sakura throws her an evil look, but moves on. She needs to get all she can from this one before she murders her from sheer irritation. Konohamaru grunts as he tugs out another tracking device trying to burrow its way into Juugo's shoulder. Suigetsu rolls his eyes, reaches into his sleeve and removes a jack, which he then proceeds to jam into his arm. Sakura's eyebrows disappear under her fringe when she sees the implant Suigetsu has just violated with the copper metal plug. He grunts in discomfort, but there's a satisfied smile on his face, too.

"What?" he wonders when he sees the way Sakura's looking at him. "Hacker, remember? This is just a tiny implant; you should see my legs!"

"I did see your legs, and there was nothing there!"

"Oh, yeah, camouflage shimmer, I forgot. Look, you know the hackers' motto, 'always prepared'? Well, I am. I have a bunch of programming inside me; much easier to download into ships' computers, and much faster, too--time is always of the essence when you're about to get blown to bits."

"Huh," Sakura allows, but secretly knows he has a point. "See, Naruto? Not everyone freaks out about a bit of coding inside them!"

Naruto grunts, unimpressed. "I know that! Remember what Jiraiya was like by the end of it? More machine than human. I can't even remember if he still had even one of his own limbs left before he transferred himself to full-time program. That's not the point! No program ever managed to take him over, make him lose control!"

Suigetsu snorts. "You just have to learn to control it, if that's the case. I can teach you. Even Jiraiya could teach you, and Kakashi knows a thing or two about programming as well. I'm amazed neither of them have trained you on it yet."

Naruto bristles. "Jiraiya! Is that true? WHY THE HELL DIDN'T YOU SAY SO IN THE FIRST PLACE?"

Jiraiya clears his throat nervously over the speakers, a habit left over from his days of being human. "Er. I sort of wanted to let Tsunade explain, first."

"But she didn't! I still have no fucking idea what the hell this thing is! Look, I think it's time we had a talk, just you, me, and Kakashi. Okay?"

Sakura hits him. "Oi! Don't even for a second think you're going to exclude me! I have a right to know what fucked up thing is going on with my Captain!"

Naruto looks at her, eyes slightly shiny from the sting of the hit. "Sakura-chan! You've never called me 'captain' before!" he wibbles.

Sakura blushes. "Yes, well. Shut up."

Jiraiya sighs. "Fine. Meet on the bridge in half an hour. I'll let Kakashi know."

"Finally! I want some answers, and it's about damn time I got them."


"You agreed to this?" Kakashi asks, voice neutral.

"I had to. Look, he has a right to know the facts. It's his body. And it was his dad who made the choice in the first place."

"Hey, I'm all for it. Just thought I'd check you were good to go ahead and tell him."

"I'm standing right here."

"Kinda hard to miss you, kid."

"Hey! I resent that!"

"Look, do you want to know all this or not?"

Naruto vibrates with impatience in his chair. "Yes! Get on with it!"

Jiraiya sighs in exasperation; if he was still human he'd have been rolling his eyes, Sakura was sure. "Okay. I'll start at the beginning, shall I? Your dad, Namikaze 'Yellow Flash' Minato was one of Konoha's best-known and best-loved leaders. He had a strict code of conduct, placing loyalty to Konoha and its people above any other search for power. He was fiercely protective of the well-being of the Konoha citizens; so, he clashed quite a lot with the Elders, who were all about having a combat power advantage.

"Then, one day a horrifying virus found its way into the Konoha mainframe. The oxygen supply failed when the virus hacked into it. The external shields were taken down, some of the doors were opened... there was just so much damage. So many deaths. Minato went to Sarutobi-sensei, who used to be Konoha's leader before Minato took over. He said the virus needed to be contained or it would wipe out the entire population. He said he'd worked out a way to do it, but it meant sacrificing one of the children to save the village. He trapped the virus in a harddrive and implanted it into your spine, creating a cyborg bone structure to put the data inside. He marked its position by the seal on your belly. He knew that the virus was extremely powerful, and could do incredible things for the person who controlled it."

Naruto lifts his shirt, but his bare stomach is flat and unmarked. Sasuke stares at it; then, with some effort, makes himself look away.

"It only appears when the program is active. It's the reason why you have your preternatural reflexes and awareness, Naruto. The virus program analyzes the surroundings, down to the smallest nanoparticles, and feeds the info back into your neural cortex. The only person able to fool the virus is someone with a certan type of cyborg eyes. Your father was very, very smart and forward-thinking. To make sure you would be protected from the side-effects of the virus being inside you, he got together with Uchiha Fugaku, Sasuke's father and Konoha's resident cybernetic geneticist, and created the Sharingan eye implant. It is genetically unique in that only the Uchiha clan can operate it to its full potential. He then surgically replaced the eyes of the entire Uchiha clan with the new implant."

"That's why you reacted so violently to looking into Sasuke's eyes. They are designed to seek out the virus program and activate it," Kakashi adds in a soft voice. "The program can only ever be fully extracted if a Sharingan user is present at the time, so that the Sharingan program can trip the lockdown code Minato-sensei placed on it."

"So... it was my dad who put that thing in me?"

"Yes. So that you could save the village he loved so much. And because he knew you would find it useful someday, and it would keep you safe despite all the people who want control over the program."

"But--that happened in Konoha, right? So how come we live in Hoshiigakure now?"

"You know the Elders?" At Naruto's affirmative nod, Jiraiya snorts bitterly. "They were supposed to protect you, as per Minato's instructions. Hawking knows Tsunade and I tried, but they wanted you locked up and held in a stasis field until they'd found a way to extract the program. Then Orochimaru tried to abduct you to get hold of it, and things got really out of hand. Danzou declared Martial Law in Konoha and tried to claim you for the arsenal. Everyone had had enough by that point. Your mother packed a few bags, took you and came to us, begging us to help her smuggle you out of Konoha. Uchiha Fugaku happened to be with us at the time when she arrived; he agreed to take the entire Uchiha clan and go into hiding with us.

"It was inevitable that Danzou would catch wind of this plan. That's where Itachi comes in. Danzou ordered the extermination of the Uchiha clan, thinking that the Sharingan eyes were the only way to leash in the virus. Itachi, loyal to Konoha to the last and worried that the virus might well fall into the wrong hands with the Uchiha clan leaving and scattering, complied. We all thought the entire clan extinct, save for Itachi. We thought Sasuke to be dead, too, although we never found his body and Kakashi remained certain that he was still alive. Now it looks like Orochimaru kidnapped Sasuke and took off with him, since he, too, disappeared around that time.

"Anyway, the Heads of the Five clans were furious. We made plans to leave as soon as possible. One day all of us just got up and took off, about two hundred souls with four S-class ships at our disposal. We flew in evasive maneuvers while the Hoshiigakure was built in between fleeing. What we didn't know was that the two Elders had decided to come with us. A small shuttle with two passengers went virtually unnoticed beside the larger ships. It wasn't until we all landed and took our stations on Hoshii that they came out, declaring they were joining us officially. We were labeled pirates and outlaws for our defection; Hoshii became our own Village Hidden in the Stars. Meanwhile, Danzou formed the Alliance with the other five Hidden Villages, which was aimed at destroying us and Akatsuki."

A contemplative silence falls over the bridge. The younger crew members had never really thought about why they live on Hoshiigakure, only that they do.

Naruto breaks the silence, as is his habit. "What happened to my mum?"

Kakashi's eye is pained and filled with guilt. "She was killed by assassins from Danzou's Root ANBU Division. I was supposed to protect her, I promised Minato-sensei I would. But you were ill, and I'd taken you to Soragakure to ask Jiraiya to check what was wrong with you, and she was alone in the house when they came for you. She wouldn't tell them where you were, so they killed her. I'm sorry."

Naruto sits there looking crushed and and seriously pissed off, a combination only he can pull off. "It all comes back to that bastard Danzou. My dad, my mum, Sasuke's entire clan... We're going to have to do something about him. And you are going to help me do it. For starters, what the hell has Gaara to do with all this?"

"Ah. We get to the hard part. Okay. So, it turns out this virus was not alone. It was a part of a huge program, one so big that it couldn't be contained in a single vessel. So, nine parts of it were broken off and placed in hosts much like yourself, but every host has a different method of storing the data. Gaara was one of those hosts, but his father never bothered with placing a failsafe, or implanting the data in a way that extraction keeps the host alive. Remember when he got kidnapped and you went to help? And Chiyo-sama replaced his cyborg heart with her own? The program was sealed inside Gaara's heart. Gaara was supposed to have died when the virus was extracted."

Naruto clenches his fists. He's starting to hate this virus more and more with every passing moment.

"You have the largest chunk, the Kyuubi." Naruto flinches, finally understanding all the jibes he has received from the Elders over the years. "That's why Akatsuki are after you. They want to collect all the chunks back at the mainframe, which is where the tenth piece remains. And obviously they need an Uchiha, so they want Sasuke now that Itachi has defected from their organization. What they don't know is that Itachi has been a double agent all this time, working with us and feeding us information on Akatsuki. He finally left them only a couple of days ago when he clocked Sasuke being rescued by us.

"Unfortunately, from Itachi's information, the only two pieces of the program remaining free are you and the eigth biggest chunk. Akatsuki have already harvested the rest of them, killing their hosts. So, our objective is to get to the mainframe before Akatsuki can get hold of us, download your part of the program into it and take control."

"What does the machine do?" Sasuke asks.

"Nobody knows. The nine viral pieces of it are extremely hostile and agressive; we can only imagine what the complete program does. What we do know is that we absolutely have to keep it out of Akatsuki hands by any means necesary."

"Right then," Naruto says, flexing his fingers and stretching. He's back to his boundless-energy-self, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. "Here's the plan. We go fetch Gaara, come up with a way to sidetrack Akatsuki while we sneak our way to the mainframe, download the data and you guys teach me to control it! It's a foolproof plan!"

Sakura rolls her eyes. "Unfortunately, it doesn't look to be a Naruto-proof one."

"Did you hit your head as a child?" Sasuke asks. "You can't even control the current program. Judging by size alone, you're not going to be able to integrate with it like Suigetsu, or Kakashi's lightning glove. You have to override it with your will without crushing it. It's a delicate process. That's why this ship is legendary--not because you're an intergalactic amazing pirate captain, but because Jiraiya, who was an intergalactic amazing pirate captain, is the mind of the ship. Soragakure still functions like she should, yet you have a sentient, formerly-human mind in there with her, controlling the whole thing. You do realize that Soragakure is not just the only ship with those capabilities in the galaxy, but the only ship with those capabilities ever, right?"

Naruto blinks. It's the most Sasuke has said since he was dragged onto the ship. "What?" He cocks his head. "So, if Jiraiya can do it, I can do it," he confirms.

"Yes, Naruto," Kakashi agrees smoothly. "That is exactly what he was saying."

Naruto nods. "Good! When do we start?"

Sakura puts her face gently into the palm of her hand, and sighs.


The first step to mastering the program in his head--or stomach--or wherever the stupid thing is sealed, is intense meditation. Jiraiya monitors his vital signs and wakes Naruto up when he starts to doze. No one else is allowed into the room, due to Naruto's complete inability to concentrate on anything for more than approximately thirty seconds before drifting off to something different.

Jiraiya is most annoyed with the way Naruto fidgets like a tadpole as soon as his concentration breaks. He's supposed to stay perfectly still--how else can he synchronise himself to the program? They have to become one, mind-and-information, in perfect balance if there's ever a chance for Naruto to be able to impose his will on the viral code, let alone on the entire recovered program. So he's taken to wack him on the head every time he fidgets, via the ship maintenance bot stationed right behind him. Natuto yelps in a most satisfying manner that makes Jiraiya all tingly in the part of him that still enjoys petty revenge. Still, the boy shows promise--Jiraiya can already feel the program stirring, reaching for Naruto's subconsciousness. Now if only the damned whelp could really focus, reach out to the program with his conscious mind--then they would really be getting somewhere.

Meanwhile, another part of Jiraiya is having a chat with Kakashi and Sai. Iruka is sitting in the background with Yamato, both working on their plasma screens but making no secret of the fact that they are listening to every word. As two of the six official senior members of the crew, they are privy to any and all important information as a matter of course.

"We have to find the Hachibi as soon as possible. We have to get him on our side and work out how the eigth piece is stored, as well as the least damaging way to extract it. I've been scanning the wavelengths for any mention of him, but it's as if he didn't exist. If I didn't know any better, I'd think Akatsuki have him. But I'm quite certain they don't - Itachi hasn't mentioned a word of it. I'm leaning towards the conclusion that he's being protected, kept somewhere in complete lockdown. And the only place I can think of that has that sort of lockdown containment facility is--"

"Kumogakure," Kakashi finishes for him. "You think they've sealed him in the Falls of Truth?"

"I'm pretty sure that's the case. His brother, Kumogakure's captain, would go to any lengths to keep him safe."

"So we have to go through the ship's captain in addition to the Falls of Truth containment facility's defences? It's one thing after another these days!" Yamato grouches, annoyed.

"That's exactly how it is."

The groan of frustration could be heard three doors down. Which is, in fact, exactly what happens as Sasuke moves to enter the mess hall and stops mid-step to consider the sound. Karin plows into his back, more intentionally than because of being startled. Sasuke doesn't make a sound, though he can certainly feel and not appreciate the elbow digging into his spine. What makes it all so much worse is Suigetsu not paying attention, thus tripping and landing on top of Karin. This time Sasuke growls menacingly, not that his childish teammates pay any attention to him. He shrugs the two off in a heap on the floor and makes his way into the room to face a smirking Sakura.

"Your team horizontally challanged, as well as vertically?"

Suigetsu flails from the bottom of the pile. "Hey, I am not that much shorter than Zabuza! He's just freakishly tall!"

Sasuke sticks a foot back, nudging Suigetsu and Karin none-too-gently. "As you see. What's all that groaning coming from the bridge?"

"They're talking about the Hachibi, I imagine. Unless he's telling them that Naruto is an idiot, but then they already knew that."

"Isn't he your captain?"

"Yeah, your point? I've known him since we were eight. Trust me when I say he hasn't improved all that much with age in the brains department."

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that he was making all that crap up as he went along."

"He is. Look, I'm not saying he's dumb. He's one of the smartest and most aware people I know. It's just that he finds it boring, acting his age. It's actually quite endearing, when he's not irritating me to death."

"Hn." That makes a lot of sense, actually, Sasuke thinks.

"Hey, wanna go see how he's doing? He should be about ready to try deactivating Jiraiya again. Not that that's ever worked, but it doesn't stop him giving it a go."

Sasuke nods. He's only known Naruto for a few days, but already irritating him is becoming a cherished hobby.

When they get to the closed-off room that Sakura has to key in her senior-crew-member code to open, Naruto is glaring painful death at the plasma screen on the wall showing Jiraiya's face as he used to be, all spiky white hair and red markings on his cheeks, complete with a giant self-satisfied smile splitting his face in two.

"... would have gotten it much sooner, if you could've just stayed still long enough! And was it really necessary to disassemble my maintenance bot? You're going to have to repair it now, you realise. Think of it as penitence."

"Bloody bastard pervert sannin," Naruto mutters under his nose. "And for the record, I figured out the connection myself, thank you very much! Damn useless machine..."

"Naruto!" Sakura is not amused. "Jiraiya's only trying to help, you ungrateful jerk! You do realise we absolutely have to have you competent and skillful enough to be of any use, yes?"

Naruto sighs explosively, but knows she's right. "Thanks, Ero-ship," he mutters grudgingly.

"Wait. Does that mean he's actually in touch with the program? It's only been a few hours!"

"Yeah, yeah, Princess Sasuke, I got it all sorted out!" Naruto's smug boasting makes Sasuke's eye twitch in irritation.

"He's pretty much connected with the program, and he's learning to exert his will over it. He can get it to do small things--hack into portable screens, swap data stores, destroy priceless works of art..."

"Oh, stop being so melodramatic! It's porn!"

"It's not porn, it's quality literature! How come only Kakashi appreciates quality literature on this ship?"

"Because he's the only one perverted enough? I seriously do not now how the hell Iruka can stand him, let alone fuck him!"

"Be fucked by him, you mean?" Jiraiya supplies slyly, still irritated beyond belilef. The look of horror on Naruto's face at the revelation is a beautiful sight to behold.

"But--but--nooooo! You're lying, it's not possible my brother is an UKE!"

"Yeah, but can you really see Kakashi being the," Sakura clears her throat, attempting to maintain her lady-like image with limited success, "er, bottom?" Sakura shudders, clearly from the vileness of the thought, certainly not at all because it makes her all hot and shivery inside.

Sasuke is amused at the expression of pain twisting Naruto's face up at the thought, and the look in Sakura's eye. It makes him all warm inside to see the creation of a yaoi fangirl in the making, especially when Kakashi is going to be at the receiving end of the cameras and the binoculars this time round. Still, the thought of Kakashi and Iruka together is not really unpleasant in any way, more... is it him or is the room getting too warm? It must be Naruto hyperventilating. Of course it is. Yes.

"I hate to break up this little meeting, but how useful is Naruto really at this point? I'm guessing he's got a long way to go to be able to fully control the Kyuubi." The three of them twitch a little when Kakashi appears at the door.

Jiraiya nods on screen. "He needs a lot of work, still, and someone to show him how--there's no one on the ship who can do that to the extent he needs. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Kakashi exhales wearily. "Probably not, but in any case I think once we meet up with Gaara it'll be time to take a little trip off-course, to the Kumogakure ship. There's clearly someone whom you should meet, Naruto." Kakashi looks at the mix of pale, amused and intrigued faces in front of him, and smirks unseen behind his mask. "Oh, and stay out of my personal life, if it's not too much trouble. Just hope Iruka doesn't hear about this conversation."

Naruto gulps reflexively; even Sakura looks a little apprehensive at the thought of Iruka's temper going off. Sasuke just smirks--Naruto privately thinks the idiot obviously doesn't know any better.

"We'll have Suigetsu take over until we reach Puppeteer, in about another four hours," Jiraiya decrees, and Naruto grins. He likes Suigetsu.


He really, really hates Suigetsu, Naruto decides after two and a half hours of yelling, screaming, sulking and unnecessary blows to the back of his head. Suigetsu may be a genius, but he can't teach worth shit, at least not in a way that Naruto can understand.

"Look, it's not reintegrating the quantum nodes, it's joining with the hyperphase system and changing the nodes into a quasi-quantum state, okay?"

"I don't understand a bloody word of what you're saying! Quasi-quantum state? Have you been snorting Eridani dust again?"

Suigetsu slams his fist into the table, hard. "I can't work with this idiot. Just... take him away before I lose my patience completely and short-circuit his nervous system to make him shut the fuck up!"

"Suigetsu, he's not worth it. Why don't you let him go, nice and slow, there we go," Sasuke coaxes, keeping a wary eye on the fingers of Suigetsu's left hand.

Suigetsu withdraws the jack he's been about to stab into Naruto's brain with an irritated huff. "Spoil my fun," he grumbles.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. "You are clearly getting nowhere. Let's call it a day. There's only over an hour to go before we reach the rendezvous point anyway."

"I've had enough. I'm starving and there's ramen in the stores. I'm out of here." Naruto takes off in a huff.

"Is he really that bad?" Sasuke asks.

Suigetsu sighs. "No, not really. He's smart, and he has a grasp of the techniques involved, but he's never done this before, so he has none of the terminology that I can use to explain it to him. He simply has no idea what I'm talking about, is all. I'm sure he'd get it if he could understand it, but it's pretty useless me teaching him the hackers' language on top of the method, and I can't get him to understand me without it, so... stalemate. Anyway, I hear we're heading towards someone who'd have much better luck getting through to him."

Sasuke grunts; Suigetsu stretches and leaves without another word, no doubt on his way to pester Zabuza again. Sasuke makes his way to the mess hall for lack of anywhere more interesting to be. He could go talk to Kakashi, he supposes, but there's nothing further he can learn from the man. He could go practice with the lightning glove, but it's no fun without an opponent with the right level of skills. He suspects Naruto would give him a run for his money, but Naruto is currently stuffing his face, and irritated, and in no mood to get his ass handed to him, so Sasuke thinks he should probably leave it for another day. He could go to the bridge, he considers as he makes his way up the corridor. Jiraiya's always good for a talk, since he hardly does anything else these days, but Sasuke is in no mood to learn any more unpleasant truths about his heretofore held beliefs today. Maybe he'd go for that chat tomorrow, if the Suna delegation doesn't take up all of his time.

When he enters the mess hall, the only person he sees is Naruto. He's sitting on his own in the middle of the room, a pile of empty ramen cartons as high as his head balancing precariously on his right. He's still stuffing his face, making loud, obsene slurping noises that Sasuke finds at once disgusting and vaguely erotic. He shakes himself; 'erotic', 'Naruto', and 'ramen' do not belong in the same sentence.

"Hey, Sasuke-bastard. You want some? I'm feeling generous."

"No, thanks. I can't understand how you can eat that horrible excuse for nutrition value."

"WHAT. How can you say that?! Oh, my beloved ramen, do not listen to this heathen and his insults! Ramen is no less than the food of the gods, you wretched philistine--"

"What have you been reading? Do you even know what that word means?"

"Oi! Just because I look stupid doesn't mean I am--Wait, no. That's not what I mean. I--uh--well, nevermind that! Don't try to distract me! How can you even think such blasphemous thoughts about the salty deliciousness that is ramen?"

Sasuke tunes out the 'Ramen is my One Twu Luv' rant before Naruto has even built up steam. If he's heard it once, he's heard them all, but he can't seem to stop himself from needling the blond idiot; he makes the most interesting faces when he gets fired up like this, and Sasuke can watch him all day long. He fights the smirk trying to take over his face at a particular example of rubber-like flexibility, as Naruto's eyebrows scrunch almost down to his nose and his mouth stretches open in a rictus of fury. He should charge people to see this, he thinks; it lightens his mood remarkably.


Soragakure enters Suna's atmosphere approximately fifteen minutes sooner than predicted. Jiraiya gives routine landing procedure over the intercom, instructing all passengers on the Soragakure to please keep all limbs in the vehicle and remain calm, even if the whole ship spontaneously combusts or appears to be crashing.

Naruto takes the captain's chair in the cockpit for the purpose of landing the ship. Jiraiya could do it himself, but it is one of the most important times for the captain to be immediately available. He can't meditate while they're so close to Suna, anyway. Sasuke takes the co-pilot's seat.

Naruto flips the gauges, preparing the preliminary shields for entering the atmosphere. "What are you doing, and where is Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto says without looking up.

"He is otherwise indisposed," Sasuke replies. The Soragakure's control panel is entirely different from Taka's, but he figures it out quickly enough.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Naruto demands. Jiraiya presses a few buttons himself.

"It means he's busy fucking Iruka and can't be bothered to help you do a routine procedure, dumbass."


Sasuke snorts and pretends that isn't a smile Naruto just brought to his face.


The landing occurs without a hitch. Soragakure's residents and crew exit the ship in an orderly manner, staying behind their captain, weapons at the ready.

"Gaara!" Naruto cries, running forward to greet Suna's infamously emotionless and cold-blooded leader with a hug.

Gaara doesn't quite blush, simply becomes less pale, and awkwardly raises one hand to pat Naruto's back. Sasuke sneers. That hug was totally not even close to necessary.

Behind him, Sai says, "See, Sakura-chan? Hugs are a perfectly normal form of greeting."

Sakura sighs. "From the front, yes. From behind, if you grab my breasts one more time--"

"Naruto said that was the appropriate procedure," Sai protests.

"Oh, did he?" Sakura murmurs threateningly.

Sai smiles, triumphant, and Sasuke wonders for a moment if he is really as clueless as he seems. He and Naruto are having... something of a feud at the moment, not least because Sai insists on bringing up Naruto's penis (or lack thereof) at every possible moment. Which is patently untrue, Sasuke thinks; it's obvious Sai hasn't seen him naked, because Naruto is hung like a... He catches wind of what he'd been about to think and flushes furiously. He'll NOT be admitting any time soon, on pain of death, that he may have used his Sharingan for a somewhat different purpose than what it had been designed for, even if the reason was mere curiosity at Sai's insistence and nothing more.

Meanwhile, Gaara is still patting Naruto's back, who seems to be sniffing at Gaara's neck. Sasuke sees red. He eyes the guards that circle their leader and considers how many seconds it would take him to disable them and pummel the redhead to the ground. Then Gaara lifts his head, as if sensing Sasuke's killing intent, and his eyes are pure challenge. He shifts his arm closer around Naruto, tucking him tighter into his body, all the while staring expressionlessly into Sasuke's eyes that bleed to red from the unspoken, but very much there, provocation. Gaara raises a taunting eyebrow; Sasuke glowers but stays where he is. He recognises a predator when he sees one, and he's not about to turn himself into the prey.

Naruto seems to shudder in Gaara's hold, peeling himself slowly away from him. "It's good to see you, Green eyes," he says, his voice slightly husky. Then he smiles, a blinding, loving, friendly grin that seems to light the room and makes everybody present want to smile back at him. Sasuke restrains himself with some effort.

"Don't call me that," Gaara says, voice a perfect monotone. Sasuke wonders how the hell someone as effervescent as Naruto could have ever dated someone as stiff and forbidding as Gaara.

"You're looking good," Naruto says, ignoring the admonishment. Sasuke decides this must be the way--by completely ignoring Gaara's reticence and powering through his objections. After all, Naruto is the most stubborn, pig-headed man he's ever had the misfortune to meet.

Naruto does, however, step back, almost respectful. "Thank you for coming," he says, suddenly all business. "We're kiiiiind of in trouble. Can we go someplace to talk?"

Gaara turns and leads the way without a word. Naruto looks back at Sakura, mouthing 'two hours' at her, making sure she knows to be ready for departure as soon as they're done talking and planning. Sakura nods and chucks something heavy at Naruto, who catches it reflexively. It's the Soragakure's mobile communications network device, the one with direct contact to Jiraiya's memory banks. Naruto nods an acknowledgement, turns, then stops.

"Kakashi, now would be a really good time to stop fucking around."

"I know," comes the calm voice at his ear and Sasuke sees Naruto visibly restrain himself from flinching, trying to act like he knew Kakashi was at his side all along. "Fucking pervert," he murmurs, but does not move away when a grinning Kakashi places a steadying hand on his shoulder.


Sasuke stays at the ship docking station, keeping an eye on his team milling around and chatting to the Soragakure crew. He's surprised at how easily his teammates are getting along with the others. Suigetsu is in the middle of a lively conversation with the Nara guy, and Juugo is chatting pleasantly with the Hyuuga, comparing notes on the energy signatures of certain birds. Karin is the only odd one out, sitting cross-legged on a bunch of crates, chewing gum and flipping through a magazine, completely ignoring the commotion around her.

Sasuke leans against the wall, wondering what to do with his time. He knows Naruto and the others are debriefing Gaara, making plans to get to the Hachibi and then further on to the mainframe. He's not sure Gaara will like this plan, having almost died because of the meddling of others into things they did not understand. But he had been saved by Naruto himself, so maybe he would not react too harshly to the knowledge that Naruto has a part of that same evil in him. Sasuke shrugs. There's nothing to do but hurry up and wait for the messengers to get back with the outcome.

"The waiting is always the hardest part," a voice by his shoulder says.

Sasuke looks up, suppressing his surprise. It's Iruka.

"I don't think we've been formally introduced in all the chaos," Iruka says. "Umino Iruka." He holds out a hand.

"Uchiha Sasuke," Sasuke replies, ignoring the hand.

"That's not very polite," Iruka says, frowning. "Do you know where the handshake originated?" He pauses. "Sorry, I used to be a teacher," he laughs.

"I see that," Sasuke replies.

Iruka takes a seat next to Sasuke. "They'll be back soon. It's not that they don't want to take more people with them, it's just that Gaara isn't the most popular boy in the universe, and they already trust Kakashi and Naruto enough, so..."

"They trust Naruto because he used to fuck Gaara," Sasuke translates.

Iruka blushes. "W-well, actually, that started after the diplomatic meetings."

"I heard that from an Akatsuki member--the one that Naruto airlocked. They're too close to Naruto and Gaara."

Iruka frowns. "They could be, but--that was a bit of an open secret between Hoshii and Suna, but thank you for this information, I'll be sure to let Naruto and Gaara know of the potential danger." Iruka ruffles Sasuke's hair as he stands, heading toward the main communications panel.

Sasuke glares at his back, shaking his head to smooth his bangs in place. Nobody messes with the hair! Still, the man is pleasant enough that Sasuke might just skip putting him on his "to kill" list. Besides, anyone who can take on Hatake Kakashi and hold his own against him is an adversary to be reckoned with.


"So you'll help, then?"

"Idiot. Why would I be bringing my people to this meeting you if I wasn't willing to help?"

"It'll be dangerous, Gaara."

"Don't insult my intelligence. Of course it's going to be fucking dangerous. That's why I'm not letting you go there alone. You need someone watching your collective backsides for you."

"Naruto is right, Gaara-sama. Akatsuki as well as the Alliance are on our trail, and Naruto has yet to come to terms with the programming inside him, let alone learn how to control it."

"I understand that the situation is serious, Hatake-san. However, I do think you underestimate Naruto and his ability to adapt. If there's anyone who can sort this mess out, it's him."

"That's all well and good, brother, but we will need to get hold of the Hachibi to have any hope of success. It just so happens that Temari checked in at last today, and she has some interesting news regarding the Kumogakure," Kankuro drawls, enjoying the looks of surprise on the faces of the Hoshii crew.

"Temari's out there? So you actually know where the Hachibi's ship is located?"

"Yes, and we've opened communication channels. We're negotiating our arrival as we speak."

Naruto is totally dumbstruck. "But--how--I mean, we didn't know we were going after the Hachibi until a few hours ago! How the hell did you know to contact them?"

"Heh," Kankuro smirks, "Just say 'thank you' for us having done your job for you."

"Hey! No, but really, why were you going after him in the first place?"

"Insurance," Gaara tells them. "We know this war isn't over, not by a long shot. We know everyone is looking for the Hachibi and the Kyuubi in order to gain an advantage. In fact," Gaara looks at Naruto, equal parts pitying and apologetic, "we know you are the host for the Kyuubi, Naruto. We've known for some time."

Naruto pales. "How long?" he rasps.

Gaara looks reluctant.

"How long?" Naruto repeats, louder, an almost imperceptible shaking in his hands.

"Since before the diplomatic meetings. We actually started them to see if we could gain you as an ally, not because we were that desperate for Hoshii's assistance."

"Fucking--fuck, Gaara!" Naruto swears, flinching violently. "I fucking trusted you! I FUCKING WENT AFTER YOU WHEN YOU WERE TAKEN! And all along it was a ruse?"

"No, Naruto, no, don't think that, please. It was before I knew you. Do you think I would have let you into my bed if I was just after political advantage? You know me better than that." Gaara looks earnest--hurt and angry that Naruto would think that.

Naruto deflates. For one, it's the most Gaara has said for as long as he's known the man. For another, he can see the worry in Gaara's eyes, worry for him. Naruto knows damn well Gaara does not worry for anyone, ever, besides his few important persons.

"You need the Hachibi to help you, and I'm going to make that happen. His ship is only five light years away. We should get to it by dinnertime; and by then Temari should have concluded the negotiations. Go back to your ship and set off to the coordinates I've just had Neji beam to Jiraiya. We'll make the hyperspace jump together in forty-five minutes."

"Okay," Naruto says, sounding defeated. It hurts to know that Gaara saw him first as a host, and only later as a real person. Then again, Gaara has been struggling with the same thing for years, and it would be unlike Naruto to think so little of his friend after all they have been through together. He recovers his usual wide grin, and if it is a few watts dimmer, well--nobody says anything about it.


Hyuuga Neji finds them as they're leaving to go back to the Soragakure and prepare for the long trip ahead.

"Naruto," he nods neutrally.

"Neji," Naruto returns the nod, only a little wary. Neji and him have history, after all, and not just because his cousin, the legendary Hyuuga heiress Naruto has been trying to find (and hold to ransom) all this time. They were once bitter enemies, Neji--locked in his nihilistic belief that he would never be his own man, never be free from his family's tight hold on his actions, and Naruto--determined to show him that there was another way. Neji despised him for his optimism; Naruto disliked Neji for his easy acceptance of defeat. "Never give up," Naruto had once said, and, "Your fate is not set in stone if even a failure can beat a genius", and when Naruto had wiped the floor with Neji, Neji had tentatively started to believe him.

Now Naruto looks at the strong, firm, confident man Neji has become and feels quiet satisfaction at being able to improve someone's life so much. To his surprise, Gaara stops very close by Neji's side, shoulders almost touching. Are they...? Nah, they can't be! Can they? Gaara brushes Neji's fingers with his own for no reason that he can see, and Naruto has his answer, albeit a very unexpected one. He looks from one to the other, face bewildered. When had that happened?

"Fourty-five minutes, Naruto. You'd best be off. Tell Uchiha I said 'hi', he'll know what I mean," Neji says cryptically, a strange smile twisting his mouth. Naruto scowls. Is there even a single person who isn't sleeping with someone he knows these days? The thought of Neji and Gaara together is unnerving enough, but the thought of Neji and Sasuke together doesn't just make him uncomfortable; it makes him see red like nothing else.

"Right. I'll be sure to do that," he sneers and turns his back on the lovebirds.

"What was that all about?" he hears Gaara murmur behind him, Neji's reply fading in the background, but doesn't care enough to stop.

He wonders what the Hachibi host will be like. Is he going to be as lonely and bitter as Gaara had been? Or is he going to be more like him, burying the loneliness deep inside behind a shield of bright smiles and boasting speeches? He shrugs. They'll know soon enough.

"Back into the ship with you," he decrees when he sees his milling crew members. "We'll be setting off in half an hour."

"Setting off for where?" Sasuke wants to know.

"To talk to the Hachibi host," Kakashi says easily from his slouch behind Naruto. "Gaara has graciously agreed to help us find him and ask for his help in reigning in the Kyuubi."

"Neji says 'hi', by the way. How the hell do you two know each other, anyway? I thought you were on Orochifag's ship for years and years!"

Sasuke smirks. "We had a few training matches some years ago. I won. He got pissed, he tried to fight me dirty and I won again. He's probably still sore about it."

"Oh, is that what the kids call it these days?" Kakashi muses, making Sasuke flush and glower at him, and Naruto snort in amusement at the look on Sasuke's face.

"I didn't fuck him! We just... messed around a little. Shut up, moron," he growls at Naruto, who is shaking with laughter, irritation forgotten.

"But you're both so preeeetty! Who bottomed?" he gasps out, and then hightails it back to the ship, still giggling like a toddler, when Sasuke starts for him with a clear killing intent. "Race you to the cockpit!" he screams over his shoulder, eyes twinkling with challenge. Sasuke runs after him, pretending he isn't smiling just a little.


"All hands on deck?" Naruto asks, taking his seat. Sasuke sits in the co-pilot's chair again.

"Affirmative. All systems ready. Charging enhanced warp drives. Making a note to find more sun crysts, we need power for this. More pirating, less flirting," Jiraiya says.

Naruto sputters. "WHAT. Did you just tell me 'less flirting'?" He stops clicking levers into place, taking a moment to stare into the nearest security camera sternly.

Jiraiya makes a sound like a cough; another remnant of his days of needing oxygen to live. "Right. Entering hyperspace in... 3... 2... 1..."

Sasuke ensures that the inertial dampeners are at full capacity, just in time for the ship to take off, full speed ahead.


The jump proceeds as normal--everyone gets stuck to the back of their chairs for the first second or so; then, breathing gets easier again. They're going to stay in hyperspace for a long time by Soragakure's standards--a little over nine hours. The enhanced warp drives really boost their speed--the trip would have taken them a little over ten days at normal speed. Unfortunately, for nearer distances they can't really utilise them--by the time they warm up, the ship would overshoot a target closer than a lightyear away five times over. That's, however, nine hours in which Naruto can brood and sulk and imagine all sorts of torrid Neji-and-Sasuke porn acts in his head as a poor distraction from the revelations Gaara had dumped on him. He needs to do something that takes his mind away from it all, so he heads for the training room intent on working out until he exhausts himself enough to sleep. He can't actually remember the last time he slept; the last two and a half days have been so damned hectic, yet sleep is the farthest thing from his mind.

He's had a lot to cope with in that time. First, rescuing Sasuke seems to have been the wrong move to make if he wanted to preserve his quiet, ordered world. Then the Itachi and Akatsuki thing, resulting in more rescuing, and then the cyborg program host thing... It's mostly been a lot of fun, but he can't even keep it all straight in his own head. He desperately needs to just pass out for a while, but his brain won't shut the fuck up! He even considers going to Sakura, having her stick a bunch of tranquiliser darts in his arm, but he doesn't want to risk the damn program overriding him again.

He reaches the training room only to see a strange light coming from around the door jamb. Curious, he pushes it open wider and stares in amazement at the lightning coming out of Sasuke's palm. There's some sort of glove over his hand, exuding a--what is that, a forcefield? condensed energy? plasma waves? He has no idea, but it looks cool as fuck. Sasuke's face is screwed up in concentration, sweat beading on his forehead from the effort. He looks powerful, and in control, and too fucking hot to be allowed. Naruto feels his pants tighten painfully at the sight of Sasuke biting his lips, straining to hold his place, and he is literally unable to stop thinking about what this man would look like in bed under him, straining for an entirely different reason. The image burns itself in his retinas--he is sure he'll be seeing the afterimages for a long time to come. He stumbles, because he absolutely cannot take his eyes off him--Sasuke's head snaps up, the lightning beams gone in an instant, leaving the room in deep shadow.

"Uh," Naruto manages, trying to turn his body away so that his condition is not immediately visible. Sasuke looks at him as if he's only just seeing him for the first time. When Naruto says nothing more, he lifts a mocking eyebrow.

"Cat got your tongue?"

'Tongue', thinks Naruto, 'Sasuke's tongue', and the visuals the question provokes are categorically not what Sasuke meant at all, he is certain.

"Uh," he reiterrates smoothly, and he cannot stop staring at the pale, muscled body underneath the mesh shirt Sasuke has dug out from Hawking-knows-where. The tight leather pants that leave nothing to the imagination are not helping at fucking all. Sasuke's got nothing to be ashamed of, he thinks in between drooling.

Sasuke's still staring at him, he notices, but can't seem to snap out of it. Oh crap, any minute now Sasuke's going to look down and his coat, while long and spacious, does not cover his front too well, having been designed to billow behind him as he walks. It's one of the reasons he bought it in the first place, but while immensely stylish it's not helping his cause any at the moment. Sasuke's eyes start lowering from his; they're at chest level, at stomach level now, and he can see the exact moment when Sasuke clocks on to his predicament--his eyes widen and his nostrils flare, as if he's actually sniffing him out. Then his eyelids lower and his eyes darken further, if that's possible. A smirk tugs at the corner of his mobile lips and Naruto wants to kiss it off his face.

"Hn," Sasuke snorts, and he's prowling forward like a fucking predator; Naruto had no idea men could move like that, even Kakashi doesn't move like that, and oh crap he's babbling and Sasuke is far too close. He feels himself being pressed into the doorframe, Sasuke's warm, lithe body splayed all along his frame. Naruto realises he is two inches taller than him the exact moment Sasuke dips his head and buries his nose in his neck. His eyelids flutter when Sasuke exhales against his too-sensitive skin, and when a tongue flicks out to lick at it he's sure he's going to pass out momentarily. It's been far, far too long since he last got laid and Sasuke is temptation incarnate.

"Fuck it," he murmurs and reaches for Sasuke's ass in the exact moment that Sasuke reaches for him. There is a flash of light, a slightly singed smell; Naruto has a brief moment to contemplate Sasuke's horrified face and think, 'ah crap, not a-fucking-gain', before the world fades to black.


He wakes up slowly, feeling drowsy but very well rested for some reason.

"Whu--?" he asks intelligently and cracks his eyes open. He appears to be in his bed, but his left side hurts something fierce. He looks down to find that he is naked, with only a swathe of bandages covering his torso. "What happened this time?" he whines, not expecting an answer.

"That was me, sorry," comes from the corner of his room. He snaps his head in that direction to find Sasuke slumped in the spare chair not covered by a pile of clothes. A further look finds said pile dumped on the floor by him. He looks up at Sasuke again, and suddenly remembers everything. Oh, fuckity fuck fuck.

"You fucking electrocuted me, you bastard!" he yells, choosing to focus on the less mortifying point. Sasuke cringes.

"I didn't mean to. I forgot I hadn't turned it off," he admits, looking sheepish. "Anyway, Sakura says you're absolutely fine apart from the singeing, and you've been sleeping for the past eight hours so you should be almost healed by now."

He does not mention the part where Sakura had almost bitten his head off for injuring her captain yet again. "He's got enough to worry about without you trying to kill him left and right!" she had yelled at some length.

"So... If I've been sleeping for eight hours, does that mean we've almost arrived?"

"We'll be there in about half an hour. I'd say you have time for a shower, but you're not supposed to wet the wound until it's healed over completely."

There is a knock at the door. "Is that Sasuke in there?"

Sasuke freezes, shaking his head furiously.

"Uh, no," Naruto lies.

Sakura sighs. "Jiraiya, can you scan for Sasuke's life signs?"

"He's in the captain's quarters," Jiraiya confirms.

"Naruto, I don't want him in there with you alone. He just electrocuted you. I'm coming in, cover yourself," Sakura says. She checks her tranq gun, making sure that she has the appropriate tranquilizers loaded, just in case Sasuke tries something funny. He's attacked the captain of the ship that saved his sorry ass twice. At this point, Sakura is willing to accept even the most minor offense as reason for shooting.

She can hear muffled curses and the sound of two idiots fumbling in the room for something to cover Naruto. She opens the door while the noise is still going.

Sasuke is holding a blanket over Naruto's crotch. They both freeze at the sound of the doors sliding open. Oh, Sakura thinks.

"Excellent," Naruto says, attempting the most lecherous grin he can manage. "Would you like to join us, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura blushes. "N-nevermind. You should be fine in no time. Your safety is up to you after that." She covers her eyes with one hand, turning around. "Jiraiya, keep an eye on Naruto's vitals. I don't want to know what is going on in there unless his heart stops."

"I don't want to know, either!" Jiraiya protests. "Naruto is like my--I don't want to know what he does in his bedroom, have someone else monitor the life signs panel manually."

"On second thought, maybe I don't care if his vital signs suddenly stop." Sakura takes the tranq darts out of her gun, heading back to the med labs, her cheeks still darker than her hair.


Naruto sucks in a breath of air between his teeth, throwing his head back against the pillow. "You're--ah," he gasps, trying not to wiggle his hips too much, despite the growing need for friction. He can feel the warmth washing over his left side as the nanites finish the healing process in a wave from the top of the wound to the bottom.

Naruto sits up, grabbing the front of Sasuke's shirt. "Stop doing that," he growls.

Sasuke releases the cloth he'd been holding over Naruto's hips with a smirk. "Doing what?" He reaches his (lightning-free) hand for Naruto's backside again. "Healed yet?"

"The nanites work pretty fast," Naruto comments, pulling Sasuke into a searing kiss. "Fuck, we've got thirty minutes."

Sasuke climbs onto the bed, pushing Naruto back down. "Tch, you won't last that long." He slides one leg between Naruto's, nipping at Naruto's collarbone.

Any protest Naruto may have made is lost as he arches into Sasuke's hips, now strategically positioned to drive him insane with the need for more contact, faster, now. Fuck, but he wants to feel Sasuke's bare skin sliding against his more than he wants to keep breathing. He grabs hold of the nearest garment and starts pulling, trying not to rip it, but really not caring too much if it means he's going to get his skin contact. Sasuke shifts on top of him, simultaniously rubbing against him exactly the way to ensure maximum friction, and still managing to shuck his top and slither right out of those damned-to-all-hells tight leather pants that started the whole thing rolling. All that in just one movement. Naruto's mouth goes dry at the implications.

"You know," he attempts nonchalance. "I'm still a little sore over here. Maybe I'm not supposed to be moving too much. Perhaps you could--" get on top of me and ride me hard to kingdom come "--do most of the moving yourself this first time?" He flashes Sasuke his most innocent and winning smile.

"Dobe," Sasuke smirks and straightens slightly, pressing down hard. "Don't try this manipulation crap, you'll just injure yourself. You might as well say it. You want me to slick you up, stretch myself open, slide your cock inside my tight ass and ride you into the mattress. Have I got it in one?"

"Oh, fuck," Naruto manages, almost shaking with the need for exactly what that bastard just said in that 'liquid-sex' voice of his to happen, to be happening right fucking now, thanks. "Please," he manages to force out from behind gritted teeth. He hates to beg, but he hates even more to lose this--this--fuck, he can't even think with Sasuke's skin right there; he can't get his hands to move fast enough. He's absolutely in lust with Sasuke's shoulders -- muscled, broad, perfectly formed and, he is finding out, tasting delicious. He tries a small bite--when all that does is make Sasuke stiffen above him and groan he adds a little suction, soothing the sting of the bite with flicks of his tongue.

"Fucking hell, stop teasing and get on with it," Sasuke growls, and, "Where's the damned lube?"

Naruto tears himself away from his new favorite place--his nose buried in the crook where Sasuke's shoulder meets his neck--and reaches around for his bedside table. His room is an absolute tip, and the top drawer is no different. He chucks out tissues, tubs of lip balm, a ball of string that he has no idea what it's doing there, a pair of socks with more holes in them than weave, a butt plug (he makes sure to chuck this much closer to the bed than the other crap), and finally his questing fingers close around a tube of hand lotion. Fuck, it would have to do. He presses it into Sasuke's hand--he wants his own hands free to roam all over the lithe body above him.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow but refrains from snarking--he doesn't want to ruin the mood again, and a case of blue balls is not high on his list of priorities. Instead, he snaps the top open and pours a generous amount in his palm. He trails the first three fingers of his right hand through the mess suggestively, and then his hand disappears from view. Naruto knows the very moment when Sasuke breaches himself--his body grows heavier on top of him, legs falling open over his waist, hips canting forward and back in turns, rubbing his length over Naruto's rippling stomach. Sasuke's mouth drops open, his eyes seem to roll into his head; he moans, and Naruto can't hold back his answering groan and the instinctive lift of his own hips. His cock slides against Sasuke's slick crack, brushing against the hand otherwise occupied. Sasuke looks down on him, lids lowered, breath coming out in hot huffs and little hitches that make Naruto want to bury himself inside him this instant.

"You done yet?" he pants, clutching at those slim hips.

"Impatient, much?" Sasuke smirks.

"With you fucking yourself on your fingers like that? You bet your ass I am!" Naruto grins his shit-eating grin.

Sasuke pulls out said fingers with a filthy squelch that makes Naruto wince and at the same time manages to turn him on almost unbearably. He grabs behind himself for Naruto's cock and slicks him up thoroughly; then he shifts and slides and Naruto is enveloped in scorching heat, squeezed to within an inch of his life. He grits his teeth and focuses on Sasuke's face, which has gone slack from pleasure, eyes squeezed tightly shut, tongue licking his lower lip. Sasuke takes him all the way in, hips shifting to rest against his, and it's more than he can take--he tugs on Sasuke's biceps, brings him closer so that he can take that lower lip into his mouth, slip his tongue past it to play with Sasuke's, memorise the taste that bursts into his awareness. Then Sasuke starts moving, and Naruto knows that his initial estimate is quite correct--he certainly won't last half an hour. Hell, he won't even last ten minutes if Sasuke carries on twisting his hips like that, Jesus fuck! He moans long and ragged, gritting out Sasuke's name when Sasuke squeezes around him, and whips his body upwards; he seems to have done something right--Sasuke grunts and bears down harder. "Fuck, right there, don't even move from there!"

"I won't," Naruto promises, and thrusts for all he's worth. Sasuke makes an obcene sound deep in his throat and reaches for his leaking cock, gripping it hard. Naruto bats his hand away and takes over, squeezing in time to the battering he's dishing out. Sasuke grips at the sheets by his pillow, bracing himself for the thrusts that shake his whole body with their force. A particularly vicious thrust almost unseats him; "Yes," he groans, and "fuck, harder," and grips Naruto's hips with his thighs, tightens around him--Naruto completely loses it, his rhythm shot to hell.

"Come on, fucking come already, you bastard, I can't--nnnh--I can't hold out much longer..."

He strokes fast at the silken hard length in his palm, flipping his thumbnail over the slit and Sasuke seems to spasm, his whole body shuddering; 'I'm--Naruto," he yelps and buckles with the force of his climax, cum splattering everywhere, Naruto has no idea how he's going to clean it all up--then Sasuke clamps down on him like a vice, reaches over, strokes the newly healed skin at his side, closes his teeth over his left nipple and holy fucking gods he is coming like a freight train behind schedule. Thank fuck the walls are soundproof, or he'd never hear the end of it. His mind blanks out blissfully; he feels like he's been electrocuted again, only much, much nicer this time round. "Fuck, Sasuke..." he gasps out when Sasuke collapses on top of him, completely spent.

Sasuke spares a languid glance for the plasma display. Jiraiya is conspicuously absent, but there is a countdown from 30 minutes, currently showing 12 minutes and 17 seconds. "Not even twenty minutes? Hn. Your endurance leaves a lot to be desired, loser. Been a while, huh?"

"Oi! The hell, asshole? I just gave you the fucking of a lifetime and all you can do is moan about it!"

"I thought that was the point?"

"Hah! I'd like to see you do any better after a year-long dry spell!"

"Is that right? So you will, then. Might want to let Gaara know we'll be a little late meeting him, Jiraiya," he throws at the plasma screen, which seems to be turning slowly pink in embarassment.

"Leave me out of this!" Jiraiya pleads; the screen pings and switches off altogether.

Sasuke settles more comfortably on top of his human pillow. "Five minutes," he warns, "and then you can just turn over and hang on." He ignores Naruto's spluttering and drops off like a rock.


"Sakura, I really do not think--"

"Shut up and go in. Someone needs to tell them to get ready, and I, for one, am going to be traumatized for life if I have to go in there again."

"Wh-what about Jiraiya-sama?"

"He won't turn on the cameras in there, or the speakers until he's sure it's clear."

"What's clear?"

"N-nothing, just go in!"

Sakura gives one last shove, and Jiraiya opens the door before Sai can crash into it, shutting it behind him.

Sai looks around the room. It's just like every other time he has been in the captain's quarters, except for the way that Sasuke is lying on top of Naruto, both of them naked and sticky and sleeping. The room reeks of sex. That's why everyone was so horrified to come in here? Sai sighs. They had him worked up for nothing.

"Captain, we have reached our destination," he tries. No response. "Sasuke-san, we have arrived." Nothing.

Sai pauses, thinking it out. How does Sakura usually wake him? With violence. Sai is not prepared to near the captain or his companion as they sleep; there is a good chance that they will wake up and fight back out of instinct.

"Captain, Sakura is getting married to Sasuke-san."

"BZUH? WHAT WAZZAT?" Naruto flails, almost knocking Sasuke off the bed.

"We have reached our destination," Sai informs him. He turns around, knocks on the door twice, and is allowed to leave. "Problem solved."

"All right!" Sakura cheers. "Open back up, I've gotta tell them about Kumo's host!"

Jiraiya opens the door for Sakura.

"SAI THEY ARE STILL NAKED. WHY ARE THEY STILL NAKED? THIS IS NOT A SOLVED PROBLEM." Sakura does not immediately tear her eyes from the scene, despite her harsh words.

"Sakura, fuck off. I'm sleeping," Sasuke grouches, shifting over to let Naruto up from under him and curling up into the unpinned duvet.

Sakura stares at him. "Is he always this pliant after sex?"

"I'll let you know," Naruto snarks and pushes himself up from the bed. He can't believe he has to fucking get up when his legs are still shaky and all he wants to do is to sleep for the next twelve hours straight. Note to self--the next time you decide to get your brains screwed out, make sure you have the rest of the night to recover from it! He never used to be this knackered before. He really needs to build his stamina up! He suspects he's going to enjoy himself while doing so, he thinks, grinning.

He stretches. Sakura blushes. 'Huh?' he thinks, then he realises he's still naked and Sasuke's release is still splattered all over him.

"Damnit, can't a man have his post-coital glow in peace?" he mutters. Sakura blushes darker still, but keeps staring at them until Sai rolls his eyes and manhandles her out of the room.

"Naruto, put that excuse for a penis away, you're scarring people for life. Take a shower and get to the unloading bay before Gaara-sama comes looking for you, and those two decide to perform a manly posturing display for everyone's entertainment."

"Get the fuck out of my quarters, Sai! I swear if you don't shut up about the penis thing..."

"'S mine anyway. Back off, creepy stalker guy," Sasuke slurrs from his sprawl on the bed and Naruto honest-to-god blushes.

"Oh, he's got it bad," Sakura groans before the door slides shut.

Naruto glances at the bed, taking in the curled-up Sasuke--hair messy beyond recognition, naked but for a corner of the duvet flung over his hips, mouth ever so slightly open, face slack in relaxation. This is weird. He's gotten used to Sasuke being wired, alert, aware the entire time he's known him, bar those few hours of exhaustion-induced sleep. This display of trust is astounding, and he violently loathes the fact that he's going to have to wake him up enough to poke and prod him into the shower and get the rest of their day on track, when he would much, much rather be slipping back into bed and spooning behind him, letting his warm weight soothe him back into unconsciousness.

He's stalling, and he knows it. He also knows Gaara will be here any minute now, and he would have no qualms about busting his door down and dragging him on Kumo still bare-assed.

Sasuke hummms and arches like a cat when Naruto kneels on the bed next to him and strokes up and down his back, unable to see all that naked skin and not touch it. It's strange being so--well, there's no other word for it, even if that one feels wrong in his mouth--tender with the bastard when they've spent the three days since they met alternately fighting and shouting at each other, but Naruto seems to have discovered his latent 'mother-hen' tendencies.

"Sasuke, time to wake up now."


"Oi, teme, come on. Don't make me dump you out on the floor along with the sheets, Hawking knows they need changing after the last hour."

Still nothing, although Sasuke's brow scrunches. Naruto makes a mental note to fuck him mindless whenever he needs to get his way. He contemplates grabbing him, but he doesn't particularly want to lose his arm; Sasuke might be passed out right now, but threaten him and watch him disembowel you before he's even woken up properly.

Sasuke rolls over, away from the irritant, and Naruto's widened eyes fall on his stiffie. Huh. Sasuke doesn't seem to have stamina issues. He does have to get himself in shape. He looks at the newly revealed sight consideringly, then nods, decision made.


Sasuke is floating in a pleasantly drowsy state, feeling completely safe for the first time in years. He hears voices, and feels people in the room, but nobody is radiating killing intent and he's not interrupting his nap for anything less than that. Besides, Naruto is there, he can take care of it. Then it all goes quiet again and he slips further into sleep. Until suddenly there's heat, heat and wetness and suction and he's definitely up now, in more ways than one. He lets out an unguarded moan when a tongue laps at the head of his cock, and then he's taken back into Naruto's (he presumes, and he'd rather imagine it's him than actually open his eyes and check) mouth and deeper still into his throat; Naruto swallows and Sasuke's eyes fly open at the constriction around the sensitive head.

"Fuck," he gasps, "do that again."

Naruto, however, will not be rushed. He pulls away slowly but implacably; with a final suck on the head he lets it pop out of his mouth and licks his lips.

"Back with us, are you? Hmmm, I'll have to remember that for next time."

"Are you going to pontificate, or are you going to suck my cock?" he snarks, looking pointedly at the object in question.

"Decisions, decisions," Naruto teases, and chuckles at Sasuke's scowl; then, in one swift move he sucks him back down to the root. Sasuke throws his head back so violently he can feel his neck protesting the strain. Naruto reaches down and squeezes his balls gently, then reaches further back and presses firmly on his perineum. Sasuke's hips snap up in reflex; he looks down at the top of the blond head bobbing in his lap. One hand is reaching behind himself, hidden from view--Naruto moans and jerks forward and Sasuke realises with a dizzying rush of lust that Naruto is fingering himself open, open for him. There's no stopping the moan that tumbles from his throat this time, and he has to bite his lower lip viciously to stop himself from coming. Only problem is, pain isn't that much of a deterrent anymore, not like it used to be before Naruto introduced shoulder-biting into the mix last time.

He grips at Naruto's hair and pulls him up high enough to look at, but not so high as to lose contact with the wet heat. He sees his cock stretching Naruto's mouth wide, lips tight and reddened around him and he can barely stop himself from exploding down that willing throat.

"You're either going to have to finish this or stop right now, otherwise it's going to be all over in fifteen seconds or so," he advises; Naruto grins around his mouthful and pulls off again.

"Well, when you put it like that..."

Then he's suddenly off the bed and walking away. Sasuke almost splutters in outrage.

"What the fucking hell?" he yells.

"I figure you need to cool off a bit before the main event, and we do need to shower rather desperately, so I thought we'd get two birds with one stone." Naruto's nonchalance would be a lot more convincing if he wasn't sporting a hard-on of epic proportions himself. He wiggles his ass suggestively as he steps into the bathroom cubicle, a shiny trail of lube left over on his right ass cheek. Sasuke is off the bed like it's on fire.


"You two done yet? It's been fifteen minutes! You really need to get going already! I'm giving you five more minutes and then I'm sending in a cleaning bot to spray the room down," Jiraiya says grumpily. He gets no response, but he knows they heard him--he made sure to broadcast throughout the quarters, shower included.

The shower door opens and a dripping wet Naruto literally falls out, laughing like a maniac. "Fuck's sake, chill. I won't tell anyone," he gasps out when an equally dripping Sasuke follows him out, habitual scowl back on his face. "Anyway," Naruto goes on, "did you have to push me so hard? I think I have your spunk stuck back on me now; the carpet isn't the cleanest place in the universe."

Sasuke makes a disgusted sound. "Must you be so vulgar?" he complains.

"You liked it ten minutes ago," Naruto suggests with a leer, unrepentant.

Sasuke flushes slightly, hunting around the room for a clean-ish towel to dry himself with. Naruto gets up off the floor and tosses him one from somewhere in the pile of clothes on the ground, picking another up for himself and rubbing at his chest briskly.

"Have you never heard of sonic laundry?" Sasuke snarks, nose twitching. The room absolutely stinks of sex and dirty clothes. He wonders how he managed not to notice before when he was fretting about Naruto's rate of healing. "I'm not coming back in here until you clean it up," he threatens, gingerly patting himself dry with the threadbare fabric. Naruto pauses, slightly panicked, then shrugs.

"I'll have Jiraiya's cleaning bot take care of it when it turns up, any minute now."

They dress quickly, even though Sasuke's leather pants seem to cause him a bit of trouble to tug back on. Naruto enjoys his predicament far too much, and would have told him not to bother, except just then the door slides open and the promised cleaning bot pokes an antenae in, beeping enquiringly.

"Come on in," Naruto tells it generously. "The room's all yours."

He tugs his long coat back on; Sasuke admires the way it flares at the back, white flames dancing along the bottom of the orange fabric. The black kanji for seven in the center of a wide red swirl takes up most of the back of it--Sasuke wonders momentarily what that's all about before shrugging. It's pretty, he supposes.

"Oh, thank Hawking, you're ready," Jiraiya says in a rush. "Gaara-sama's here. Get your asses to the hangar, pronto! You know how he hates being made to wait; it took me ages to get all the sand out from the carpets last time! Oh, and Sakura wants to speak to you before you go, I'm calling her over now. Pick her up at the Office."

"Roger," Naruto deadpans and sets off at a brisk walk. Sasuke catches up a few seconds later and keeps pace with ease. They turn the corner just in time to see Sakura's pink hair swing behind the Office door. Naruto slams a large hand on the pannel to keep it from closing. "Come on!" he urges, jiggling impatiently.

Sakura turns very slowly. "You are telling me to hurry up? You fucking hypocrite!"

"Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm sorry, but I'm here now so can we get going already?"

Sakura rolls her eyes. She knows what he's like, she shouldn't get frustrated, she tells herself before huffing in irritation, grabbing the portable plasma screen on the table and shooing him away ahead of her. "Now listen up. I've done some research on Kumo's host. He's the brother of Kumogakure's captain, the Raikage. He has full control over his virus, but records suggest he has quite a temper. He has a weird love for poetry and rap, and if someone makes fun of them they are dead to him. It takes a lot to gain back his approval, so don't, whatever you do, for Hawking's sake don't diss his hobby. We need his help. You need his help. Don't fuck it up."

Naturo nods, smiling absently; Sakura just hopes he heard at least a word out of three, especially about her warning. He looks weird, she realizes after a moment of looking him up and down. He's... oh, for fuck's sake. Is he glowing? She looks at Sasuke, and sure enough--they are both fucking glowing. She strangles a laugh in her throat before it gets out--if she starts laughing now, she'll never, ever stop. She makes a mental note to tell everybody. They all need some fun after the past few weeks, and Naruto-baiting is top-of-the-line entertainment. Sasuke looks at her suspiciously when she makes a weird half-cough, half-snort sound, but she just shakes her head at him, looking amused.

Gaara and company are waiting in the hangar, the Puppeteer's shuttle landed neatly behind them. The shuttle only runs with ten crew, so their choice of entourage is limited. Gaara, Kankuro and Neji are the only three going from the Puppeteer, so that Naruto can have a lot more of his people at his back--he's the one at risk, after all. Kakashi and Sai are waiting nearby, chatting to their guests; Yamato and Gai have their heads close together; Gai's sparkling persona is suspiciously absent. It's all business, then. Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke make their way over and everyone starts moving into the shuttle. Naruto claps Gaara on the back as he passes; Sasuke and Neji smirk at each other and raise equally snarky eyebrows of greeting. Sakura smiles at Gaara, whose lips twitch to indicate that he's smiling back at her.

Not much is said between the ten for the half-hour it takes to reach the Kumogakure. Naruto looks relaxed, but Sakura can see how tense his shoulders are, and apparently so can Gaara, who leans over to murmur something at him, getting a small smile back. Sasuke scowls and contemplates saying something; Kakashi's right foot mashing over his toes makes him think twice. Naruto does not need--what had Sai said? Manly posturing displays? He smiles--a tiny, self-mocking twist of his lips and receives an approving nod from Kakashi for his trouble. Gaara watches the interaction with interest, raising his own nonexistant eyebrow at Sasuke. Sasuke remains poker-faced, but Gaara leans back and away from Naruto, nodding very slightly to himself. He glares very, very hard at Sasuke, who interprets it correctly as a 'hurt him and you're so dead they'll be collecting atoms of you from all over the galaxy' kind of glare. He raises an eyebrow back, but his eyes hold no challenge. He's fine with that.


"Let me back in there," Naruto insists, trying to free himself from Sakura's hold; it's no use. She has the gloves she inherited from Tsunade, which increase her strength far beyond human capabilities. "Let me go, Sakura-chan. Let me back in there, I'll show that bastard what captaining a ship means--"

"Shut up," Sakura replies through gritted teeth. She tightens her grip, enough to hurt but not enough to damage.

"Calm down, Naruto," Sasuke says, grabbing Naruto's shoulder.

Naruto calms for a few seconds. Sakura spends the entire period scowling because Naruto used to do that for her, and here's some stranger with a pretty face, and a tight, mesh shirt, and leather pants... She's practically drooling as she forgets what she was doing.

Naruto frees himself while Sakura is distracted, running toward the tiny, ruined building where the secret meet between Suna, Soragakure's crew, and the Kumo delegates takes place. He runs a few meters ahead, before Sasuke tackles him to the ground. Naruto eats dirt, but is more occupied by the body heat seeping through to where Sasuke is sitting on his ass. "Ngk," Naruto replies. "Fuck."

"Not unless you calm down." Sasuke leans down, whispering in Naruto's ear, "We're going to go back inside of there in ten minutes, and you're going to get along with Kumo's crew, including Bee, and we'll arrange something later."

Naruto swallows with an audible click. "But he refuses to do anything to help me get the program inside of me under control, and his brother won't even try to negotiate with us because they don't like you, and I am not going to just listen to them fling insults--"

"Do it," Sasuke orders in the same irresistible, breathless mutter. "I don't care what they say about me, and neither should you. I have two goals in my life: to kill my brother, and to pound you into your own mattress tonight. I'm going to do the first one all on my own, but the second depends on you."

Naruto forgets why he was angry. "When?"

"Ten minutes," Sasuke says, standing up. "When we go back in there, let Kakashi and Sakura do the talking for your side. They're better at it."

"It's my ship. I'm the captain," Naruto protests. "And I'm the one with the program in my spine."

"And we will take your opinions into consideration," Sakura assures him. "But the more you shout at Kumogakure's leader about why his brother is an idiot, and why his best crew members are, and I quote, 'fuckwads' for disliking Sasuke, who may I remind you began his stay on our ship by trying to kill you--not that there is anything wrong with that, but I really think you should get to know Naruto first, that way you at least fully comprehend the instinctive urge to kill him," she adds as an aside to Sasuke, "--the more likely the negotiations between Kumogakure and Soragakure are to end badly." Sakura takes a deep, triumphant breath, then, noticing that Naruto hasn't moved, raises an eyebrow. "Sasuke isn't sitting on you anymore, why are you still on the ground?"

"Uh, well, Sakura-chan, um--"

Sasuke smirks. "Got a hard-on?" he taunts.

"Lalala, I did not just hear that!" Sakura covers her ears, turning away from Naruto as a blush darkens her cheeks.


Naruto lets out a put-upon sigh as he listens to Kakashi trying to salvage the negotiations. There is a reason why Kakashi is his security officer, and it's not because he looks scary, although that plays a part. It's because he has a mind like a steal trap that can wiggle out of the tightest corner and, conversely, paint the other side into it. Currently he's trying to placate the Kumogakure's Captain, who is not inclined to give him an inch. He's glowering at Kakashi, Naruto, and Sasuke in turn, and sparing a leer for a livid Sakura every now and then. It's a stalemate, and they haven't even discussed the situation properly.

They've yet to mention Akatsuki, though Sakura thinks the Kumo crew probably have an idea already about what's going on--they aren't stupid. Although, she'd really like to know just how much they've worked out about the viral mainframe. She can't quite get a lock on it; the Raikage's eyes give nothing away, but she can see the way Killer Bee sizes up Naruto when the latter isn't looking. Bee's intrigued, at least--Sakura bets there aren't that many people around that he can talk to about his abilities, and there are no less than two people in the room at this very moment who can truly understand what he's going through. He would be an idiot not to take advantage. If nothing else, he can evaluate the threat the strangers pose to Kumogakure, which is what she would do if she was in their place.

"... understand what you are saying, Raikage-sama, but you must also understand that if we have any chance of avoiding an all-out war with Akatsuki and the Alliance, we must work together. Fact of the matter is, there is no one else currently able to teach Naruto how to cope with his chunk of the code, let alone control it in any way, and Naruto is the only person alive that Killer Bee-sama can go all out with. So, it would be incredibly beneficial to both of them, you must see that."

"What I see is some loud-mouthed punk who seems to be infatuated with a trained killer. I see nothing to benefit from here," the Raikage drawls, his tone a fuck-you in itself, "and moreover, I am insulted that you insinuate that I would fail to take advantage of something so seemingly beneficial to my brother."

Kakashi is starting to think that this negotiation might actually even fail--both sides are far too stubborn for their own good. He can see that the Raikage's last comment is making Naruto absolutely seethe with loathing and even a little hurt--it's been some time since he failed to win somebody over at first meet. The Raikage's constant derision is wearing him thin. Kakashi is at a loss--there's nothing left to play, he's put all his cards on the table and the other side has way more aces than he does. And then...

"Bee-sama." Gaara speaks from his hitherto silent corner. "I understand that you may find Naruto a little unorthodox. But he is a decent person, and he was there for me when I died. He helped bring me back, and there's no one living that I respect more than him. You should not be so judgemental before you know him, lest you be judged yourself. Could you at least try it, perhaps? There's nothing more we can ask of you."

Killer Bee looks at him with an utterly closed-off expression; unlike Naruto, who practically has tears in his eyes. After over five minutes of silence Kakashi is ready to admit defeat for the day when Bee speaks.

"Yo man, I'll think about it. Leave my decision for the night so I can be proud of it."

The majority of the room cringes at just how bad the rhyming is, but Kakashi is exceedingly pleased. Finally, a damned reaction!

The Raikage is not happy, but his brother has spoken and he has no choice but to comply. However, he has stipulations.

"Uzumaki must face the Waterfall of Truth alone. I will not allow my brother to get involved with some loser who's going to drag him down. That is my final word on this. Motoi will show you where to go. We will reconvene this meeting when he has reported back to me on Uzumaki's progress."

And that's his final word on it; he gets up and leaves without a further glance, entourage trailing behind.

Naruto slumps against the back of his seat, drained and miserable. He has to prove himself yet again; he's getting sick of people thinking he's nothing more than an empty-headed pawn to control. "What is this Waterfall of Truth thing, then?" he asks, voice softer than Sasuke has ever heard come out of his mouth.

"It is a program we can hook you up to in order to communicate with the virus inside you. It is the first step to learning to control it. Bee-sama himself had to go through it before he could learn how to impose his will over it. I won't lie to you--this is a serious trial, but the Raikage is right to ask it of you. He will never be certain you are in earnest otherwise." Motoi explains, looking stern.

"Fine," Naruto says, getting up. "We can start right now. Take me to it."

"Naruto, you should rest a little," Kakashi argues. "It's been a long day and no one knows how long this is going to take--"

"No. We'll do this now. We don't have the time to lose. Akatsuki are probably on their way here as we speak, and I need all the time I can get training, if Suigetsu and Jiraiya are to be believed." Naruto's voice sounds strange in Sasuke's ears, a mixture of defiance, resignation and exhaustion. He's made his decision, though, and there's no swaying him.

Motoi nods, almost approvingly, Kakashi thinks; it seems Naruto has passed the first stage of the Raikage's test.

"We will go alone," Motoi says when everyone gets up to follow them. "You may wait here. The room is not far away--only three doors to the left. He will be safe there, and you can monitor his progress and well-being on the screen here." He presses a button by the light switch and a panel on the wall slides open. A plasma screen is revealed, showing an empty room with a console in its centre, surrounded by wires. It looks omnious; Sakura shudders when she imagines Naruto strapped down into it.

"Kakashi," she says uncertainly, and Kakashi nods.

"I would like to accompany you to the room so that I can check it out. I know this is your Raikage's requirement, but I would be amiss in my duties as Security officer if I let my captain walk into this without checking it first."

Motoi studies him for a moment before giving him a brisk nod in return. "That would be acceptable. This way, please." He leads them out of the room.

The others stay where they are, most sitting, some pacing nervously, not one of them taking their eyes off the screen.


Kakashi gives the room a thorough check-out. It's just as Motoi has described--from its location to its function. He still doesn't like it, but there's nothing he can do about it, bar give them all the two-finger salute and whisk his people away, which he knows Naruto won't agree to. So, he has to step aside and watch as they plug Naruto in.

They stick sensor nodes everywhere, at every vital spot--it's enough to raise Kakashi's protective hackles twice over. They could do literally anything to Naruto when he's trussed up like a turkey for the oven like this. When they inject him with a couple micrograms of nanomachines Kakashi literally has to grit his teeth and hold on to his elbows to stop himself from punching every last one of them through the head.

"Kakashi-san, it really isn't as bad as it looks," Motoi says matter-of-factly, but Kakashi detects a smidgen of concern in his eyes. Good, he fucking should be concerned that he's going to be very dead if something goes wrong as a result of this. He says nothing, but narrows his eyes in warning.

Naruto, meanwhile, is uncharacteristically silent. He looks as focused as Kakashi has ever seen him, but he seems to be looking through the console display rather than at it. Then he freezes, and it starts.


The inside of Naruto's mind looks like Soragakure, except for the giant waterfall where the back wall of the mess hall should be.

"One half of the U/U Project," a voice says. "Uzumaki Naruto. Captain of Hoshiigakure's most valuable ship. Apprentice to Jiraiya, a former ally of Hoshii, and friend to Konoha's last leader. You like sparring, pirating, ramen, and Uchiha Sasuke. Shall I go on?"

"Where are you?" Naruto demands, assuming a defensive stance. He imagines he has a phaser in his hand, so a phaser appears in his hand.

"All apologies," the voice says in a tone that seems to be anything but apologetic. In the strange waterfall appears Naruto's reflection, covered in circuitry and nothing else. Its eyes are red; its expression looks indescribably wrong. Naruto never looks that devoid of emotion. He suppresses a shudder. "Why are you here?" the thing purrs.

Naruto clenches his fists. "To integrate."

"Oh?" Naruto's reflection raises an eyebrow, exiting the waterfall. It seems to move with a calculated swagger, circling Naruto. "Integration. I like the sound of that." There are thin, metal rods reaching out of its spine, spindly and jointed like insect legs. They move as its smirk widens to a mocking grin, skittering along the reflection's flesh. Naruto can feel the movement, too. "Why so eager, Na-ru-to?"

Naruto clenches his teeth, resisting the urge to lash out. "We have to form an alliance with Kumo. Akatsuki wants you to join them."

"Akatsuki?" There is a pause. Memories flicker through Naruto's mind as the program reaches back for an idea of what he means. "Oh, them. Why shouldn't I join them?" The reflection still appears to be several feet away, but Naruto can feel a finger along his chin, an arm around his shoulder.

"Because they'll use you," Naruto tries.

"Oh, like you're doing, right?"

"Because they can't win."

"I'm impartial."

"Because they're trying to put you together again, and that is too dangerous--"

"Oh, really?" Naruto's reflection appears at his side, an arm around Naruto's shoulders. "You know what? I think I've decided."


Naruto sits up, gasping for air. There are cords everywhere. His vision seems to take in too much; it's too sharp, too focused, but it melts back to normal within seconds.

"Captain Naruto, your eyes--!" Motoi tries.

"Fuck." Kakashi draws his weapon. "Stand back."

"I'm fine," Naruto insists. "It won't integrate."

Kakashi doesn't lower his weapon.

"I think it wants to join Akatsuki."

Kakashi shakes his head. "No, it wants to bluff. If you lose confidence, the integration could end with the program on top. It's too risky for you to try this again." He holsters his phaser, moving to Naruto's side.

Motoi grabs his hand before he can remove any of the sensor nodes. "If you stop the process now, there is a 90% chance that we will not be able to do this again. Think carefully about what you are doing."

Kakashi looks at Naruto. "Give me the order."

"No." Naruto folds his arms. "If it's just a bluff, I can do it. I can handle this. If I can't, then kill me, and make sure Akatsuki doesn't touch Killer Bee, okay?"

Motoi nods.

After a moment, Kakashi sighs. "When did I start listening to your orders?"

"Probably when I started meaning them," Naruto sighs. "Okay, let's try this again."

His frame freezes; his eyes glaze over.


"Back so soon? Would you like to hear me say my decision out loud?"

"I want to know why you want to join Akatsuki. What's in it for you?"

"But that should be obvious, Naruto. They will let me do as I like. You want to control me. Cage me. Harness me. Now, I've never objected to a bit of bondage, so long as I'm the one on top." Not-Naruto trails his fingers along the back of Naruto's neck.

"That's not going to happen," Naruto snaps. Then he sighs. "Look. My dad put you inside me before I could even walk. There must have been a reason for him to do that, and I think it was so that we could learn to work together. I don't want to destroy the world. I want to fix it."

"That's where you fail, fleshbot; you don't have the imagination. I want fire, and destruction, and screams, the symphony of the end. You want to live happily ever after with your Sasuke-kun. Guess which one I'd choose."

Naruto clenches his fists. He has to win the program over. How the hell does he do that?

"Why do you want to fix the universe, anyway? The universe killed your mother, your father; your people were exiled because of others' craving for power. You were almost killed as a baby because of that. You should want to destroy it. I don't understand you, and I won't join you."

"That wasn't the universe. Those were people, misguided people. I want to make it so no one will face the same fate as me. If we don't end this now, if I die with you still locked inside me, then you die, too. Make no mistake. You refuse to integrate, try to take me over, and I will give the order for someone to kill me."

"They will never do it. They are too loyal to you, and they love you too much to kill you."

"That is exactly why they will follow my order. They would rather see me dead than taken over by something like you."

"You are bluffing."

"So are you."

The program huffs. "What now, then?"

"Now you listen to me."

Both snap their heads around towards the new voice. Sasuke is standing there, eyes blood red with three black pupils dancing inside. Naruto can't believe he's stanging right there, in his dream scape, looking as cool and unruffled as usual, if you disregard the way he's looking at the program. Naruto feels a momentary crippling fear--oh fuck, what will Sasuke think of him now he's seen what's inside of him? He pushes it to the back of his mind, to be taken care of when he has more time to spare on silly things like his love life.

Meanwhile Sasuke is staring at the program, and Naruto can actually see it shrinking. It is no longer his size, but looks like a much younger version of him. Twelve-year-old Naruto looks up at him with eyes shimmering with pain and hurt.

"Why?" Twelve-year-old Naruto cries; Naruto can't remember ever being this young and vulnerable. "You know what they did to us, how they ignored us, how they used to shout at us. You don't remember going hungry every time Kakashi was away? I DO! I do. Why do you protect them when all they ever did was hurt us?"

"I remember. But I also remember Iruka-nii and what he did to that bully Mizuki. I remember he took a razor shuriken in the back for us. And I remember Sakura, and Ino, and Kiba, and Shino, and Jiraiya. I remember what happened when Iruka realised some shopkeepers wouldn't sell us food. Do you remember?"

"But Sakura laughed at us!"

"And then she apologised and healed our bruised knees. And then she invited us to her house and Mrs. Haruno fed us pancakes with chocolate sprinkles."

"But Kiba punched us!"

"Yes, but we punched him first. And then we went for ice cream. You can't keep remembering the bad without remembering the good that came with it. You can't hold grudges for things long in the past. You know my heart. You can see how much I love my crew, and Tsunade-baa-chan, and Hoshii, and Sora-chan, and Jiraiya. You know I would never let you take me over if it means hurting any of them. I'll protect them, even from myself."

The young not-Naruto sniffles and wipes at his runny nose with his sleeve. The circuitry has retreated into his skin and he would look just like a miserable human child if it wasn't for his orange-red eyes and slitted pupils. Naruto uncurls his fists and approaches cautiously, putting a large hand on little Naruto's shoulder. He tenses; then he throws himself forward and hugs Naruto around the waist, tucking his small head into his side.

"It's okay, kid," Naruto soothes. "They love us, too, just as much as we love them. We have to protect them. Akatsuki don't care about anyone besides themselves. They are the power-hungry people who made our childhood hell. They are the ones to confront and defeat."

Not-Naruto makes a last-ditch effort to get back to his former size and self, but Sasuke is there, pinning him down with his eyes, black spinning so fast it is almost like a circle within a circle.

"Okay," not-Naruto says, and fades away. What is left is a string of data that seems to download straight into Naruto's brain; his eyes flutter alarmingly as the data stream disappears into his forehead, and he sways on his feet. Sasuke is there already, holding him up when his knees give out. Gently, he lowers Naruto to the floor and puts his head in his lap. The data stream looks never-ending, stretching in the distance, coiling around the corners of the room--Sasuke can't make out its length. He disactivates his Sharingan and settles down to wait it out.


Kakashi slumps into the wall, covering his own Sharingan implant back up.

"He's done it," he croaks. "Naruto's integrated with the program."

Motoi stares at him in disbelief. Already? It had taken Bee-sama days to complete, and this brat has done it in less than twenty-four hours? Then again, Bee-sama hadn't had help. He lets his eyes drift to the other young man in the room, who had come barging in when fourteen hours had passed without Naruto resurfacing. There had been no stopping him once the screen in the other room had shown Naruto start twitching so badly that his sweat-drenched body had almost fallen off the cot. Sasuke stands stoically next to Naruto's prone form, staring down at him, not touching but close enough to feel the heat emanating from him. He hasn't moved for hours.

Then suddenly both of them start awake; Naruto sits up flailing and almost falls off the cot again, and Sasuke takes in a huge breath and a steps back, his knees almost folding under him. Kakashi is there to brace him immediately. He lowers him into a chair by the bed.

"Easy. You haven't moved a single muscle for over eight hours. You're bound to be sore. I'm amazed you even managed to stay up all this time."

Naruto can't take his eyes off Sasuke. "You--" he gasps, has to stop to clear his throat. Motoi passes him a glass of water that he chugs down in one go before trying again. "What did you do? How did you make him change?"

"He was feeding off your doubt. You were the one who made him so big in the first place. I just--knocked him down to the shape he actually was."

"Oh. Wow. Thanks, Sasuke. That was--yeah. Thank you. He almost won before you showed up."

"I know." Sasuke scowls. "What kind of idiot loses a fight with himself?"

"What was that? I'd like to see you try! Hey, Motori--"


"That's what I meant--plug Sasuke up to this thing, see how he takes himself. He's a total jerk underneath it all, so he'll totally get his ass kicked!" Naruto's stomach rumbles, disrupting his tirade.

"One-track mind," Sasuke mutters with a sigh.


"Slow down, Naruto, you're going to make yourself sick!" Sakura huffs, putting her hands on her hips.

Naruto ignores her, slurping his ramen as quickly as possible.

Sakura turns to Sasuke, eyebrows raised. "So, wanna tell me what went on in there?"

Sasuke shrugs. "The program was kicking his ass. I went in there and overpowered it. It admitted defeat. The end."

"Hey!" Naruto protests, voice muffled by noodles. "I did all the work! You can't take the credit for it!"

"How did you overpower it?" Sakura interrupts before they get started properly.

"His eyes got all freaky, and red, and spinning! What the fuck, Sasuke?"

"I don't know! It'sthefirsttimeI'veusedthem."

"What was that?" Sakura snaps.

"It's the first time I've used them, alright? Intentionally, that is."

"So, you just thought, 'my boyfriend's in trouble', and they switched on? Just like that?"

Sasuke scowls and opens his mouth to shout at her, then stops. "Something like that." He tries not to look too unsure of himself while facing Sakura. His pride won't allow it, and he suspects she can smell fear.

Sakura huffs after a moment, seeming to dismiss his words. "Both of you get to sleep after you're done with this. We head out tomorrow morning."

Naruto tries to protest, "But, Sakura-chan, I've already slept for fourteen hours, I don't need--"

Sakura cuts him off with a sharp glare. "I'm the medic, and you're the captain. The sheer mental strain of that entire ordeal should have you exhausted. He looks dead on his feet," she snaps, jabbing a thumb at Sasuke.

"That's because he was standing for eight hours, Sakura-chan." Naruto slurps more noodles, continuing with his mouth full. "An' he's not as awesome as me, anyway. I'm the captain, I don't take orders from you."

"Don't talk to me with your mouth full!" Sakura punches him.

"Hurk." Naruto begins coughing. Once he can breathe again, he replies with a weak, "Yes, Sakura-chan."


"You mean he actually did it?"

"Yes. He is exhausted, and so is Uchiha, but he integrated with the program in mere hours with only Uchiha's help."

"Fucking hell!"

"Yes, Raikage-sama."

"Yo, Motoi! Bro!"

"Bee, we're going to have to stick to our word. You'll help him?"

"No problem, man!"

"We have no choice, anyway. Motoi, send a message to the Soragakure. Uzumaki is to present himself for training at 9 a.m. Galactic Standard Time. That should leave him with about ten hours to recover."

"Very well, Raikage-sama."


"Mnh," Naruto voices coherently into Sasuke's neck.

"I said, get up, moron! We only have twenty minutes to get dressed and get over to the Kumogakure!"

"Dunwanna. 'M conforble."

"I will kick you out of bed if you don't move."

"Mmm, Sasuke," Naruto cuddles closer.

Sasuke sighs. He hates having to displace Naruto with a passion. The idiot had passed out last night the moment his head had hit the pillow, despite reassurances that he wasn't the least bit tired. And--well--he had looked just too comfortable and inviting, if truth be told. So Sasuke had climbed in straight after him, and this is what that resulted in. Well, that, and a certain hardness poking him in the side of his thigh. Pity they had no time to get rid of it in the more pleasant way.

When Naruto only shifts to lie more fully on top of him, even going so far as to trap him with a leg thrown over his, Sasuke scowls and does push him over the edge of the bed. Naruto sprawls on the floor, blinking stupidly up at him.

"Huh?" he asks, plainly still out of it.

"Training. Kyuubi. Kumogakure. Now."

"Oh!" he exhales, eyes rapidly clearing. "I completely forgot about that!"

"No shit," Sasuke deadpans and gets out of bed himself, wiping at the wet spot where a sleeping Naruto had drooled on him.

"Fuck! We only have fifteen minutes! Hurry up, teme!"

Why do I even bother? Sasuke thinks, exasperated.


Naruto stumbles out of the designated training room just a bit after Sasuke has sat down for lunch, stripped down to shorts. He had a shirt earlier, Sasuke is quite sure; it took him ten minutes to find the damned thing this morning. Naruto slides into the seat next to Sasuke, smelling a bit like clean sweat.

"The real training's supposed to start after lunch," Naruto says. He looks longingly at the mess hall self-serve area. The ramen is all the way across the room. Sasuke ignores his pleading look.

"Naruto-niichan," Konohamaru says from Naruto's other side. He's holding a steaming cup of ramen just out of arm's reach.

"Konohamaru! You're my hero!" Naruto lunges for the ramen, but Konohamaru dodges.

"I want a promotion," he deadpans. "I'm the first person everyone comes to for random jobs. Mostly cleaning duty."

"A clean ship is very important to the crew's well-being," Naruto says, lunging for the ramen again. Sasuke wonders what he plans to do if he latches onto it and splashes near-boiling water all over himself.

Sasuke stands while Konohamaru tries to wheedle a better job out of Naruto. As soon as Konohamaru dodges to the right, Sasuke takes the cup out of his hand, placing it in front of Naruto. "Real training?" he prompts, ready to pick up the thread of conversation again.

Naruto glances guiltily at Konohamaru, unable to keep the victorious grin off his face, "Sorry, Konohamaru. Why don't you ask Haku if he'll let you help him out?"

Konohamaru lights up. "Do you think he will?"

"Sure!" Naruto uncaps the cup ramen, ready to start eating, conversation already forgotten again. He stops. "I need chopsticks."

"Get them yourself," Sasuke replies, scowling.

"The most convenient ramen ever, and I can't eat it because I have no chopsticks!" Naruto wails, finally standing up to shuffle toward the self-serve counter to pick up eating utensils.


Real training, Naruto avoided telling Sasuke at lunch, is a life-or-death situation. Naruto needs to be able to draw on the virus even under extreme stress. If he can accomplish this, he can do anything, he decides.

The first step in the training is for Killer Bee to beat him until he can see Death's doorstep. Naruto laughs at the suggestion at first, but thirty minutes later when he's only just managing to block a few of Bee's attacks because he's been taking hits so long that he's learning to predict Killer Bee's moves based on his fighting style alone, he realizes that he may have underestimated Bee. Just a little bit.

Bee looks strong enough, but Naruto got overconfident, which is a mistake he should not be making; one of Naruto's favored moves is to allow the enemy to underestimate him before launching the last-ditch efforts and overtaking them.

Bee stops moving for a moment, halting a kick mid-assault. He takes a notepad out of an inner pocket and begins scribbling something down. "Don't bottle it up, yo, let out your rage," he mutters. "Empty your soul on the written page."

Naruto's jaw drops. "What are you doing? We're supposed to be training!"

"Hey, you can't fight inspiration, bro!" Killer Bee retorts. "Heh, too slow!" He blocks a kick from Naruto with ease, not halting the movement of his pencil.

Naruto blinks a couple of times. Damn, this guy is good. Is he better than Naruto? Like hell! But he is good enough to keep him on his toes. Bee puts away the pencil and notebook before grabbing Naruto's leg just as it's swinging for his head and pushing him back to slam into the wall. Breath knocked out of him, Naruto wheezes for a moment before jumping back in there, determined to smash up that stupid face grinning at him.


Naruto doesn't know how long they have been at it, punching and kicking the crap out of each other. All his muscles ache from the strain of not losing; the pain is starting to seep into his bones. The nanobites in his blood can cope with some of the injuries, but even they can't take care of all of the damage he is sustaining. A kick to the side of his head almost knocks his brain loose. Naruto slumps against the wall, breathing hard. Killer Bee is still standing, but he is not doing all that well, either. Bruises are blooming all over his face and limbs, he keeps favoring his left arm and a slight limp is there on his right side when he moves forward for another attack.

His connection with the virus is strengthening, however. He can predict Killer Bee's movements within a fraction of an inch, knows when he's going to attack or feint, knows when he's about to be punched or kicked. The more they fight, the more time seems to slow, second by second, then nanosecond by nanosecond. He gets huge amounts of data with every movement, and his brain is getting better at interpreting them.

Finally, after what seems like days, Naruto is able to block Killer Bee's kick before he even starts to move forward. By that point, Naruto knows that he is starting to foresee the other body's intentions, and is thus able to strike pre-emptively.

"Good," Bee says and stops the sparring. "Very nice, yo. And you can do it twice in a row! We're done for now."

"What? Just like that? What happens now?"

"Now we eat. Then we sleep. Then we go again tomorrow till we weep."

Naruto's legs threaten to collapse, but he steels himself. It's working, he can tell. He's going to keep fighting for as long as it takes to master this thing.


The days blend together. Naruto keeps fighting Bee as best he can, keeps training and training until he can do it in his sleep. They take breaks only to eat or collapse from exhaustion. Since he spends all his time here, a few of his crew members have been given temporary lodgins on the Kumogakure. Naruto's life becomes a string of pain, winning, losing, going at it again and again. The only thing keeping him together is that he is unequivocally getting stronger every day. He is now able to predict Bee's movements almost all the time, he is able to interface with Bee's Hachibi part of the virus on a primal level. The Kyuubi enjoys talking to its brother, and the Hachibi is responding better than they had hoped for. It seems happy to have another piece of itself there, enjoys the time when they can interact without their hosts getting in the way.

So far, however, this has only been possible when the two hosts are on the verge of passing out from exhaustion, so that their minds are free of distractions and outside interference--which is why they train so hard that they hardly have to think about it. Bee is gaining in strength alongside Naruto; it has been whole days since the Raikage has made a snide remark about the Kyuubi host.

It is getting easier to let his mind wander enough for the Kyuubi to partially break through, just enough so that he can still control it while allowing it the freedom it needs to get shit done. Meanwhile, Kakashi is in negotiations with the Raikage and Gaara regarding the Hachibi piece's extraction. The Raikage is adamant that it will not happen; Kakashi and Gaara fight to explain that it must. It is going slowly, too slowly. Both sides are very much aware that it all hangs on Bee's word. If he says 'yes', there's nothing the Raikage can do about it. Kakashi finds himself once more dependent on Naruto's strange ability to influence people. He can see Naruto changing, growing in power in a way that might frighten him had it been anyone else. He sees enough of his worry on Sakura's face every time she helps patch Naruto up, but there's not much he can do to help. It's all in Naruto's hands now.

When Naruto does let himself rest, he stumbles through the mess hall supporting himself on Bee's shoulder, both of them battered, bruised, sore but elated at their progress. They eat whatever is on hand, although Iruka insists that Naruto eat at least one proper meal a day. The one time Naruto does not protest the withholding of his precious ramen, his crew's worry almost hits the ceiling. Most times, though, he grumbles just enough to reassure everyone's frayed nerves.

Sasuke spends his days alternately fretting and beating the crap out of anyone misguided enough to spar with him. The only person who can handle his raw power is Kakashi, and even then only just barely. The Raikage is starting to grumble about all the holes punched and burned through the walls of the training room Sasuke gravitates to. It is next door to the hosts' training room--even then Sasuke can't stop his stupid mind from thinking about Naruto and if he's doing okay, and just how long this fragile peace can last before it shatters like so much thin ice.

The one other thing that holds Naruto from breaking apart under the strain are the nights. The hours when he curls around the warm, pliant body in his bed, the time he spends with his front plastered against the pale back, skin touching everywhere they can reach, so close it's hard to determine where one body ends and the other begins. Sasuke does not protest the closeness, mainly because it is also the only time he can breathe, Naruto's scent mingling with his, sleepy breaths teasing the hair at the nape of his neck, arms curled around him holding him securely. Sometimes Sasuke reaches for that arm, trails his fingers over the toned skin, caresses the back of Naruto's hand splayed posessively over his stomach, twists their fingers together and holds on for as long as he can.


"The virus is all about control," Sasuke explains. He's not an expert on it, but so far, from what Naruto has told him of the virus and its behavior, he can come to at least this conclusion. "Naruto has integrated successfully, but the virus is built to control things. Last time it was let loose, it tried to destroy Konoha, but I think this time, so long as Naruto doesn't let it completely free, he can manipulate things with it. That's what makes it so dangerous, right?"

Kakashi cocks his head, considering the possibilities. Beside him, Iruka frowns. He has been left out of most of the decisions related to Naruto's training. "I'm not sure--" he starts, but Kakashi cuts him off.

"We need a bot--we'll have to disconnect it from all systems." Kakashi is already moving, in spite of Iruka's protests.

"What if something goes wrong?" Iruka demands. "You don't know that the virus can't reconnect to Kumogakure's mainframe, is this really worth the risk?"

Kakashi turns around, one eyebrow raised. "I thought you, of all people, would have a little faith in Naruto's ability to do something when he puts his mind to it."

Iruka looks stricken. "That's--that's not what I meant. I don't know what I was thinking." That's not strictly true and both of them know it; Iruka doesn't trust the virus, and Kakashi can't really blame him for that.

"Besides, if anything does go wrong, Sasuke can get into the system and fight in manually," Kakashi adds, just to remind Iruka not to get too confident in Naruto's abilities; no plan is foolproof.

"Tch, who says I will, though?" Sasuke taunts, just for the sake of being contrary.

Kakashi shrugs. "I've just got a hunch you'd rather Naruto not be sucked out the airlock with the rest of Kumogakure's crew."

Sasuke steeples his fingers, allowing his bangs to cover his face, and pretends he can't feel his cheeks heating up. Of course he would save Naruto. Kakashi, however--

Well, if he happens to get lost or killed while Sasuke fights the program on its own territory, Sasuke won't feel too upset.


A cleaning bot enters the room. It's an old model; too clunky to do anything more than vacuum, dust, and pick up trash. It cleans its own waste receptacle. Instead of busying itself with actually cleaning the small library, it rolls to Sasuke's side, leaning up to see what he is reading. Sasuke closes the cheap, roll-out plasma screen, staring back at the robot.

"What?" he asks, not actually expecting a response.

"Found you," it says in Naruto's voice. "Look what I can do!" the bot picks up the portable plasma screen Sasuke had been using. It comes to life once more, displaying Naruto's face this time. Naruto waves.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow.

"Are you scowling at me? I bet I interrupted you. What are you doing?" Naruto pauses. "Actually, don't bother answering that, I can't actually hear you. This stupid bot doesn't even have a mic or a camera."

"Then how do you know I'm here?" Sasuke asks it. He gets no response.

A moment later, Naruto appears in the doorway, looking energetic despite the amount of sweat causing his shirt to stick to his torso. Sasuke stares, but makes the effort not to be too obvious about it.

Naruto holds up a scanner, breathing heavily. "I steered it toward your life signs. Pretty cool, huh?"

"How is that practical?" Sasuke asks. "If you can't receive communications, what is the point?"

Naruto puts his hands on his hips, smile fading. "It's not hooked up to the mainframe. If it did have a camera or microphone I could totally use those, too."

"How do you know?"

Naruto folds his arms. "Do you have a camera?"

"No." And if he did, Sasuke still wouldn't lend it to Naruto, he thinks. That's just asking for it to get destroyed. Before Naruto can give him another Look and start whining again, he asks, "Have you tried it with anything other than cleaning bots?"

"Well, Bee can electrically charge things with his nanomachines..." Naruto offers. "We haven't really tried out much."

"What's the range? How long can you hold control over something before the virus takes over?"

"It doesn't. I can control it almost from the other side of the ship, but only because my dad added a stronger transmitter than whoever put the eighth piece of the virus into Killer Bee." Naruto scratches his stomach self-consciously. "Kyuubi has a code written into its core that sets any pieces of programming it controls that stray to self-destruct so that it can't be reverse-engineered from the remote access codes. Same thing with Killer Bee's--it's part of their core programming. We couldn't take it out if we wanted to."

"That's convenient," Sasuke comments. He doesn't sound pleased, he sounds wary.

"Well, yeah. It's neat. That way we don't have to worry about someone replicating the codes. That would not be cool."

"Yeah," Sasuke says. He wonders just how far Naruto's dad had planned the whole thing. Nobody could know that this situation would come about twenty years later... Could they? Still, he supposes it's a likely assumption to make with a little prior knowledge.

"Okay, I gotta go back to training, Bee's waiting. We're still trying to see if there's a way that he can reach as far as me."

"So why come to see me at all, moron?"

Naruto flushes. "Well, you were close by, and the bot was headed this way anyway..."

"Don't tell me you just wanted to see me. You are such a girl," Sasuke smirks.

Naruto scowls. "Bastard," he grits out and punches Sasuke hard in the shoulder. "See if I ever do anything nice for you again."

"And you thought coming to distract me and interrupt my reading was 'nice'?"

The flash of uncertainty in Naruto's eyes makes his stomach cramp. He realises that he hates Naruto looking at him like that. He catches the retreating arm and tugs on the wrist. Naruto comes closer reluctantly, then eagerly when Sasuke reaches for the back of his head and draws him down for a kiss. Naruto sighs contentedly into his mouth, the tension that had stiffened his shoulders dissolving momentarily. He breaks the kiss after just a moment, pressing his forehead against Sasuke's, closing his eyes and exhaling softly.

"I'm so tired," he breathes out, almost inaudiably, like he can't ever say it out loud.

Sasuke looks at him, at the sallow tint of his skin and the dark bags under his eyes. Naruto does look exhausted, and the most frustrating thing is that he can't even take a break, they don't have the time to dally. He has to get this sorted as soon as physically possible, and they have already been on the Kumogakure for ten days.

"I know," Sasuke breaths back, placing a soft kiss to his temple.

Naruto seems to gather himself, almost pulling himself back together before Sasuke's concerned eyes.

"All right, bastard, see you later," he shouts, as if he's trying to convince himself to leave.

He stares at him sitting there, feet up with the screen in his hand a moment longer, then turns away and walks out of the room without looking back.

"This really isn't good," Kakashi comments from the shadowy corner where he's been standing as still as a piece of furniture. "He's cracking," he says, for once sounding as worried as he really is.

"Yes, but he is getting better at controlling it, you have to give him that. There was never even a flicker of a chance that the virus would break free."

"There is that. But we're going to need an answer soon from Killer Bee on whether he is ready to separate from the Hachibi. I honestly don't know which way this is going to go."

Sasuke wants to growl, he is so frustrated. And he can't do a thing to help him out! He's done his job for now--he has to wait for the next level to step in again.

As it happens, it's not until Naruto cracks completely that Killer Bee makes his choice.


Sakura is half-way through her training exercises with Karin when the dull thud and massive vibrations shake the Kumogakure, threatening to tear it apart.

"Fuck!" Karin yelps, the first emotion Sakura has seen her show yet. "What the hell was that?!"

"Jiraiya, status report," Sakura barks into the mobile communicator strapped to her wrist.

"It's Akatsuki's ship," Jiraiya answers hurriedly. "They've found us."

"Oh, Hawking, we're screwed," Karin moans and runs out of the room.

Sakura could care less where she is going. "Kakashi!" she yells into the comm piece. "What's your position?"

"In the meeting room with the Raikage and the other negotiators," Kakashi comes back immediately. "We are all preparing to move to battle stations--fuck!"

Kakashi's voice cuts off just as another massive explosion hits the starboard side hard, almost ripping out the stern.

Sasuke runs into the room. "What the fucking hell is going on?"

"It's Akatsuki. They're here."

"The hell were the scouts doing, playing cards? They should have spotted them at least a half hour ago!" He can't help but think that this would not have happened on the Soragakure.

"My guess is that Akatsuki exited hyperspace well beyond the safe proximity distance. They were almost on top of us before we got our bearing. My question is, how did they find us?" Jiraiya frets.

"We'll hypothesise later. We have to get out of here immediately. Where is Naruto?"

"He must still be in the training suite."

"I'd have thought he'd be out of there as soon as the first vibrations registered."

"Yes. We have to find him. Something might be wrong," Sakura threw over her shoulder, running out of the door already, Sasuke at her feet.

"Get back to the Soragakure," Sasuke commands. "Get everyone off this ship."

"Excuse me?" Sakura huffs. Her words are slow; she's trying to conserve oxygen for running. "I'm second-in-command, you're just in the captain's pants."

"I'll find Naruto and bring him back, you second-in-command everyone the fuck out of here," Sasuke snaps. He makes running while talking look so easy, Sakura thinks.

Sakura bites her lip, making a left turn toward Kumogakure's controls. Another explosion rocks the ship. The artificial gravity controls falter, causing Sakura to nearly fall flat on her face. The shields are down. This is far more dangerous than she had predicted.

Jiraiya's voice crackles over her communicator, "What's going on down there?"

"We need to shuttle everyone from Kumo to Sora, ASAP," Sakura replies. She has a stitch in her side, and her legs are starting to burn, but that's nothing. The control room is on her right at the end of the hall. "Akatsuki is firing on Kumo."

"Shit," Jiraiya replies, cutting the connection. He needs to tell Sora's crew the news, and have them prepare for taking on as much of Kumo's crew as possible.


Naruto is sitting in the center of the training room he has been using for his stay on Kumogakure, legs crossed. "Sasuke," he purrs, truning to face Sasuke. His eyes are red. His smile isn't right; it's too sharp, not enough like Naruto's blunt-force charisma, too much like a gleaming razor unnoticed on the floor for anyone to step on.

Slowly, Naruto--no, Kyuubi stands up, flexing his muscles as he does so. "Man, he really wears himself out. If we didn't have some of those nanites on hand for constant repair, he might have suffered permanent damage."

Sasuke freezes, meeting Kyuubi's eyes. His eyes don't activate immediately.

"Trying to catch me with your eye-magic?" Kyuubi taunts. It leans in, Naruto's body pressing too close to Sasuke's, breath ghosting over Sasuke's lips. "You've got nanites in you, too, and they're mine now." Kyuubi laughs, an open cackle that doesn't suit Naruto at all.

Sasuke punches Kyuubi across the face, hard enough to knock him to the floor.

Kyuubi laughs harder. "They're not my teeth." It spits, blood mingling with saliva on the training room's floor. "Not my blood. Not my pain. Try again, see how Naruto feels when you're done. Well, not that it matters." Kyuubi smirks. "You're not taking him back this time. I know your tricks."

"You need a host," Sasuke says, reaching into his pocket for his glove. "Give Naruto up, or I will take him by force." To Sasuke's credit, his voice doesn't waver. The words slide out too easily; he's not sure that he means them. What matters is that Kyuubi believes him.

Kyuubi snorts. "If you're even half as head-over-ass as he is, you won't do it." Kyuubi rocks with the ship as another blow connects. "Besides, do you think you could actually hit me with that? I already know what it can do."

Nanites rush through Sasuke's bloodstream, a few emerging to attack the glove from the inside, out. His lightning glove fizzles, useless. Sasuke gives in, tackling Kyuubi.

Kyuubi keeps laughing. "Go ahead, kill me. But what are you without this fleshbag? Who do you have left? Your crew? Those weaklings won't outlast you. Your brother?" Kyuubi cackles again, Naruto's body rocking under Sasuke with the motion. "I'm right, aren't I? Your life will be totally empty without him."

Sasuke reaches for a weapon, but all he has is a phaser. The nanites disable that before it can draw a charge.

"I'm at your mercy and you're still weaker."

Sasuke reaches under Naruto's possessed body, feeling around his belt.

"Oh, trying to get in a last grope? I hadn't thought you the type."

Sasuke finds Naruto's spare knife at last, just as Kyuubi realizes what he's really doing.

"Still going to bluff your way through this?" Kyuubi snarls. It's secretly beginning to wonder if Sasuke is batshit enough to kill Naruto, but it's not planning to let Sasuke see any fear.

Sasuke rolls Naruto's body over under him, flicking out the switchblade. "Bluff this," he snarls, plunging the knife into Kyuubi's rib cage.


"Status report," Sakura demands.

"Five life signs left on the ship, one panicked, one fading," Jiraiya reports.

"Shit!" Sakura rushes off the shuttle. "Get to Soragakure," she instructs Sai. Sai salutes, shutting the door and engaging the launch sequence. Kumogakure's main shields have been deactivated, but a little clever hacking here, a cut wire there, and Sai has a temporary shield over the shuttle. It'll last a little longer than it takes to get from Kumo to Sora, but he'd rather not test its limits just in case.

Sakura sprints down the halls of Kumo, pulling a scanner out of her pocket. The nearest life sign is on the left. It seems stable, but--Fuck, she can't just leave someone there. She darts into the room, finding Killer Bee arguing with his wrist.

"Where's Naruto?" she demands.

"Training room. You better run, Pink, Akatsuki's got some broadcast that's messin' with Hachibi." He returns to his communicator screen, eyes wide. "BRO?"

Sakura hesitates for less than a second before running to the training suite. Her scanner shows two life signs ahead. Sasuke and Naruto.


There is blood everywhere. Blood on the floor, blood on his shirt, blood in his body, Naruto almost giggles at that, of course there's blood in his body--well, except for the stuff on the floor. He might be a little bit hysterical, he thinks.

"Concentrate on regaining control over Kyuubi," Sasuke is saying. "Re-order your nanites. They need to be healing this now. Naruto, can you hear me?"

Naruto tries to concentrate on the nanites, but there's this agonizing pain in his ribcage, which he should probably take care of--maybe he could use some nanites, but fuck it hurts, what was he doing again? Is the room spinning?

The shots have stopped. The ship is still and quiet except for footsteps in the distance.

"You hear that?" Naruto chokes out.

Sasuke starts. "What? Fix your fucking nanites."

"What the hell--" Sakura kneels by Naruto, setting her medical bag on the ground. There is blood on Sasuke's hands where he tried to stem the bleeding, and Naruto's favorite switchblade on the floor, covered in Naruto's blood, and the longer Sakura takes to assess the damage, the more damage seems to be caused. She grabs the switchblade first, cutting open Naruto's shirt.

Kakashi grabs Sasuke, hauling him to his feet. His left arm crackles by Sasuke's throat. He doesn't need to ask aloud, his expression asks for him.

"Kyuubi took over," Sasuke says. "I had to--I had to do something."

"So, you tried to kill the captain."


"I hope he recovers, for your sake," Kakashi murmurs. He releases Sasuke, taking a defensive stance facing the only entrance to the room.

Sasuke stares down at the helpless, twitching form, and literally sees red. "How?" he growls to himself. How had the Kyuubi taken over? Naruto had got so good at controlling him!

"There's some sort of transmission that Akatsuki blasted Kumo with, Killer Bee said it was messing with the Hachibi. He has more practice on controlling it, though, so it couldn't take over." Sakura says all this almost absently, hands flashing over Naruto's prone body. Naruto's eyelids are fluttering, exactly like they had done before when he was absorbing the data stream. Sakura reaches deep into the incision on his chest, two fingers probing inside in an obsene copy of what Naruto liked done so much to another part of his body. Sasuke feels faintly sick.

Then it gets worse. Naruto's eyes flash red again, and Sasuke thinks that this might just be the end of them, right here in this vast, empty, battered room. He takes a long look down at the person who has come to mean so, so much to him in a few short weeks. He wants to remember him as he is, not as this shell of a being Kyuubi has turned him into.

"Fucking bastards," Naruto growls, and Sasuke prepares to receive the final blow. A moment later when nothing has happened he blinks around at the room, which looks exactly like it did a minute ago. Then his befuddled mind registers the fact that it had been Naruto, his Naruto talking, not that excuse for a code inside him.

And then he registers that there are flashes in the distance, sparks flying in all directions outside the starburst side illuminating the far wall of the room through the window.

"What the hell--" Kakashi murmurs faintly, echoing the thoughts of everyone in the room.

"That'll show them to mess with my crew! Fuckers!" A satisfied smirk curves bloodied lips as Naruto goes to chuckle vindictively, but stops as jostling his chest hurts like a motherfucker.

"What did you do?" Kakashi asks bewildered, still whispering.

"Hit them with their own weapon," Naruto says. The wound on his chest starts knitting itself closed, leaving behind no indication that it ever existed. Naruto's eyes flash brilliant blue, as gorgeous as Sasuke has ever seen them.

"What does that even mean?" Jiraiya huffs over the comm.

"That signal that they were using to disrupt my connection with Kyuubi--well, they made such a rookie mistake. Never use a signal that can be traced back to your own computer. I guess they weren't banking on me being able to latch onto it, were they?" His smile is feral, but it's human, there's none of the sharpness of Kyuubi's viciousness. "Thanks, dad," he adds in an undertone, but Kakashi's eye shines brighter than it had a second ago.

"So you hacked into their computer?" Sasuke asks, wanting to make sure he understood.

"Yep. Told it to take a hike. It chose to self-distruct. I wonder why it did that?" he says vaguely, but the fire in his eyes gives him away.

"I--I--" For the first time in recent memory, Jiraiya is speechless. "Well done, kiddo," he manages after a moment, the pride in his voice making Naruto's pale cheeks regain some of their color.

His wound is gone already, and he makes an attempt at standing. Immediately there are hands supporting him on all sides, and a shoulder slips underneath his arm to steady him.

"Why do I feel so lightheaded?" he wonders out loud.

Sakura shoots Sasuke a poisonous look. "Ask Captain Trigger-happy over here."

"There was no shooting involved!" Sasuke protests.

"This time," Sakura says darkly and walks on Naruto's other side.

"Sasuke?" Naruto asks, confused more than ever.

"It was Kyuubi," Sasuke says reluctantly, his voice heavy with regret. "It took you over. It was going to kill all of us; you have control over nanites, now. I had to do something."

"So... You what, stabbed me?"

"I didn't want to!" Sasuke winces, guilt twisting his face. "I thought you were going to die," he adds in a dead voice.

"Hey. I'm okay. Thanks for doing that. You know I would rather be dead than harm my crew."

"I still didn't want to do it."

"Shush," Naruto murmurs, tugging Sasuke closer to take Sakura's place on his side not supported by Kakashi. 'I know," he says softly, and Sasuke can feel the weight crushing him lift away.

"I hate to break this sweet declaration of undying love, but you lot have to get the fuck out of there right now. There's bound to be more ships on the way, and we have to leave the sector immediately. You've learned all you could from Killer Bee-sama anyway. Time to head for the mainframe," Jiraiya urges.

"We're on it," Sakura states crisply and heads straight for the shuttle that Sai has waiting for them in the dock.

They reach an intersection and turn right, only to come face to face with Bee's massive bulk. Bee is sitting down on the ground, cradling a body into his arms. Sakura runs forward, dropping to her knees in front of the Raikage, whose skin and clothers are drenched in blood.

"Bee-sama, how is he? What are his injuries? Bee-sama?"

"I think he's gone," Bee says, choking on tears streaming down his face. "Even the Hachibi's nanites couldn't close all the wounds fast enough. There was so much to do, I just--his lung collapsed, and his rib cage's mostly disintegrated. He--he stood in front of me. That last blast, I would have been a goner if it hadn't been for him shielding me with his body. And now he's gone. Fuuuuuck!" he screams, and the sound nearly tears through them with its desolation.

Naruto slips out from Kakashi's hold, crashing on the floor by Bee. "Hey, hey, I've got you. It'll be okay."

"Fuck off, how will it be okay?! My brother's fucking gone!"

"I know," Naruto whispers, slipping an arm over Bee's huge shoulders and pulling him against his soaked front. Bee falls against him as if his strings have been cut.

"Wait!" Sakura yells, hands resting over the Raikage's chest and neck. "Wait, I can still feel a pulse! It's barely a flutter, but it's there! We have to get him on Sora right now if he's going to have a chance of making it."

Bee jumps up as if he's been sitting on hot coals. "Are you sure, Pink? You'd better be sure!"

"I'm sure, Bee-sama. Let's go. Gently now!" she chastises when Kakashi moves forward to grab the Raikage's limp shoulders.

They pick up the ravaged man as gently as they can, and Bee cradles him in his arms. As quickly as possible without jostling him, Bee heads towards the shuttle bay.

Naruto tries to stand and almost falls over again. Sasuke is there this time, steadying him up with a firm hold over his waist. They trudge after Bee, who seems to shake himself out of his stupor at the sight of them, taking in his surroundings for the first time. "Yo, dude," he says, voice still shaky from exertion. "You got blood all over ya. What happened to ya?"

"Kyuubi made a bid for freedom. Luckily, Sasuke was there to stop it. He had to use extreme persuasion, though."

"Fuck. What happened to them assholes?"

"I blew them out of the sky," Naruto says with no small amount of pride. "A reverse signal lockdown maneuver."

"Nice," Bee tries to smile, but it's more like baring his teeth at Naruto. The six of them make their way to the shuttle and blast their way off the wreck of Kumogakure.


"His condition is stable for now," Sakura announces, closing the door behind her. "I think he was hanging on only through sheer force of will."

Karin slides down the wall beside the doorway, sighing loudly. "I need a sandwich. No one else on this ship is allowed to borrow my nanomachines until I recover."

Killer Bee pulls her back to her feet and into a bone-crushing hug.

"Ow, what the hell--put me down," Karin demands, flailing uselessly in an effort to get her feet back onto the ground.

Killer Bee drops her after a moment, reaching for Sakura next. "Thank you," he wails.

"Er--it's what we do, Bee-san," Sakura replies.

As soon as he releases Sakura, he wipes his eyes on his massive forearm.

Sakura puts a hand on his shoulder. "Get some rest, now, okay? I don't want you in there with him, too."


"Scouts only found two bodies," Jiraiya reports.

Naruto opens his eyes. "I knew that was too easy," he groans. "What about the ship? Any supplies on board?"

"The crew found a crate of sun crysts. Akatsuki is more ready for this fight than we expected. They could have fired at Kumogakure all night."

Naruto frowns, sitting up in bed. "But that doesn't make sense. That gun was big enough to wipe us in one blow--why would they need that much?"

"For you," Sasuke says, pulling the pillow over his eyes. "Kyuubi wasn't doing anything when I found you, it was just... staring at the wall. Waiting."

"After you destroyed their operatives last time, they probably hoped to isolate Kyuubi and Hachibi before boarding," Jiraiya agrees. "The fact we only have two bodies is a fairly good indication that they were overconfident, but still felt cautious enough to minimize their losses."

Naruto sighs. "What have we learned from the bodies?"

"Well, we have visual confirmation that one of them is that guy Sasuke shot and we dumped outside the Whirlpool wreck."

"What?! Are you sure? No one can survive a trip out in open space!"

"Hidan was a part of some weird religious cult that worship a Death god, so he had a back door in the whole 'dying when shot' business. Orochimaru had a file on each of the Akatsuki members stuffed with as much information as he had on them. Hidan is nigh on immortal."

"You mean, was. No one can survive being blown up and sucked out in open space. From the number of pieces his body got torn into, I think you can safely asume that the smarmy bastard's dead."

"What about the other body?" Sasuke asks, choosing not to contradict Naruto. There were rather a lot of pieces.

"From what intel you brought back from the main Akatsuki ship, it's a clone," Jiraiya says. "Same orange hair, piercings and purple eyes."

"Wow, your camera's got really good to record such detail! How many million pixels are you at now?"

"Never mind that," Sasuke huffs. "Any indication of pursuit?"

"Yes," Jiraiya confirms, annoyed. "Two more shuttles popped into where we were at only minutes after we had jumped. That was too close."

"Damn," Sasuke mutters under his breath. He doesn't know why he's surprised. The bastards seem to have found a way to track them; they aren't safe anywhere.

"Jiraiya," he says flatly, and Jiraiya's digital image turns to him. "I think this would be a good time to have that talk about just how Akatsuki found us."

"Yeah, I figured you'd say that. I've swept the entire ship for bugs, trackers, anything transmitting any sort of unauthorised signal. The only thing I've been able to detect are a whole lot more nanites than we had before. Now, we do have Karin on board, and Naruto has been practicing controlling his, looks to have duplicated quite a lot of them. But that doesn't explain the massive jump in numbers I've detected, and it doesn't explain why instead of twenty-seven life signs like there should be, including our guests and their guards, I can detect twenty-eight."

Sasuke freezes. "You think we have a stowaway on board." It's not a question.

"I think it highly likely. My sensors detected a pulse of transmission just before the first shuttle jumped on top of us, but it was so weak that I dismissed it as a malfunction. Since there was no repeat, I didn't think it necessary to check."

"Well, I think it has just become imperative that we find whoever sent it out," Kakashi says from his spot leaning against the infirmary door.

"Yes. I'll send out all my bots, but just in case I think we should have real people join in the search. Whoever it is may have interfered with the computer before, and is likely to do so again. I'll transfer the data and coordinates on the crew's palmscreens. Kakashi--you had better coordinate the search yourself. It seems I can't be relied on when it comes to this intruder."

"Copy that," Kakashi says and makes to leave.

"Wait!" Naruto yells, throwing the sheet covering him back. "I'm coming with you!"

Kakashi eyes him askance. "No, I don't think so," he says, turning to the door once more.

"I said wait, damn it!" Naruto growls, struggling to get off the cot.

"You!" Kakashi's glare pins him to the bed. "Are going to stay right here until Sakura confirms that your blood loss has been replenished. And you!" He turns his eye to Sasuke. "Make sure he stays in here. I don't care how you do it, as long as I don't have to hear about it and he doesn't lose any more blood." And he's out of the door for good this time, keying in the code from the outside to lock the two of them inside.

Naruto scoffs. "Like I can't override it with my own code!"

"Sorry, dobe," Sasuke smirks, "you heard the man."

"What? Since when have you listened to anything Kakashi tells you to do?"

"Since you're not up to walking anywhere without someone there to help you. Now, shut up, you're disturbing the Raikage."

Naruto looks to his left at the wreck of a man lying on the other cot. Tubes are sticking out of everywhere, and his chest glows with nanites working to fix the extreme damage his body has sustained.

"Hawking, he looks bad," Naruto whispers. "I hope for Bee's sake that he makes it."

"He will if Karin has anything to do with it," Sasuke tells him, conviction ringing in his voice.


The order is given over Hoshii's citizens' scanners as a text message. "Intruder on deck. Split into pairs, and find him."

"You two keep an eye on our sun crysts," Ino instructs, getting to her feet.

Shikamaru yawns. "Sure."

Chouji nods. "You got it!"

The three of them separate, Chouji and Shikamaru heading down the hall to the storage room, while Ino begins the search.


Konohamaru peeks through a doorway, checking out the spare cabins.

"I already checked that side," Ino says from behind him.

Konohamaru starts. "Oh. Where haven't you checked?"

"Over--" a small blip on her scanner alerts Ino to the presence of another life form. It could be someone simply stepping within range of her scanner, or it could be the intruder's camouflage slipping. Konohamaru's attention snaps to her scanner.

"Is that--"

Ino holds up a hand, motioning for silence. She takes a few slow steps forward, peering around the corner to see who is there. She whips out her phaser upon realizing she doesn't recognize this person at all. "Identify yourself."

The man holds up his hands, smiling around the lollipop in his mouth. "I'm Omoi! I'm with the Kumo crew. Did I do something wrong? Was it because I used the last packet of mayonnaise on my potato? Was it because I ate the potato? I know your ship is low on supplies, but I didn't realize you were so low on potatoes, I'm very sorry!"

"...What." Ino lowered her phaser. "Look, are you the Akatsuki spy, or are you just off your shuttle?"

"I'm definitely not an Akatsuki spy," Omoi replies, much more seriously. "I'm here with Killer Bee-sama, Karui, and Samui."

Ino lifts her wrist-bound communicator. "Jiraiya, is this Omoi of the Kumo lot?" She points the screen at Omoi so that Jiraiya can use the camera to scan him.

"Confirmed. He's not the intruder," Jiraiya replies.

Ino holsters her phaser. "Make yourself useful, keep an eye out for anyone who looks strange."

Omoi pauses. "Everyone looks strange on this ship. It's like no one has visited a store in years, I mean, you'd think they'd just stolen clothes or--oh." He stops, realization dawning. "What if I think someone looks especially strange and they get offended?"

Konohamaru snorts. "You're the weird one."


Ino's first sign that something is off is that her scanner shuts off. She doesn't realize this until she hits the ground and it skitters across the floor, blinking an empty screen at her. Her own life signs aren't visible, much less any others.

Ino rolls over, hoping to dodge whatever knocked her down in the first place. She's on her feet in seconds, but she's not fast enough to even raise her phaser and point before everything goes black.


"Who was that in stairwell F? Their life signs just dropped to 'unconscious'," Shino's disembodied voice sounds over the comm speakers.

"That was Ino and Konohamaru," Kiba says after a moment. "I'm not too far off--I'll check up on them."

"I'm on my way, too, wait for me at the end of the passage."

"It'll be faster if I just go!"

"We're supposed to work in pairs. What would cause two crew members to drop unconscious one after another? It's very likely that they stumbled on the intruder. You are not going in there alone!"

"Fine! Hurry up, then," Kiba grumbles, breaking into a light jog.

Two minutes later Shino comes around the corner, running alongside him. "When we get there, don't just burst out the door. We have to be careful," Shino pants out. They have sped up to a full-on run now.

"I know that!" Kiba huffs, just as out of breath.

In moments they reach the end of the corridor closed off by a fire door. The two look at each other, then carefully peek through the small glass window. They see the bodies of Ino and Konohamaru lie limp on the floor, limbs arranged in odd angles--they haven't been touched since they were knocked out. They are breathing, the two men realize, relief washing through them. They look around carefully, but there's no sign of the attacker. Their screens show nothing but their friends' weak signal, and even that is distorted. Kiba reaches for the door and pushes it open slowly. When nothing happens, he walks through it. That's when someone falls on top of him.

Shino sees Kiba go down and jumps back a fraction of a second before the intruder's on him as well. Shino, however, hasn't trained for years alongside his father for nothing. The intruder can't place a finger on him. Shino knows that they have to take him alive--there's plenty of information to be gained from interrogating him. So he evaluates his movements carefully, and when a kick passes by his head without connecting he latches on to that leg, using the intruder's own weight to unbalance him and throw him down on the ground. Immediately he follows him, turning him and grabbing his arms tight in his, bending them at a very painful angle against his spine.

"Move and I break them," he tells the prone man, a Wasp blade digging into the side of his neck where his pulse beats erratically. The orange hair and piercings are enough of an identification--this is one of the clones Naruto had fought on Akatsuki's ship. The man below him is not still--he does everything possible to throw him off, kicking, buckling, turning his head to bite him. Shino sighs. Nodoby fucking takes him seriously. He jabs the writhing form sharply with the Wasp blade; the sedative starts working immediately and the body goes limp under his weight.

Shino quickly secures his wrists and legs with forcefield restrains and moves over to check on the others. They are breathing regularly, and Kiba is even stirring. He sighs quietly in relief.

"This is Shino. The intruder has been apprehended and secured in stairwell F, level 4. Send in Kakashi-san to take custody of him. There are three casualties, all alive but unconscious. I will need someone to help take them to the infirmary, or a medic to check them over."

"Copy that, Shino!" Jiraiya's voice booms out. "Sai, Sakura, Lee, go secure the prisoner and check over the crew members out of commission."

Acknowledgements come in from the three he calls on. Shino settles down to wait, keeping a vigilant eye on the sedated man. That is a good thing, because the man's eyes snap open and stare straight at him.

"Release me," the prisoner hisses, and Shino suddenly wants nothing more than to obey. He shakes his head sharply and sits on his hands to stop them from reaching for the restraints. The purple eyes are spinning, and a buzzing starts in his head as he feels his blood leaping to respond.

"Fuck off," he growls and squeezes his eyes shut. Sending a command through his body, he disables all the nanites in his blood. Suddenly, he's clear-headed again. He smirks. "Those kindergarten tricks don't work on me, asshole. Why? Because I have the ability to switch off my nanites at will, therefore you cannot influence me. I suggest you wait patiently for your escort."

The restrained man continues thrashing, boring a hole through him with his stare, but Shino remains unaffected--instead he follows a stray thought to its logical conclusion. The man can manipulate nanites to make subjects that have them in their blood follow his orders. That, and the metal in his face must be what scrambles the scanners and the computers' output. It must be some strange kind of metal. He'll tell Haku about it; Haku would know what to do.

The man gives a particularly hard jerk and succeeds in dislocating his shoulder. A sharp keen escapes his throat; Shino's head starts vibrating with pain. Sonic signal disruption? Interesting, but also incredibly irritating. Shino withdraws his Wasp blade, fiddles with the handle for a moment and injects the intruder with three times the initial dosage. The man stills at last, and most importantly, he shuts the fuck up. Shino sighs contentedly.


"There is nothing special about the metal," Haku says, examining a piece.

Zabuza leans over his shoulder. "It's a common alloy." He takes the piece out of Haku's hand, ignoring Haku's disapproving stare. Sure, there are like, twelve more pieces in the guy's face, but Haku wiped this one off, at least. "They use this for electronics, mostly. The big stuff in the center of the ship's consoles."

"I wonder..." Haku takes the piece back from Zabuza, handing it to Shino. "Your nanites are a particular design, aren't they? Have them make that vibrate at the highest frequency they can manage."

Shino takes the piece of metal. He thinks he's beginning to see what Haku means, but...

As soon as the metal begins to vibrate at a near-sub-atomic level, Shino loses control of his nanomachines. He can feel them going nuts under his skin. He stops the vibration, taking manual control of his nanites once more. "Your hypothesis proves correct."

"You can't stop us," the body on the table says, speech still slurred from the drug. His recovery from the sedative is unnatural in every way. He bites down, making a small crick sound, as if someone biting a fingernail in a silent room. His life signs begin to falter almost immediately.

"Shit, was that--" Zabuza starts.

"A cyanide pill," Haku agrees.

"We can still learn something from his body. How? By examining the technology present in his nanites. All of Akatsuki that we have encountered so far seems to have an upgraded version of our technology. We should compare the nanites in his body with the others."

Haku nods. "Jiraiya-san, could you pick up the frequency that this person was broadcasting prior to his death?"

"Barely. I'll need to re-adjust my sensors to accommodate for the fluctuation," Jiraiya replies over the intercom. "As soon as it's at a manageable level, I'll send word to our allies."

"Excellent, thank you," Haku replies, taking a scalpel to the stranger's arm.


"Shino said you wanted to see me, Haku-kun?"

"Ino, hi. Yes. If I am not mistaken, your father has recently completed the development of a certain function for your clan's nanites? Something that can reach into this clone's mind, trace its memories?"

"Well, yes, but that is assuming its neurons are of the standard humanoid variety. We still haven't tested this techniques on a clone, but if it has been grown the usual way, I can certainly give it a try. I'll need access to its brain. Can you open the cranium for me?" Ino says, voice completely detached even though Haku can see her hands shaking ever-so-slightly.

"I'm sorry for making you do this, Ino-chan, I know it's not an easy thing to ask, but--"

"No, it's okay," Ino interrupts, holding up a hand. "I know what's at stake here, and I'm ready to do my part. We have to end it while we still can. Now, the cranium, please?"

"I'll do it," Zabuza steps up, holding a small bonesaw in his gloved hands.

"A bonesaw? Can't we just use a laser scalpel?"

"Not with the brain. We can't risk damaging any part of it with the laser; you can never be certain just how deep it's going to sink in through the bone. Stand back, now, Ino-chan," Haku replies, placing one hand on Ino's arm to encourage her to step back.

Zabuza stands just behind the clone's already shaved head and activates the tiny bonesaw. Its blade sinks in easily, removing the top of the clone's skull with sparse, perfectly precise movements. The brain is exposed, still tinted pink in the room's lowered temperature. Ino takes a deep breath through her mouth and steps closer. She raises her left hand and, taking a lead to Jiraiya's databank, plugs it into a waiting orifice in her wrist. Then she raises her right hand and holds it just above the bared tissue--a small circle in her palm snicks open and a series of tiny tunnels are revealed. What looks like a fine mist comes out through them, falling into the dead clone's brain.

Ino's eyelids seem to flutter rapidly, like she's half-way through a download. The closest plasma screen fills with row after row of data--numbers, schematics, maps, text--it's all jumbled up, but Jiraiya is already starting to decode the information onto a separate screen.

"Holy crap," Jiraiya's voice is hushed with awe. "Ino, do you realise what we have here? These are the coordinates for the location of the viral mainframe! How the hell does a simple clone know all this? Fuck, are those--"

"The access codes? Yes, they are," Ino says, distractedly. "You won't believe the stuff it has in its head. Akatsuki base locations, safehouses, contacts inside the Alliance and all their sources--they have at least one inside every Hidden Village out there."

"But--but--that's impossible. This can't possibly be legit. No one in their right mind leaves this sort of information where it can be harvested so easily," Jiraiya splutters.

"You call this easy?! Do you know how much energy my nanites eat up? I'm almost drained as it is, and I can't stop--we don't know when all the data will self-destruct. Besides, nobody knows about our clan's research but Haku, Tsunade and a few more insiders; Haku only knows because he liaised with my father in developing the nanites, and filled in the gaps himself." Ino even sounds on the verge of collapse.

"Shit! Zabuza, the solar crysts! Quickly! Plug them into the power source she's using to upload the data! That should do the trick."

"Hurry," Ino says, voice strained.

As soon as the first solar cryst is slotted into the alloted space, Ino's tightly strung posture relaxes. "Yes, it's working," she says. "Just one won't be enough, though. I'm going to use up at least a third of the storage. Someone keep an eye on the energy levels, please. Keep 'em coming."

"Right," Zabuza says, eyes glued to the module's display. Five green bars are lit up, but one of them is already starting to blink. "Hell, those nanites don't half drain the source!"

"That's why our clan is the only one to be able to use them so far, since we can utilise external energy sources when we get drained."

Zabuza whistles. "Clever."

"Yamanaka Inoichi is a goddamned genius, is what it is. I have got to get him to outfit me with that technique," Haku mutters under his nose as he carries on dissecting the body.

"I have to tell Kakashi and Gaara about this! We might finally have gotten a piece of luck after all that crap recently," Jiraiya says and blinks out. The three left in the research containment area hardly move to acknowledge him, devoting all their attentions to their subject.


"No, we should protect Naruto and Killer Bee at all costs, charging into Akatsuki's territory with zero knowledge about the enemy's capabilities would be beyond reckless," Gaara insists.

Kakashi leans on the table, giving the illusion of nonchalance. "I agree. We don't know how reliable the information is, how much is planted, or anything about them beyond location."

Jiraiya makes a sound like a sigh over the comm. "I wouldn't recommend it if I didn't have an idea of the rate of success. Inoichi's daughter is more than capable of utilizing her nanites to a degree far exceeding what I had expected, much less what the enemy can expect. So far, she has uploaded information on the appearance, location, and capabilities of the enemy's base."

"If her information proves true, it could be a valuable asset," Gaara agrees. "I still do not believe we should put Naruto and Killer Bee in danger by bringing them closer to the enemy's grasp."

Kakashi shrugs. "If we're going to take on Akatsuki at all, we'd be better off with Killer Bee and Naruto on the front lines."

Gaara stands, toppling his chair in his haste, but Kakashi speaks again before Gaara has a chance to protest. "Naruto can't function well with a plan more elaborate than 'kick his ass, Naruto', and they're the strongest forces we've got available, closely followed by the two of us."

"It's an all-or-nothing gamble," Jiraiya agrees.

"It's too early to make a decision yet," Gaara insists.

"I agree," Kakashi replies.

"Good," Jiraiya finishes. Ino's information upload has only confirmed what Jiraiya had suspected since the first time he had seen Yahiko's body. His former student's pride would be his downfall.

Only one thing was odd: why was Yahiko's mind referring to himself as Nagato? Jiraiya is positive that given this new, invaluable information, they can begin planning their counter to Akatsuki's repeated attempts to get the pieces of programming inside of Killer Bee and Naruto, but something doesn't feel quite right. Waiting is the best course of action they could take right now, he's sure, and he tells them so.

Gaara seems pleased with the outcome; Kakashi holds his peace, whatever his thoughts are on the matter.


Of course, when Naruto hears about it, he's not even remotely happy with their decision.

"You can't just wait for them to try to blow us out of the sky again!" he yells from the hospital bed that Sasuke has practically had to chain him to.

"Naruto, be reasonable. We can't take this information at face value, it would put all of us at too big a risk. The data is far too detailed and important to be left lying around, and what is it doing in the clone's head in the first place?"

Naruto pouts. "I hate it when you make sense at me," he grumbles at Jiraiya.

"I know you hate to wait, but in this case I think it's essential," Kakashi supplies from the door.

"If nothing else, at least you need to recover properly, and so does the Raikage. Bee-sama isn't going to fight to his full potential when his brother is still so ill, and we don't need a distracted Jinchuuriki hell-bent on revenge on the front lines," Sakura says with a meaningful look at him. Naruto's sulk intensifies.

"What more can you tell us about the clones, Jiraiya?" Sasuke butts in. "Who are they? And why does that one have such detailed information about Akatsuki's base?"

Jiraiya lets out a despondent sigh. "The clone's body is that of a student I had many years ago, when I travelled around the Hidden Villages as a part of Konoha's security force. Amegakure, their village, had been devastated by an attack from Konoha itself during the skirmishes initiated by the then-leader of Ame. All three of us went, Tsunade, me, and Orochimaru. When we had won the final battle, on our way home we accidentally almost killed three half-starved kids who had been hiding in the ruins. I fed them, and they asked me to train them. Tsunade warned me not to, but I felt that we had to do something in return for what we had inflicted on them.

"More to the point, one of the kids, Nagato was his name, had Rinnegan implants in place of his eyes--the purple eyes of the clones. This is an incredibly rare implant; it surfaces about once every hundred years or so. Nobody knows how the chosen ones get it; they don't know that themselves. There has only been one person in history who has been able to fully master the Rinnegan implant, way back before we ever left Earth. The person possessing the Rinnegan is said to be able to influence matter itself.

"Nagato was only small, about eight years old when I found him, Yahiko, and Konan. He had no idea what he had, but he had used it once when he had protected himself and his friends from looters, blowing them up to smithereens. So I trained them, and tried to instill in them the Will of Fire, Konoha's code of conduct. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after, deserting them to fend for themselves. Not one of my proudest moments."

"Wait," Sasuke interrupts. "You said that Nagato had them, but that the clone's body is that of your other student, Yahiko. Does that mean that Nagato has learned to replicate these Rinnegan implants?"

"That's my best guess," Jiraiya confirms. "I have no idea what happened to them after I left. Obviously, nothing good, if they are part of Akatsuki. The one thing that is good in this screwed-up situation is that Nagato can't have fully mastered the Rinnegan, or we would have all been dead long ago, along with every other known Hidden Village."

Part 2