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  1. Hoseki slithered through the hidden paths of space and time that led from the Ryuchi Cave to her master's side. She appeared in a puff of smoke and looked up to her Uchiha master, awaiting his orders.
  2.  
  3. "I need you to check up on my friends," Eiji said. "Can you get into Konoha undetected?"
  4.  
  5. "A ssssimple task," Hoseki said. "I know the sssecret waysss once used by Orochimaru's ssservantsss."
  6.  
  7. "Good, here's what I need you to do…"
  8.  
  9. Eiji gave Hoseki descriptions and directions, and the snake disappeared into the grass. She made her way through plains, forests and villages until she finally reached Konoha, the village hidden in the leaves. There would be guards and sensors, but Orochimaru and Kabuto had used snakes to communicate and those snakes had loose tongues when they thought they were alone in their tunnels. Hoseki found the holes in the walls where no one would see and no sensor would pay attention.
  10.  
  11. A lithe snake with shining jewel-like scales infiltrated one of the most powerful hidden villages, and no one noticed.
  12.  
  13. Compared to the sinuous tunnels of the Ryuchi Cave, navigating the streets of Konoha was a simple matter, and it only took an hour for Hoseki to find the house she'd been sent to find. She could have done it faster, probably, but she didn't want to be careless. The snake slithered in through the back of the house and hid behind flower pots and gardening supplies.
  14.  
  15. The blonde girl Eiji had told her to find was talking with two other people, a boy with a sort of spiky ponytail and another boy with a big-boned frame and thick yet supple musculature.
  16.  
  17. That had to be muscle, right? Ninja couldn't possibly get that fat, it just wasn't physically possible. The training alone should be enough to keep them slim, and simple evolution would get rid of the oness who couldn't lose the weight. After all, bigger targets were easier to hit.
  18.  
  19. "Sensei asked me to give you this," the spiky-haired boy said, tossing the blonde girl an envelope. "Payment for the mission. With the bounty, we're getting 70,000 ryo each."
  20.  
  21. "That doesn't sound right, Shikamaru," the girl - Ino, Hoseki recalled her name - said. "It should be 62,500, right?"
  22.  
  23. "Asuma's taking a smaller cut," Shikamaru said. "He said he was going to be taking more A-rank missions to sharpen his skills, so he doesn't need the money as much as we do."
  24.  
  25. "I'm going to celebrate with a barbecue," the thick boy said. "Why don't you come along?"
  26.  
  27. The two boys looked at Ino, who averted her gaze.
  28.  
  29. "Sorry, Choji," Ino said. "I've got other things to do."
  30.  
  31. "No, you don't," Shikamaru said. "The Hokage specifically ordered our team to take time off while Asuma's away."
  32.  
  33. "If you don't eat properly, you won't get stronger," Choji said.
  34.  
  35. "I eat fine at home," Ino said. "I'm just not in the mood to go out."
  36.  
  37. "You're not in the mood to shop either," Shikamaru said. "When was the last time you bought a new outfit?"
  38.  
  39. "I don't need a new outfit," Ino said, crossing her arms defensively.
  40.  
  41. "You don't need a new outfit and you're not in the mood to eat out," Shikamaru said, staring straight at her. "So, what are you spending your pay on?"
  42.  
  43. There was a tense moment of silence. Hoseki waited patiently; she'd eavesdropped her fair share of interrogations, she knew it was just a matter of time before Ino cracked under pressure, and her answer would certainly interest her master.
  44.  
  45. "I want to put a bounty on Eiji," Ino suddenly blurted out.
  46.  
  47. "Tch, how troublesome." Shikamaru sighed loudly. "Eiji would be on the upper end of A-rank bounties even if Orochimaru wasn't involved, it'll take years to save that much money even if you don't spend any of your pay."
  48.  
  49. "Don't worry, Ino," Choji said. "We'll get him back soon. You don't need to hire bounty hunters to bring him back."
  50.  
  51. "Oh, no, it's not that," Ino said. "It's just… I have to do something to show I still care about him, but I can't exactly send him presents and you know how much he loves a good fight, so -"
  52.  
  53. "Ino," Shikamaru interrupted her. "Are you seriously telling me you want to put a million-ryo bounty on your boyfriend to send bounty hunters after him, as a gift, so that he can fight and kill them?"
  54.  
  55. "Yes, exactly!"
  56.  
  57. Hoseki nodded sagely. Truly, her master had found a considerate mate.
  58.  
  59. "Women really are troublesome," Shikamaru grumbled. "Fine, we'll take a few days off and I'll ask my father if he can convince the Hokage to give us a few easy C-rank missions while Asuma's gone."
  60.  
  61. "What about the barbecue?" Choji asked.
  62.  
  63. "Don't worry, I'm not taking my cut out of the barbecue budget," Ino said. "And thank you, Shikamaru."
  64.  
  65. "Don't mention it," Shikamaru said. "Just use your vacation time as vacation time."
  66.  
  67. The two boys left after that, and Hoseki stealthily followed Ino up to her room, crawling under the bed before the girl noticed her presence. Ino unceremoniously dumped her clothes on the floor, right in front of Hoseki. The snake could very unfortunately taste how badly they needed to be washed.
  68.  
  69. Ino locked herself in the bathroom and turned the shower on. The sound of running water didn't drown out what she was saying.
  70.  
  71. "Oh, Eiji!" "I love you!" "I'll do anything for you, I promise!" "Like them? They got bigger since you left." "Harder, please!" "There, right there!"
  72.  
  73. Human mating rituals were weird.
  74.  
  75.  
  76. Was this something Hoseki was supposed to report to her master?
  77.  
  78. The shower lasted much too long, in Hoseki's opinion, but Ino came out serenely refreshed. She tried herself off and picked out some clothes to wear. As she went through her bras, she groped her chest pensively.
  79.  
  80. "Maybe I should go shopping," Ino said. "My bras are starting to feel tight again. Not something I should discuss with Sakura, but maybe Hinata would like to come with me."
  81.  
  82. Ino got dressed and left the house to go shopping, while Hoseki continued to tail her. The girl visited a few clothing stores, buying only a few items, until she ran into a dark-haired girl at what Hoseki identified as a drugstore.
  83.  
  84. "Hey, Hinata!" Ino greeted her acquaintance cheerfully. It was another name Hoseki's master had asked her to look out for. "What brings you here? Did you get into another fight with Sasuke?"
  85.  
  86. "Fighting implies all parties involved have to struggle to win," Hinata said tersely. "Sasuke just wasted my ninja tools and first aid supplies."
  87.  
  88. "Harsh," Ino said. "Are you sure you're okay?"
  89.  
  90. "Are you?" Hinata seemed to wince even as the words left her mouth. "Sorry, I'm just stressed with everything that's happening. My training isn't good enough."
  91.  
  92. "Really?" Ino raised an eyebrow incredulously. "Because my dad is drinking buddies with the jonin commander, and he tells me you're on track to be recommended for jonin in a year or two."
  93.  
  94. "Jonin isn't good enough," Hinata said. "I have to get as strong as I possibly can, not worry about what title other people want to give me."
  95.  
  96. "Jonin means the Hokage trusts you to handle more difficult missions, like rescuing…" Ino shook her head. "Well, you know. Anyway, how about this: I'll help you train against the Yamanaka jutsu if you go shopping with me. Shikamaru told me to take a break and there's something I need your help with."
  97.  
  98. "Sure, where to?"
  99.  
  100. "First, you can tell me how you keep those Hinatatas comfortably contained…"
  101.  
  102. Hoseki decided she had learned enough for now; even though she was confident in her abilities, she didn't want to linger any longer than she had to. If her master asked, she could always come back later.
  103.  
  104. The snake returned to the hole she'd used to enter, only to be forced to stop short of her objective. There were two men in the spot that should have been completely empty, an old man and a younger but still grey-haired man whose eye was covered.
  105.  
  106. "Hinata put Sasuke in the hospital," the one-eyed man said. "Nothing life-threatening, but unless you know taijutsu for flopping fish, he'll need a few days to recover."
  107.  
  108. "His life is more difficult than it should have been," the old man said. "But he'll be fine. He's a strong ninja."
  109.  
  110. "I'm not so sure of that."
  111.  
  112. "Oh? You don't believe in your students?"
  113.  
  114. "Sensei believed in me," the one-eyed man said. "He saw the best in me and overlooked my flaws because I was a prodigy and I could pull through no matter what happened. We both know who paid the price when my failings caught up to me."
  115.  
  116. "And you think the same thing will happen to Sasuke?"
  117.  
  118. "It seems to be a trend with the Uchiha. Itachi kills his entire clan out of nowhere. Eiji betrays the village and joins Orochimaru out of nowhere. What's hidden underneath the underneath? How did they end up alone and abandoned?"
  119.  
  120. "That's for the Fifth Hokage to determine," the old man said. "In hindsight, I should have stayed retired after the Fourth died, but there was no one else."
  121.  
  122. "If we're too careless, there might not be a Sixth Hokage," the one-eyed man said. "Those who fail to accomplish their mission are scum, but those who abandon their comrades are even worse scum."
  123.  
  124. "I'm well aware, Kakashi," the old man said. "I've made many mistakes in my lifetime. Letting Orochimaru live was one of them. I will not let others pay for it, and I will not allow anyone to face him alone. Now, does the Hokage require anything?"
  125.  
  126. "No, I'm my own messenger this time. Though I am curious as to why you wanted us to talk here."
  127.  
  128. "It seemed like a good place. I didn't want the wrong people to overhear."
  129.  
  130. A shiver ran through Hoseki's coils.
  131.  
  132. The two men disappeared, and Hoseki went for the exit without hesitation. She moved as quickly as she could and only slowed down when Konoha was no longer in sight. It felt like an eternity before she was at her master's side again, and she had to verify they were alone before she dared to reveal herself.
  133.  
  134. "My mission wasss successful, massster."
  135.  
  136. "Excellent," Eiji said. "How is everyone?"
  137.  
  138. Hoseki began to recount what she had seen in Konoha.
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