Konoha Central Hospital

Once again, Sasuke cursed. Why did Hinata have to intern in a HOSPITAL of all places? He hated children. And sick people. And people in general. And, because of his horrible experience with the prepubescent monsters in the Academy (excluding Hinata), girls

He choked as a nurse in a really short skirt walked by.

– behaviorally (and, uh, physically) mature women with better things to do than chase after him, however, were an entirely different matter.

"She put the clan head in the hospital, and neither of them are talking to each other right now."

"Sorry, what?" Sasuke asked the mini-female-Neji. Choji did a discreet sign language dance. Hinata's sister. "Oh, uh. I mean. Hiashi Hyuga? Hospitalized? She never told us that."

Choji put his face in his palm.

"I mean, yes. She did?" Sasuke tried again, desperately glancing at Choji for hints.

"The clan hushed it all up, but I thought you should know, as her teammate, since she's not the type to brag," said Hanabi, gracefully ignoring his flubs. "We were supposed to spar, to determine the clan heir issue once and for all, and well…"

Sasuke stared at Hanabi's blank forehead, and paled. Hinata had bangs, so he never had the chance to see, but what if –

"No, she doesn't have the seal," Hanabi said quickly. "Father said whoever got knocked out first got the seal, so she turned around and punched Father in the face and knocked him out, so now neither of us have a seal."

Sasuke's sigh of relief was choked in the middle by Choji's massive peal of laughter. "That's just gold! Sasuke! This could be a new friend for you! I mean – sorry. Of course we'll take you to see Hinata."

"Thanks," said Hanabi, pushing past Sasuke. "And…um, can you not mention this to anybody? We're still supposed to be pretending that she doesn't exist, to shame her for 'abandoning the clan' and 'being a traitor' and all that stupid bull that the clan elders are feeding us, as if anyone believes it, but…she's still my sister, and I still want to talk to her, because…I mean, all the times we've sparred, she could have beaten me, but didn't…and it's thanks to her that I don't have the Caged Bird seal yet – and I really miss her. And when things used to be so simple, and we were just like regular sisters."

"Siblings aren't supposed to fight," Sasuke agreed, and he, too, found himself wishing for simpler times, when Itachi wasn't a batshit insane murdering torturing psychopath. Was he once a normal person, driven mad by the expectations of the clan and the village? Or was he like that all along, and he was just pretending to be the perfect son, heir, and brother – and I was just too dumb to know better?

Had any of it been real?

He didn't know what hurt more. That Itachi had never loved him in the first place and was just pretending to be normal, like psychopaths did (which was sad in its own way), or that Itachi had chosen his current path because his hate and insanity had outweighed said love (meaning despite everything he'd given Itachi, it hadn't been enough).

"We used to be so close, and then Father pit us against each other on purpose. As the younger sibling I was doomed to end up in a branch house when I became older, so defeating Hinata in spars made me feel self-important," Hanabi confessed. "More than that, though, it made me feel hopeful. Hopeful, that I'd get to lead the Main House instead of Hinata. Hopeful, that I'd defeat my fate. Now, all I can think about is how bad I feel for letting our father push us apart."

Sasuke digested this a bit. For all that his father had tried to pit Sasuke against – well, that train of thought wasn't going anywhere, but the point was, Hiashi Hyuga seemed to have tried the same things with his daughters as Fugaku Uchiha had with his sons. A little bit of friendly sibling competition, so that each would strive to do his or her best. The problem was, neither one of the two clan heads seemed to know the meaning of the word "friendly"…or "siblings"…

Despite all that, Hanabi still seemed to be a nice enough girl who looked up to her older sister, just like Sasuke had been with Itachi before Itachi decided to snap and go kill everybody for whatever reason. Maybe Fugaku and the rest of the clan had dripped on his head way too much? Sasuke knew that Itachi had been under a lot of pressure since he was small – it was why he had been forced to rush through the Academy, to join ANBU at an age before most kids graduated from the Academy, to never make any mistakes, ever.

"If only I could be like you," Sasuke muttered. He wondered where his torturing, murdering brother had gone. Things would never be the same in the Hyuga clan, but at least there still was a Hyuga clan. Contrary to what the Hyuga clan elders might say, she had committed no crimes.

Sasuke admired Hanabi for her ability to remain true to her sibling despite the odds. We were like that, once, Sasuke thought. Itachi was the pride and heir of the clan. I was only the spare, the second son. I never let that stop me, though. I hated him, for what he did, for what he put me through, but never once did I resent him for being better at everything. Better trained, better liked. A little jealous, sure, but that was more disappointment in myself for not being as good than anger at Itachi for being better.

He hadn't liked being second, but he had accepted it, because it was indisputably true. Where others in his position might have schemed to take what belonged to their brothers for themselves – history was ripe full of stories of the evil uncle, the envious younger brother – he would have been content to give Itachi everything he had in the world.

In the end he never had to resort to any treachery to ruin his older brother; Itachi had done that well enough himself.

Hanabi was in different position, though. Up until now, Hinata was the disappointing sibling. Hanabi was genuinely "more deserving" to be the heir, and yet was doomed to a life of servitude because of an unfortunate order of birth. She had, of course, jumped at the chance to escape that fate when Hiashi Hyuga gave her the opportunity, but Sasuke wouldn't hold that against her because any sane person would do the same. That she could do so, and still hold compassion for her sister, the cause of the succession crisis, was…

Sasuke suddenly realized that he respected Hanabi after meeting her for all of five minutes. It had taken him months to warm up to Asuma-sensei and Hinata and Choji.

His team must have made him soft; that was the only explanation.

"Shikamaru always hated prophecies and fate," Choji mused. "At first, I thought it was because he was a control freak, which is still true. But it makes sense. I mean, if fate was real, then what's the point of free will? We might as well sit around and let the future come to us, if nothing we do will change the outcome."

"Shikamaru?" Hanabi asked.

"My friend. One of our classmates."

"I think I've heard his name before," Hanabi mentioned. "The smart one, right?"

Choji grinned. "Oh, you have no idea."

Sasuke felt a weird stab of jealousy, except he had no idea where it came from, because it certainly had nothing to do with Shikamaru. Other people had called Shikamaru smart in front of him, and Sasuke was totally fine with that because it was the truth.

Shut up; it's just Hinata's kid sister. Think of something else. Something smarter.

Like Itachi, and the clan system. There we go.

He just hadn't realized how much the pressure had affected Itachi. From Sasuke's point of view, Itachi had only ever been this perfect human being that lived up to those impossible standards against all odds, and who never made mistakes because he was the type of person who never made mistakes, not because he was afraid of backlash from his own family should he even step one toe out of line accidentally. Itachi always seemed like the type of person who treaded silently out of habit. Sasuke supposed, now, that the reality was that he only walked quietly because his entire path was lined with eggshells, put there by The Clan itself.

That didn't make his actions any less unforgivable. But Hinata had been in a similar boat here. Except that she hadn't gone and murdered her whole entire clan. Just punched her own father in the face and ran away from home.

But she could have easily been an Itachi Number Two, if her skills were that of an elite ANBU instead of just another normal Genin (albeit, one with a really mean right hook). You wouldn't think that about Hinata – she was always so sweet and shy and quiet – but then again, Itachi had been the "best big brother in the whole wide world" at one point in time, too.

"Father fed into that hope, always hinting that if Hinata didn't beat me soon she'd be the one with the Caged Bird seal on her forehead, not me," Hanabi continued. "Maybe that was why Hinata never won. Because the moment I lost to her, I'd be the one branded with the seal. Maybe Hinata kept losing, because she was hoping, too. Hoping that by the time she finally beat me, she'd be old enough to take control of the clan, and change up the system."

Sasuke still hated Itachi, but he wasn't so blind anymore. All the more reason to stay away from his brother; revenge would do nothing if he was going after a madman who was so far gone he wouldn't even understand anyone else's feelings. Whatever Sasuke did to him…even if he killed him…it would mean nothing. He couldn't imagine getting a rise out of someone like Itachi, even with all the spite in the world.

I don't want Itachi's death, Sasuke realized. I want his remorse. Justice means nothing if the judged is executed without understanding their wrongdoing.

"And what about you? Will you?" Sasuke asked.

"Well…" Hanabi looked down, and when her face came back up there was a determination there that hadn't been present before. "I suppose I will. No matter who becomes clan head, things have got to change."

"Sasuke, Tsunade, and I all agree that the Hyuga clan needs to change" said Choji. "It starts with you and your sister."

"Really?" Hanabi asked, beaming.

"Yes," Sasuke said, even though they had never agreed to anything of the sort. Though, now that Choji had put it out there, he wasn't going to contradict him.

"That's great," Hanabi said. "I thought I was the only one, but if three other great clans can back me up, then what my family's doing has got to be wrong. Do you think the Aburame also…?"

"Hanabi, everyone in Konoha would agree that forcing two sisters to fight each other with the threat that the loser will be subjected to basically slavery for the rest of their life is a pretty messed up thing to do," Choji said, stopping in front of the door to Tsunade's mini-lab.

Baby steps, he sighed to himself.

"Sasuke?" Choji asked. "Aren't you coming?"

"I, ah, thought we should let Hanabi talk to her sister alone," Sasuke said. "You know, if they wanted to talk about family stuff in private."

And also because Tsunade scares the crap out of me. I swear, she makes all of her nurses talk to me on purpose, just to see me squirm.

It didn't help that his growth patterns had left him currently about eye level with her seriously intimidating rack.

As in, that shit can't possibly be REAL.

"That's a great idea," Tsunade said, stepping outside. She gave Hanabi a pat on the shoulder. "Go on in, sweetie. I'll stay here with Sasuke-kun."

Sasuke paled. "On second thought, I just remembered I have to water my pet rock − "

"I'll do it for you; all of your stuff is at my house anyway," Choji interrupted, like a filthy traitor, because he was a filthy traitor, the filthy traitor. "Tsunade-sama, Sasuke has always wanted a tour of the hospital, so…"

"Choji, you FILTHY TRAITOR!" Sasuke screamed, over the sound of Choji's evil laughter.

Wave Country

We were technically qualified to do this, being de facto Chunin, but that didn't stop me being nervous. It was a B-rank in a foreign nation, after all. Given the way our last B-rank had derailed, I was wondering just how spectacularly this one would go.

For all the trouble Lady Arakawa had given us, I considered Tanyu a good mission. Too bad they were so rare. Izumo could pass them my way if they came up, he couldn't make them materialize out of thin air.

At least Konoha had been extremely successful in installing a pro-Fire Country regime in Wave. Not that I was complaining about preferential treatment, but at the same time, I felt I was taking advantage of the space left behind by a man I had personally done nothing to remove. Konoha had simply been in the right place at the right time when Gato was killed.

Although, we did deserve some credit for staying to clean up his mess. Certainly, the living standards of Wave had risen, now that they were being ruled by a bunch of people who actually knew how to handle money instead of a criminal who tried to keep it all for himself.

"Are you sure you can take this, young man?" the cook asked. "Even among ramen lovers, it might be too strong."

I bit back a grin. At least one of us was enjoying his time here better than me.

"No way I'm backing down!" Naruto yelled back. "There isn't a single bowl of ramen I wouldn't love! Unless it's made wrong, but then it wouldn't be ramen!"

"You won't have to worry about that," said the cook. "We make the ramen right at the stand, so we know exactly what goes inside of it."

"It smells more fermented fish than ramen," Kakashi-sensei muttered, covering his nose at the newly-arrived meal. Naruto, ever-fearless when it came to matters of his bottomless stomach, went right in for a large bite, undeterred by the pungent odor.

"Smell, schmell!" Naruto grinned. "It tastes good!"

We were lucky enough to have arrived here at an optimal time. Long enough after their initial intrusion that the boiling pot had simmered down, but still close enough that they hadn't had the time to attempt a second attack. Kumogakure's foreign policy favored backstabbing over attacking, and money-saving above all. Unlike Iwa, and probably Suna now, they didn't outright hate us. Their "let's go screw over village X" sentiment was neutrally distributed.

Iwa might attack us if they thought they had a good chance of winning. They learned from the last war, though; they won't be going into another war with us without an ally. Iwa claims to have better soldiers – which they very well might – but Konoha surpasses all the other villages in raw population. Our success lies in our ability to replenish our losses, as well as our ideal of minimizing loss in the first place.

Suna also hated us, and maybe would get their revenge sometime. The danger would be if they teamed up with Iwa. That, however, was highly unlikely. The history of bad blood between Earth and Wind composed of border disputes that stretched back far longer than this fairly recent spat. Meanwhile, I doubted even Kirigakure knew what Kirigakure was up to. That meant our main danger at the moment was an alliance between Iwa and Kumo.

But ever since that little trick Iwa had pulled against Kiri at Yosuga Pass, no one was willing to ally with them for anything anymore. Iwa was too smart to attack Konoha alone, and Kumo was too smart to go to war with Iwa as its only ally.

Basically the only thing keeping us from a war right now is that Kumo distrusts Iwa far more than they want to see us dead.

"Truly, you're a work of nature," Ino muttered, according to our improvised script. "And hey, watch it! You're getting your stinky fish broth all over my wallet!"

Naruto responded by slurping his noodles even more loudly. "Sorry."

Ino rolled her eyes in probably-not-faked disgust and dropped her wallet into a plastic bag. "You owe me a new one when we get home."

"Oh, please. I'm the one who can smell it, not you," Naruto hissed under his breath. He slammed the empty bowl down and tossed some money onto the counter. "Thanks for the meal!"

"Work of nature, indeed," the cook muttered incredulously. "Even Wave natives sometimes have trouble with this delicacy."

We spent the rest of the afternoon following Ino around into the most expensive stores and gift shops. Price-wise, they were middling-level compared to Konoha, which had a much higher cost of living, but in comparison to where Wave used to be, this was the height of luxury.

Finally, at five in the afternoon, a young, well-dressed couple bumped into Ino from behind. "Sorry, darling!" the woman gasped. "We didn't see you!"

"Oh, no, the camera," the man muttered. "The lens must have popped off when I dropped it."

I had to give Ino credit where it was due. She wasted no time putting on her innocent little girl act, and turned her back to them, leaving her purse obviously open and in there reach. "Do you need help finding it, sir? It can't have rolled far!"

If I hadn't been trained to notice these things, I might have missed it. It happened so fast, even by shinobi standards. The young couple spotted the camera lens, and right as Ino volunteered to get it for them, a shabby young man with a yellow scarf barrelled past us and snatched Ino's purse out of her hands. Screams of "Stop, thief!" followed for a few seconds, and then the boy jumped a fence, dropping the purse as he did so.

No doubt the highly distinctive scarf would also be found in a trash can not too far off.

"He took my wallet!" Ino wailed, digging through her now-empty bag prompting a large group of sympathetic bystanders to offer their condolences to "that poor little girl". As expected, in the confusion, the cute couple that had bumped into Ino before had disappeared.

"What a poser," Naruto whispered to me.

"I heard that!"

Compared to Kakashi's, Naruto's sense of smell was not as keen when it came to general scent identification, but when it came to ramen, he was accurate to the point of scary – and he wasn't even an Inuzuka. Maybe he has a sixth sense for ramen, like Gai has for me.

It was this nose that led them to a little mountainside hut on the southern, undeveloped half of Wave. Also, lucky them, the breeze was always on their side today.

Well, lucky for Naruto. And by luck, Kakashi meant Naruto's control over his Wind-style ninjutsu was as impeccable as ever, because luck didn't exist for him (unless it was in a casino, in which case "luck" meant "cheating", making him the luckiest man on earth).

In the dim afternoon light, he could barely see the three thieves from before – the young couple and their decoy − huddled around a small pile of pilfered wallets and jewelry.

"I can see five guys through the windows, but I'm smelling more than that," Naruto said.

"Twelve," Kakashi corrected him. "At least that many humans. There could be more, but we'd have to get closer," Kakashi explained.

"How long does it take to learn all that?" Naruto asked.

"It depends. It's not solely a matter of hard work, but also genetics. Some people are born with more receptors than others," Kakashi explained. "Yet another reason why dogs are more useful than toads."

"Real subtle, sensei," Ino rolled her eyes. "Are all those scents fresh?"

"Yes," Naruto answered. "The ones I can figure out, anyway."

"I can't sense anything other than weak chakra, but then again, my range isn't the best. I'd have to get closer to give an exact reading, but then I'd be losing cover." She turned to him and Naruto. "You guys are absolutely certain these extra scents are recent?"

"Positive," Kakashi answered. His nose hadn't failed him yet.

Ino sighed, tapping her chin, and Kakashi could practically see her methodically sorting through multitudes of different potential actions in her mind. There was a wonderful, raw cunning to her tactical style, as opposed to Shikamaru's ruthless efficiency or Naruto's wild unpredictability. He could separately give his three students the same scenario, and each one of them would come up with their own unique, yet perfectly plausible, plan. The best part was, they were starting to get to the point where they could accurately think in one another's shoes – if he asked them, in the same quiz, what sort of plan they thought their teammates might come up with, they could answer with about 75% accuracy.

"Civilian or no, we can't rush blindly into something while carrying limited intelligence. I don't want anyone here getting unnecessarily hurt. If there really are foreign nin down there, then catching a few measly pickpockets isn't much in comparison," she answered. "I say we try to find a better point where we can observe them more carefully, and ask for backup if necessary. I'm pretty sure we can take them, but I want to eliminate any chance that we missed some guy hiding in the back, where the wind can't reach. Once we're sure that there's no one else, we can regroup here and figure out our plan of attack."

She quickly scratched out a crude topographical diagram of their region, with little triangular landmarks designating the overhang of their observation point straight across from the thieves' hideout. "I want us to stick together, for safety, but five is the number where a group starts getting large and unwieldy. Not to mention, having all of us in one spot when something goes wrong is a major gamble. I propose we split up into smaller groups of three and two."

"Makes sense. Who's going where?" Shikamaru asked.

"Naruto, if you don't mind, will be going in the group of two, since your shadow clones can easily offset any numerical disadvantage. Also, I intend split up Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-sensei, so that there can be a Jonin in each, and Naruto and Kakashi-sensei in separate groups as well, so we can have a good scent-tracker in each. Everyone with me so far?"

Naruto, Shikamaru, and Yamato flashed her a thumbs-up. Kakashi did, too, but with much less enthusiasm. Considering what had happened with Itachi Uchiha, he was loath to let any one of his kids out of his sight for even a single moment. After all, Kurenai and Asuma had been elite Jonin, too.

He flipped a marked kunai in his hand. Unlike his old teacher's special three-pronged design, these ones were simply the regular everyday standard-issues that he'd slapped a seal on at the last minute. He hadn't had the heart to make an idea that had once belonged to a dead man his own. Even now, they still felt wobbly and unsteady, like he wasn't meant to use them.

Minato-sensei looked absolutely invincible when he used this technique. Now that I have it, too, I don't feel invincible at all. I still feel like all those other dime-a-dozen not-so-elite-after-all Jonin who would get completely flattened when facing anyone S-ranked.

For the sake of his students, however, he'd have to at least pretend that he was his usual calm, confident, unshakeable self. It was expected of him.

"Before we move on to the part about the plan itself, does anyone object to their placements?" Ino asked authoritatively.

Yes, Kakashi thought. I don't want any of you to leave me. I want to go home. But he shook his head along with everyone else.

He felt disgustingly immature and weak. It was incredibly disconcerting. Was it the truth he internally knew but was unwilling to admit, that he wasn't ready? The knowledge that he wasn't yet up to his former level of skill? That the Hokage had been right in his attempt to keep him home for another few months?

No, that couldn't be it; he'd been perfectly fine (right, perhaps not perfectly, but certainly not so nervous) when leaving the village with Jiraiya.

Maybe it was just the fact that he had his students to think about now? After all the drama and danger that kept following at their heels, he had a right to be constantly worried about them. But no, that wasn't it, either. He was always worried for his amazing, perfect team, always all the time, so he was used to that feeling. He knew what the sense of worry for someone's wellbeing felt like and this wasn't it. He could still feel that low, omnipresent, parental overprotectiveness swimming underneath his thoughts – underneath whatever this was.

It was a nasty, sickly, instinctive sense of unease, like his dogs would feel whenever a storm was near.

Ino was still talking, pointing to her rough map as she did so. "I want to position you two here. From there, you can scan around the outside…" And on she went, reviewing the various field signals in case anyone passed outside of her range for her mind transfers, outlining backup plans b through e, highlighting the locations of a few thick spiny undergrowths that they could use to their advantage, and covering every base she or anyone else could possibly think of. Not even the muddy terrain escaped her notice.

For all the emphasis she placed on "capturing them alive so we can reintegrate them into society later", that girl was viciously thorough. For a moment, Kakashi completely forgot that he was supposed to be scared out of his wits.

"That's it. Everyone have their radios?" Ino whispered. The four of them collectively gave her their affirmative. "Then break!" He, Ino, and Shikamaru moved over to the left side of the cave, and Naruto and Yamato went right.

As he, Ino, and Shikamaru rounded behind their vantage point, they heard someone yell something about melons and tattoos, followed by a round of crude laughter and then a shriek of pain. It was the last of the pickpockets, leaning against the back wall, mending her torn jacket with a red-stained sewing needle while the man next to her hopped about on a punctured foot.

She had been wearing only a tank top and some bandage wraps underneath it, so her chest was fully visible.

"Oh, gods," he breathed, when her hair shifted and revealed the smooth skin of her shoulders.

His head was burning.

[What? See something you like?] Yamato's teasing voice floated into his earpiece.

"The exact opposite!" Kakashi snapped.

And, as if working with a mind of its own, his hand moved up to his own shoulder, where he, too, had an identical seal.

A/N: Assuming the Uchiha massacre happened before little-Sasuke could ask his parents where babies came from, Sasuke's "experiences" in canon would have been limited to 1) Academy lectures, 2) stolen glimpses of Kakashi's books, and 3) Orochimaru.

Poor kid; no wonder he was so messed up.