Critical Note: STOP RIGHT NOW! If you haven't read 'Something or Other,' don't read this. Go to my profile, click the link provided, and read it first. This is important, because this is the non-lemony continuation of that vein, and it'll be sort of difficult to make out some of the things I'm talking about (like the shampoo) if you haven't read the other piece.

'If there are any words of wisdom you wish to be remembered by, Uzumaki Naruto, I am the man to whom you should say them.'
-Hyuuga Neji, on the day of Uzumaki's ascendancy to the position of Hokage.

'It's like twelve fics jammed into one, but I really enjoy this one. I get to be sarcastic and crude and downright snide.'
- Geno Calamari, in reference to 'Asinine Rationalizations'

Asinine Rationalizations
By Geno Calamari

He asks her to stay the night with him.

She stays for a week.

He should be ecstatic, be he isn't. He loves being with her, sleeping next to her, being held by her, and being around her. He loves the sound of her voice, the slow cadence of her breathing as she slumbers, the careful, dignified way she eats. He also loves the demure word games she plays when she's on the hunt, the look in her eyes when she gets what she wants, and the way she smiles when she's satisfied. He loves satisfying her.

She is staying with him, coming home to him in the evening, sharing the chores, helping with dinner and it's a wonderful change from the dark and quiet little apartment of just a few days ago. She's sleeping in his bed, in his arms. They've always been more than friends, yes, but they're actually acting like lovers now.

It confuses him. This should be what he wants. It is certainly what he's dreamed of. He's had her in all the naughty and delicious ways a man can have a woman, so Naruto doesn't fantasize about her that way. His dreams are domestic in nature and purpose.

It scares him, to tell the truth. Because Sakura-chan doesn't take the drop-out, dead-last, idiot demon-boy losers for lovers. She takes the brilliant, genius, and incredibly handsome (though tempered by the effeminate) men like Uchiha Sasuke, Hyuuga Neji, or even (as much as it unnerves him to imagine) Hatake Kakashi.

She uses the demon-boy as it suits her and then leaves him when her needs are fulfilled. Naruto thought he had accepted this years ago, but apparently he's still uneasy with the whole situation.

The clock is displaying 6:30 in glaring green numbers, like a pair of accusing eyes saying 'You're going to be late!'

He hates that clock. All he wants to do is lay here and feel her body against his for just a few more minutes. But he can't. He's got a job to do and he has to be responsible. He is responsible, he tells himself, but cannot help but wonder exactly when it happened to him.

Slowly, the blonde man extricates himself from his sleeping… what, lover? Best-Friend-with-Benefits? He does not know anymore. Regardless, he tries not to awaken her. It works, to a degree. He gets up and out of the bed, but she rolls over into the space he occupied, searching for the reassuring warmth of his body in her sleep. The delicate equilibrium ninja are forced to establish to fall asleep is broken and she will wake soon. Her subconscious has picked up on changes in the conscious environment and will reactivate her conscious mind soon. It's only a matter of minutes, probably.

He had better be gone by the time she wakes, or he'll be really late then.

He grabs some clothes, clean and folded, because she's doing the laundry now and he wonders how he ever lived without her exacting folding before. The bathroom door swings aside, crashing against the toilet louder than he wants and he winces, praying she didn't wake. He twists on the water in his small shower and jumps in immediately. It takes five minutes for hot water to reach his third-floor apartment and that is five minutes he does not have.

It is cold. Terribly, awfully cold in the way that showers should not be. He doesn't flinch. He's been this late quite a lot recently, and he's finally getting used to bathing in ice-water.

Naruto reaches for the shampoo, because despite what people say about him, he understands the basics of hygiene. He snorts, thinking quite nastily that Kiba never has.

His eyes flit to a lilac-colored bottle with several elegant kanji emblazoned into the plastic and a picture of a half-bloomed flower adorning the front. He knows this bottle very well. Almost intimately. It's Sakura's bottle of her special shampoo. If he had to guess, he'd say it was imported, probably grass country or water country or someplace like that.

She found that bottle three days ago, under the sink along with several other feminine products that she abandoned here while she was dating Sasuke. Whenever that topic comes up in conversation, she calls it 'when we were off' and he doesn't really like that euphemism, because they were never really on, either.

Already, the bottle has reclaimed its interim position in his shower. It has been sitting under the bathroom sink for almost three months now. He knew exactly where it was the entire time. Every time he's in the bathroom, he can't help but think about it. Can't help but think about what it represents.

She left him for Sasuke, although leaving him pretty much consisted of 'stop coming over to fuck,' and every morning she was with him Naruto got a nice reminder in the shower. Every time he looked at that bottle, he remembered her hair.

In the beginning, after she announced that she was dating the Uchiha, he used to open the top of the bottle and let the scent waft up to him, because it reminded him of her and what they used to have and that was enough. It was something that he never expected to have again. The realization of loss had set in and he pushed the feelings of grief and remorse away. Eventually he couldn't bear the scent of her shampoo, because it was just too painful. It wasn't like she's dead, he told himself, but after what they had, what they shared, it felt as if she were a million miles away. As good as dead.

She came back once, and he really tried to make it just like it used to be… but he couldn't. He had missed her too much. There was too much emotion in it, too much longing and desire and pain in him that he made love to her. He had never done that before, always toeing the line and keeping his feelings separate (as separate as he could)… and he regretted failing at that critical moment. Maybe if he hadn't, she could have stayed?

She didn't return the feeling, but he had come to accept that she wasn't entirely giving over to being with him when they were together. There was always a small part of her that just wasn't focused on the 'task' at hand. The last time they were together, all those months ago, he blasted through all of her defenses and forced her to focus solely on him. Then, as if to say, 'Look what I can do, only I can do this to you and it's over now,' he up and asked her to leave and never come back. Not in so many words, mind you, but he just couldn't handle the up and down, on and off of it anymore.

So the months passed. That stupid little bottle just kept sitting there, daring him to look at its beautiful calligraphy and roseate flower and remember her. One day, he just couldn't stand the sight of it anymore. So he threw it under the sink, because he couldn't stand to look at it anymore, but he couldn't bring himself to get rid of it, either. Naruto still hoped she would come back, and wanted to be ready for her when she did.

He hated that bottle; it reminded him of a time when he didn't have anything…

"Wow, Hinata-chan! You're living your dream. Good for you!" he had said to that dark-haired weirdo girl that always seemed to be looking at him. He had really meant it, because she worked so hard for it and he respected hard work. It was plain to anyone that she was nearing exhaustion when she finished that rigorous medic-nin training in four years instead of eight.

He had smiled for her, because he didn't want her to see his pain. She was happy, she had achieved something, and she deserved to hear the praise. She had blushed. She was still in love with him. He had noticed, eventually, but his heart was for another.

Boy, that would have been easy, wouldn't it? Just take Hinata. She's like the consolation girlfriend. You didn't win the fabulous vacation package, but that's alright. Get married to this girl and have a ton of blank-eyed, highly determined, half-demon children. Then everyone would have been happy, right?

Wrong. Though not totally.

Her accomplishment had made him happy, given him a second-wind. Life was hard. He had lost Sakura-chan. Three years of intimacy, three fucking years, and she gives it up when that bastard waltzes through the door, cool as can be. She didn't even soften the blow, didn't even say goodbye. But it was okay. He's a ninja and ninja know that their relationships can be terminated at any moment, often fatally. At least everyone survived, and that makes his love-life several notches better than a sizable fraction of affairs in Konoha. Odds are bad that a long-term relationship with a shinobi will last.

Odds get worse, if you can imagine it, when both partners are ninja.

It was strange to him now, looking back on it, that he was never angry at her. He couldn't be, because he understood that her heart was for Sasuke, even if she let Naruto have her body. Because Sakura-chan's heart was something pure and good and perfect, and she could do whatever she damn well pleased in his opinion, and if anyone had anything contrary to say about it, they'd have to answer to Uzumaki Naruto.

The water is warming up now. He hasn't even done any washing yet.

He had lost her. She was gone, gone away to be happy and he was devastated. It was like his heart had broken in two. He didn't want to get out of bed, so he hadn't. After three days of not showing up for meetings, Tsunade had threatened him with permanent removal from duty and that just wouldn't do. After breaking down the door of his apartment with her incessant knocking.

It hurt that Hinata had found happiness, had achieved her dream and Naruto still had so far to go. It didn't seem fair. But then, he found himself admitting that life had never been fair to him.

So he got up, went back to work, and did a damn fine job of it. He didn't let anyone see how much it hurt him, didn't let them see him bleed to death slowly. He laughed and joked and acted every bit the 'stupid goofball he had always been that grew up and became the dependable Commander of the ANBU,' the guy who doesn't care if the entire Hidden Village of Stone arrayed against him, because he could fight them all and win. The mask worked while he was out of the house and no one knew. He could kill and maim and fight to the death without anyone ever suspecting he was crying on the inside. There was no compunction, no hesitation, just ruthless efficiency.

It was all he needed to get him through his missions. And that was all that mattered to him anymore.

Naruto remembers Uchiha Itachi. Can't forget him. Won't forget him. He remembers that Itachi once held his job title. The blonde's mind has been flirting with the assumption that the ANBU pushed the rogue Uchiha over that final precipice… into the spiraling darkness of insanity.

Would this job do the same to him? The answer eludes him even at this late junction.

The blonde sighs. He never figured he'd get so thoughtful over shampoo, of all things.

But every morning he got a look at that bottle and it all came rushing back. Every bit of time they spent together, every gentle caress, and he just couldn't take looking at it anymore. He only kept the bottle there out of a fragile, misguided belief that she might actually come back.

What was it they said? he struggles to remember, 'If you love something, let it go. If it was meant to be, it'll come back to you.' He snorts, water running down his face. In his opinion, that's bullshit. If you love something, keep it close. Never let go or it'll slip away. He didn't keep Sakura-chan close enough and she slipped away. It was no fault of hers. The blame lay squarely on his shoulders.

Protect something, love something, and treat it well, and it will never have a reason to leave you. That's the truth.

He should have nailed something solid down. He should have taken her aside and sorted out their relationship. He should have talked to her that first morning. So many different things they could have done, he could have done, to make it turn out right but now it's all so much dust and memories.

The door clanks off the porcelain bowl again. He looks up, startled out of his reverie, though Naruto instinctively knows who it is.

She draws back the shower curtain; he's never gotten around to getting a nice pane of frosted glass. His eyes nearly fall out of his head.

Sakura is not wearing anything. It takes him a moment to start breathing again. He wonders how, after all this time together and all the times he's done more than see her body, she can do this to him. There is a hint of a smile on her lips as her pale jade eyes rove his wet skin.

She likes having this effect on him. Mischievous bitch.

Without a word, she steps into the shower, blinking sleepily. He moves back to make room for her, but the shower isn't that big and she ends up pressed against him as they both stand under the showerhead. Neither of them seems uncomfortable with this situation. This is actually a common occurrence for them. At any rate, she ignores the obvious effect she's having on his body and that makes it even more erotic. He bites his lip as she reaches for something over his left shoulder.

She squeezes some shampoo into her hand and begins to lather her hair. For a second, his eyes drift closed, mind getting lost in the fragrant scent of lilacs and juniper that he associates with her. It is a smell that reminds him though things were once awful, terrible, and bleak, life is on the upshot now.

He resists the urge for just a moment, then threads his fingers into her wet pink locks. Gently, he massages the foamy concoction all the way down to her scalp. She closes her eyes and lets him work, purring ever-so-softly. Naruto has ninja-ears and can hear it as though it were on a loudspeaker. It makes him smile. Sakura only ever makes that noise when she's really relaxed. The pink-haired woman also knows what it does to her blonde… well, regardless of what he is to her, he's hers.

It is only friendly for a moment. Then something inside Naruto changes and he can't hold back anymore.

His breath is hot against her neck, hotter than the near-scalding water. His fingertips graze over her hips, obviously trying to grasp hold of her but thinking better of it. She hands him the washcloth, the only one in the shower, and he begins the arduous task of washing her body. There is something distinctly unfair about this situation to him, but he forgets about it promptly when she whimpers softly under his ministrations and he realizes that he's dropped the piece of fabric and is rolling her nipples between his thumbs and forefingers. She sure isn't voicing complaint.

"Wash my back?" she asks huskily, but his mouth is shut tightly. There is something suggestive in her voice and he recognizes it immediately. It also helps him to understand her meaning when her left hand starts doing some interesting things below his waist. Her eyes lock on to his and even though he can still see the sleepiness there, he can clearly see the evidence of desire. Burning, smoldering, all-consuming, 'don't resist me' desire.

As if he could.

When it comes to Sakura, Naruto lacks the critical ability to say 'No.' He considers it for a quick moment, then spins her around to face him so fast she loses her grip on it. With a sound somewhat like a growl but most definitely still a hiss, he presses his lips against hers and pins her against the shower wall. Her little squeals of pleasured shock make him all the more eager to take her. His mouth is hot against her neck and his hands are possessive and insistent, but Sakura does not mind. This is what she is looking for.

After a while, the water turns cold again, but all that does is make her hold him tighter.

Man oh fucking man, I'm fucking late, he thinks as he steps from the door of his run-down little apartment. It is now almost nine in the morning, but for a man like Naruto, he doesn't do anything quickly. He shouldn't have stayed. He should have said no, but as per usual, he took one look into her eyes and all his carefully-crafted guards and wards came crashing down.

She does that to him, and he has no idea why. Naruto doesn't work with words, and he doesn't know how to put emotions into them, but he does understand them perfectly. He understands that he loves Sakura, perhaps a little obsessively, but obsession is a very common disorder among ninja. Sakura used to be obsessed with Sasuke just as he used to be obsessed with Itachi, who in turn was obsessed with gaining power and that lead him to Gaara of the Desert who really, really had some sort of whacked out obsession with blood, death and suffering (not necessarily in that order, mind you.)

Hinata was obsessed with Naruto and watched him just as reverently, though he didn't know it. What, did you think that Byakugan was only useful for seeing Inner Coils? Tch. Speaking of Hyuuga, Neji used to prattle on about fate, and that was an obsession everyone didn't mourn when he finally shook it off. Naruto used to be obsessed with ramen and being the Hokage just as much as Kakashi loved reading Icha Icha Paradise, which was written by a man so obsessed with women, he proclaimed himself 'Super-Pervert' when he found no one believed his lies anymore.

But now that we've touched on the subject of the sennin, we can rightly say that Orochimaru used to be obsessed with gaining every jutsu in the world to become all-powerful, as though that would actually work. Used to be, because Orochimaru is dead now, and good riddance they say. And that old hag Tsunade is so obsessed with gambling (and, to a lesser degree, her long-dead little brother and fiancé) it was a wonder that she didn't fritter away all of Konoha's money.

C'mon now, he thinks, they opened up a whole mess of casinos in town when they heard the Legendary Sucker was settling down. He chuckles mirthlessly as he strolls toward the ANBU headquarters, a flat three-story building without adornment half-a-mile from the Hokage Tower, where he's guaranteed to be chewed out by somebody for being late.

After that, though, it's probably worth it.

But, in essence, obsession isn't always such a bad thing. A small amount of obsession can be classified as 'determination' or 'focus' very easily, so the line is rather blurry. Everyone thinks that Rock Lee is determined to defeat Neji and determined to train himself into oblivion, but how is that functionally distinct from obsession? It isn't, but the connotations the words have are as far apart as the sun and the moon.

And Naruto's obsessions aren't harmful to anyone but himself, unlike just about everyone else's, so it's okay. Self-deprecation is funny that way.

His stomach rumbles and he considers the merits of stopping off at Ichiraku for a bowl or seven. Sadly, the idea of getting smacked up side the head by Shikamaru for wasting time on food does not appeal to him. On his way to work, he purchases yakitori from a street vendor. She is a woman in her late-thirties, he would guess, but he's a terrible judge of age and cannot put an exact year to her. He hands her several large coins, easily worth more than three times what this morsel of food is worth.

The woman's daughter is with her and she looks to be no older than eight. The child smiles at him in that sweet and innocent way little girls have. He tips his head to the side, then raises the fox mask to smile back. He is 183 centimeters in height and when fully outfitted in the ANBU uniform he has a tendency to make people nervous. It is something he dislikes, so he goes out of his way to be friendly and open with everyone, even if he has been feeling like shit for the past eighteen months.

His grin is wide and friendly, but he can feel the woman tense behind her food cart. He looks back to her and his heart sinks.

She has recognized the whisker marks on his face, the wild blonde hair and coupled it with the fox-faced mask and black fatigues. He's the Commander of the ANBU and he's right here at her stall, smiling at her daughter.

It's not a look of awe in her eyes, though he's sure there is some in there… somewhere.

It's fear. This woman knows what he is and it frightens her. He doesn't blame her; he's grown out of that stage. Her daughter, however, is looking at him with new, childlike wonder. To her, she's heard stories of his accomplishments and who he is, but as a little girl, she hasn't heard all the gory details that sully his crisp, clean image. He is the man who will one day become Hokage, because everyone knows better than to disbelieve or underestimate him. And he must look like a benevolent god to her, the way he smiles easily and hands over money without care.

It helps that she has never seen the bloodstains. It allows him to keep that 'Collected and Calm' image of the Noble ANBU soldier intact. There are days when he hates being Bishamon to these kids…

This is the natural progression of things when you get to the level Naruto is currently enjoying. He is powerful. The most powerful ninja in Konoha, and his reputation says as much without preamble. Naruto enjoyed the favor of the Sandaime Hokage (rest him), is one of the two living blood relatives of the Yondaime Hokage (bless him), enjoys the ear of the Godaime Hokage (preserve her), and is a shoe-in to be the Rokudaime Hokage. He is the Commander of the ANBU and is the only person on the face of creation that can make Gaara of the Desert back down.

For example, Hyuuga Hiashi, the leader of the oldest and strongest clan in Konoha, bows discreetly to him in the street as he passes. This is because, if Naruto wanted to, he could wipe out his entire clan without breaking a sweat, Neji being the exception. Hiashi has learned something important in his years in Konoha. He has learned to respect strength, especially of the overwhelming kind. Hiashi learned an abject lesson from the Bloodline-Death incident. The Uchiha didn't learn the lesson when they had the chance and disrespected Itachi (he suspects this is true, but he has no proof. Itachi was very methodical and highly thorough) and that proved their undoing. So he bows and scrapes a little bit, because it's a sacrifice he'd gladly make for the clan. His Byakugan can see the boy is no threat… as long as he's placated.

Naruto is a legend. He is infamous. The children love his daring escapades and devil-may-care attitude and cannot wait for the day someone so cool becomes Hokage and gives a little bit of that coolness to all Leaf-nin. They all want to grow up to be just like him, be just as strong as him, because they are young and they do not understand what that will demand of them. Their parents silently lament the corruption that blonde brat is sowing in their minds and lament not-so-silently every time they see him that he'll be the death of Konoha when he becomes Hokage.

They shut up right quick when he looks at them though, because he's touchy about it and he might go off at any moment, after all. He hasn't bothered to correct that preconception yet.

His friends… well, he brought them along for the ride, dragging them up the ladder with him in a mad steeplechase not to be left behind by the dead-last loser. Aburame Shino still creeps the hell out of him while he gets into raging (now three-way) arguments with Inuzuka Kiba and Yamanaka Ino. Putting those three in a room together for any length of time is a recipe for instant remodeling. Shikamaru is lazy, yes, but he's got a purpose now. That sort of thing happens when your best friend dies on your watch. Hinata… well, no one really sees her much these days, but he hears she's doing great things. Rock Lee is enjoying his first genin team to no end and forces them to wear his favorite green unitard. Maito Gai couldn't be more proud.

And Neji has become something of a legend himself. He's the official sparring-partner-cum-guy-who-gets-beat-on by Uzumaki Naruto. It's okay, because he likes to slip in moves that are lethal and call it an 'accident.' It's the quickest way to promotion for him, after all, and Naruto's not in any appreciable danger, (which pisses Neji off.) People think he's the shit because he can stand up to Naruto in a one-on-one fight and there are very few people who can do that anymore.

But more than anything, the citizenry are afraid of him. He's powerful, unpredictable, mentally unstable, and the Hokage just refuses to see the danger in him. That's a volatile combination in their minds, but as people often do, they would rather just wait for Naruto to crack up and flash-fry half of Konoha and then point their fingers as if to say 'I Told You So' instead of doing anything about it. Because it is better to be right in the end then prevent tragedies from happening.

People are stupid sometimes.

The woman tells her daughter to go get something from the house, but her eyes don't leave the blonde ANBU. The little girl doesn't notice but he does. Naruto is used to this and takes it in stride. The little girl looks at her mother quizzically for a second, then waves a shy goodbye to him.

He doesn't look away from the woman behind the stand, but where she cannot see him he waves in a friendly manner to the girl. She skips away, her manners and compassion satisfied.

It strikes him that another little girl will probably grow up wanting to be an ANBU after today…

There is an odd pause. Then, as though he were waiting for it to cool, he takes a bite of his yakitori.

"It's good," he says, careful not to display his preternaturally sharp canines, "Thanks."

The woman nods but does not give him change. Naruto doesn't ask for it, knowing it a futile effort. It's not like he spends his money on his apartment, after all, so he has more than he knows what to do with. He walks away without another word.

There is something unfortunate in being the only shinobi in Konoha with the audacity to wear a fox mask.

It's just as unfortunate to be the only shinobi in Konoha with the legalized right to wear one.

Haruno Sakura rolls over, enjoying the soft texture of Naruto's bed against her skin. It is warm and cozy and she does not want to get up, but it's already a few minutes before noon and she's hungry. Cursed need for food, she grumbles, it always seems to get in the way of a perfectly good nap.

Sighing, she rolls out of bed, still unclothed and begins a hunt for something to wear and something to eat. The first is satisfied quickly, as she stumbles over a suitcase full of her belongings. She has not unpacked since she came from Sasuke's house almost a week ago. She stares blearily at the calendar on the wall. No, a week as of today, she corrects.

It is odd how time flies. She told herself that she was going to find a place to live in the morning, and her she was, no new apartment, no new abode. Hell, she didn't even have a lair beyond this little room, a seedy den of pleasure and sex… and comfort and safety, she admits reluctantly.

As long as she has been a ninja, Sakura has never wanted to be protected. It is only now that she is beginning to understand the difference between being protected and being safe. Being protected is a slight against her capabilities, yes, but being safe is really what she wants. It's what everyone wants, essentially. Comfort and security.

She's safe with Naruto. It has taken her this long to realize it. Naruto will never hurt her, and she knows this. Because despite what everyone says about him, despite the thing in his stomach, despite his brash and foolish mask, she knows one thing.

His eyes are never red when he's fucking her, no matter how hot and passionate it gets. And that's critically important in her mind.

She's seen what he can do under the thrall of that demon. She knows just how powerful Uzumaki Naruto is, but she knows that he would never, ever wish her ill. It's not the way he works. He loves her too much. Naruto has learned how to kill without hesitating, and though it does not sit well with him, he can still do it. He has learned to leash a demon that killed hundreds of the finest shinobi in the world and can point and use it as easily as one can throw a shuriken. But nothing in the world, not pain nor fire nor threat of death would make him hurt his precious Sakura-chan.

And if anyone did hurt her, she could be sure that Naruto would give them about five seconds to consider their mistake before disemboweling them. He has done it before.

The Akatsuki agent Katsuragi, the poison-master, decided it would be a good idea to take her hostage once. Sakura considers herself to be very, very lucky to be alive. It was in her favor that Katsuragi wasn't interested in her directly, just using her as both shield and bait.

She shivers. Katsuragi made Itachi look downright civil, and she had never considered cold-blooded, premeditated sociopathic behavior to be a form of civility. It's funny how sadism can change your outlook on such things. Thankfully, Itachi had a sense of honor, twisted as it may have been, and was never sadistic. He just killed you dead without fucking around. In many ways, that's a better deal than being tortured.

After what Naruto did to Katsuragi, conveniently out of sight but not out of earshot, the rest of the Akatsuki decided that it would be a bad idea to attempt to use the pink-haired girl as leverage against him.

It's nice to be safe. It's even nice to be protected and watched out for sometimes, as much as she hates to admit it.

Tsunade looks over the top of her file folder. She is currently using it to screen her expression from the ninja sitting before her. She waits, expecting an answer.

"Are you sure this is the appropriate course of action?"

Count on Hyuuga Neji to respond to a question with a question. Tsunade blows through her nose in an exaggerated snort. She wonders if he does this just to provoke her legendary temper.

"Yes," she opens the file folder and displays it to him once again, "This is a high-level S-class mission. The assassination of the remaining Akatsuki member is of the highest priority. I shouldn't have to tell you just how dangerous they can be."

As much as he dislikes agreeing with her, Neji cannot deny her point. It was all he could do to fight Kisame, let alone get the lucky blow through that killed the shark-faced ninja. He grimaces and decides to try a different tactic.

"But this team has no medic-nin. It violates the ANBU Unit Construction Mandate you yourself created," he leans forward, folding his fingers into a neat steeple, "Remove Uchiha Sasuke and give us a proper medic-nin." It is interesting to the Hokage that he did not suggest the removal of Uzumaki Naruto from the team, or Inuzuka Kiba either. That says something to the once-blonde woman about his trust-level with the Last Uchiha.

"No," she says in a way that lets him know his suggestion can be stuffed right up his ass. She's the easiest read he's ever had with the Byakugan. All that anger and pride make her into more of a bulldozer than the rational and practical traits most kunoichi share. That's she's the strongest kunoichi in the world means nothing. Hell, Naruto can manipulate this woman to do anything he wants, which brings the blank-eyed man to wonder if he used his influence over her to snag the promotion the Hyuuga prodigy had so desperately wanted. If Uzumaki Naruto, of all people, could be promoted by nepotism didn't feel so wrong, Neji might have given the idea more than a cursory thought.

He does not shy away from her glare. His handsome, somewhat feminine face is set in an impassive mask. He's the only Konoha ninja since Uchiha Itachi that's been able to hide his emotions this well. It doesn't matter, because she knows this mission assignment makes him nervous, and when Neji's nervous, he gets cagey and starts to look for ways around or out.

"Uchiha Sasuke's involvement is critical for mission success." As Neji opens his mouth to object, the Hokage cuts him off, "All members of the team are necessary."

Anger boils inside of him, why won't she listen to me? The veins along the outside of his eyes pulse. The face of the Hokage shifts. He picks up the sudden resignation in her countenance instantly. It takes him only a few moments to realize why. The Byakugan reacted to his mood and now, without effort, he can read her inner thoughts.

"This mission isn't about the assassination," he says slowly, still staring at her with his frightening eyes, "is it?"

"Not entirely," she tells him. He can detect no falsehood.

A theory occurs to him, "This is about Uzumaki and Uchiha, isn't it?" Her eyes flick down, indicating a memory-trigger. She holds them there for just a second, the hard line of her mouth shifting just slightly at the left edge, denoting a distasteful conclusion to her line of thought. Then the golden-brown irises slide past him to fix to her right. They dilate, and he reads that as a reticence to force the issue. Evidently, he guesses right.

"They've been avoiding each other for almost a week now," she mumbles, "and I don't understand why. They used to be the best of friends… kind of… but now…" she trails off helplessly and locks eyes with him expectantly. She makes no attempt to hide her feelings from him, because it would do no good against those eyes.

That sort of thing happens when one friend betrays that which the other holds as his highest dream, Neji thinks, but does not say it. He dodges the unvoiced question, "I don't know," and forces back a wince. She couldn't have possibly missed that blatant a lie.

She does not speak, as though she did not care. Whatever is going through her head now is too deep for him to read properly and he comes up with a garbled series of half-thoughts and partial-beliefs. The Hokagewould be well within her rights toorder him to turn off his Byakugan, but she does not.

It is not his policy to get involved in other's affairs. However appropriate the word, he cannot help but know things about this situation. Neji is, if nothing else, objective. He understands perfectly why the Uchiha and Naruto do not get along anymore. The Hyuuga scion can see it, because that is his gift. He cannot help but know, but see, but pick up all the little clues and put them together into the proper pictures. It is just another facet of his curse.

He hates this shit. He hates always knowing what other people are thinking as much as he hates never being surprised. It is not the first time that he is envious of those who cannot see as he does, for those who can still be surprised and shocked and startled. The world he lives in is much more staid, much blander. Now that he considers it, he wonders if he can be disappointed anymore. Can he, if he already knows all of the outcomes and sees all the moves? The conclusion is laid bare to him, so how can he find disappointment in it if he knew it was coming? All the future does is fulfill his expectations.

And when he is surprised or startled, that can only mean that the failing was his own instead of some environmental or circumstantial factor. That's a hard pill to swallow. It's a hard and lonely road to walk for the Hyuuga prodigy.

Neji has known that this conflict between Sasuke and Naruto has been a long time coming.

A man of average height throws away his dark cloak, crimson eyes narrowing at a pair of equally red orbs. They circle one another, neither giving quarter nor asking. It is not a fight, but merely a posturing contest. They are two males stepping through the age-old patterns of the challenge, an instinctual calling all men understand. For the dark-haired man, this is a gesture of respect. He never dances with his opponent before the fight. For the blonde, he is saying that he's not intimidated by the other man's reputation, that he's just another opponent, because he does this with everyone he fights. This is the section of the dance where they preen to intimidate the other.

It does not work. They charge one another.

Naruto is glowing like the sun, nine tails of pure chakra shimmering around him as he fights. The energy around him pulses and beats wildly, surrounding him in a cocoon of concentrated power that flickers like fire but isn't. It is of no use to his flame-manipulating enemy.

Itachi smokes as he moves, hyper-fluid, yet disjointed and fragmented in a way that defies explanation. His long hair is trailing behind him, the image blurs at the edges even in Neji's Byakugan. He strikes low, but Naruto moves to counter the attack. Their limbs crash against each other and the backlash of mixing chakra bursts out in a crimson nova from the point of impact. The sound rings in his ears, otherworldly and haunting, as they twist about one another.

He can feel the killing intent, even more so than the heat radiating from the Uchiha. It washes over and consumes him, taking away the little part of him he thought capable of rational action. All he can do is stand and watch, the pressure of the battle weighing heavily in his mind, like a stone crushing him to the ground. His mind is filled with sand now and everything seems fuzzy at the corners.

They are watching each other again. Itachi is regarding Naruto with a look of respect, but has not allowed is ever-vigilant guard to slip. Naruto is displaying his prominent fangs and growling in anticipation, his face split in a feral grin. They are Tsukiyomi and Bishamon, one cloaked in darkness, the other wreathed in light.

"So you'll go?" she asks, because she is a busy woman and she has no time for memories. He does not start, although his mind reels as it comes back to reality. He nods, knowing that he has no choice but to accept the mission. He has seen it along this far, so it is only right that he sees it through. It is his destiny to see things through to the end. This is why he has these eyes and this is what they require… no, demand.

She exhales softly, as though she were holding a breath. As though she didn't think he'd go through with it. That pleases him, because he knows that he's still cold and aloof enough to be unreadable.

He stands to leave without waiting for her approval. He is Hyuuga Neji and he is not dismissed like any common shinobi. He is almost to the door (and freedom) when she asks the question he's been hoping to avoid.

"Do you know why?" her voice is soft and sad, like someone accustomed to being disappointed and expects it before anything else. It must be a side-effect of being Hokage; nothing ever goes the way you want it to.

He cannot control the stiffening of his back. Neji does not turn to look at her, only partially because he does not need to.

"Yes." He says nothing more. She does not attempt to stop him as he leaves her office. It would do no good; he wouldn't answer her question now.

Another memory catches his thoughts.

They are beaten and bruised. All of the ANBU's wounds are sticking this time, and Neji does not know why. Generally he heals near-instantaneously. The missing-nin's body is hunched and tired and both are breathing heavily. If he had to guess, he'd say Itachi looked worse off. Naruto was wearing the invincible Uchiha down, slowly but surely. A war of attrition with stakes higher than the Hyuuga can imagine.

"I once said there are three people who can handle the Mangekyou Sharingan…" he chuckles softly and a trail of blood leaks from the corner of his lips, "Show me if I am right…" the Sharingan snap open, locking with Naruto's demon-enhanced eyes. Neji knows that Naruto is suffering the invincible Tsukiyomi.

Naruto does not react, but Itachi's jaw drops open and a shriek of unimaginable pain forces its way out. He grabs his ears and wrenches his eyes away. Then Itachi stumbles back a few steps, his arms pin wheeling for balance. It would have been funny, if not for the sheer, horrifying impossibility of it all. The dark-haired criminal is holding his knees now, trying to remain standing on unsteady legs.

Tsukiyomi reversed. Sky becomes ground. Moon becomes sun. Uchiha overcome.

But Itachi laughs, loud and long, the most noise he has made in more than half his life. There is some secret mirth in him, some private joke he is enjoying. He is smirking the smirk of a man proved right. Naruto draws chakra into his hand and the Hyuuga prodigy realizes that the fight is over just as suddenly as it began.

"He won't thank you," Itachi says. He has mastered his shaking legs and is erect again. It must have taken an unimaginable amount of willpower. Willpower that men like Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Itachi seem to have in spades.

Naruto counters, "He's never thanked me for anything I've done for him. He always gets over it anyway."

The missing-nin raises a single disaffected grey eyebrow in response, as if to say 'Not this time.'

The younger man sighs, "You're probably right, but… that's the way it's gotta be…"

Itachi nods and the blonde squad leader moves in for the kill. "Goodbye, Uchiha." His whiskered face is impassive, the familiar combat mask Naruto has built up through the years and over all the dead bodies. It is so cold and uncharacteristic of the kitsune that it has always made Neji wonder which is the real Uzumaki Naruto… the cold, cruel ANBU or the loud, effervescent man?. It is a dichotomy that he does not understand, despite his cursed eyes.

"Goodbye, cousin," Itachi says just before the Rasengan tears him apart. He makes no move to avoid it, and dies with a smile on his lips.

He continues walking, paying no mind to the shinobi who step out of his way. No, he thinks, I know exactly why Naruto and Sasuke hate each other.

Hyuuga Neji hates Tuesdays.

Naruto is gone before the end of the hour, taking Neji, Sasuke, and Kiba with him. They are off on a quest of epic proportions to find the last remaining Akatsuki member. She is rumored to have been traveling through the area fleeing the Hunter-nin, and Konoha is willing to take the opportunity to dispatch four of its finest on such a risky mission.

It is a mission not about the mission, but the team, the time they will spend together, and issues that are affecting their mission performance.

He does not get the opportunity to tell Sakura he is leaving. She has left the apartment by the time he manages to swing through. If he had but fifteen minutes more, he'd go check the Yamanaka flower shop or the Nara deer fields… or even the hospital infirmary or the tree swing by the academy where she takes her lunches. But sadly, he does not have the time to spare. He scribbles a hasty note on the back of a napkin (The package is unopened and covered in dust. Why does he need to use them again?) and sets it on the kitchen table. He launches himself through the window of the same room and out into the blue skies of Konoha to meet with his team.

The wind created by his sudden exit stirs the napkin and it flutters off of the table onto the floor, upside down.

Sakura is currently organizing the laundry in the Laundromat down the street. Naruto's apartment building, as comforting and familiar as it is, lacks any method of cleaning clothes. So every few days, Sakura gathers up a pack full of laundry and toddles off to do some washing.

Lunch was good, she decides as she separates whites from colors. She had enjoyed a light snack of dango this afternoon at the teahouse down the road from Naruto's apartment. The establishment was not up to the usual standards she was accustomed to, but the tables were clean, the tea was hot, and the dango were mighty fine. The service had been impeccable, now that she thinks about it. Her waitress had always been on hand when Sakura ran out of hot water or when she needed even the smallest thing, ready to provide more without Sakura having to ask.

She pulls out a few lacy under-things from a pile of Naruto's clothes. She frowns, wondering how in the hell her favorite black satin bra got into his laundry pile. He's not that fond of my lingerie, is he? Then she sighs, realizing that he makes a habit of tossing them over his head when he takes them off her body. She can't really blame him for missing the correct pile in the heat of the moment. She is, after all, the one distracting him. She should expect it really. Her clothes get into weird places sometimes when Naruto and Sakura just go at it without any warningDecorating furniture, lamps, the floor, doorknobs, the television set… those are all pedestrian by comparison. She once found one of her socks in the freezer with its companion in the microwave and she couldn't for the life of her remember how they got there. To be fair, she couldn't really remember when he took them off, or the next few hours. It gets that hot sometimes.

Maybe Naruto needed an ice cube? Then to heat something up?

That makes absolutely no sense, and she knows it. It's still kinky.

It doesn't really matter, because she calmly drops the offending undergarments into the basket containing her laundry.

Odd, now that she thinks about it. That waitress just about bent over backwards to make sure Sakura's dining experience was as pleasurable as possible. She can't quite put her finger on why though. And idea is tickling the back of her brain, but she does not nail it down and it slips through her thoughts like ashes between her fingers.

Now, it's time to separate the piles by materials. She arranges them with the greatest care, then proceeds to split her piles of clothes into smaller groups by washing instructions.

Sakura has always been thorough. If there is a task, she will see it through to completion. If there is a chore, she will see it done right. That's the way she is, always exacting in her work. Perhaps that's why she's a sennin, gifted in the study of seal-work and medical ninjutsu.

Seals are mostly theory, applying both physical and spiritual knowledge of an element or property or object and manipulating it with the proper application of chakra. It is very difficult and requires great intelligence and clarity. Sakura is one of the only ninja of her generation capable of doing it, so the responsibility of passing on the knowledge of sealing jutsu has fallen to her.

She's one of the few people who are capable of performing sealing jutsu without drawing diagrams and patterns first. It requires amazing chakra control to be able to seal freehand at her level. Only the Sannin and a short list of people qualify for the title of sennin. It's quite an honor to be called one, and it's nice that her near-perfect control has finally proved to be good for something.

However, that pride is dampened by the knowledge that most ninja do not need to resort to sealing techniques to be combat effective. Seal-work requires supreme concentration, is chakra intensive, and is slow in comparison with the standard twelve combat hand-seals used for normal jutsu. The effects of sealing are much more powerful, have greater range and scope, and generally a longer duration, but they are not compatible with the effects of other types of jutsu. It is a separate, if esoteric, branch of ninjutsu that is more often than not considered to be useless.

She can stop a raging forest fire when all the suiton jutsu in the world wouldn't help, but she couldn't possibly defend herself if they turn those suiton against her. That's a trade-off she doesn't like.

She gathers her clothes up, mixing her perfect piles as she always does, sacrificing perfect organization for perfect washing machine load size. She always does this and it causes some people to stare. Like those two men standing over by the entrance.

It is strange to her that after all her hard work, the only thing she excels at is the impractical. Never tactically effective, they told her when she asked them to teach her. She told them she didn't care. That was a lie, and Sakura's been doing that quite frequently now. Sakura hates being ineffective. She hates that her taijutsu is only so-so, and her ninjutsu is pretty good but not stellar. The only thing she's good at, genjutsu, is the least effective of all the ANBU disciplines. Sure, with genjutsu you can make someone dance a jig or completely miss the parade of elephants trampling his house. You can make a man stand still long enough for you to slit his throat, or to walk off a cliff, but it is only the manipulation of perception and that is not inherently lethal. ANBU is the assassination squad, after all, and it is far more useful to kill outright with a single jutsu than manipulating the perceptions of the opponent to your advantage.

Hence, Chidori and Rasengan exist.

Genjutsu cannot kill outright. Believing otherwise is folly. A ninja cannot 'convince' a person they are dead by messing around with their mind. It doesn't work that way. Human bodies are hard-wired to work even if the conscious and rational mind has left the building. That's why humans don't stop breathing in a coma. Anything that can mess around with the subconscious is generally ninjutsu under the purview of the Yamanaka clan, and Jounin-level at that.

And most powerful (i.e. effective) offensive genjutsu require eye contact or line of sight. That's a dangerous position for a genjutsu specialist, because if you can see them, most likely they can see you. If you're staring them down, your jutsu had better work, because you'll get thrashed if it doesn't. Genjutsu creates illusory effects and doesn't require a great expenditure of chakra, comparatively, but enough control to manipulate all the different aspects of the illusion, which is why kunoichi are statistically more likely to be better at genjutsu than their male counterparts.

It still has a purpose, yes. Genjutsu is excellent for sneaking around, for going unnoticed, and for being subtle. With a good genjutsu, you can play on another person's feelings and have them dance like a marionette. But a genjutsu specialist is most often assigned a supporting role in the team, serving a purpose similar to the squad medic. They augment the stealth and subterfuge capabilities of the ANBU squad. They gather information by prying it directly from the minds of their captives. They confuse and disorient pursuers and targets with equal aplomb and they organize ambushes masked by cloaking jutsu. But fighting directly with genjutsu? It simply doesn't work.

That and any ninja worth his salt will suspect genjutsu the second he realizes something doesn't add up. They always suspect genjutsu. Suspicion is the first step to disbelief, while disbelief is the first step to throwing off the genjutsu. All they can do is buy you time against a determined opponent.

She can fight, yes, very well. Believing otherwise is a perilous folly. She's one of the old Konoha 'Rookie' Eleven, a series of promising children from all the advanced bloodlines and old families in Leaf village. But she is not capable of fighting on the level of, say, Rock Lee or Tenten, but she is better than the average Konoha Jounin.

She was a medic-nin for Hokage's sake, studying under a taijutsu specialist medic-sennin. She knows all the right places to hit.

The two men by the only entrance and exit are now arguing in hushed tones. Sakura can distinctly make out most of what they are saying, though the woman fidgeting next to her and refusing to make eye-contact cannot.

"Man, I'm telling you not to go over there," the one on the right says, a mildly attractive man around her age with ash-brown hair and unremarkable blue eyes. His companion, a handsome man who looks slightly younger than she, with a boyish smile that would make most women melt, shrugs his friend's warning hand off a broad shoulder.

"What? You marking your territory, Akebono?" he asks, his voice only half-joking.

"Huh?" the hesitant Akebono replies intelligently, then recovers, "Hell no, man. I just don't want you to get your dumb ass into trouble," his voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper, "She's a ninja, Ari."

Ari lets out a soft noise of indignation; "Is that all?" his grin is cutely lopsided as he reminds his friend that wild women are more fun in bed. "And she looks good enough to eat." He wets his lips in anticipation.

Sakura's back straightens marginally. She has gotten a good handle on what these two are arguing about, but she decides it's a better idea to ignore them and avoid giving Ari any false signs of interest. So she continues to put her laundry into washers and feed coins into machines.

By the time she measures out the proper amount of bleach-detergent for her whites, the whispered argument has reached a fevered pitch.

The handsome womanizer Ari folds his arms and gives his friend a calm glare, "I don't care. That's a vixen right there I plan to get acquainted with."

Sakura can't help but chuckle under her breath at that one. As if, she thinks, sparing him a glance out of the corner of her eye. Sure, he's handsome enough, but she can't help but think he'd never be able to satisfy her needs. He looks like he lacks the endurance to go the distance, and he certainly doesn't know her body well enough.

This leaves Sakura wondering when her sexual standards became so high.

The friend chokes back a disbelieving snort, "You are the biggest idiot ever! Can't you see she's doing laundry for her boyfriend, too?"

"Oh yeah?" Ari asked, trying hard to sneer but unable to keep the interest from his face, listening to his friend for the first time since the argument began. This could pose a problem, if a small, easily-overcome one, to his master plan to bed the woman with pink hair. But then, it's not like he hasn't seduced them away from boyfriends before.

"She's the Fox's woman, dipshit," the friend hissed through clenched teeth.

Silence. Sakura freezes in a way that is none-to-subtle, and she knows that Akebono has noticed her eavesdropping by now.

"Oh." Ari sighs and rolls his eyes. He looks at her and she demurely looks away. There is a tense moment as he takes a step towards her, then decides better of it.

"Vixen indeed," he says to Akebono as he calmly walks out of the Laundromat, his friend trailing at his heels.

The woman next to Sakura has found something interesting about the far wall, but beads of sweat dot on her forehead. Sakura is too incensed to notice her nervous behavior. She may not have the legendary temper of her mentor, but she is both beautiful and deadly in her anger. Sakura is a woman not to be trifled with when riled.

Eventually, when her laundry is dry and cooling in the machines, she will forget to fold it. All she can think is How dare he? But she does not understand why she's angry.

Sakura finishes putting away the laundry by tea time, but Naruto has not returned from the ANBU headquarters, so she entertains herself by watching some television in between hand-washing the dishes. Naruto's apartment doesn't have a dishwasher, which she laments to her pruned hands and dish-soap hands. It doesn't have space for a dishwasher. All the necessities for cooking take up every possible inch of space in his kitchen. It is the apartment of a man who was once a boy, but has now grown. It is much like the apartment of an old man. Everything is old and has a sense of history to it. This is Naruto's decade-and-a-half-old couch. This is Naruto's microwave, given to him on his sixteenth birthday by an incredibly bubbly Rock Lee, who later confided in them both that he was incapable of cooking anything that didn't require a microwave.

And, like an old man, Naruto is too stubborn to upgrade or replace anything that he owns. Everything has special meaning to him, like the recliner that has been broken for years but he won't replace it because Iruka-sensei gave it to him for Christmas. He remembers how little money Iruka had, and how much of it was spent on him and his precious ramen. Sakura believes that Naruto is secretly giving his ex-sensei a sizable portion of his income. As part of his salary, maybe a seniority bonus or something of the like so Iruka doesn't get suspicious and give the money back, because the man would never accept charity. He always gave of himself to others, and is not comfortable with the reverse.

For Hokage's sake, it's obvious he doesn't spend it on his apartment.

It is the same television that he owned as a child and the red in the picture is beginning to go a little. He won't let it go because he doesn't remember receiving it. It's been there just as long as he has and all the people who could tell him where it came from are dead. His favorite theory is that it was given to him by the Sandaime back when it was new, but it's just an idle fantasy he knows. For all he knows, this television could have belonged to his unknown mother, and that's enough incentive for him to never let go of it.

She stops. Her eyes sweep over the clutter that chokes the sitting room, and she decides that Naruto's apartment could use a woman's touch.

Then, with an incredible display of obliviousness, she turns into the kitchen to get started on an early dinner.

She steps on something as she's grilling squid on Naruto's mini-hibachi. It is a napkin. For a second, her heart jumps and a smile is brought to her face. Naruto is using napkins! Ha ha! Her womanly influence is helping him to find the one and true path, the path of cleanliness is godliness espoused by the church of Haruno.

Without another thought, she crumples up the napkin and throws it away, hitting the garbage can from across the kitchen with pinpoint accuracy because she's a ninja, damn it.

It is late when Sakura turns in for the evening. She sits on the couch expectantly until the sun sets around nine in the evening. It is summer in Konoha and the sun is out well on into the evening. With a half-heart, she flips on the television, but the red goes out again and she considers hitting it, but remembers that she can break rocks with her fists and that Naruto loves this TV and that it's past prime-time anyway and nothing good is on.

So she turns in, earlier than she'd like, but still late enough that she won't sleep too much.

But she does not sleep. She sits on the bed, under the covers, reading a book of Naruto's. It's a copy of Icha Icha Paradise, given as a present from and signed by the author. The book's cover is red and in very good condition for a copy this old. Naruto never reads it. He never needs to read it. She finds the poetry and dialogue well-written, but the sex is staid and rather unremarkable. She's done everything in this book, except for wearing the generic assortment of skimpy costumes, but Sakura doesn't really think Naruto needs more encouragement. Ignoring the fact that this woman bears an eerie similarity to Tsunade, there really isn't much in there that pertains to her life.

That French Maid outfit would just exacerbate the lack of… she doesn't like to think about it, anyway.

There is a definite tingle in her body, much like an electric current and she keeps hoping that Naruto will burst through the door at any moment so they can get down to getting it on. Sakura is impatient, her eyes flicking from the book in her hands to the door and back again. It would be just fine with her if he didn't say anything when he came in, just put his hands on her and went to work with that sappy grin on his face.

Come in, she wills him to appear, Come in right now, but nothing happens.

At first she begins to wonder where he is. The roseate woman makes an excuse for him. He hasn't been spending all that much time at ANBU headquarters this past week, so work must have caught up to him tonight. This satisfies her for about thirty pages of the manga.

She looks at his clock. It proudly displays the time of 11:30, glowing in the self-righteous way of clocks that screams 'What? You were stupid enough to think it was some other time?' About now, she begins to worry in the way that all women worry. Silently.

Time passes slowly without him there. She gets herself a drink of water and sits on the corner of the bed, facing the doorway to the hall.

She wonders if something has come up. No, she knows something has come up. Something bad, because Naruto would never leave without telling her if he could avoid it and whatever it was, it must have blindsided him.

It couldn't have been anything too important, because the citizenry seemed to be acting normal… except for those two guys. Didn't hit on her because she was Naruto's woman? It never stopped men from trying to pick her up when she was officially with Sasuke, so why should this only mildly-official liaison with Naruto put them off? (Though, it's not like she enjoys being hit on, but if you stand on your head and squint at it, she does find it flattering when men try. It's kind of a compliment. Kind of.)

And that woman, in line at the Laundromat, who took one look at her and let her go first, then proceeded to take the washers farthest away from Sakura. And the mother who told her child not to stare at Sakura's hair, despite his repeated murmurings of how pretty the kunoichi was. And the waitress at the restaurant this afternoon, who was so intent on serving her that she would have jumped on one leg and barked like a dog had Sakura asked.

The pieces were slowly coalescing in her mind… something was funny about it. And not just today, but all this last week, people were acting strangely around her. Huh, this all started about the time I came to back to Naruto's place.

It clicks.

Burning Hokage Shit. People are treating her differently because she's with Naruto now, and they're terrified of him. So they're deathly afraid of offending her, because her displeasure will be reported right back to him. Any fool can see the way he dotes on her, so as long as she's happy, Naruto doesn't have to get angry with them.

Were she less of an honorablewoman at heart, Sakura might have enjoyed this newfound power of approval. But instead, she shakes her head to clear away these disturbing thoughts and focuses her attention on her hands.

She flushes, realizing that she's still reading this stupid book. On the last page, the main character,a caricature of Jiraiya himself, states boldly 'There is nothing more dangerous than a woman who does not know what she wants, but will do anything to get it.'

She doesn't understand.

The kunoichi flushes even deeper when she realizes that she's laying along the bed on her side, propping her head up with one arm and reading with the other. Her forearm is wedged underneath her breasts, making them far more noticeable, and her legs are uncrossed. She's canted oddly on the bed so as to be most visible from the door. She can easily flick her eyes up from the pages of Icha Icha Paradise and whisper some innuendo-laden words.

'I found this book of yours and it aroused my curiosity. Can two people really fit together like this?' she hears herself purring.

She's subconsciously arranged herself to for maximum allure and she can't remember changing into her black lace undergarments. Like some sort of cheap whore or brazen slut, waiting to service on command.

With a sharp flick of the wrist, Sakura sends the offensive material flying into the corner of the room. She growls angrily, imagining the horrible tortures she'll enact on the pervert's hide when she next sees that damn sennin. How dare his dirty books make her into a subconscious pervert? She is so indignant, she forgets about Naruto's absence for a while.

Tsunade looks at the clock in the hall of the Hokage's quarters. It reads midnight.

The clock is old, an antique grandfather clock with the pulleys and weights. It was owned, conveniently enough, by her grandfather, the First Hokage. It's made out of a wood she doesn't recognize and she distinctly remembers her grandfather telling her that he brought it with him to Konoha when he created the village.

Its face is stylized to represent the two halves of a day, day and night. Right now, the world is shrouded in darkness and all the diminutive figures scribed into the metal are laying down in either supplication or sleep. Her grandfather liked to look at the time and tell her that life is a cycle. It had its light and dark parts, and whenever she was afraid or worried, life seemed dismal, and hope was almost at an end, she could always count on the world getting better. "Nothing remains dark forever," he told her, with a kind smile on his face, "just as the night brightens at dawn, so to do our fortunes wax."

She had always thought this was optimistic bullshit. In fact, she had spent almost twenty-five years running away from this village, this place, this clock, because after Dan and Nawaki died, she forsook everything her grandfather had taught her, believing he was just a senile old fool.

It had never crossed her mind that there was another half to the saying. "Nothing gold can last, just as the day gives way to night at dusk, so to do our fortunes wane." She just never heard it, because her grandfather wanted her to remain optimistic in her youth. Sad how that failed, now that she thinks about it.

Life is fleeting. She knows this. Tsunade can feel the years creeping up on her, can feel the toll decades of hard-living as a kunoichi have taken on her body. She even knows how much of this damage was due to her regenerative jutsu. The more things change and the older she gets, the more things seem the same to her.

She can see this generation's Ino-Shika-Chou trio, but it's down one member already and two out of three just doesn't cut it.

She can see herself so clearly in that stupid Haruno girl, all brains and talent and no idea how to really use it. The Godaime Hokage fancies that she was never that directionless in her youth, though Tsunade had never been dumb enough to fall in love with her teammates. Fool around with them, yes, but love, no. Well… really 'in love' with them. Jiraiya still gives her the speculative eye every now and then, but that's understandable. He doesn't know any better.

Idiocy is such a difficult disease to overcome, Tsunade reflects.

She sees her brother, her lover, Jiraiya, that stupid Obito, prodigy of the Uchiha clan, and, last but not least, the Yondaime Hokage in Uzumaki Naruto. She sees a touch of everyone he's ever fought beside and everyone he's ever fought against in him. Orochimaru mixed with Genma, Kisame combined with Kurenai; he's a brilliant mimic, better than any Uchiha, because he doesn't take moves or jutsu, but the idea and purpose behind it and makes it his own.

She sees how much being the Commander of the ANBU takes out of him, how thin a line he really walks. Despite herself, she's not sure which man Naruto represents will dominate, which she wants to win out over the others. Konoha could use another Yondaime, which goes without saying, and boys frequently grow up to become their fathers. But Jiraiya… another friend, another comrade for her? She has so few friends left now… Obito, a hero in his own life-time, and the last, decent Uchiha.

She sees Uchiha Sasuke as the new Orochimaru. All wound up inside and broken apart, with no place left for him to sink his fangs and spit his poison. He's backed up on venom and it's killing him. His brother's dead, but not by his hands and he doesn't know what to do with his life anymore, because he hasn't lived in so long he's forgotten. And that stupid girl tries to teach him, but he's an Uchiha. They don't learn lessons from other people, they encapsulate them into the most salient points and then absorb them through their eyes, like a jutsu or seal. They are… were… both so serpentine, that she's not at all surprised. She is surprised that no one saw this coming before it happened.

Kakashi was an idiot.

But it's not right to think ill of the dead, so her thoughts progress onward. The dead still hold too much sway over her life for her to be wallowing in memories of them now. She's too important to be lost in the past.

She sees Hyuuga Neji, in all his infuriating glory. She knows his story and his reasons. He's far more exposed to her than he realizes and she's cleverer than he imagines. Everyone knows about his incredible talent, his bloodline-limit, his cold, aloof personality. Oh, Tsunade knows what he would have become, and she knows that Konoha would not survive the loss of its other great clan. The parallels between the two genius-prodigies are too similar for it to have ended any other way. Thankfully, the Hyuuga at least have minimal control over his actions, the foot-break keeping him from achieving that horrible potential.

How silly and ineffective a simple little forehead seal seems when compare to incredible genius, scathing hatred, and ruthless determination.

He'd have found a way. They always do.

No, Tsunade thinks. That's not right. Naruto is and has always been the foot-break on Neji's destructive impulses. Just simply showing him another way to live, free of regret and hatred, saved the young genius' future. He doesn't have to be like Itachi now, he's free.

She sees Kiba, silly, loud, and happy as hell. In him, she can see Jiraiya, very much Jiraiya, more so than even in Naruto. Truth be told, she's suggested the older man train him on several occasions. They both share a loud, enthusiastic love of life and a burning determination to be acknowledged, much like Naruto, but to a lesser degree. Jiraiya wasn't special, that much is for sure. Kiba boasts talent and skill and purports to be the best to anyone who will listen, but the Hokage can see how his eyes light up whenever he gets a mission with Naruto or Neji or Sasuke. He's just happy to be included, happy to test himself against the bars they set. Happy to always find himself up to snuff.

To be honest, Konoha needs another set of heroes right now. Another brilliant Orochimaru except without the insane experiments on fellow ninja. Another compassionate Tsunade, without the soul-shattering loss of family. Another unstoppable Itachi, without the Bloodline-Death incident. Another incredible Yondaime, except without the need for self-sacrifice. Another hoary Jiraiya, wise and powerful, a genius of recognizing potential, without…

Without what? The womanizing and alcoholism? She chuckles bitterly, almost ashamed that Jiraiya turned out to be the best of them, after all this time.

Heroes that don't ditch their duties and run away when the going gets tough. Heroes that stick with Konoha through thick and thin. Heroes that don't get old, run away and drink themselves unconscious to forget the past. Heroes that don't go insane or break apart. Heroes that don't die. That would be nice, if heroes didn't die… and not that cop-out 'Never Truly Die' line, but honest-to-god meeting all comers and facing all odds and coming out on top, dying when they're old and wise and have found suitable replacements as their legacies.

Heroes that are… heroes. Heroes that stay heroes.

She swirls the clear liquid in her ceramic dish daintily, belying that the strength to crush a boulder is in her hands. It is amazing how alcohol and midnight-walks combine for instant reflection.

Tsunade, granddaughter of the Shodaime Hokage, is sixty-one years of age. She wonders when she became responsible, when she started drinking nightcaps to get to sleep, and when she started acting like an old man. Probably when she accepted the position of Hokage, a man's game, statistically-speaking.

A beautiful, young lady like myself… the blonde woman gives it up about there. Self-deception only gets her so far these days.

She is old, though she takes great pains not to look it. Soon, the Godaime Hokage will have to hand over the title to the Rokudaime Hokage. The Sandaime did that with the Yondaime, but as fate would have it, he was called back into action less than a decade later. Hell, she took over this damn job at a later age than he gave it up.

The clock finishes chiming the hour, and she downs the warm sake in one swallow, along with all her pride.

All she wants anymore is to see her ninja come home safe. The Godaime Hokage is tired of sending good people to their deaths. She's tired of making hard decisions. She's tired of making sacrifices. She's tired of sorrow. It is funny to her that she tried to grow up so fast, to be so good, and now all she tries to do is stay young, stay active, stay alive.

Come home safe, Naruto, Sasuke, Neji, Kiba… Konoha needs you.

It is late. How late, Sakura does not know. She has turned off the light and gotten under the covers, throwing something over the clock so she cannot see its luminosity. Naruto has still not returned. Though they haven't picked habitual sides of the bed, because Naruto ends up being on the bottom more often than not and it's really too small a bed for them to sleep adjacent, she's keeps rolling over and expecting to find him.

The bed is very, very cold without Naruto to act as her space-heater. She is lonely, though she is not distraught. In all the years she has known Naruto, he has never, ever been in danger of dying from his wounds. She's familiar with his remarkable restorative capabilities. She's not worried that he's hurt, lying in a god-forsaken ditch somewhere, bleeding to death, like other women would be at this time of night if they didn't know where their… er, whatever he was to her… was.

It's like he should be here at any moment, but something is holding him away. She caresses the pillow next to her head, hoping that Naruto will appear soon, because she's lonely and if there's one thing Sakura has never been able to handle, it's being on her own.

It strikes her how much like sleeping next to Sasuke this is. The bed is cold and unfriendly and everything seems so far away that she just can't reach it. It doesn't matter if his body is there or not, because his mind is a thousand miles away and it doesn't really ever focus on her anyway. She's alone and it's dark.

Naruto's room is unfamiliar, but then, she's never been in it without his warm and comforting presence in the bed with her.

Sakura just wants him to come back so that she won't have to be alone anymore.

She falls asleep curled in a ball under the covers, clutching his pillow to her chest.

Author's Notes:

I would like to start by saying that I didn't rip off the idea of the vendor scene from Flashfyre5's 'Chuunin.' I thought up that idea a few months ago (though I don't use a beta, so no one can corroborate my story) and I've never even conversed with Flashfyre5. Actually, when I read the first chapter, I said something to the effect of 'Aw man, I hope no one thinks I stole this from Chuunin,' because everybody's going to read Chuunin, and only the people really paying attention are going to read what I write. I'd rather not lose the respect of my target audience (though I haven't decided if there is a target audience or I'm just typing to see myself talk.) Okay we'll settle this right now. Author's Edict: If you're reading this, consider yourself part of the target audience. Probably… There, good enough.

In other news, I am well aware that a better comparison would be Amaterasu to Tsukiyomi, yes, but Amaterasu is female and that doesn't fit Naruto (despite the female voice-actor.) And I hardly think that Itachi and Naruto are night and day to one another.

Dr. Brief's Cat is on my favorite's list because of 'The Uchiha Restoration,' which is a brilliant piece about Sasuke and Sakura getting a loveless marriage. (It doesn't mean I liked it, oh no, because I'd like to see Sakura do something that makes her happy directly instead of marrying Sasuke because she feels needed, but it was excellent. Aw hell, Dr. Brief's Cat is excellent and you should read everything she has written. I'd command you to do it now, but I have more to say. Go Lee, Go!)

I was originally going to rant about Sasuke. I wrote out a cohesive argument that spanned two pages, but then I talked to GC and gave her the whole thing in two piecemeal barrels (poor thing, she deserves some sympathy for that.) I'll just summarize it here for you:

GenoCalamari: Sasuke Rat-Fink
Girl-chama: Well… I don't—
GenoCalamari: interrupts calmly, Let me clarify: Sasuke EVILRAT-FINK!
Girl-chama: sighs, wondering why she's even trying, Yeah... you're right.

Okay, that's a gross oversimplification, but it's an almost entirely accurate summary. (In my defense, the equation is balanced.) In the end, I decided that I didn't want to expose my left flank to the legions of Sasuke-lovers out there who simply don't want to hear what I have to say. Their cohesive salvo might catch me broadside and that would be the end of my career as a fanfiction writer. (And going down in flames is like burning to death, which is probably the most awful way to die.) I'll have to bide my time and strike when the time is optimal. Besides, I think in ranting about it to someone who actually was interested in my opinion (she had plenty of grains of salt on her though,) I managed to bleed off some of my incredible loathing for Sasuke. I can almost keep a straight face when I read the manga now! (Though I'd rather be damned then let her make me like the son-of-a-bitch.)

Oh, and someone is bound to notice that I have the audacity to portray Itachi as something other than an emotionless killing-machine (which denotes emotions that he does not express and the idea that sometimes, you have to do things you don't agree with or want to) and I don't extend that same courtesy to Sasuke. This is called a 'double standard' and that's just fine by me that it's not fair and I am well aware of it. For me, it stems from the fact Kishimoto hasn't painted Itachi into a corner plot-wise… though this may be because we haven't gotten into his head yet. Sasuke's caught in this really horrendous series of events and it's all I can do to keep him from being a cackling psycho-maniac. Sasuke's becoming evil and if you don't see it, pay closer attention. Evil is pervasive and subtle just as often as it is dangerous and overt. Orochimaru is evil and he revels in it. Itachi is evil, and no matter how nobly I portray him, this cannot be forgotten.

Sasuke isn't the smirking, condescending golden-boy from the first… thirty or so episodes of the anime anymore. He isn't 'the kid everyone loved to hate but secretly liked anyway' anymore.

Thought Experiment #1: Mangekyou Sharingan is an old technique, handed down through the generations of Uchiha until a few of their greatest shinobi could manifest it. The question is this: If there were really another way of getting the Mangekyou Sharingan (aside from killing that which you cherish most) is it not a rational assumption to think that the Legendary Uchiha Clan would have figured it out by now? Even if they simply reverse-engineered it from someone who already has it?

Hence: The M. Sharingan can only be garnered by killing off your best friend (blood-sacrifice, loss-of-humanity, whatever) and there is no other way to do it. QED

For those of you who are still reading carefully enough to notice the clues, I'd like to say this: Hell yeah! I did just do what you think I did. If you want justification for it, give me a while and I'll have the third part of this unholy triumvirate cranked out.

Man, Triumvirate… I love that word.

In other and final news, Continuity Error is not dead. I am currently 'negotiating' with an agent to bring in some 'talent' to suppliment my own.If this statement confuses you, then good. My job here is finished.

So I'll get off my soap-box. Geno Calamari out.

I COMPELL you to read Dr. Brief's Cat! Geno DEMANDS it! NOW, MORTALS, NOW!