Author's Note on Chronology: Several of these scenes are out of order. For dramatic impact, I've interlaced a few scenes that actually occur several weeks apart. If, while reading this chapter, you question when this is taking place and why these two events seem to be happening simultaneously, remember that they are arranged purposefully. My apologies for any confusion this may cause.

Author's Note on Nomenclature: Someone might ask the question why I have titled this chapter 'Chapter 2' when it is, in fact, chapter 3. All joking aside, this is actually chapter 4, but only the third chapter of present-time narrative. This might cause some confusion and for that I apologize. Now, on with the show.

Asinine Rationalizations
Chapter 2: Iteration
By Geno Calamari
Proofreading by Kaverdatie
Beta-reading by TatsunoHouou, Smiter, Hokuten, Sharingank

"The Chuunin exams are being held in two-months time here in Konoha," Tsunade says, watching her two shinobi very carefully, "I want you two to act as official escort for the delegation from Sunagakure."

The one on the left stirs, wrinkling her nose in distaste before she can control herself, while the one on the right looks about ready to bound out of his chair for his enthusiasm.

Sunagakure means Sand-nin and Chuunin exam means Kage, which means they get to be the Kazekage's whipping boys for an undetermined length of time. Naturally, other ninja would be sent as escorts to other major ninja villages, like Stone, but for some reason the Godaime Hokage likes torturing her biggest admirer. Well, second biggest admirer, as Jiraiya still can't seem to realize that her chest is only genjutsu.

Tenten sighs, no point in pretending that she's going to relish this mission. It's not the travel that irritates her, but the Kazekage herself. She thinks she's the greatest thing since chai latte, little miss 'Oh look at me, I beat you once in the Chuunin exams over a decade ago, so I'm obviously superior to you in every way.' That bitch probably couldn't blow her way out of a wet paper bag. Needless to say, the brunette ANBU has major issues with Temari of the Sand and is pretty much a sore loser all around. The next couple of months are going to be keeping track of the Kazekage at all times while she's in the village and trying to address her every complaint while seeing to her needs. That raging slut will probably be extra aggravating just because she likes picking on me, I can't fucking wait. Taking the opportunity to glare at the woman who was once her greatest idol, Tenten picks at dirt and oil under her blunt fingernails with the edge of the file-folder in her lap.

Tsunade knows this expression well. Tenten is sulking. She can't rightly refuse this mission, because it might jeopardize her position in the ANBU, but she wants to make her displeasure known. "Well, don't everybody thank me at once," the Hokage grumbles.

About this time, the third occupant of the room loses control of himself. "Thank you so much Hokage-sama!" it seems that he was waiting for the opening, "I will strive to complete this mission with the utmost level of performance you have come to expect from me! May I take along my genin team for the duration?" He is faintly vibrating from enthusiasm now, and Tenten has to bite her lip to keep from sneering at him. Normally, she'd take this behavior in stride, but today she feels as though she's just been kicked in the jaw and is in no mood for his weirdness and shenanigans. If anything, she expected the years and the job to slowly wear away at his goofy exterior and reveal a shy, maladjusted person beneath (somebody she could fix without a great deal of effort.) Sadly for her (and their dating potential,) Rock Lee is just as strange and dynamic as he ever was.

Tsunade nods smartly, as though this were her intention all along, "Permission granted." It was not, but the blonde woman has learned a few things about leadership since her rocky beginning in the Kage business, the most prevalent of them being summarized thusly: Go with the flow. Be adaptable to suggestions from your subordinates. Being thanked for undesirable 'monkey-work' is unusual, but Rock Lee generally does a good job with political and administrative tasks. He's so damn polite and good-natured that he's relatively inoffensive. Other than on the eyes, of course.

Lee's eyes flame up like Karyuu Endan as he imagines the three-day stretch of terrain from Konoha to Suna. In his mind's eye, he is plotting how he can stretch a three-day march into a three-week training session. "YOSH!" he shouts, wheels spinning in his head without really accomplishing anything. Tenten looks like she may never be happy again and is fixing her soon-to-be-partner-in-crime with a jaundiced glare.

All things being equal, Tsunade rather enjoys their reactions. Sure, she's got a great memory, but the look on the brunette's face is just priceless. Every year around this time, she gives these two this mission, just for the sullen glare on Tenten's otherwise determined features.

"Why can't Naruto do it?" Tenten asks, scrunching up her nose, "The Slu-… Kazekage," she corrects herself too slowly to be anything but deliberate, "likes him. Let him play her maid."

Tsunade hesitates just a fraction, "Naruto is out on a highly-classified mission and intelligence is unable to predict when he'll return." In truth, she wasn't prepared for her subordinate to mention that name during this briefing and hasn't created an appropriate response. Shame on her, they go through this same conversation every year. She should know better.

Okay, that's not the answer I expected, the brunette thinks for a second and then tries a different strategy, "Then how about Shino? He never speaks, so he'll get along great with Gaara."

Tsunade frowns at her, her notoriously short temper is very close to breaking loose, "You seem to be laboring under the delusion, ANBU, that my decisions are up for discussion, or that we work under some sort of ill-conceived democratic system here in Konoha. We do not. You have your assignments," the Hokage gestures to the folders in their hands, "so go fulfill them to the best of your abilities. Am I clear?"

"Yes," Tenten mumbles, still obviously unhappy with the outcome of this meeting. Her arms are crossed over her armor-vest and she is pointedly not looking the Hokage in the eye.

"Yes what?" Tsunade growls. Thunder fills the spacious office and the world seems to go ominously dark.

The kunoichi jumps like she's been burned, leaping to her feet and into a rigid attention, like a soldier at inspection, "Yes Hokage-sama!" she shouts, loud and clear and, most importantly, free of any trace of belligerence. The Godaime Hokage smiles knowingly. Tenten tries to keep her expression pleasant but she thinks she rather fails during Tsunade's terse dismissal. They leave, Tenten loping from the room in the wake of Lee's incessant hyperactivity. Bastard, she thinks murderously, it's like he's gotten my share of cheer today. Note to self: Kill Lee.

Between you and the narrator, Tenten's 'share of cheer' is like a drop in the bucket compared to Rock Lee's stash. He raises his fists over his head, basking in the warm glow of Konoha's primary season, summer. The world seems more friendly and wonderful than it had an hour ago. This could not have come a moment sooner, Lee determines, for his precious students are in desperate need of his loving and powerful guidance. It has been a whole two hours since the last time they met and who knows what perils may have befallen them in such a nebulous span of time. Only with iron discipline and Lee's own special combination of Harsh Love (excruciatingly painful training and humiliation) and Youth Power (being really damn enthusiastic about it) can they hope to allow their own Flames of Youth to spread. Too little Flame and they gutter out, too much Flame and they are consumed by their own passions. Such is the danger of youth, he muses.

Rock Lee laughs for the sheer joy of being alive on another perfect morning such as this. He's like a demented cross between Rocky Balboa and a Sand-person. Tenten edges away from him before anyone can see them together. It has been too many years and too many mornings like today for her to put up with this crap before her mid-morning chai. Finally, she's seen what Neji couldn't stand about Lee and Gai-sensei. Unfortunately, she's just received a mission with him, so she's going to be seeing a lot more of it.

"Tenten!" Lee shouts merrily, completely unaware of her dilemma, "Would you do me the honor of joining me for breakfast so that we may discuss the details of our joint venture?" There was a time in her life where that would have been Lee coming on to her, but those days are long gone. As much as she really wants to get away from him, there isn't anything she can do about it and if she refuses, Lee's feelings will be hurt.

He notices her momentary hesitation and turns on his begging expression. Tenten twitches, frightened by the sudden increase in the intensity of his facial expression but then resigns herself to breakfast. Victory: Rock Lee. Before her statement of assent is fully vocalized, Lee has gripped her firmly by the wrist and drags her along at a manic pace only he could find enjoyable. There is no escape, she tells herself.

It comes of no surprise when herself agrees.

Sasuke pushes open the door to the bar, steps over the threshold, and allows the dark atmosphere to consume and envelop him. Smoke curls in ringlets illuminated by weak halogen lamps, giving the entire establishment a worn, damaged look. The entire place feels mildly threatening, from the old guy watching the entrance to the bartender cleaning glasses with all-too quick motions and an all-too dirty rag. The man at the front acts as a bouncer, and from the way he handles himself, Sasuke knows that he was once a ninja. He nods recognition at Sasuke and makes no attempt to stop him from penetrating deeper into the building.

On the whole, this place is perfect for the ANBU's unofficial watering hole.

The bartender places another dubiously clean glass behind the counter, out of sight. He knows full well that whenever he pours a drink, it had better be in plain view, or someone might suspect him of tampering. He was once an ANBU as well, but the years were kind to him and he got out while he was still whole and hale. The stylized hedgehog mask still sits next to the register, gathering dust.

The other person at the bar is not so lucky and Sasuke recognizes her immediately. How could he mistake his superior officer?

Murasaki sits at the bar, her posture casual and loose, but that's just another deception Sasuke has learned to see through. She's a frighteningly competent Hunter-nin, so it would be foolish to assume she's ever relaxed. Her long, crimson hair is tied back in the usual fashion and her blank, emotionless mask is clipped to her belt. Sasuke realizes that she has come from ANBU headquarters very recently, probably stopping in to have a drink after work. It is strange that after four years of being a Hunter, he knows functionally nothing about his commanding officer. She's a sort of enigma that way, never talking about her personal life and in a way, that makes her even better at her job, but in another way, it makes her a sad and lonely sort of lady.

He sits down to her left, leaving a space between them as is custom here. She doesn't react to his arrival.

She swishes a tall glass filled with ice and clear liquid. It swirls slowly, lazily and the ice cubes clink against the Collins class. Her hard, viridian eyes are fixed on a knot in the lacquered wood countertop six centimeters from where she clutches her drink with her left hand. Sasuke watches, as inconspicuously as he can, as the woman from which the bartender takes orders loses herself in thought.

She takes a sip and he looks away. Nothing to see here.

After a minute or two of sitting silently, Sasuke becomes aware of the bartender's presence. He's been very studiously avoiding eye-contact, but has been fluttering close to his newest arrival, waiting to take an order. It's not his policy to ask first, because no one ever comes to this bar for the service. They come for the alcohol.

Uchiha Sasuke doesn't have much experience with ordering drinks, so he defaults back to what his father used to drink. "Plum wine," he growls in his own terse manner.

The bartender nods but does not allow his steel-blue eyes to drift from Murasaki. It takes very little effort for Sasuke to recognize the concern in his eyes, as piercing and dangerous as they are. With calm, practiced, economical motions, the bartender flips a snifter out with his left hand, then pours the bottle right-handed. The neck of the bottle crosses with his left forearm and he uses it as a guide for pouring. It is very much like an opening kenjutsu stance and Sasuke dimly remembers the bartender is a Taira. That makes sense and the raven-haired Uchiha makes no more mention of it.

"How's Ayano?" the bartender asks abruptly and not to the newcomer. There's a loaded question if Sasuke's ever heard one. Designed specifically to provoke conversation, the bartender has asked a question with the full intent of taking the round-about way to the point.

"She's fine," the red-haired woman replies, "She keeps asking me when you're going to visit again." Countered and returned. Such is the way of verbal battles.

It was obviously not what the short-haired man expected because he fumbles and gestures uselessly for a few moments before marshalling himself, "Yeah… well, you know how it is. I'm busy and all…"

This is not the response she wants, because a small frown creases the corners of her generous mouth, "You wouldn't want me to tell her that you don't want to see her, do you? Because I'm sure that would just break her little heart and leave her devastated and she'll cry all night, and you don't want that, now do you?"

"You don't have to lay it on so thick, you know?" he mumbles, begrudging her very existence at this moment. The Murasaki guilt-trip is an awesomely powerful technique that even an Uchiha cannot copy. Sasuke, only half-listening, is very happy that he's never been subjected to such an awful jutsu. He has seen the effects of it in action, and it never ceases to amaze him how well it works. Probably because Murasaki is a mother, so she's had plenty of practice with which to perfect her ultimate attack. Just follow her orders and nobody gets hurt...

"So can I expect you to take care of her when I'm out on a mission next week?" the green-eyed lady fishes and her hook finds purchase.

"Yeah," the bartender chuckles, "I'll take care of her while you're gone," he suddenly gets over the novelty of him watching a kid, even if it is a well-behaved eleven-year-old girl, and his face clouds up like a sudden storm in Grass Country, "but only this time."

He says it in that tone of voice that brooks no argument. She quirks a funny little smile, to indicate that she's playing along, and nods in agreement. Both of them know that there will always be a 'next time,' despite his vehement protestation. Not every ANBU is lucky enough to get out and the pay's just not good enough to make any long-term savings possible.

It's just that the idol worship of a little girl makes the bartender uncomfortable. He's one of her mother's contemporaries, her mother's last true-blue teammate, and that makes him something special, because she wants to grow up to be just like her mother. Kids are funny that way.

Sasuke takes a sip of his plum wine, enjoying the body of the alcohol, although he doesn't drink anything else, and therefore he has no basis of comparison. It's strong and slightly sweet, showing a deep lavender color that grape-based wines from north Fire Country do not have. Had life turned out differently, Sasuke might have been taught to savor it. As it is, he drinks it without thought of the rich flavor or the heady bouquet, but because it's the only thing he can remember his father drinking, and no one else drinks plum wine in this bar, so it's a mark of distinction. Pretense of Nobility and Sophistication. If anything, Sasuke really needs something to buoy his rapidly sinking ego these days.

Murasaki considers her glass. "I have a mission for you," she blurts out, monotone in this highly-inappropriate venue. Her posture has changed with such rapidity that Sasuke, watching out of the corner of his vision, did not catch the movement. The bartender steps away, ducking his head and rapidly pouring another alcoholic concoction for someone seated in the corner. His place in the conversation has been made obsolete and the fair haired man struggles to find something to do so as to at least give the appearance of inconspicuousness. It doesn't work very well and Sasuke cannot help but wonder how this man ever became an ANBU.

"Hn," he responds when he notices that Murasaki is holding for an acknowledgement. It is short, terse, and to-the-point, just like everything about him. Other Hunter-nin might have been irritated by her mention of work in a very off-duty location, given that their one job is to hunt and kill other ninja,but not Uchiha Sasuke. He is always business, always professional, and that's something she admires about him. At the merest notice, he is ready for an assignment.

"Yesterday, I received a personnel request from ANBU headquarters," she takes another long sip of her drink, "A single Hunter-nin for an assassination mission that leaves tomorrow."

Without hesitation, he asks, "Who's the target?"

"Ex-Akatsuki," Murasaki answers. Sasuke has to physically restrain himself from puffing out his chest with pride. Out of all the Hunter-nin, she has chosen him for this assignment. By all rights, that means that he is the most qualified member of the Hunter-nin to deal with the target, and such a dangerous and elusive target can only mean one thing: That his superior recognizes his obvious skill.

She frowns. Sasuke is losing himself in a world of stale ambition and ignorance, so she decides to give him a little piece of the puzzle.

"You are not allowed to refuse this mission."

He looks at her, truly looking her in the eyes for the first time tonight, and Murasaki can clearly read 'Why would I want to?' in them. It takes but a moment longer, and then the suspicion makes a showing.

"Why?" he asks, eyes narrowing slightly. He's finally caught on that something is wrong with this set-up.

"Because your presence is required for the success of the mission," his superior drinks delicately, considering her next words carefully, "That's all I know for certain. The mission details are classified eyes-only for team members, so I'm only playing the messenger here." Which is mostly true, but as the Hunter-nin commander, she has the authority to read all mission briefings and can hand-pick personnel for each criminal and missing-nin contract. She knows the contents of this team and she knows that come Wednesday, this mission will be the major gossip at HQ.

Sasuke nods, not privy to the truth of the matter as it plays in her head. He drinks a finger of the dark liquor in one gulp. Somewhere underneath it all, there is a thirst to prove himself, a desire that even his jaded cynicism and years of solitary confinement haven't diminished. The pit of his stomach twists in a feeling he associates with anticipation. I will kill this Akatsuki and show them. I will show them all.

"Uchiha?" the crimson woman cuts across his train of thought like a kunai through soft flesh, "Try to come back in one piece, will you?" Uchiha Sasuke frequently suffers injuries in his line of work, a side-effect of his overconfidence and impatience in battle. All the years since have not knocked these habits from him. But he almost always succeeds, even with the injuries and so forth. He's ruthless, cold, and unyielding when it comes to the objective.

"Something about this mission is unusual," she murmurs, each word like a delicate bubble in the gloomy air, "Keep your eyes open and your head down, got it?" For the first time tonight, Murasaki turns her head his way and gives him a look that clearly shows she's worried.

He nods. It is unlike Murasaki to show so much concern for his welfare, but he figures that even the most hardnosed leader unwinds with the help of alcohol. Her glass is almost empty now and the bartender offers her another. She declines, drawing her attention away from Sasuke and back to her old friend. Just like that, Sasuke knows that their informal briefing is over. That's the way he likes it. Murasaki doesn't waste any breath on useless words, cutting to the heart of the matter right away. She's a good commander, and the Hunter-nin are lucky to have her watching out for them. Sasuke considers that, just maybe, somehow, he respects her.

Murasaki and the bartender examine each other for a while, and Sasuke takes them in with a glance. They're a mismatched pair. He's tall, lean, and plain in an unassuming way with short brown hair and keen blue eyes. She's slim, pale, with fire-red hair that falls in ringlets past her shoulder-blades and bottle-green eyes. They look at one another and their eyes do not meet, giving the impression that they do not really see one another. They do not smile, as is their policy, and it suits neither of them. Either of them would be attractive if they were to smile.

"I'll pay you for the water," she says and he waves her off, because he never makes her pay no matter what she orders. She's long-since learned not to insist… and since she never drinks anything but water, it hardly matters.

She leaves. They don't say goodbye, yet another unspoken policy they share. Old Team Four, never give up, never say goodbye, never say die, and always stick together. He watches her go, and when she's out of sight he removes her empty glass from the lacquered countertop.

Sasuke asks for another, drinking slowly and keeping his mind purposefully blank. He doesn't want to think about the implications of his impending mission tomorrow. He doesn't want to think about why he can't refuse the mission, despite the fact he already knows. Naruto's going to be on that mission, and he tries his best not to think about him.

And fails. It's never far from his mind. Just as his dead brother used to consume his thoughts, so now does Naruto. And Sakura… her betrayal. He hates Sakura, she promised to wait for him… she swore she loved him… and now he finds that she went to Naruto first? Untrustworthy, he snarls to himself. No, he amends, just unworthy…

Yamanaka Ino walks in, calmly sits at the bar next to him, and proceeds to strike up conversation. Sasuke eyes her, examines the way she's filled out and grown since she used to be a girl fawning at his feet. They talk for many drinks, by the end she is laughing all over herself.

Sasuke takes a moment to examine her, stepping back from his drunken stupor. She's very beautiful and he finds her smile appealing in a manner he cannot describe. There's something about her that he cannot put his finger on, something that eludes the clumsy grasp of his addled mind. Perhaps it's the way her glossy pink lips pout with every word she says. Maybe it's that she's managed to get him to drink enough to loosen his tongue, but doesn't want to know about Sakura or their relationship or when they're going to tie the knot. Questions like that have become increasingly and alarmingly frequent, and Sasuke just doesn't have the answers.

Did he want to marry Sakura? It was a goal, a means to an end. If he married her, then he could continue the second part of his ambition. Found the beginnings of a brand-new Uchiha dynasty and reclaim the glory of his now-tarnished clan's birthright. But… would he really have married her?

Yes. Eventually. Sasuke is not a man used to sharing any facet of his time. The concept of being beholden to another living being is strange to him. Discussing a purchase with the significant other? Enjoying an evening on the town, just the two of us? Talking through relationship difficulties? Presents? Birthdays? Anniversaries? All of these are foreign to him, a man who has lived his entire life by his own rules and on his own terms. He's never once had to compromise his ideals or goals just because someone disagrees with him. A spouse… is a responsibility on a whole other level, one that he's not sure he is ready to accept. That's just the way it is. For most men, commitment frightens them, the loss of control in their lives, the concept of changing their entire lifestyle. If he's comfortable the way he is, then having someone waltz in and reorder all his habits and priorities is worrisome.

No, commitment terrifies him, because for him it seems like shackles. Objectively, he knows that's not true. But he's also a Hunter-nin and he knows that any mission could be his last. This is a generalization for the benefit of anyone who might be reading his mind. All false modesty aside, Uchiha Sasuke has about as much chance of being cut down by a missing-nin as Nara Shikamaru has of bleeding of death from paper-cuts.

Talking to Ino is not hard. She's personable, charming, and very easy on the eyes. Their conversation meanders, wandering to safe topics like 'How's work?' and 'What are you doing on your next recuperation period?' Both are familiar and Sasuke doesn't have any real reason not to answer her questions, then he adeptly turns the words about. She speaks in great length about a new technique she's going to try to master the very next Thursday. From what he understands of it, the technique uses her ever-quirky bloodline-limit and does… something… she's giggling a lot and stumbling over the word 'paranoia.'

Were it any other day, Sasuke might have been irritated by her high-pitched laughter. But she's found something funny and is not stopping readily; he's had a bad day, a few too many, and he's bone-deep exhausted. He laughs along with her, only partially grasping what was funny. You had to be there and sloshed to get it.

"You're not so bad when you're drunk," she says when the laughter finally subsides.

"You're not so bad when I'm drunk, either," he shoots back, a little quicker than was necessary, but the reply is fast enough for her to catch that it's a joke. Probably… he doesn't know… his head hurts. The blonde is staring at him with a shocked look on her face, half because such a statement is inappropriate and half because she's sure he's joking and Uchiha Sasuke doesn't joke. Then it melts into a genuine smile and her clear laughter rings in his ears again.

They share a moment of laughter and just for a little bit, Uchiha Sasuke forgets his troubles. He forgets that he's supposed to be wounded and angry, that he came here to get drunk and quietly brood, that he'll probably never complete his goal now, and that he's just off the cusp of his first, real break-up. Although he's suffered none of the poignant emotional trauma that most people endure on their first (more than likely because he didn't actually love her,) he's definitely taken a hit. The overweening pride he carries around like a shield is broken and the cloak of arrogance that is his armor is slipping.

"How's Sakura?" Ino asks. Her seemingly-innocent question lances open a gash Sasuke had just finished dousing with alcohol to sterilize. Then again, Ino's far from innocent. In actuality, she knows exactly what her question does to him, can see the words take root and the pain blossom in his eyes. It's less than she expects to see, but then the Yamanaka woman always knew that Sasuke didn't love Sakura.

This is look is more like betrayal, though whether it's aimed at Sakura for obvious reasons or at Ino herself for taking the conversation out of friendly waters, she doesn't know.

"I don't know," Sasuke answers truthfully, "I haven't seen her for a few days."

Ino knows as much, but she plays along for the sake of hearing it directly from the horse's mouth, "She have a mission?" And the knife twists deeper.

He holds back a wince and keeps his voice even, "We broke up." The words sound strange coming from his lips, but as it is the truth he figures that it's not that strange… he has always maintained at least some modicum of honesty in his life. His chest tightens uncomfortably with the words and his fist clenches against his pant leg. Impotent and useless as the gesture is, it sums his reaction up perfectly. Let her go. If fidelity is too difficult a concept for her to grasp, then she's not worth the effort.

Just like that, Sasuke has convinced himself that everything is fine once more. His inner turmoil calms, all that bottled up anger is forced down.

She's aware of his confliction he realizes. The way she watches his eyes, so boldly staring into the depths of his pupils. Her keen sapphire eyes take in the subtle half-gestures his hands start and abort. The minute shifting of his shoulders, every detail is observed and stored for later use. Yamanaka Ino is an infiltration specialist. Her unique talents and impressively disarming physical assets allow her to close with less difficulty than other kunoichi might have. In her life, she's taken the ANBU training, understanding the mindset of a murderer, criminal, or enemy from mere forensic evidence or circumstantial evidence is her specialist skill. She gets inside the heads of her targets, slowly but surely monitoring the actions of a subject to build a complete understanding of the way they think.

Ino is an ANBU profiler, one of a select few members that interpret the possible meaning of intelligence data gathered by informants or field agents. Shikamaru may be an Intelligence guru, but all he does is manipulate probabilities and draw plausible consequences on a larger scale. Profilers work on a much more personal level, creating what amount to personality 'mock-ups' of famous missing-nin, evaluate the mission-readiness of teams, and perform emotional and mental stability assessment for ANBU. They're the social counterpart to Intelligence's numerical or political aspect. They cut to the 'why' of the problem, instead of the 'when,' 'who,' 'where,' and 'how.'

Where other ANBU work in shadows, Ino walks into the bar, the office, the theater and proceeds to draw attention to herself. She's very good at maintaining a conversation, but Sasuke's not being unreceptive to idle chat, surprisingly enough, so she's having an easy time of it tonight.

Sasuke's a Hunter-nin. He's used to following a target for weeks, the inevitable conflict, and the eventual bloody conclusion. Chase, catch, kill. The Hunter-nin is the profession he was born for, bred for, and trained for all his life, albeit unknowingly. But being socially adept is not one of his job-requirements, so all this careful connecting the dots goes over his head. The alcohol doesn't help, for what it's worth.

He's been silent for a few minutes now. Ino hesitates, because he's a damn hard read when he wants to be and Sasuke is putting almost all of his willpower into holding back anything that might give him away. Her observations are mixed and incoherent and learning anything more aggressively would require invasive genjutsu that would be detected easily by an Uchiha. Hunter-nin are annoyingly alert most of the time.

"Let's talk about something else," she demurs, though it's a completely hollow statement. Conversational feints are useful, especially when she's employing reverse psychology. When displaying the proper amount of chagrin, the subject will almost always be compelled to ignore their reticence. The only problem is that everyone has a different level of tolerance for compulsion, and Uchiha Sasuke probably less-so, so Ino goes with 'bashful and awkwardly strained half-chuckle' followed by a 'pronounced lack of eye-contact' and 'obviously fake smile.'

Sasuke dutifully picks up the clues she hands out, squares his jaw, takes a fortifying slug of his wine, and says, "No, it's alright." The blonde woman holds back a grin, knowing she's got him now.

Over the years, Uchiha Sasuke has never once said the words 'No, it's alright' and meant it. Naruto once broke Sasuke's finger during a training accident and kept apologizing endlessly, until Sasuke had growled out the phrase to shut him up. Last year, Sakura dropped a plate that had been given to his parents on the day they were married and it shattered like so many of his memories. For days, she had been touchy and nervous around him, for fear that he might snap at her over a broken plate. Objects long since stopped having significance to him, as he's now spent more years of his life without his parents than with. As ridiculous as her behavior was, the broken dog act was possibly the most irritating display of obsequiousness he had ever witnessed. Only when he used that phrase combined with a small smirk did she begin to look him in the eyes again.

Although, now that he puts some thought into it, after a few days she was probably more afraid of the way her simpering demeanor made him act, but didn't comprehend enough to discern the truth. For as smart as Sakura comports herself to be, the woman could be oblivious at times.

"We've decided to separate due to irreconcilable differences," he says in his most authoritative tone of voice, like he's reading a weather report. It's a true statement, but even he acknowledges that it's a gentle euphemism for the conditions of their break-up. Irreconcilable differences means, 'She likes sleeping with Naruto and I don't like her sleeping with Naruto. Therefore, we have a difference of opinion that jeopardizes our relationship.' It doesn't quite do justice to the amount of shouting partaken by both of the individuals in question.

After a few moments, she realizes he's not going to say anything more and responds, "Ah," which is both the most unhelpfully vague statement and the most subtle prompt she can come up with on short notice.

He takes another sip of his wine and Ino cannot help but notice that he holds the bulb of the snifter against the palm of his hand, allowing the warmth of his skin to seep through the thin crystal and heat the purple liquor. He drinks in small sips, allowing himself to savor, but the movements are slow and lack the fluid grace of a natural connoisseur. At some point in his life, he's seen someone drink in this particular manner and has attempted to copy the style. However, he doesn't know why he drinks in this fashion, only that it's the thing to do when drinking plum wine. It strikes her like an epiphany that he's just going through the motions uselessly and her mind leaps to the conclusion that he derives no enjoyment from the act, but a sense of fulfillment or obligation. So interesting, she decides.

"I don't trust her," Sasuke mutters suddenly.

That raises an eyebrow, because Ino doesn't know if that comment was meant for her ears or accidentally exclaimed. It doesn't surprise her in the least, because she's had the story from Sakura and the roseate woman said much the same thing, but that he might tell her so is odd. She blames the alcohol. He's been here longer than she has and plum wine is stronger than her beer. Speaking of which… she orders another. The bartender is very careful to keep his razor-sharp blue eyes above neckline when he passes her another bottle. It's pathetically obvious that he wants to look, but why he doesn't is a mystery to her… perhaps some… the blonde woman cuts off that line of thinking quickly, realizing her musings have distracted her from the original objective. Sasuke.

They talk over alcohol, as handsome people in movies tend to do. Once or twice, they lapse into companionable silence after a line of discussion has run to completion. Sasuke talks less than she does, but he seems genuinely interested in offering his opinion. She does not make mention of Sakura any more, because as much as she is Sakura's best friend, she knows all the secrets and the rational, pragmatic part of her agrees with Sasuke. Yes, you shouldn't trust her, Sasuke-san. It's a dangerous proposition.

Time passes. By the end of their conversation, Ino has gotten herself thoroughly soused. When she realizes that they are laughing about something she cannot remember, the blonde realizes that it is time to go. Having a few too many has done terrible things to her balance and coordination, making her stumble as she attempts to get to her feet. Sasuke does not attempt to arrest her fall, so she grasps his shoulder for balance. There's stability there, and the Uchiha progeny holds his shoulders very still until her hand removes itself. This is very uncomfortable for him, as she's touching him in a manner more intimate than his alcohol-blasted mind can handle and he's not positive how he'll react if the contact is continued for any duration.

For her, it's like a bolt of heat shoots through her arm. His body is warm underneath his blue shirt, the power he possesses whirling like a current just beneath his skin. He stiffens at the pressure, unsubtle and crude, he's supporting almost her full weight as she stands. There is something intoxicating about him, although it could just be the booze. She doesn't know and removes her hand.

"It's late. I had better go," she says, and he nods. It is late, there is no denying this, and he has a mission tomorrow. He watches as she draws herself up, gives her long platinum hair a shake to settle it properly, and then favors him with a small smile, perhaps the first truly innocent smile he's received in a long time.

There it is again, the indefinable quality Ino possesses that intrigues him. Every so often he sees flits and shadows of it, but he cannot piece together what it is for the life of him. In the beginning, he had wondered with a passion that almost made it hope he would come to figure it out just by conversing with her, so he entertained her curiosity. As the conversation lengthened and began to wander into topics that were neither safe nor neutral, he came upon the discovery that she was manipulating him. It was almost offensive, in and of itself, but then a sudden, irrepressible curiosity of his own smothered any desire to end it. He felt compelled to discern her objective, and if he knew she was pulling strings, then he would be far better prepared for any tricks she might pull and then she'd be left exposed, right where he wanted.

As if he knew where that were…

She saunters out, her hips swaying sensually. A quick check from the corner of his eye shows that he's not the only man in this smoky, little bar that's watching. Though he's watching for entirely different reasons than every other man, he tells himself. Sasuke is not watching her because she's an attractive, vibrant young woman who has a reputation for being sexually aloof and somewhat less-than-picky. He's watching her because she tried to manipulate him into revealing some deep secret of his and it worked.

Flame take him, that's Sakura's best friend. This will precipitate an awkward situation and most likely another conflict with that hard-headed imbecile. He pushes away his plum wine, disgusted at himself for slipping so grievously. Such an error is completely unbecoming of a shinobi of his station. Compassion is a luxury one in his line of work cannot afford.

"Excuse me," the bartender interrupts, brandishing a slip of paper like a senbon, "I hope you're picking up the lady's tab."

She left me with the check, scowling, Sasuke tears the bill from the bartenders outstretched fingers, examining it with a bleary and critical eye. Everything is in order and he can remember each of the listed items. He's not being cheated, but he's still angry and must mentally restrain himself from severing the bartender's fingers in his fury. That's the last straw and his fragile patience snaps.

Sasuke stands, throwing down just enough money to cover the cost of the drinks. The bartender busies himself with taking away their used glasses, carefully avoiding the eyes of the Uchiha as he gathers himself to leave. He has business to settle and he doesn't have time to waste if he's going to get it done without any breaking and entering tonight.

Chase. Catch. Kill.

He leaves without a word, and it is only after a few minutes that the bartender counts the money left behind.

"No tip."

Ino presses the key into the lock on the door to her apartment, twists, and hears the bolts slid out of place. It's been a five-minute walk from the bar, although it would have taken less time for her to cross the district from the air, she was uncomfortable with the prospect of leaping from branch to rooftop to ledge in the dark while intoxicated. Ninja still take falling-damage, after all.

Her thoughts turn inward as she stares into the solid oak of her door. Sasuke was almost… almost nice tonight. His guard must have been completely down in order for her to slip in so easily. She hadn't expected to get anything out of him, much less an admission of distrust. Now that she thinks about it, Sasuke is right not to trust the pink-haired Haruno. Ino's not the sort to lecture about fidelity or honesty, because she has no experience with the first and the second is mutually exclusive with her job description, but if Sakura wishes to pursue a stable, viable relationship with either man, she cannot have them thinking she'll run off into the other's arms at the drop of a hat. The suspicion alone will make them kill one another, and then the whole situation will become a big fiasco.

She almost doesn't hear the sound of feet dropping onto the landing behind her. It's only at the sound of her name that Ino realizes someone is standing behind her. Whirling on the spot, her hand halfway to the kunai pouch strapped to her thigh, she sees the vague outline of a man standing just outside the reach of the overhead light.

With an uneven step, he lurches forward into the light. His jet-black hair just from his head like solid shadows capping a thin, handsome face with a straight nose and dark eyes. His lips are pressed together in a smirking frown that is half-disapproving and half-amused. It is Uchiha Sasuke and Ino thinks there can only be one reason why he is here. Alright, so she led him on and it isn't like she hasn't been the rebound girl before. But this is Sakura's ex, and can she really do that to her best friend?

Then his hand shoots up in the gulf between them and grasped tightly between the index and middle finger is a small strip of white paper. He holds it out to her, his silent countenance indicating that she should take it from him. Smoothing over her nervous twitters, the blonde ANBU takes the slip from his outstretched hand and reads it quietly.

"This is the bill for my drinks…" she mumbles aloud, her frazzled mind fumbling the concept and meaning like a Genin trying to catch shuriken with oven mitts on. Her blue eyes dart up to his face and notice the smirk is gone completely now. He's staring at her intently, either waiting for a response or further provocation or something. She doesn't know. Off-guard and out-of-breath, she can only notice how emotionless he makes his face become as he stares into her eyes. It makes her feel very self-conscious, but the defiant part of her doesn't give him the satisfaction of knowing he's won by looking away.

A thought occurs to her… is he teasing me?

Her mouth is hanging open slightly and Sasuke wonders if she knows this. He figures not, seeing as she's staring at him like he's grown a third head, which is odd because he isn't sure he'd grown a second one yet. Then her mouth shuts, giving a decent imitation of a bear-trap. This thought is funny to him for some unfathomable reason and forces a soft chuckle past his lips.

She hears, despite wishing that she hadn't, and can only think He is teasing me! Her glare sears him, a look practiced long and hard on everyone she's ever met.

There it is again, that flash of something that piques his interest. Something in the deadly look she shoots him is appealing. He takes a step forward, into arm's reach and watches the glare intensify a hundred-fold. Interesting. Another step forward and he straightens his back, looming over the shorter kunoichi. He watches her crimson lips part, a delicate pink tongue darting out to wet suddenly dry lips. For a moment, he considers what he's doing here, in this place, at this time, and begins to reconsider his course of action. Then he realizes that he doesn't have a course of action and lunges, taking it as enough of an invitation.

Ino's eyes shoot open as Sasuke presses his mouth against her own in a cleverly executed maneuver that quite conveniently keeps her from saying whatever recriminations she would have spouted. The blonde woman doesn't react at first, somewhat shocked at this turn of events, but not truly surprised. In fact, Ino's not feeling too terrible about this and when Sasuke's tongue brushes against her lips, she's not revolted at all.

So she kisses back. It's not like it's anything harmless, after all. One tiny kiss. What damage could it do, honestly? Besides, he's not all that bad at it. He's not best she's ever had, of course, but then she's had quite a selection and Genma's really, really good at what he does and more than a decade Sasuke's senior. It's not fair to compare them; their experiences are far from equal, she thinks.

And Sasuke's spent all this time kissing Sakura, that's got to damage… something, Ino surmises. Normally, by this time Ino would have drawn him into her arms and pulled him close, but her hands are quite conveniently pinned beside her ears and he's already close enough for her to catch his body-heat.

Body heat… huh, she's heard the rumor that Uchiha had above-average body temperatures, something about their affinity to fire increasing – oh look, he's breaking for air now. That's an interesting look, is that curiousity? Here he comes again – metabolic… rates… or what… ever… he's certainly enthusiastic. Idly, Ino wonders if his Sharingan copied the right way to kiss or if he's figured out on his own that he had been doing it all wrong before tonight. Whenever the topic of Sasuke and his romantic and sexual abilities have come up in conversation, Sakura bites the inside of her cheek and mumbles something generally positively but not stellar about the way he kisses and says that they've never done it, so she couldn't possibly know. The way Sasuke's attacking her mouth, it seems like he's got some innate talent for this sort of thing, just like everything else.

"Open door," she gasps out when he breaks again, because the dark-haired hunter is showing no signs of interest in doing any less than ravishing her mouth her on the porch where anyone can see, "Go inside." He nods curtly and pins both of her wrists with one hand above her head, leaving his left hand free to pull open the heavy door without sacrificing his position of power.

The door falls away behind her and Ino purposefully twists her ankles together, losing her balance as Sasuke pushes her over the threshold backward. Allowing herself to go limp, she simply collapses softly to the carpet, her wrists slipping from Sasuke's grip so easily it might have been accidental. But that's the point and now she has her control back, even if she is splayed on the floor like a felled tree.

Sasuke watches her confused. Certainly she doesn't want it here, although Ino's somewhat of a quandary in his mind. His instincts spark as hungry eyes rove her chest, panting heavily in the post-make-out bliss. Something about her, something about the way she's laying waiting for him, something something something! There it is again, elusive as ever, and he spends a loose second to consider that he's probably too drunk to truly figure out what it is about Ino that's so alluring.

But he is not too drunk to continue and follows her to the floor.

For what seems like months, but is actually closer to a handful of hours, Ino and Sasuke fuck. It cannot be called anything else, as neither of them have the slightest illusion about what is happening or where this night is going. Sasuke starts kissing her again and she pulls his high-collared shirt over his head, which makes him retaliate by removing her soft plum skirt (when he gets his arms free, of course. Ino doesn't let those go without a fight.) It takes a little while, but she manages to get off those pants of his and he manages to lay her out on the bed.

Sasuke is silently aggressive the whole time. They twist and dance, fighting in a relatively uncoordinated and playful manner, but in the end, Sasuke is the one in control. He takes and enjoys and Ino allows him this freedom. She doesn't mind submission, not when her partner is being this enthusiastic. There's no pride issue on the line here, she doesn't have anything to prove to Sasuke. It's a chance meeting in the night, most likely a one-night stand that will never be repeated. For Sasuke, however, this is an expression of freedom. He is fucking Sakura's best friend. Effectively, he's cheating on her in the same way she cheated on him. This is punishment, revenge, and justice for him… kind of, as it's all backwards and thinking about it makes his head hurt. He's doing this because he wants Ino, not because he needs her, unlike with Sakura.

And Ino is radically different from Sakura. She's loud and vocal about what she wants and what she needs. This is because she's used to having a medley of different partners, very few of them repeats, all of whom need to be informed and reminded of her specific tastes. Ino's not into anything weird, thankfully, but she is certainly more liberal about sex. Sasuke had never done it like that before, for sure. Hell, he wasn't even sure it could be done like that. He heard guys tell stories, naturally, but when it came time to put it there, Sasuke didn't believe it would fit. It did.

The blonde woman whispers naughty words in his ear, flicks her tongue into the hollow of his throat, and does a thousand other little things Sakura never did. She's something else, he decides as he pounds her mercilessly, watching her head loll against the pillow. Her fingernails, which are surprisingly long for a ninja, rake furrows down his back and he growls against the shell of her ear.

Time passes, her hips shift, change the angle, and then it was over. Gasping for air, they collapse against the sweat-soaked linen. He clutches at her sensuous curves with an intensity he cannot fathom, as though letting go would wash him away. It's part of the afterglow, he reasons, though he doesn't remember clinging to Sakura like this.

Sasuke relaxes against her, nestling his head between her voluptuous breasts. Her fingers stroke his wild raven hair, helping him settle down to sleep. No words are said, because the Uchiha progeny doesn't need to ask to know she's satisfied. That sort of enthusiasm can't be faked, her glazed eyes and unfocused smile are genuine. She isn't anything like Sakura, Sasuke thinks. This was his initiative. Sakura was giving in to what he knew he had to do.

And suddenly, he understands. It is precisely because she isn't Sakura that he finds her so appealing. That is the indefinable quality she possesses, that makes itself known in her insignificant actions and the words in between the most important ones. She's different, better perhaps. Sakura is fine, Sasuke guesses, but she isn't right. However, with Ino there is still a sort of familiarity. She and Sakura share a good deal of their mannerisms, so it's not difficult for him to adapt. He's trading in for a better model, really.

What a better model it is, he smirks, content in the catch he's made tonight. But before he can consider the implications of his revelation, sleep sneaks up and smothers him in dreams. The Uchiha smirk of his fades into something softer and more natural as he falls asleep. Ino listens to his breathing deepen and slow, knowing that he is truly unconscious now, and plans her next move. She could leave now, but that would probably cause Sasuke to awaken and that would provoke the conversation she prefers to avoid in these situations.

Well, Sasuke does look comfortable… she thinks, I'll leave in the morning before he wakes. Decided, Ino closes her eyes and continues to stroke Sasuke's hair until she too falls asleep.

They escape the usual nightmares tonight.

Kazoku sighs. It has been a very, very long day of walking, walking, and more walking. His feet hurt, he hasn't taken a bath in three days, and every single inch of him is covered in sweat-adhered sand. God forbid they stop, or leap through the trees like real ninja or something. Anything to make this death-march go faster. But no, they can't use chakra to propel themselves, for fear of giving away their position.

"Giving away our position," Kazoku sneers for the third time this hour, "That's a bunch of—" he says a word that makes Tanrei blush and sputter admonishments in his direction. As per usual, Hiroshi does not say a word. "Give away our position to who?" Kazoku growls.

"Whom," Hiroshi corrects. Both of his teammates get the distinct impression he is not watching them behind his glasses.

"Whatever," Kazoku sighs, tired of always being corrected by his overly-silent, hypercritical ally. Damn stupid Aburame, always think they've got the high ground… "Who could possibly mess with us?" His hand whips out to point at a cluster of figures walking ahead of them. There are four people, two female, two male.

Without preamble, Kazoku points to the shorter woman, the one with long, wild blonde hair tied back at the nape of her neck. She's wearing a white formal kimono and carrying a large dancing fan and an equally oversized scroll. "You see her?" he asks. Before either of his teammates can answer, he forges ahead, "They call her 'Kazekage-sama,' so she's like the most powerful ninja in all of Hidden Sand, right? Nobody in their right mind is gonna start something with her around."

"She's really young-looking!" Tanrei effervesces, "I bet she's around Sensei's age."

"Ask, why don't ya?" Kazoku mumbles, irritated that she isn't paying attention to him anymore. It's just like Tanrei to go seeking new idols. "As I was saying," he clears his throat importantly, "See the guy next to her with red hair? I hear he's some sort of demon or something. Didja see that Kanji tattooed on his forehead? I heard it was done in blood. Never speaks," he taps his chin with his forefinger, "Although he might be shy or trying to look macho or something, he's not very tall…" he swears again, "I don't really know. Either way, Sensei seems to get along great with him."

"Maybe she's got some cool bloodline limit, though I can't imagine how someone so young became a Kage," she whispers, now completely ignoring the whining boy next to her, "She must be a genius!" Tanrei decides in an authoritative tone of voice, as though by saying such a thing it becomes truth.

"And then there's Sensei. Well… he's just…" Kazoku fumbles for a moment, looking for a word to describe their be-browed Jounin protector, "he's Sensei!"

"Articulate, Kazoku," Hiroshi deadpans.

"Bite me, bug-eyes." Behind his collar, the young Aburame starts. Something about that insult has always struck beneath his defenses.

Tanrei buries her face in her hands, "I'll never look that good!" she moans and stares at the Kazekage with a look that borders on reverent worship, "Not when I'm stuck wearing this… this… THIS FASHION CATASTROPHE!"

"This suit has incredible heat-dissipation, superior elasticity, and is completely waterproof," the Aburame adds in a manner he believes is helpful. Tanrei lets out a muffled sob and pounds her forehead with her fists. Kazoku rolls his eyes.

"So we don't heat up. What about when we get a mission in Snow country? What good will your precious suit be then?" he jeers. Hiroshi hesitates, and then decides that it is better to ignore his teammates than associate with them. Kazoku interprets this (correctly) as yet another victory for him. He may not be particularly intelligent, but he is devilishly clever and possessed of a great deal of common sense. "These damn suits leave nothing to the imagination, not that 'skinny' over there has anything that requires imagination," he swings the blade of his hand down in a chopping motion and flashes a wicked grin. Tanrei bursts into tears and bolts off into the woods, always having been sensitive at being a late-bloomer. Both of her teammates watch her disappear into the foliage, neither of them overly concerned at her disappearance. "Like. I. Was. Saying…" Kazoku punctuates each word with emphasis, "Now that it's a bit quieter around here. Then there's that other woman, Tenten, the one with the mask," he points at the ANBU in question, only to find that she is no longer walking alongside the other three. At some point, the leaf-nin slipped away from the head of the processional.

"Huh… well, she looks tough. But then she's always taking orders from that blonde woman, real nasty things like stabling and provisioning the animals and stuff like that. Is she really an ANBU?" he asks his silent compatriot, "Because I didn't think they took crap from anybody."

Hiroshi doesn't answer and Kazoku begins to regret making fun of Tanrei. At least she made noise.

Tanrei crashes through the underbrush with approximately zero grace and even less subtlety. She has no idea where she's headed, but as long as it's away from those jerks, then everything is alright with her. That's a lie, because tears are streaming down her face and everything is most definitely not alright with her. But as long as she has some time to calm down and think about it, she'll come to realize that Kazoku is a bastard who'll never get a date until he's well older than twenty and that Hiroshi is a cold son-of-a-bitch who'll return to an empty bed in an empty home to a silent clan to be married to a vacant woman he doesn't love. Those thoughts generally make her feel a little better when they pick on her about being slower or weaker than they are. Or in Kazoku's case, her being flat as a board.

"You know you're not supposed to leave the main group, right?" a voice behind her whispers. She whips around, seeing only the lush green forest of Fire country behind her. Enemies can throw their voices, stupid! she chides herself mentally, You're really in trouble now!

"W-who are you?" she asks, trying to sound braver than she feels and failing miserably.

A figure drops out of the canopy above her, making a three point landing behind the girl. Tanrei stops dead, her eyes squeezed closed. Fear rolls off the girl in palpable waves. She doesn't want to turn around and face what could be there. An enemy ninja, kunai drawn and with the drop on her, is her worst fear. Dying violently, while on a mission or in a fight, holds no appeal for Tanrei.

Tenten sighs. This girl is shaking like a leaf, "I'm not going to hurt you, Tanrei. Just turn around."

The Genin does, albeit with great hesitation. When she sets eyes upon the ANBU, she breathes a sigh of relief and her tense posture unwinds. "Whew, Tenten-san, you frightened me half to death!"

"Just remember that enemies can come from above, next time," the older kunoichi scolds. Tanrei has the good grace to look embarrassed; she did forget to check the trees when Tenten first spoke. It's a rookie mistake and hopefully it won't trouble her next time.

"Why are you out here?" the genin asks, "Shouldn't you be guarding the Sand-nin or something?"

Her ANBU accompaniment shrugs, "There are Sand Jounin and Chuunin scattered here and there in the procession. If there's trouble, I'll hear it."

"There are more than Genin traveling with us?" Tanrei frowns, "Then why are we here?"

Tenten takes a moment to answer, deciding that blaming 'That Idiot Hokage' wouldn't be a good idea, "Well, all of those Jounin and Chuunin aren't there to fend off an attack. Lots of them are just coming along to watch the exam and stay with family members taking it, so I guess they're more like clients or objectives than actual allies," Tanrei nods, accepting this supposition, "They're off-duty right now, but if things get rough, they'll probably jump in and help."

Tanrei falls silent, looking down at her small feet in equally undersized ninja sandals. It looks to the ANBU that she's about to ask a question, so Tenten tips back her puffer fish mask (the ANBU were running out of ideas that day, she suspects) to make herself appear more approachable and waits. It doesn't take long. The younger woman – she can't rightly be called a girl now that she's a Genin – sneaks a peak at Tenten's face and gasps, her mouth falling open.

She's staring. It's very uncomfortable. The waiting is the worst, because Tanrei's eyes are filling with tears steadily and the dam is about to burst.

It does. "You're so pretty!" Tanrei gushes, and then disintegrates into a sobbing mess. Tenten sighs and considers pulling her mask back over her face. This is not what she expected to do today. Some stupid girl that's having her self-esteem battered to pieces because she can't keep up with Lee's maniacal training scheme is now crying her eyes out because she's 'pretty?' What the hell is wrong with my life? Tenten laments.

Thus far, Tenten has been gritting her teeth and bearing it in a stoic manner. Every time Temari orders her to do something less than pleasant (such as brew coffee for all the senior staff the day before last or oversee the digging of camp latrines last night,) the brunette has shut up and done it, repeating the phrase 'Just a little longer' over and over in her head like a silent mantra. With the thought that soon this indignity will be over, she drew strength enough to fulfill her guest's (pain-in-the-ass, center-of-attention, bitchy drama queen's) requests (orders) with a reasonable degree of accuracy. No bowing and scraping though. Maybe next time she'll be calm and collected enough to make the act believable.

"There there," the ANBU pats the Genin on the shoulder in a manner she hopes is received as comforting rather than threatening. Tanrei doesn't react at all to the touch, which is worrisome at the very least. Honed reflexes are frequently the only thing that keep a ninja from pushing up Konoha Sunblossoms, and often turn a lethal blow into a survivable one. This little girl doesn't have any of them. "It's okay," No it's not, "There's no reason to cry," Except for the fact you're a travesty and not a shinobi, "It'll get better," if you work your ass off and don't get killed in the meantime…

"No it won't!" the crying Genin shouts, with more force than Tenten expected of her, "Kazoku always makes fun of me for being a… a late-bloomer," she shudders, as though it's the worst thing in the world, "and Hiroshi doesn't talk to me because he thinks I'm useless! I'm not a good ninja, I'm not able to keep up with them or Lee-sensei; I'm not even cute!" she wails and buries her head against Tenten's ribcage.

She's hugging me… Tenten's smile becomes rather fixed and her hands twitch uselessly in front of her. Of course, this little girl would look for the first female role-model she could lay her hands upon, and of course it would be her, seeing as she's 'Sensei's' old teammate. Kids today… Tenten thinks back, was she ever this shallow? No, not really, she reassures herself. But then a flash of white eyes pops into her mind and she can't help but think that she never really had her priorities in order when she was a Genin, either.

But I wasn't this bad, dammit! She pushes the Genin off of her gently and holds her at arm's length so that she can look into her eyes (and keep her from hugging her again…) "Hey, don't fret about it," the brunette woman says. Like a bolt of lightning, inspiration strikes. It is time for revenge, "You remember the woman with the fan?"

"Yeah," Tanrei warbles, "the Kazekage?" Thankfully, Tanrei doesn't repeat her words to her teammates, because that might just be the key to pushing Tenten over the edge after all these years.

"Well, I heard that when she was a kid, she was an ugly tomboy. Ran around with all the shinobi and stayed out all night, but look at how the swan has grown." It hurt to say that, but it had to be done, Tenten tells herself, "But that was fifty-some years ago, of course, and attitudes have changed."

"Fifty years ago!" Tanrei picks up the bait in the way only an innocent twelve-year-old girl could, "But then she's got to be almost as old as the Hokage!"

"Yup," Tenten agrees, secretly thrilled at the comparison she had not considered.

"But she looks so young! She doesn't have any lines or wrinkles or grey hairs."

"That's the secret, isn't it? Her 'miracle longevity' is actually a very powerful genjutsu used to hide her true appearance. Didn't you ever wonder how our own Hokage could stay looking so young when she's obviously so very old?"

"Whooooaaa!" Tanrei gasps, the weight of this 'truth' destroying one of the supporting beliefs of her tidy, little world, "What's she really look like?"

"Well," Tenten hesitates, "I really shouldn't tell you…" but Tanrei looks adamant and the ANBU makes signs of defeat, "Okay, okay, well… don't tell anyone I told you this, but if you can see through the jutsu, you know that the Kazekage is a withered old woman. Crow's feet, laugh lines, you name it; she's got it. And she sags."

"No!" the Genin seems scandalized.

"Yes," Tenten replies with cold certainty, "She's lived in the desert for how many years? That alone does terrible things to a woman's skin. And that's not even taking into consideration all the training she's done and people she's killed," Tanrei's eyes go wide at this, but Tenten continues to speak casually, "Oh yes, it's very clear that the Kazekage is hiding her age."

"But what about the man with red hair? Aren't they supposed to be related? He doesn't look very old…"

"He's her son, didn't you hear?" she taps her chin, pensive, "So we can add stretch marks to that list…" Now Tenten is enjoying herself. It is nice to see that any faith Lee's pupil may have held in Temari is now gone. A perturbed expression crosses her face and the ANBU prepares to weather this sudden squall.

"Why does she do it then? Lie to everyone about her age? Wouldn't people respect her more for being honest?"

That's a naïve question if Tenten ever heard one. Respected for honesty… in this line of work? You don't know the first thing about being a kunoichi, do you girl? But she comes up with a clever response in a reasonable amount of time. "The Kazekage is very, very vain. She used to pride herself on her appearance, years ago, so when it started to fade with age," Tenten spreads her hands, as though this was a common occurrence, "she looked for a way to stop it. When she couldn't find one, she tried the next best thing."

"Hiding it," Tanrei intones, as though she just clued in a moment ago.

"Exactly," the brunette congratulates, "It's also to cover up the fact she's not as strong as she used to be…" the words are casual and irreverent, but their intent is deadly. "She's getting old," she answers the questioning look her Genin conspirator shoots her way, "Slower reflexes, weaker resistance, less willpower. It happens with age, you know. Her memory might even be going, for all I know. But it's an important charade to give her ninja faith in her abilities and her leadership. She puts forth a strong appearance so her ninja don't question her judgment and orders as much. If you're weak, then you can't be a kage, right?"

"Right," Tanrei agrees, frowning something fierce. She doesn't approve of this 'getting old' thing, but she definitely doesn't like liars. It's hard to say which she likes less.

The shorter kunoichi opens her mouth to say something, but before she gets out the words, a pulse of chakra washes over them from the east. Tenten's head snaps up, calmly placing the mask back over her face. The Genin looks at her with a fearful expression, as though unsure of what is to become of her.

"Go back to your teammates and get orders from Lee… your Jounin-sensei," Tenten amends, "Tell him that I've gone on ahead to determine the source of that chakra."

Tanrei stands stock still for a moment, until Tenten barks "Go Now!" and the smaller ninja leaps into action. In an eye-blink, the clearing is empty. The ANBU disappears in a whirl of leaves, transporting herself straight up twenty meters into the treetops. From there, she begins to move due-east, toward the source of the disturbance. Somewhere, somehow, she knows that chakra is familiar. That is extremely worrisome, and can only mean one of two things: Someone is signaling for help via Chakra Flare no Jutsu, or someone is really burning through their chakra and will need help soon. Hopefully, she'll make it there in time.

If she had a moment to think about it, Tenten would feel kind of bad for lying to the Genin. She obviously trusted her if she swallowed that story hook, line, and sinker. But then she would consider how many people Tanrei would tell in the interim and decide that it's completely worth it to punch a hole in Wonder-Girl's reputation. Nasty rumors have a tendency of doing that.

Maybe next time she won't hug me.

Sakura sighs and pushes open the doors of the building before her. It's a bright, sunny Thursday morning in Konoha and the pink-haired medic-nin still doesn't know where Naruto is. The only thing her mentor and ex-sensei would tell her is that her fuck-buddy/lover/whatever (still confuses her to think about it) was out on a dangerous mission and would not be returning for the foreseeable future. Naturally, this did not still well with Sakura, who had a very terse argument with the Hokage during which there was much knuckle-cracking and throwing out of threatening gestures. Sadly for her, thumb-wrestling seems to be the only form of gambling at which Tsunade excels. Never bet with her, it's a recipe for disaster, Sakura thinks as she wrings her swollen hand.

The hospital greets her, shining white with bland upholstery and staid landscape portraits covering too-blank walls. Sakura, despite her medical abilities, has never been truly comfortable here in the hospital. Several cadre of on-call medic-nin are stationed here at all times during the relative calm of peacetime. During times of conflict, however, the medic-nin are moved to forward positions over the whole of Fire country, so that Konoha shinobi on missions might have better access to healing. Right now, with the state of turmoil between Cloud and Leaf, the hospital is mostly empty of medical-ninjutsu practitioners. That's alright, because Leaf-nin are taking more aggressive mission-cycles and shifting assignments in border areas frequently enough that a good deal of them do not return to Konoha in between missions anymore.

This does not account for the active combat medic-nin that comprise almost a fourth of the Chuunin, Jounin, and ANBU ranks. Those medic-nin are the ones who take part in missions like regular fighting-type shinobi. Sakura, who is considered to be gifted in the art of medical ninjutsu beyond the ken of most, doubles between mission duties with the ANBU and working as a ninja-surgeon and long-term care-provider in the hospital. It keeps her busy and her skills sharp, so she doesn't really complain. Everyone is so overworked these days, none so many as the Genin, who will become the next generation of leaders and warriors, and the Chuunin, who will become the next generation of ANBU and Jounin. Almost every shift she has, some poor kid almost half her age will be brought into the infirmary on the brink of death and be saved by a medic-nin's steady hand. Generally hers, but sometimes other people play the hero.

She heaves a great sigh and runs her fingers through long, scraggily pink hair. It's not as soft or pretty as it used to be, but the color is still as vibrant and eye-catching as it always was, so it's not all bad. This manic pace isn't making her grey yet.

Training accidents have gone up in frequency as of late. Genin and Chuunin are falling prey to overworking themselves, exhaustion, fatigue, and plain inexperience. Even Jounin occasionally walk through the door with an injury or two from working themselves until they drop. The medic-nin heal it without complaint, handing out herbal pastes for topical painkillers and antibiotics. If the enemy were to attack tomorrow – Hokage forbid – then the standing ninja of Konoha must be in their best shape to repel invaders.

But every so often, a Genin working in secret to perfect a technique or push that little bit farther injures him or herself so severely that he/she bleeds to death before help can arrive. Recently, Tsunade has taken steps to mandate and fix the borders of training grounds around the Konoha area, so that everyone may practice in a relatively safe manner and ANBU on guard duty sweep through every five or ten minutes to check for self-inflicted injuries and unconscious shinobi. It's saved a few lives in the past four months since inception, but once and a while, one slips beneath the radar and is lost forever.

Sakura stops at the front desk and signs in, scanning the names on the duty roster today. Hinata's here, Genji Motari, and that new girl, Takumasu. Nothing spectacular, although Hinata's certainly a helpful addition.

Before the Hyuuga-in-exile graduated the medical program two years ago, Sakura was the only truly gifted medic-nin in Konoha, the Hokage as the only outstanding exception. Back then, Sakura was doing missions almost all the time as a static member of Naruto's Combat Team 4, so she didn't have a lot of time to devote to the more mundane aspects of her chosen vocation. Time in the hospital fell by the wayside, as she spent more time keeping Neji and Kiba in one piece than would have liked, and the few days she scraped together in Konoha were generally considered 'time-off'. But as personal training is not something you do during duty, Sakura ended up spending most of her time developing new techniques and mastering her older ones.

Haruno Sakura narrows her eyes. She's heard the rumors that Hinata's a better medic-nin than she is, and the pink-haired girl doesn't like it. After all, who was trained by the greatest medical genius in the history of Konoha, the world even? Then there are other nasty rumors, like Hinata's problems with nerves. Apparently, when she gets flustered, things can become very lethal for her patients. But when she's on her game, she's supposedly the best…

It's that damn Byakugan of hers. How am I supposed to compete with that? And again, Sakura hates being just a normal girl without any special powers or bloodlines. No matter what she does, someone is always better than she is, because of those damn bloodline limits or demons or whatever. It's enough to make her scream sometimes. With a soft growl and a determined grimace on her face, Sakura stalks away from the desk nurses just as the daily gossip gets hot. They watch her leaving without a word of goodbye, their theories about the red-headed Hunter-nin and her admiring bartender friend trail off, leaving their jaws hanging slack in astonishment. Then they look to one another and begin formulating nasty things to say about Haruno Sakura behind her back. Office politics is a dangerous game in the shinobi world.

Sakura places her things in a locker with her name emblazoned on the front. Hesitating slightly at her hip-pouch, she decides to leave it on today. The war looms closer every day and it may one day spill over into the bright and clean hallways of this hospital. That day could be today and it would not do to be caught flat-footed and weaponless.

She changes into her white medic-nin uniform, ties her hair up into a messy braid, and scrubs her hands with powerful antibacterial agents. Finally ready for whatever the day might bring, Sakura strides confidently out into the long-term care ward.

The rounds are boring, much of the same. Administer painkillers here, dermal healing jutsu for burns there, check abrasions over there, run diagnostics on broken leg further down the ward. It's all very bland and Sakura remembers when she used to do this sort of work in the field. Give Kiba a disgusting dollop of bluish goop for his pain and then smooth healing chakra over his burned face, check to see how well Naruto's healing ability is coping with the hairline fracture of his left femur, changing the bandaging on Neji's arm when he near destroyed the skin slowing his fall off that cliff, take a stimulant, soldier pill, or adrenaline shot for her own fatigue. It was a thousand times more interesting than this sort of work. Only during emergencies does Sakura truly enjoy her work. The struggle to keep a pulse, the race against the clock, fighting off death and necrosis at every turn while the victim seems to find a new hole to bleed from every moment. It was thrilling and the only time she felt alive in these sterile walls.

As she moves toward a knot of Genin grouped together in an open-air hall, Sakura catches sight of Hinata bending over one of them. Then she prods the boy in the side, causing him to burst into a fit of giggles. Soon all of the children are laughing jovially and the medic-nin is smiling. The Genin don't seem to notice, but Sakura catches the weariness in her expression and the sadness in her eyes. There are seven children, and all of them seem to know one another.

Hinata stands and starts handing out sweets with clear wrappers. Each child holds out their hands and asks the nice doctor please before she gives them all one. The shorter medic-nin smiles again, this time a genuinely happy smile. Sakura knows, just from this distance, that these sweets are some sort of medicine, probably an immune system booster or nutrient pill, wrapped in tasty candy. Hinata makes them herself for the express purpose of giving them to younger patients. She probably hand-wraps that cellophane, Sakura thinks. The treats are strawberry-flavored and very popular.

Shaking her dark hair in amusement, Hinata bids them a good afternoon and escapes before they can call her back for more candy and stories. There is a spring in her step as she walks toward Sakura and shows no sign of surprise at being watched. Hmmph, damn Byakugan. Here I was trying to be quiet and she skips right over courtesy.

"Haruno-san, ohayo gozaimasu," Hinata greets, throwing in a short bow, "are you ready for your examination?" Up close Sakura notices that the Hyuuga is looking a little pale and more than just haggard, as though she's been sleeping in the medic-nin lounge as of late. Her pale lavender eyes are dull with fatigue, but she holds her head up as best she can.

"Examination?" Sakura asks, confused. Her next physical isn't until next month, when she'll get a reapplication of the contraceptive seal, and her next tenure exam isn't until November, so the rosette-ninja has no idea what her colleague means.

"Your physical," Hinata says by way of explanation, "I received this message from the Hokage saying that you were feeling a little under the weather and were wondering if you could have your physical moved to today. It specifically asked if I would perform your examination. Do you not remember it?" she sounds almost disappointed and a little heart-broken by it.

This is the first Sakura had heard of it, although she figures it's all Tsunade's fault, as per usual. Always meddling she is. The taller medic-nin sighs, accepting her fate, "No, I didn't remember it, but we may as well get this over with, right? So we can get back to work."

Hinata seems to miss the bitterness in Sakura's voice and nods with muted enthusiasm, "Let us get started then. I have prepared exam room seven in anticipation." Sakura casts a quick glance back toward the children now sitting up and talking quietly amongst themselves. Hinata catches this look, because she sees everything, and lets out a shuddering breath, "They're academy students."

Now that Sakura thinks about it, they do look sort of small to be Genin. "What are they doing here? Certainly there wasn't an accident at the academy?"

"No," Hinata shakes head, "They were practicing after class in the academy training yard and one of them began to show off for a girl he liked. Another boy, who liked the same girl, challenged him to a fight and it became serious rather quickly. One of the boys used a throwing-mine he had stolen from his parents and the other tried to block it with an earth jutsu his parents had taught him. The resultant explosion tore the rock wall apart and showered the group of children with stone splinters, so we kept them a few days for examination after surgery," Sakura winces and Hinata continues in a dull monotone, "the boy who used the earth jutsu was dead-on-arrival. The other one has no idea. They keep asking to see him, where he is, and when he'll be coming back. I don't have the heart to tell them…" her voice trembles softly and her gaze drops, "I was never good at that part."

"The worst part is that this could have been prevented if only they had some measure of supervision," Sakura bites her lip. After the post-Sand/Sound war of their youth, the birth-rate in Konoha had skyrocketed, as it did after all major conflicts, and that generation had washed over the academy within the last few years. Combine a wave of new academy students with recent high-end losses against the Cloud, Mist, and Akatsuki and the result is that there are too many children for too few teachers. Rock Lee spends his off-days teaching academy students basic taijutsu and Shikamaru holds 'strategy' sessions which are no more than excuses to find new Intelligence talent and foster it young. But it isn't sufficient when a whole society has gone to war.

"But anyway," Hinata changes the subject, clearing away some of the descending gloom, "the room awaits and we both have quite a lot of work to do."

They walk in amicable silence, each caught in their own thoughts. Hinata dwells on her charges and how she will go about breaking the news to them. Sakura wonders how children can be so happy in a building that has covered its history of failure and death in bright white paint. By the time they enter the examination room neither girl has divined an answer. Hinata closes the door behind her and Sakura begins to disrobe.

Hinata shakes her head and tells her that will not be necessary. She taps her temples and her smile is bittersweet. Sakura fumes on the inside, again some advantage Hinata has in the mutual profession. Of course, the shorter medic-nin doesn't notice her anger, because she never developed her Byakugan to do that sort of thing. With a few quick hand seals, the veins around her eyes bloat and the world leaps into incredible clarity. Slowly, she examines each layer of skin thoroughly, asking Sakura to turn in place several times for a better view. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, she begins to examine muscle structure, finding evidence of strain all along her arms and legs. Apparently, the form of super-strength Sakura uses is physically draining to the extreme. Nothing her personal file, which has magically appeared in Hinata's hands, doesn't already note. Over all, Sakura seems to be in great health. Her brain seems to be in perfect working order, the synapses firing in the manner she expects to see and there is no apparent damage. Her eyes seem a little strained and they aren't quite as good as those of the best shinobi, but they appear to be within average for kunoichi. They were probably better at one point, but all the studying and poring over medical scrolls into the dark of night took its toll.

Respiratory system, circulatory system, endocrine system, nervous system, everything seems to be in working order. No problems here. Sakura shifts from one foot to another, tired of standing in place. Hinata smiles and tells her just a little longer and instructs her to turn to face her again. The pink-haired examinee does so. Hinata delves in with greater clarity, detecting an abnormality in the chakra-structure of her inner coils. Something's tied them all together about her middle. Flicking over to penetrating sight, the Hyuuga makes a detailed search of Sakura's intestinal tract.

Watching Hinata's face grimace and lips purse in frustration, Sakura asks "What is it? Is something wrong?" a bolt of fear strikes her right in the chest and for a second she thinks her knees might give out. The thought of something so difficult to see that it is giving the Byakugan (the wretched thing) trouble is frightening.

Hinata lets out a soft gasp, her eyelids opening their widest, "Haruno-san… Sakura," she corrects, taking both of her colleague's hands gently into her own, "Perhaps you should sit down. The news I have to give you is rather startling."

"Something is wrong!" Sakura gasps, but takes the seat anyway, "Tell me! What is wrong with me?" and then proceeds to bombard the shy medic-nin with a dozen questions and theories about the nature of her illness and possible treatment options.

"Sakura," Hinata says quietly. The word is firm enough that it cuts off the pink-haired kunoichi's rant mid-sentence and she falls silent, "You are…" Hinata hesitates, seeing the look of fear creeping up on Sakura, then decides it's just best to tell her straight-out, "you are pregnant."

To her credit, Sakura takes the news with a straight face, her previous expression of panic sliding away like raindrops. In Hinata's experience with this sort of situation, it is always better for her if they faint or scream or react in some fashion. Those that don't either have some reason to avoid questions or simply don't want to have a child. It's frightening when people don't react to the news, the way Sakura stares blankly at her. Hinata suddenly wishes she had come down ill with a freak virus today.

"But…" Sakura begins slowly, pursing her lips in thought, "how can that be? I have the seal."

The dark-haired medic-nin hesitates. How can I say this…? she wonders, "The contraceptive seal is not perfect."

"I know that!" Sakura snaps, glaring jade knives at her doctor. Hinata flinches and it gives Sakura a sickening feeling of satisfaction. Before she can apologize, Hinata forges ahead boldly.

"The seal is not permanent. It makes major modifications to our hormones and ovaries, reroutes a dozen minor chakra coils. It degrades over time as the body begins to reject the seal's control. Sometimes…" her voice quavers here, "it can be forced to degrade… f-faster."

Sakura, who had never heard this before, leaps on the word, "Faster? How?"

Hinata clears her throat and shuffles the medical files in her hands uselessly, "From," her face goes a delicate sort of pink, "f-from o-overuse. S-sexually, I m-mean." Looking away from Sakura would do absolutely nothing for the Byakugan-user, and it would only undermine her tenuous position of strength in this conversation.

"I've never heard of this," Sakura declares with no small amount of suspicion. Something doesn't add up here.

"C-Chakra, when used to stimulate the clitoris or vagina walls, can damage the seal enough to allow for… for conception."

Sakura is looking fairly murderous now. Naruto, how could he be so stupid as to… a thought occurs to her. Sasuke, I'm laying on my back, he's breathing into my neck, pulls out when he's finished, fingers trail down my belly like an afterthought, a flicker of dark-blue in the corner of my eye, and then I feel his fingers finish what he started. Sasuke. It was Sasuke. Whether accidentally or through some brilliant design, he managed to crack the contraceptive seal. It's his fault I'm pregnant.

And then something else, something significantly more important, occurs to her. "Hinata-san," Sakura smiles in a winning manner, as though nothing were the matter, "How old would you say the fetus is, in your opinion?"

Hinata smiles, glad that the sudden Hurricane Sakura has passed, and directs her entire attention upon the tiny life growing within her colleague's body. For a moment, she considers. Most other medic-nin wouldn't be able to give a ball-park estimate in this area, but Hinata's caught so many pregnancies in the first few weeks that she is intimately aware of early fetal growth. Yet another advantage of the Byakugan…

"I'd say, and I'm just guessing here," she covers her trail, because human storms have relapses after all, "that this baby is about nine days old."

Sakura gasps inaudibly, feeling like she's been hit by a Snow-country locomotive. Nine days ago? Last Tuesday was the day I left Sasuke's and went to Naruto's place. That means the fetus could be Sasuke's or Naruto's! I… I can't believe it.

"Sakura…-san?" Hinata adds, "Uchiha-san will be overjoyed, yes?"

She has a gentle smile on her face, as though to say 'It's not so bad after all,' and Sakura cannot bring herself to punch a hole in Hinata's balloon. So weakly, she forces out the words "Yes, he will be," but she disagrees. If anything, the thought of her being with Naruto was enough to throw her physically from his bed and his life. The idea that Naruto may have knocked up his ex-girlfriend (or that the mother is unsure of the paternity of the child) might be enough to provoke a murderous rampage. The rosette medic-nin puts on a friendly smile and favors Hinata with a tearful look, as though she might burst into tears of joy at any moment.

"Now," Hinata says, all smiles now that Sakura has convinced her that she's happy about it, "there are some things you should know. I'm positive that you already know all of the basics, but I think it would be a good thing for both of us to review the list of things you can and cannot eat. I can never remember the entire list," she laughs brightly and Sakura feels compelled to chuckle along weakly, "We have a bunch of literature we can give you about the activities you can and cannot do while pregnant. You'll have to go on inactive duty, of course, and you're not allowed to train in the meantime. Too high-risk, as you well know. Oh, and we'll have to organize regular appointments for your baby. About every two weeks should do the trick."

Sakura nods, only giving half an ear to Hinata's near-rambling. A bleak cold has settled in the pit of her stomach when she realizes how everyone will react to this news. Most of the people she knows won't care or will assume that the fetus is Sasuke's. It helps her to think of the child as a fetus instead of a real, living being that will grow into a person, keeps her head clear. But the important people, like Sasuke, Naruto, her mother, and Ino, the ones she will probably tell the truth, will react in ways that will probably provoke very uncomfortable questions and situations. Her mother might ask who the father is, and Sakura will have to lie in that instance. If she doesn't ask and Sakura can get away with her mother's assumption of the Uchiha's culpability, then Sakura will not have to feel guilty for lying. However, she'd be taking a big risk going back to Sasuke. If it really is his, then she'll be alright, but if she tells him it is (and she will) and it is born with a full head of blonde hair (like Naruto and his father were) then Sasuke might just kill her where she stands. He's pretty unpredictable and Naruto is the biggest sore spot ever.

Ino, she decides, I have to go talk to Ino. She can help me. Perhaps Ino will have some advice on the proper resolution to this situation. Hopefully, it will be something that Sakura can actually face doing. Her hand settles over her abdomen, and Hinata mistakes it for a protective gesture, smiling with such saccharine sweetness that Sakura tastes bile.

"How about Tuesday, the first of July?" Sakura nods mutely, still staring through Hinata's face. The other medic-nin doesn't mind. She's used to this sort of spacey behavior from kunoichi that have just received the 'news.' It's a big transition, a milestone in life, and there's a lot of change in Sakura's future. Hinata can't help but feel slightly jealous.

The door to the examination room bursts open and there stands Genji Motari. He's a tall, burly sort of man, fresh from the medical program at the academy. Unlike most members of his clan, he's put away the bladed weapons in favor of an entirely different set of knives designed for an entirely different set of enemies. Hinata rounds on him, intent to chew him out for interrupting clear in her pale eyes, but his labored breathing halts her. He's just run here from the OR and he's leaning against the doorframe. His brown eyes have not once looked Sakura's way, which is fortunate because she's removed the outer layer of her clothing and if Hinata hadn't used the Byakugan, she would most definitely be naked.

"What is it?" Hinata asked, the nervous worry in her obvious.

"Mist-nin…" Genji wheezes, "ANBU team hit on… return… medic-nin dead… two in critical… code blue… you," he points to Hinata, "needed in OR, stat…." and he doubles over with a hacking cough, finally getting a good breath in.

Hinata gives a momentary hesitation, and then her back straightens. "I'm done here. Let's go."

Pulling her uniform back on over her head, Sakura follows them at their sprinting pace. They clear thirty paces in an eye-blink, deftly twisting around the corner by springing off the wall, and diving through the door to the stairwell feet-first. It slams open, knocking an orderly flying, papers spraying every which way. Hinata does not spare him a glance (when in truth she's already examined him for injuries with the Byakugan) and leaps over the railing to fall through the center of the stairs. The three medic-nin drop like diving falcons, spending a bare instant to absorb the impact with the ground before Genji shoulder-charges the door open and Hinata takes the lead.

"Out of the way!" Genji bellows, and nurses, orderlies and patients dive to the floor to avoid being trampled. They make two turns, using the walls like launching pads again. Inside the prep room adjacent to the OR, they finally come to a stop. All three of them are slightly winded and Genji seems to have difficulty catching his breath. As though Hinata just realized Sakura was there, she rounds on her and glares impatiently.

"What?" Sakura asks, tossing off her top and pulling on green medical scrubs.

"You're not supposed to be here," Hinata says firmly.

"But…!" Sakura begins to protest. Hinata shakes her head, not taking no for an answer.

"Chakra usage has been shown to cause miscarriages," she fishes around in her jacket pockets for a moment and then hands over a thick pamphlet, "Chakra depletion triggers one every time. Go home Sakura, there's nothing you can do here."

"Hyuuga-sensei!" one of the nurses shouts, "This one's vitals are dropping!" There are two ANBU in there and both of them need attention. Even 'genius' Hinata can't handle two patients simultaneously. Sakura glares furiously for a second. The world slows down and they battle with jade and silver.

Then Genji Motari claps a hand on her shoulder, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke So that's why he's out of breath so easily, and tells her "Don't worry. We've got this one."

Sakura doesn't quite believe him, and she can tell by the way Hinata's nose flares and her brows wrinkle ever-so-slightly that she doesn't either. His habit may be atrocious, but his hands are steadier than any other medic-nin she knows.

"Sensei!" the nurse pleads.

"Fine," Sakura relents, shoving the pamphlet fiercely into her pocket and begins to pull off her scrubs. Hinata nods in a pleased fashion and zips into the operating room, shadowed closely by Genji. For a while, Sakura watches them through the clear, Plexiglas screen between the prep room and the OR. Genji moves with wide eyes and a deliberate grim expression, reacting to sudden changes in his patient's condition and surprises (new places from which to bleed, for instance) with almost comical expressions. He's in his element, Sakura figures. Hinata, however, has a permanent frown on her face, having taken the worse-off of the two. She doesn't move much, dabbing unguents and scribing exacting little characters with ink and blood (mostly the victims, but occasionally her own and other compatible donors'.) She works her chakra into the muscles of her patient's throat, forcing down a noxious concoction meant to slow circulation and suspend animation. Hopefully, that will get this river of blood under control. The water's already been forced out of his lungs by the teammate that brought both ANBU back, probably saving his life before he reached the safety of Konoha. Nurses and medics-in-training have already sealed the scrapes and minor lacerations, stripped, cleaned and prepped the target areas for her. She wipes her forehead with a sterile cloth before beginning the real work and Sakura looks away, unable to watch anymore.

She storms out of the prep room. Hinata and Genji don't notice her absence. There really isn't anything she can do here, because almost all of her medical abilities are based upon the ability to use chakra, and that's out of the question now. Everything else, the mundane medical knowledge of regular doctors, can be done by the nurses. There is nothing left for her to do here. Barely three hours after she came in to work today, Sakura finds herself standing before the front desk again, asking for the sign-in sheet. She needs to sign out, because she's pregnant, she tells them. Their hard expressions (they certainly remember being snubbed earlier) soften for a moment before they exchange wicked looks and hand over the sign-in sheet. As Sakura writes down her date and time with a doctor's signature, the nurse on the right asks her if she's filled out the proper paperwork for pregnant kunoichi. Paperwork is beyond the realm of Sakura's experience and despite her anger, she is surprised enough to tell them the truth. No.

They pass her a three-page form and a pen. 'Fill this out in triplicate' they tell her. Sakura complains, asking why they need three copies of this form. The one on the left shrugs and tells her that one copy is for their personal records, the second is for the archives, and the third is for the Hokage and the Missions Office.

Halfway through filling out the third form, Sakura realizes that this little document will quite conveniently keep her legally restricted from missions for the duration of her pregnancy. It also waives her rights to training field access and ANBU munitions supplies. In other words, by signing this piece of paper, as long as Sakura is pregnant she cannot be a kunoichi. The pen snaps in her tightened fist, coating her hand with ink. It's of little concern to her as she wanders back to the desk. The nurses look up at her expectantly.

"Hey, can I take this form home with me and discuss it with the baby's father?" It's a lie, but she does it with such finesse, "Some of these questions are kind of specific…" she wheedles just enough to make them know she really means it. They look at one another, as though planning their next move, and Sakura knows she's got them.

"If you like, dear," the one on the left, the pretty one, says, "but remember to turn it in by next Thursday," Sakura smiles and nods, trying to look as cute and young as possible. It works, except for the scraggly hair and twitching right eye.

"Don't do anything illegal," the one on the right reminds as Sakura charts a brisk course away from the desk. When she's out of earshot, the nurse on the right, the wide, toad-like one, mumbles, "She took your pen." That's not true, but neither of them know better. Yet another petty grudge bored office-workers develop to while away the long hours of the day.

On the street, Sakura pulls the pamphlet out of her pocket, giving it the first bit of attention since she received it. It is a faded olive color and has pictures of smiling women holding their stomachs on the front. She turns it over, feeling the staples along the spine. That makes it more like a book than a pamphlet, she decides. Perhaps a book would be tolerable.

Opening it to the first page, she reads the title of this informational booklet: So You're Having a Baby! A Kunoichi's Guide to Her First Pregnancy. For some reason, Sakura finds this title to be so offensive and degrading that she shoves the hideous thing back into her pocket with such fierceness that the seam gives a little.

Deep down, she feels infuriated that someone thinks she should be happy.

Two hours later, Genji will have stabilized his patient enough to move him to the intensive care ward. At that point, he'll come up behind Hinata and press his hand to the back of her neck, funneling his remaining chakra reserves into the short woman. It'll feel like a cool, invigorating breeze to her tired mind and she'll come back refreshed. Eventually, he'll have to stop for fear of chakra depletion, but it will be enough to keep her going for the remaining four hours of surgery it takes her to save her patient's life. Afterward, Genji will stumble out of the operating room with a pleased look on his face, and offer to tell all the people in the waiting room (the ANBU teammate and a group of family members) the good news. Hinata, who was never very good at that part, will accept his offer and shake his hand in thanks. They work together well and she will hope that he'll be around the next time she has to make the long walk into the OR. He'll clap her on the shoulder, which will almost make her collapse from exhaustion and then they'll laugh tiredly when he proscribes going home to get some bed-rest. He'll walk out into the adulation of the waiting room and receive all the praise and thanks for their joint-miracle, but she won't mind. Hinata will stumble back into the long-term ward and collapse in a bed near the academy students. They won't bother her and she'll fall asleep wondering what Sakura's baby will look like.

In two months time, Genji will be transferred to a forward position like so many others Hinata has known and she will never see him again.

"Say that again," Naruto menaces. He is about four seconds from exploding into a big-ass ball of demonic-powered, fiery death.

Sasuke doesn't back down, "You heard it the first time, dobe." The ANBU Commander bares his teeth, sharp like an Inuzuka; his mouth seems to contain entirely too many needle-points. Sasuke is not impressed. Sharp teeth do not a demon make.

"Maybe I didn't," he growls, "you should repeat yourself. Enunciate this time, for my sake."

Sasuke stares at him for a moment, and then repeats his insult. "You're worthless, Uzumaki Naruto… sir," he sneers, "Your presence on this mission was unnecessary. The Hokage should give you missions more suited to your unique talents."

"What does that mean?"

The Hunter-nin crosses his arms casually and says, "Blowing up bridges and killing hundreds of civilians is more your style, right Fox?"

Naruto bristles, hands shaking in uncontrollable rage. Sasuke is trying to provoke me, trying to provoke me, trying to provoke me, don't let him, don't let him, don't let him, Naruto tells himself, repeating it over and over again so that the point sinks in. It doesn't work as well as he'd like.

"But then again," Sasuke continues airily, "figures that she'd want her favorite apple-polishing, half-demon to take the high-profile missions, give you a bigger reputation, instead of letting the proper authorities handle this one."

"Ah, so it all comes out now, Sasuke?" the blonde laughs bitterly, "Tired of constantly being one-upped by the 'dead last'?" he places his hands on his hips and tilts his head to the side, "Is little-bitty Uchiha angry that he's not good enough to break out on his own? Or has he forgotten what happened the last time we trusted him?"

"Tell me, Naruto," Sasuke says conversationally, but the temperature of the forest has dropped to absolute zero, "How did you get assigned to this mission?"

"Honestly Sasuke," Naruto wipes at the corner of his eye, as though brushing away an imaginary tear, "I'd rather be a million other places than here, right now."

"Did you fuck the Hokage, too?" Sasuke continues as though he had not heard Naruto, "Fucked her so good that she did anything you wanted? Women really are suckers for a good lay, you know." He brushes off his fingernails and examines the back of his hand, as though he had not a care in the world.

Naruto takes a step forward, spitting a curse at his greatest rival. His bluish chakra flares around him like a banner, itching, pleading, begging in Naruto's mind to be formed into some horribly destructive technique and blast that insolent worm where he stands. Who dares speak to me with such a tongue? Strike them down, smite them for their impudence.

So much for stealth, with a display like that, everyone within ten miles will know their exact location.

That voice, whispering in the echoes of his mind, urges him forward, so he takes another step toward his intended target. Kill him! Let him serve as an example of those who would cross me! My power is absolute, none shall disrespect it. Naruto raises a gloved hand, pointing at Sasuke's expressionless mask. It quivers slightly, twitching in his fiery anger.

"You're going to regret that, Sasuke-teme," Naruto intones.

The seal on the bridge of his nose activates, a distinctive four-part Crow seal folding out like wings across his eyelids. His eyes are heart-breaking blue. Then he blinks and they're Sharingan sanguine, the inner ring empty and swirling madly.

Sasuke's Sharingan, active constantly while on duty, picks up the strange midnight chakra leaking from his team leader's altered eyes. It spills from the corner of his eyes, traveling the length of his nose, flaring like feet at his nostrils and sharpening to a point across the center of his forehead. It looks like a spectral black crow. Sasuke knows this chakra well, having chased it for years and fought it on a half-dozen painful occasions. Neji, on the other hand, sees a foreign chakra manipulating the around Naruto's eyes, rerouting them into something more like Sasuke's own structure.

This is Uchiha Itachi's chakra. Though lacking in the disaffected nature of its original bearer, it has taken on some of Naruto's emotion, twisting in his hatred into something truly horrific. It carries all of the force and lethal intent, but with Naruto's own unnaturally seething presence instead of Itachi's quiet, invisible demeanor. The very air seems to thicken and vibrate with malice and Neji feels the hairs stand up along the back of his neck.

Their eyes lock, Naruto and Sasuke, and the Uchiha's chest tightens. Whether it is in fear or anticipation, Sasuke does not know. This feeling prevents him from drawing breath regardless. It is almost as though Naruto was seeing inside of him, looking at him with greater scrutiny than any Hyuuga could manage, and examining Sasuke's very core essence. He shivers and tries to look away, but finds himself unable.

Do it, Naruto tells himself. He asked for it and he more than deserves it.

But that would kill him… he recoils. The flame of anger grows anyway.

That is the point. He cannot be allowed to live after such an offense. Be ruthless and you will never be challenged. Be unflinching in your judgment and you will never be second-guessed. Hesitate, deliberate, worry… and they will see you as weak.

I'm not weak.

Exactly. So do what you know you have to.

In this moment, Uzumaki Naruto cannot think of a person he hates more than Uchiha Sasuke. He loses himself in reflection for a infinitesimal moment, remembering every slight, every insult, and every wound. The hot flash of pain lancing through his lung as the Chidori strikes home. The look in Kakashi's eyes when Sasuke succeeded on a mission. The way Sakura dropped him the second Sasuke returned two years ago. The despair of being abandoned for a snake. The fury at his abuse of Sakura. The flame grows into a raging bonfire of emotion, barely contained by Naruto's restraint, his face and hands shaking in rage.

The word useless floats in his mind. Sasuke flinches slightly, expecting a blow that never landed. That small bit of movement provokes Naruto into action and his delicate control snaps like a twig.

He attacks. His fingers slash the air apart and the world ripples like a great invisible force is bending it into a thin line, a razor-sharp line. To Sasuke, a blade of barely-visible chakra trails along behind Naruto's hand, leaping from his outstretched fingers like a handful of shuriken but with a speed even the Yellow Flash could not have mustered. He cannot predict its movement with the Sharingan, because it is not entirely physical, nor does he believe it to be real and threatening. Even at his most powerful, Uchiha Sasuke has underestimated Uzumaki Naruto, something he has sworn he would never do again.

He stands over a broken man, somehow still breathing despite living through possibly the most powerful killing technique known to shinobi. But then, Naruto thinks, he's survived it before and he'll probably survive it again. May as well test that theory. His bright blue Rasengan spins up in one palm, thanks to that sweet training ero-sennin gave him and he holds it over his head like the Sword of Damocles, ready to plunge into his opponent's unprotected stomach. The shirt has already been blasted open by this technique and the burned skin is knitting together quickly and quietly before Naruto's very eyes. The Akatsuki cloak is in tatters, little better than confetti anymore.

"I want to ask you something, Kabuto-san…" he whispers, barely above the rasping growl of his killing technique, "Are you afraid of me now?"

"What?" Kabuto spits blood out against the cracked flagstones and tries to get his feet underneath him. Naruto plants his ANBU boot deeply into the mostly healed gut wound, sending his fallen enemy crashing to the ground once more. The white-haired ninja curls up into a fetal position, cradling his stomach in a vain attempt to make the hurting stop. This Naruto is different. He's not playing around, he's not waiting, and he's not pulling and punches. He's preempting Kabuto's abilities, pushing him further and further onto the defensive, his clones are everywhere at once, forcing him to sacrifice his allies and minions…

"Are you afraid of me now?" and he's speaking quietly, with furious purpose and lethal intent. He's not the idiot boy of his cards anymore, but a true warrior, an ANBU, the Elite of the Elite, "Because you once told me you'd never be frightened of me. But I'm going to ask you again, just to be sure. So… are you afraid of me now?" He grasps the collar of Kabuto's shirt, hoisting him from the cold and shattered ground and looming over him. The sight of a fox-masked ANBU fills his vision and Kabuto struggles, weakly jabbing a kunai deeply into Naruto's wrist, slicing through arteries, veins, and tendons. Naruto does not flinch, glowering at him with two burning red eyes like twin suns from the face of a long-eared kitsune.

"Yes," Kabuto bawls, shaking from exertion, his hands forming the seals for a massive suicide technique.

He never finishes it. Naruto's hand drops, thrusting the Rasengan into his bared throat. For just a second, the ANBU can feel the resistance of Kabuto's weak chakra against his ravening sphere of destruction, and then it is swept away as he can no longer maintain his throat's integrity and it gives way in a burst of pale flesh and crimson. Hot and sticky liquid splashes against his armor vest. Naruto does not release the Rasengan until his arm has passed through Kabuto's throat to the elbow, completely obliterating his jugular, esophagus, trachea, and spinal column. The head lolls sickeningly, like a rag doll that has been through the mill. He is coated in blood, mostly from Kabuto but some from those who barred his way. Tearing his arm free, he looks at his hand in wonder, shock, and not a little awe. Somewhere, deep inside, he feels gratified, glorified, but mostly sated.

He likes the killing.

Naruto recoils, repulsed by his memories. No! I will not kill out of hatred or anger again! And with that, he slashes his fingers backward.

Sasuke is frozen in place, unable to breathe or even dodge as the razor thin ripple slices though the air toward his throat. His is telling his legs to move, to leap away or have his knees give out to drop beneath the encroaching blade but he cannot. His knees are locked and his back is ramrod-straight. He'd probably sweat if there were any time for it but as there isn't, all he has time to do is grit his teeth and slam shut his eyes. Because of this, he does not see it as the impossibly slim line of force wrenched off course by an unseen hand. It slashes past his face and he can feel the indescribable pull in this… thing's… wake, like ocean undertow.

It shears cleanly through a thousand-year-old oak without a sign of resistance. The tree slowly begins to topple, severed at neck height. It crumbles apart into chunks before it hits the ground, that thing having shattered something critical, and then explodes into a million flaming splinters. The stored chakra of the tree has ignited and detonated. Naruto watches it fragment into innumerable glittering, jewel-bright motes of chakra that fall to earth like shooting stars. Tenten, who has been here all of five seconds, covers the slits of her mask with her hands, intent on protecting her eyes from burning wood bits. Kiba throws himself atop Akamaru, shielding his companion with his body. Neji simply spins up a Kaiten. If Sasuke has noticed that he is riddled with splinters that keep smoldering, he does not react. Most of them consume themselves and burn out before they touch ground, but a few manage to ignite dry forest brush.

The air is stale and dead now.

This is it. Sasuke's moment is about to happen. He doesn't dare to blink. His ear bleeds freely where that thing severed a thin slice through the shell of his ear lobe. It is such a clean cut that Sasuke cannot feel it.

Naruto slumps tiredly. It's been a long mission, yes, and he hasn't gotten enough sleep lately, but something is different about this. All the fight has been taken out of him, his threatening posture gone. To him, he's proved his point and demonstrated his superiority, so there's no reason for him to continue this dance.

You've failed! Your one chance to eliminate your foe without repercussion is gone. Weak and foolish… you haven't changed a bit, have you?

No, Naruto thinks, I'm not going to kill someone - even Sasuke - over insults. I'm not that reckless anymore. So he turns and walks away. He doesn't want to fight with Sasuke. There's no reason for them to be fighting, really, they're both Leaf-nin, they fight for the same cause. They shouldn't let a little thing like a woman come between them; they're on a mission. They need to be professional. This is not the proper venue to vent these frustrations.

"We'll finish this later, Sasuke," Naruto says and the fatigue is clearly audible in his voice. He sounds bitter and exhausted, as though he's walked a thousand miles today or aged a thousand years in this moment.

"We'll finish this now," Sasuke growls, stomping toward the ANBU Commander. Don't you fucking dare! Don't you turn your back on me, Uzumaki Naruto! Who the fuck do you think you are to turn away from me? He whips out his hands, tears off his fingerless gloves and twirls his fingers in preparation for hand seals.

But Naruto is no longer watching him. The hatred and rage has drained from him, leaving him feeling an empty pit above his stomach and a cold chill down his spine, the feeling of unbridled power. Whatever he has done has taken those away as well. What have I done? I struck out with… just like… he doesn't think the name, but he imagines the grey-haired antagonist of his youth and holds in a shudder. Something is wrong. He's never used it like this before. Naruto has struck out in anger, hatred, and pain, with the full intent of hurting someone. This is different. This is…

Sasuke, still oblivious to the agonizing pain of a thousand fiery splinters all along his back, lunges, hands forming familiar seals. Do it right now, he thinks. This is the moment, this is what he's been waiting for. Naruto's shield of invulnerability has been lowered, and he looks weak, fatigued, exhausted as he walks gingerly away. Everything is clear to the Uchiha progeny, his whole life has been leading up to this moment. The death of his clan, his betrayal of Konoha, Naruto's battles with Itachi, joining the Hunter-nin, and finally this mission, all of it has compounded into this single instant, three seconds in length, for Sasuke to have his revenge.

The harsh blue-white of his technique lights the clearing, but he's more than halfway to his target and Naruto hasn't noticed him coming. His hand shudders with the contained chakra, screaming 'Chi Chi Chi' as he focuses more chakra into his feet and leaps faster.

There are screams, Kiba is stumbling to his feet and trying to intercept Sasuke, but he'll never make it in time. Neji is shouting Naruto's name. There is a flash of tan clothing, orange leg warmers, and crimson hair as Gaara of the Desert interposes himself between Sasuke and Naruto. It's of no matter to Sasuke, who is aware of Gaara's movements and does not slow his manic charge. Gaara crosses his arms and draws his chakra to reinforce his flesh, perhaps making it strong enough to resist the Chidori. Instead of leading with the killing technique, Sasuke leaps, hooks his toes around the block and then kicks off the inside of the Sand-nin's guard. He lofts over Gaara's head, twirls in the air, mere feet from Naruto's unprotected back, and lands running.

Nothing can stop him now. A kunai parts his hair, drawing a thin line of blood across his scalp. She has misjudged the location of his skull in his messy mass of raven hair. A gust of air shatters the ground beneath his feet, but he does not slow. The Kazekage did not aim for the lethal attack and in her haste, failed to aim at all really. Being diplomatic does that sometimes.

Naruto hears it, the sound of inevitability, the 'Chi Chi Chi' of the Copy-Ninja Sharingan Kakashi's only original technique, the Chidori. Lost in his thoughts as he was, he had never thought for a moment that Sasuke would strike him in the back, and certainly not with a lethal attack.

'Dodge,' a dark and silky voice whispers in his ear. It sounds inherently untrustworthy, so Naruto ignores it and turns on his heels.

Sasuke is bearing down on him, lightning-coated fingertips less than a meter away from him. He has the barest fraction of an instant to take in the scene, when his mind is blank and completely without expectations. From the hollows of the blank mask, the Hunter-nin's Sharingan eyes glow like two hellish coals. He has caught Naruto's countermove, the dodge he should have performed, and is already moving to intercept. The Chidori is held high, higher than Sasuke normally raises it, because he's striking for a different part of the body against an entirely different type of enemy. In the back of his mind, he knows that he's survived one Chidori in the chest, so another wouldn't be enough to take him down. Even the throat is a little bit circumspect, given that he's already survived having his throat slit on three separate occasions. Sasuke is aiming for the head, striking with an overhand blow, intending to puncture the relatively soft cranium and flash-vaporize the brain. If that doesn't kill Uzumaki Naruto, nothing will.

Sasuke's face is wild with triumph and anticipation behind his expressionless mask. He'd laugh if he had time for it, but as he doesn't he'll hold off until Naruto is on the ground and dead.

It's over in a second. Not a one of the observers sees a clear picture of the impact, but the sound of the Chidori's detonation destroys the fragile hope they hold. Between them, all the details are observed and it will be long hours of discussion and deliberation before they come to an agreement on it. Strong fingers wrapping around a wrist and pushing; a body is curving backward away from the blow; Sasuke stumbling a few steps beyond his target, hand no longer blazing. His aim was fouled by Naruto's hand; he missed.

But not enough. Fingertips touch the edge of a mask for just a second and that's more than enough. The fox face disintegrates instantly, the left half falling away smoldering. The Chidori's envelope, a veritable corona of blue light, scrapes along the right side of Naruto's face, peeling back the skin on his cheek and blackening the nose and lips. Teeth are blown into the back of his head, lacerating his throat. The muscles of his face, ever expressive, are stripped away. An eye explodes. His right ear is simply vaporized as Sasuke's palm cups the ear lobe in passing. Fluids flash-boil and rupture delicate membranes and bones, completely ruining Naruto's balance and hearing. The skin of his throat is torn away to reveal a shattered trachea and severed vocal chords, all charred and worthless. What is left of his wild blonde hair is burning.

Naruto topples backward, his body collapsing boneless. The only sound in the clearing is him hitting the forest floor. He lands on his side, arms and legs positioned unnaturally. His face is segmented, the left half twisted in shock and pain while the right half is a mess of stripped bone and ruined sinew. The blank Sharingan fades. One blue eye stares in horror into the distance as his shattered jaw dangles limply from the unharmed side of his mouth.

He isn't breathing.

No one else does.

Author's Notes:

I am beginning to realize that not everyone is reading my fanfiction in the way that I imagine. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that and you (the reader) are more than free to do whatever you like, perhaps explaining my purpose would better serve everyone. I write this fanfic, Asinine Rationalizations, much like a tragedy but at heart it is a satirical black comedy. Hopefully we can all put the obvious joke in the previous sentence behind us. This fanfic, in my opinion, is probably enjoyed most when everyone reading it 'gets it' or is 'in on the joke' and I think that not everyone does. This is my fault, either I'm not writing with enough clarity or I'm trying too much by not putting everything in its proper place and order, I don't know. I have come to the decision that I will 'let you in' on the secret at the end, or wherever the hell I choose to stop. 'It's not you, it's me' really, because I am far from normal and my perspective is quite skewed. So I'll tell you what I think at the end and you can decide for yourself if I hit the mark I was aiming for.
However, I will take this moment to engage in a little bit of double-standardizing. Whatever you think is the meaning or purpose of my story, that's your decision and I am by no means disallowing your right to think for yourself. I have no problem with differing opinions on my work, as long as they do not stem from misunderstanding. I'm just trying to make sure that everyone 'gets it' and derives enjoyment in the manner I intend. If you don't like it, well, that's your prerogative and it's cool. I'm not going to change the intent behind my story just as you're not going to change your opinion and it's not right of me to ask you to.
Point, point, point… where was it… oh, I remember now: Your opinion is your own. Make up your mind, because I have neither the inclination nor desire to make it up for you, but I'm a relatively nice guy and there are many people who are more than willing to tell you what to think or say. If you don't like my story or the point I'm striving to make with it, cool. Stop reading and do something else. It's your decision. If you like it, that's cool as well.

This is the longest I've ever gone without using the word 'fuck' in my author's notes. Fuck that shit.

Other business: I'll open up to some review responses. I've always like the idea of having a chaptered story if for the sole reason that I can respond to reviews. With that said, I'll give it a shot now.
-shinnotooni: Thank you. Perhaps you are the first person that's truly understood what I am striving for in Naruto. As for your mention of controlling and narcissism, I'd like to note that those are both self-deprecating and wholly internalized. That alone makes him almost completely the opposite of Sasuke, who takes out his anger and aggression by punishing the people closest to him, where as Naruto takes it out on himself through self-delusion.
Shikamaru: I don't like Shikamaru because I think people give him too much credit. In my estimation, he's not at all worthy of his cult-favorite status and certainly not worthy of the accolades Kishimoto has handed him. It comes down to this: Any ninja, regardless of rank, that sits down and closes his eyes to think in the middle of an exam fails automatically. Sitting down is a sign of defeat, conceding the victory. Closing your eyes is just stupid. Shikamaru should not have received the Chuunin vest because he was completely unable to deliver. As ninja actually have to succeed at missions, not just go 90 of the distance and then give in, he is unsuited to be a leader in any fashion. Perhaps most important and sinister is the thought that Shikamaru wasn't willing to give it his all. He wasn't really interested in fighting or passing the exam, or being a Chuunin in the first place. I certainly would want to follow the commands of a guy who has a reputation for giving up when the going got tough, no matter how 'intelligent' he's perceived to be.
Gaara: 1) Post-Chuunin exam emotional 180. 2) Essentially an ex-villain who's purpose is exhausted. 3) Poorly developed to be a Vegeta or Piccolo style villain-gone-hero, which is a tired concept in long-running anime anyway. 4) Why in God's name would the Sand make him Kazekage? They fear and hate him. 5) Part 2 Gaara shatters the power-envelope and crushes any and all hope I had that stealth and cleverness would 'come back into style' as it were. God forbid ninja act like ninja. 6) Most prevalent, the Fangirls.

-Calyx, Death by Wasabi, Hujin, Jaky: Thanks for your reviews. I had a page worth of response typed up to you, Calyx, but then I realized I was just being a condescending asshole and you don't deserve that from me, so I deleted it. In regards to Naruto and his seeming 'perfection' I will say that this is unintentional. While I don't believe that I've made a mistake in my portrayal, I do think something might be wrong. Perhaps we're just not communicating well. But I will ask this: How many of Naruto's 'tiny faults' are more than just childhood naivety and Kishimoto being cute? How many of them will Naruto have to grow beyond to achieve his ultimate goal and underlying drive (becoming Hokage?) Almost all of them. He'll have to change radically as a character and I've put him halfway there. It's not a pleasant journey by any means, and Naruto's walking the path in essentially reverse order to someone else's drum-beat, but that's all I'll say about it.
Also, perhaps I'm not being clear enough with my POVs, in that some characters' admiration of Naruto is rose-tinting the whole thing, I don't know. If you don't like it or continue to disagree, you're more than welcome to stop reading and I won't be offended.

-Blue Jeans: You mean Sasuke's a masochist, right? Not sadist? Although… sadomasochist works out really well. Sure I'll let Sakura grow up. :chuckles: She'll certainly have to with what I've got planned for her. As for Tsunade, I don't give her a lot of credit as a leader and her internal monologue is foreshadowing something a bit more vicious later on.

-Illjwamh: Man, I'll never be sure if I spelled that correctly. Anyway, I rather like using Sasuke as a plot device as well. He's sort of two-dimensional to me, and very reactionary. Animalistic, primal, I guess. Poke him, and he fights back. Take something from him, and he'll respond with violence to retrieve it. Sasuke, in my mind, works in violence like lesser men work in oils and watercolors. Very id. I'm going to give him a bit more importance, because his relevance is orthogonal to Naruto's change.

-GC: Ha! I'm still alive! And I hear you're in Japan. Damn my disappearing act. I hope that I can hear all about it when you return. Do I have some stories to tell you! You'll be so very... well, probably ashamed of knowing me, really.

-Black/CityIdiot: Good to know that people actually like this stuff enough to read it more than once. I'd like to have a fanclub, but for those of you who might be reading this and considering such an idea, it would probably be better for my ego if you didn't. It's way to large already.

-JohnnyG: Yes, it happened. No, I'm not going to cover it in anything other than remembrances. Leaves most of it up to your imagination and takes the burden off of me. :waggles tongue at JohnnyG: Enjoy!

-blisblop: Dude, I have no idea what to make of you. I think you, out of all of my reviewers, might have the best grasp of the story, which confuses the hell out of me because I have no idea what you're saying sometimes. There are some things you mention that aren't really relevant, but I'm not sure what to make of some parts of your review. So do you like my story now, because your first review seemed to indicate otherwise? As for the Hunters and Itachi, I figure they either couldn't or the Hokage believed that killing Itachi wasn't worth the losses it would incur. The boy/man killed the entire Uchiha clan in one night. They're gonna need quite a few Hunters and most likely few of them will return.
Also, why use your own offspring when you have a pair of completely usable, already-trained ninja like Sasuke and Naruto? Itachi would have to have offspring first (something I simply cannot see this story's incarnation doing) and then training them to the exacting standards he needs. Sasuke and Naruto already have the drive needed to succeed and are farther along in training. His own offspring may not. Not worth the risk. Most importantly, Sasuke and Naruto are willing to do it on their own, because not even Itachi is omnipotent.

-Everybody Else: Hey, thanks for reviewing. Sometimes, I wonder if anyone is reading this at all or if I'm too intimidating to get reviewers. If I didn't respond to you with the level of detail you expected, my apologies, I must not have read something in your review that demanded a response. I'll try harder next time.

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Intermission B: ANBU; A Return to Basic Principles
Naruto half-sits, gaping at his examiner as though he's never quite seen anything like him.
"Come get something to eat with me," the hedgehog-masked examiner says, "then I'll tell you how you did."
If he fails me, Naruto thinks, I'm sticking him with the bill.