"Beyond Hearts and Minds"

I do not own Naruto. I do not own Potamos. I do not own any great quantity of money or property.

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This is a break from my hiatus that was induced by graduate school, internships, and job searches. Yes, that's right. I have a life outside of fanfiction. Does anybody still remember this story?

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"Quotations"

'Thoughts'

(( Flashback ))

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Chapter 49: The Illiterate and the Inarticulate


Potamos warily glanced at the quiet, breathing form on the futon. Gaara looked peaceful, or at least as peaceful as a person could look with a thick layer of black eyeliner.

The purple-haired girl poked his cheek. There was no reaction. She let off a quiet sigh. She crept to the dresser, and took a soft hold to the jeweled mirror resting upon it. Potamos turned again, and padding on her knees, she approached the corner of the room where Gaara's backpack lay.

Potamos felt a pulse. It was energy from the jeweled mirror in her hand. Satisfied, the demoness stuck it in a knot of her sarong, and moved closer to Gaara's backpack. Her fingers slipped in and grabbed a slim handle.

Potamos drew out the second mirror. She flipped it in her palm. Two rings of gold and silver lapped around the octagonal glass. Despite being an old artifact, the girl saw that it was abstract, simple, and beautifully clean.

The water-demon looked in its dark reflection. Her pupils turned into thin lines. A slow grin spread on her face, exposing canine teeth. 'Jackpot.'

A shadow drenched the room. Potamos shifted her head, wondering if a cloud had blocked the moonlight. An avalanche of sand blocked her scream. The mass poured, crushing her body against the wall, until the full pressure caused the wall to burst. Potamos saw a glimpse of the night sky before the sand fully entombed her. It was the first sensation she ever had of drowning.

A shirtless Gaara drew up. He perched on the corner of the floor — or what had been the floor — studying the wreck he had created.

A grunt escaped the Kazekage. Of course the dancer had been after the cursed mirror. Why else would any pretty girl hook up with a freak like him?

An enormous clump exploded, followed with a shower of mingled sand and water. Potamos stood on the wet earth, sending up a very annoyed look at the redhead. She flung off some wet sand from the octagonal mirror. "That," she huffed, "wasn't very nice of you!"

The Kazekage lifted his arm, beckoning drier sand from the street. "Return the mirror."

She smirked back. "What if I don't wanna?"

A wave of sand rose around Gaara, and struck at her.

Small and agile, Potamos sidestepped away from the contorting arms of sand. Whatever came too close to her, she blasted away with a jet of water. Her foot found solid concrete. A shadow bathed her form. Potamos looked up, only to see a mass of wet sand dripping above. With the flick of a wrist, she willed her water to separate from Gaara's sand. A shower streamed in the air towards her. Potamos erased her presence into the leaping wave. The remaining dry sand poured to the ground.

A chill nipped at Gaara's back. He spun within the dust cloud, and briefly saw a spear with glinting cat eyes. There was a crystalline crack.

The demoness took a quick glance over him. The Kazekage glared back at Potamos, who now held an icicle with a broken tip at his chest. New stone armor covered Gaara's torso, powdered with ice crystals from her frozen spear. She disappeared in a frothy wave.

Potamos found a bamboo fence to balance on. She judged it to be was a good distance away from Gaara.

The dust settled. The purple-haired demon turned around, and her jaw dropped at what she saw.

Her jeweled mirror now rested comfortably in Gaara's hand.

"When—?" Potamos was stunned, then annoyed. "You — hey!"

The Kazekage squeezed his grip on the jeweled mirror. Its aura told him that it was yet another fragment of the Yata no Kagami, the sacred mirror. "You steal mine. I steal yours."

A noise pattered from the inn.

The two shared a brief moment of panic in being discovered, before cloaking themselves in their respective elements. Potamos splashed away, not leaving even a drip of water on the ground. And Gaara's sand was just sand.

By the time the two reappeared on the other side of the fence, the bartender was already shouting at the destruction. "What the hell is this? This will take forever to—"

The innkeeper turned quiet. There were scraping noises, and the clasping shut of a door. Gaara cast a questioning glance at Potamos.

"I left some gold coins on top of my dresser," Potamos said. "That should help him renovate those moldy rooms." She gave a cute smile. "Although the mold originally came because I had brought extra moisture to the house."

"Oh," said Gaara. He then shot another mountain of sand towards her.

Potamos jumped backward. She was pleased; she was getting used to the attack. Then mid-flight she noticed the attack was not a shower of sand, but a cloud of needles. 'He can solidify sand into weapons?' She willed a column of water out of the ground, enveloping her body.

Gaara cursed. 'A water-shield.'

Inside the water column, mud flecked onto Potamos. She was stunned. Gaara's sandstone had actually penetrated her barrier! Despite using the element of Earth, which was believed to be high on defense but low on speed, Gaara's agility as a ninja made him anything but a boring opponent. In fact, something was telling Potamos that she ought to run.

Potamos let fall the slab of water. 'He's not a bit the innocent boy of several hours ago.' She paused in thought. 'Even though I was the one who took his innocence.'

Gaara raised his arm, renewing his grip on the mountain of sand. His eyes glared murder. "Sabakuky—"

"Could we deal?" Potamos blurted out.

Gaara stared at her.

Potamos smiled back, and twiddled her fingers together. She hoped the gesture made her look cuter. It sure worked for Hinata.

The Kazekage's fingers twitched at her stalling. "Speak."

"Why don't we keep it like this?" Potamos suggested.

He raised a smooth eyebrow in response.

Potamos waved his octagonal mirror. "You had this wrapped in wards," Potamos said. "So it's obvious that you never wanted to look at it, or touch it." She pointed to her jewel-encrusted mirror in Gaara's hands. "And that gives me the heebie jeebies. So... how about you have it?"

Gaara blinked again, the only indication of his shock. "A trade, you suggest."

She nodded. "Tit for tat!" Potamos burbled. "Just like an hour ago!"

Gaara was highly suspicious of the girl's intentions. "Why are you bargaining a piece of the Sacred Mirror for another?"

"Haven't you looked at it?" Potamos whined. He glared back. "Okay, okay! Just take a teensy glance in the jeweled mirror. I won't attack you, I promise!"

The Kazekage was silent. He did not trust her, but her trade offer seemed to hold some reason. "Don't move," Gaara snapped. His hands folded together, allowing him to keep the jeweled mirror dangled on his thumb. After a set of seals, plates of sand rose from the ground, encasing him. With the protective dome complete, Gaara jammed two fingers in his eye socket. Part of his vision locked onto Potamos.

Outside the stone structure, the purple-haired demoness looked curiously at the floating eyeball.

Gaara turned his other eye to the jeweled mirror. Its surface was cloudy. As Gaara stared at it, it slowly began to clear up. Gaara saw himself in its surface. But it was no reflection. It was his profile, looking over the Hidden Village of Sand. The villagers were cheering in his direction, sending up smiles and expressions of adoration.

It was heartwarming. And creepy.

Gaara yanked the fingers from his eye socket. His stone shelter fell, and he almost snarled at Potamos. "What the hell is this?"

Potamos snorted. "That fragment of the Sacred Mirror reveals the people who look up to you, or are happy in your protection." She brushed a hand over her yellow eyes. "The people who see me like that... Well..." She fluffed up her hair, and gave a cheery smile at the fragment she held. "Anywho, this mirror-part that you brought is splendiferous! It makes me look like a demon of the Seventh Hell!" She gave a squeal which made Gaara cringe.

"How can I trust you to not abuse it?" Gaara asked.

Potamos blinked. "Huh?"

The young Kazekage caught her confused expression. It took Gaara a moment to realize that Potamos only knew the mirror fragment as a toy, not a chakra source. In fact, throughout his travels, he himself had found no way to use his own mirror fragment as a source of chakra.

Gaara thought it over. He was slightly curious of what the final form of the Yata no Kagami would look like, were all the mirror's pieces to be gathered. But that would only bring a greater responsibility to possess and guard it. No, it was safest to keep the fragments as far away from each other as possible.

"Fine."

Potamos looked shocked for a moment. "Really?" Her yellow eyes began to glisten with what Gaara was sure were alligator tears. "Really really?"

"Get out of my sight," Gaara snapped.

The water-demon nodded vigorously. Potamos stuck the octagonal mirror into her golden metallic top, and ran on the edge of the bamboo fence. Her red sarong flared behind her.

Gaara rubbed his forehead.

He needed another cup of coffee.


Naruto's jaw was slack. Before him was a desk piled with at least twenty fat scrolls.

"Make sure you read all of them." Neji flung open a window, allowing sunshine and air to stream in the room. "They're essential to understanding our clan customs."

"I should be studying ninjutsu, not this." Naruto was irritable. "More importantly, we should be looking for Hinata."

"Hinata-sama is doing fine. She notified us through her shikigami, remember?" Neji picked one of a few books that were scattered around a lamp's base. He opened one, suspicious of why it had not been stacked neatly in the bookshelves. Among the pages, he saw the name Naruto. Not just once, but several times. It was the main character of the book. "Ominous," said Neji before slamming it shut.

"What?"

"Never mind." Neji dropped a feather duster front of Naruto, apparently expecting him to clean the library as well as read it. "It's tedious, but all of it must be learned. You are a candidate to be the clan's secretary of the seals, as well as the future spouse of its heir." He glared at Naruto's grumpy look. "Your family name is going to change to Hyuuga. Get that into your head."

The blond shinobi coughed when another scroll released a dust cloud. Neji slid the door shut, leaving Naruto alone with a dim lamp and a stack of scrolls. Naruto sighed. 'I might as well start reading now.' He pulled open a scroll.

'Squiggly lines.' Naruto made a face. He hated the cursive writing of old. The long-dead nobles had pursued the art of calligraphy, in the hopes that every word they wrong was artistic and spontaneous. To Naruto, their handwriting looked like frog entrails.

Naruto stood up. He decided that he needed to calm down. He could figure it out, really.

He put a hand to the wall's surface, intending to stretch some shoulder muscles.

A burning sensation spread on his palm. Naruto yelped, and drew back his hand. He stared at the white wall.

The blond squinted, and saw two shades of white. The slightly darker one was drawn in, forming a sort of mandala similar to the Buddhist priests in the water country.

Naruto rolled a small sphere of chakra between his fingers. It spun into a small Rasengan. He then flicked it to the wall. Upon contact, the Rasengan dissolved into strands of blue chakra. A blue pattern flashed across the surface, before turning a plain white again.

A chakra-draining seal.

Naruto closed his eyes. 'Just perfect,' he thought, 'they sealed me in a room to kill me.'


Sasuke's eyes snapped open. The room was bathed in a bluish light, a signal of early dawn. He felt strangely more alert. Curled up next to him was Sakura.

Sakura stirred awake next to him. She looked rather adorable with her face groggy. "Did you have to sneak into my futon?"

He shrugged. "I thought you'd be comfortable by now."

Sakura rolled away from him. "Comfort is always a sacrifice in duty."

The Uchiha frowned. "Sakurako," he said, as if her pseudonym was an admonition. "What is it about me that you so despise?"

Before Sakura could give a reply, Sasuke left the room.

The proud Uchiha strode down the hallway, angry. He could not go back to sleep, even if he had wanted to. Besides, she had been the one who had rolled into his bed while asleep!

He headed to the exercise grounds.

Once outside, his fist cracked a supporting pole. A few splinters penetrated his knuckles. The sensation of pain snapped him out of his rage. He did not understand why Sakura's words had annoyed him. Sure, they had agreed to play the parts of a lord and his resentful wife. But he also knew that Sakura was using it more often than needed to distance herself.

Then he realized something. For the whole of yesterday, Sasuke had never thought of his parents. Not even once. He had used some of his time to investigate Lord Suisei, but it had all been done for the sake of Sakura's safety.

Going back further, it somehow amazed him that he had traveled with Naruto and Sai in the search for two girls. Why had he been doing such a thing, anyway? What about his dangerous and unstable brother in the Akatsuki?

Sasuke then remembered Sakura's hypnosis in the cavern. Although she had performed it only at his request for sleep, it still was proof that she posed a danger to his own goals. Her abilities would drive lesser men to their deaths.

Sasuke grabbed a sword from the rack, and approached a stuffed dummy. He forced himself to imagine it as his brother.

He swung. The head of straw spilled. Sasuke looked at the mess. He highly doubted Itachi would stand so motionless to have his head hacked off. Therefore, this exercise was in vain. A depressive gloom overcame Sasuke.

Sasuke returned the sword to the rack. Cutting something at least gave him some release. He could not to produce any chakra-instilled moves in the court, at least not in the open. Several other lords were already practicing their various movements and attacks in the exercise grounds.

The Uchiha heard footsteps, and turned around. It was Suisei. Sasuke gave a short bow. "Suisei-dono," Sasuke said.

"Do not hold a sword with such anger." The graying man took a bokken from the rack, and motioned Sasuke to copy. "I see that you were taught free style?"

Sasuke attempted a smile. A smile was a sign of embarrassment among the upper class. 'Smile,' Sasuke ordered himself.

Suisei raised an eyebrow. "Do you need to excuse yourself, Kokugami?"

Sasuke dropped his forced expression. "No, Suisei-dono." Sasuke put his focus on the sword racks. "Forgive me, but in real swordsmanship —"

"You don't have much experience in the art, have you?" said Suisei.

"I've only been through a few encounters." Sasuke walked loosely on the story of the real Lord Kokugami, who was now hiding in fear of Lord Suisei. The real Kokugami had been born as a lowly servant. But when his lord could not beget children, neither through a wife nor hired concubines, Kokugami became heir to his estate.

Lord Suisei combed his salt-and-pepper beard with his fingers. Sasuke noticed that his fingernails were cut to a point. "Others speak much of you, Kurogami," said Suisei. "You were denied admission to kendō lessons, because of your status as a servant." The lord's eyes crinkled with calculated mirth. "But you had the last laugh. You even took the niece of the kendō school as your wife."

"She is less than amused by the arrangement," said Sasuke. That was the only piece in the puzzle that Sasuke had actually made up. Yes, there had been a kendō school which had rejected Kokugami while he was a servant, but its owner never had a niece.

"Hm." The old man Suisei positioned his feet. "Try to hit me with what you learned in the streets."

Sasuke renewed his grip on the bokken. If the old man asked for it, he would give it.

Sasuke flung the wooden sword. He modified the rough yet effective moves he had picked up from the slums of Otogakure. His performance was intentionally loose. Sasuke did not want to rough up an elderly man who reminded him of a great-uncle.

There was a crack. A bokken clattered to the ground.

It took a moment for Sasuke to realize that the fallen bokken was his.

Proud laughter came from Suisei. "Kokugami-kun, if you let me win on purpose because I'm an old geezer," — his wooden sword lightly poked Sasuke's chin — "your head is still lopped off."

Sasuke fought a scowl. He had let his defense down against an aging feudal lord. He firmed his grip after picking up the bokken. He swung again, this time with more speed and force. The gray-haired lord moved his bokken to parry each strike. "WEAK!" Suisei raged, pushing the raven-haired youth back. "You are weak! Foolish!"

Blood rushed up Sasuke's at the echo of his brother's words. His reaction time stepped up to pace, and Sasuke felt a new high with the exercise. The old man was more than Sasuke had expected.

"You don't have what it takes!" Suisei threw aside his bokken, and took a crouching stance.

Sasuke kept his sword moving, not caring in the least that he was using a weapon against an empty-handed senior. It was a wooden sword anyway; it was Suisei's choice for discarding his own.

Suisei's nailed fingers wrapped around Sasuke's wrist, clamping over several tendons. Sasuke lost his grip, and he felt his arm wrenched around. Undeterred, Sasuke aimed a punch with his left hand — the old man threw that strike off as well.

Sasuke swiftly kicked upward. His rising dragon had never yet failed him. Suisei grabbed Sasuke's ankle, and threw him across the dusty ground.

Not losing balance, Sasuke skidded back on his feet. The lord advanced on him. The young ninja managed to parry or evade Suisei's blurring fists.

A hard blow suddenly was delivered into the ninja's stomach.

Sasuke's knees hit the ground. A cough of pain escaped him.

Laughter and applause came from behind. Sasuke turned his head, and saw the entire male court. He felt a bruise on his abdomen and another on his pride.

"Are you okay?"

The raven-haired ninja tilted his head. Sakura held a towel for him. Sasuke ignored it.

It sunk into him: Uchiha Sasuke had lost to an old man.

Lost.

Lost?

"Wait," Sasuke murmured, "I can't lose."

Sakura raised an eyebrow, before slapping the towel into Sasuke's face.

If he had won the duel, Sasuke could have almost thanked Sakura; she had soaked in the cloth in cold water. But he was in no mood to be grateful, because he had lost. "He's just a samurai," he whispered as she wiped his forehead, "I should have—"

"My lord." Her tone a loving lilt, but the twitch in the corner of Sakura's mouth was enough to shut him up. "Stop being a country bumpkin, thinking that there are no good fighters in the city." She drew close to his ear for a low hush. "Don't underestimate their martial arts, especially in weapons. Tenten's descendants come from around here."

Sasuke gave a scowl. He wiped his forehead with the towel.

"Why in the world is that doing here in a man's area?"

Sasuke scowled again. Bokken in hand, he started after the minor lord. Sakura touched his shoulder. "Wait," she said. Sakura stepped where he had intended to go, and faced the lord on her own. "Sir, are you asking me for a duel?"

The man was startled. "O-of course not!" He forced a laugh. "I would never hurt a lady of court."

"Oh, but I do believe my honor is at stake," Sakura said, her voice in a calm but firm tone. "I too am samurai." The low buzz around them alerted Sakura that she succeeded in the don't-give-a-damn reputation of the new bride Sakurako. "You referred to me as 'that'," Sakura said, "and a daughter of a dōjō cannot allow such an insult to go unanswered."

The lord glanced towards Sasuke, as if hoping he would berate his wife. Instead, Sasuke only looked at him, and tilted his head back towards Sakura. The confused lord then looked at Lord Suisei, as if begging for assistance.

"A match between you and Korogami's wife, it shall be," Suisei said, fingering his graying beard. "A match without bloodshed, of course. Use bokken."

The lesser lord appeared as if Suisei had betrayed him. "Very well," the lord said. He took a wooden sword and a protective mask from the rack, as did Sakura.

Sakura's brow creased as she went into position. The man before her was not looking at her directly in the eye. In this world of dueling, avoiding eye contact was polite.

Suisei threw down his palm. "Go!"

Sakura raised her bokken to block the incoming attack. The opponent's movement was a bit eccentric, as if his nerves were slightly unhinged. She even felt a bit sorry for him. It was obvious he had insulted Sakura only to gain a duel with Sasuke. She parried several attacks, and struck his right shoulder.

"One!" The old man Suisei smiled at the young woman's performance. "Position yourselves."

Sakura noticed that now the whole courtyard seemed focused on the match. She went back down to the starting position.

"Second round — go!"

Sakura decided to begin on the defensive this time. A strike from above. Left. Right. Upper left. Each move was readable enough to be blocked. Finally, she shifted her arm, and her opponent's bokken hit her shoulder.

Sasuke creased his eyes. Sakura had given him that strike.

Suisei made a lingering glance at Sakura, before he raised his hand for the third time. "Third round," he rumbled, "Go."

One second, and Sakura's bokken landed smack on her opponent's mask. A strike on the forehead — the move known as men — signaled her win.

The two stepped back, bowed, and left the circle.

The pink-haired medic dropped the bokken back on the rack, and turned to meet her supposed-husband.

The Uchiha allowed himself to express a half-smile as he led her away from the silent crowd. "Well done."


Hinata shuddered.

She just had had an awful vision. It was the image of Potamos seducing the Kazekage, Sabaku no Gaara. Thankfully Hinata knew how to end the vision before it got too risqué for her innocent mind.

Why or how that picture would appear in what was supposed to be a sacred reading of the fires, Hinata did not want to dwell on. She only hoped it was not an ill omen.

Hinata fingered a paper doll. The random situations into which her shikigami flew, made her ill-humored to make more. She had already summoned many to Sasuke and Sakura, only to have all of them still inactive. Well, one had activated. Kind of. It gave Hinata a brief image of Sakura, before Sasuke ended the connection with the stab of a knife.

No, it had not physical hurt Hinata. But when one's perspective moved to the paper itself, the image of being stabbed did not make her enthusiastic to approach Uchiha Sasuke. He was scary.

Hinata sensed that the two were stationed within some sort of chakra barrier, one not of their own will. Perhaps she could wait a week before trying to contact them again. Or rather, contact Sakura.

"Priestess, we shall go hunting for herbs!"

Hinata looked up to see Minoru in the doorway. A shaggy straw raincoat embraced his shoulders like a shawl. Hinata marveled that he could make even peasant clothing look chic. Now only if his pose was not so dramatic...

Minoru flung her a straw coat, which she caught on reflex. Hinata curtained it around her shoulders. If her father saw her in a straw coat, he might have told her she looked like a farmer girl.

'Being a farmer girl sounds nice,' Hinata thought, letting her mind drift through the possibilities. 'I could just live with plants. Plant a garden. With herbs. Maybe keep a pet goat. And if I had to fight, it would be with a mild weapon like a staff, with a style other than Jyuuken...'

"Priestess?"

At Minoru's voice, Hinata squeaked, and began fumbling with the ties of the straw hat. He was quick at her assistance, knotting the straps into place. His fingers were long and bony, Hinata noticed.

The two stepped out into the mountain air. Her vocal cords pricked as she inhaled.

The pine trees and stones of the high elevation held a haunting, barren tranquility. Yet as beautiful as it was, Hinata barely could concentrate on the landscape. How could Minoru be so tall and slender, yet able to walk up mountains without falling over?

Minoru threw her a knowing smirk. "If you are curious about my anatomy, I would not be ashamed."

Hinata leapt in her skin. "You are a mind-reader?"

A sharp laugh came from him. "I wonder," said Minoru. "But I am serious about the offer. You ought to take every chance to develop your Gift."

She refrained. She could not possibly scan Minoru's body with the Byakugan, even with his permission...

Her resistance lasted for three minutes.

"Go ahead," said Minoru.

With a strong gulp, Hinata switched to her Sight.

While the elf climbed the hill, Hinata studied his skeleton. The Hyuuga was intrigued. The bones of the hands, fingers, and legs were all slightly longer than a human's. Although his muscles were thin, his spiritual energy seemed to be flowing at a higher rate than normal, which Hinata guessed was the reason why he was so graceful.

Despite his physical laboring, Minoru had to smile. "Fascinated, are you?"

Hinata let her Sight fall away. Minoru's confidence, so high it was almost silly, rang a bell in Hinata.

"You resemble Naruto-kun," said Hinata.

Minoru's long hair whipped around. "I beg your pardon?"

"Well, in many ways, you're like him," said Hinata.

There was a new rigidity in Minoru's posture. "I have better hair, by far."

Hinata had to smile. "Your speech tends to be more elegant than Naruto's," Hinata said, "But otherwise, your declarations are just as... confident."

Minoru forced his eyes back on the rocky trail. "Priestess, you will give me nightmares."

Hinata giggled.

A cloud cloaked shadow over the two. Suds of rain began to roll over the stones, carrying bubbles and specks of dirt. Hinata studied the dry rock formations. She did not mind the mud brushing onto her red hakama pants, as her experiences with Team Eight had taught her that Nature was clean, and that its purity dwelt not only in clear water, but also in dark soil, lively insects, and the most pungent of plants.

"Minoru-san?" Hinata felt herself slow in her steps. "You forgot to mention what herb we're looking for."

There was a pulse of chakra at Minoru's wrist. "You should have observed that earlier, Priestess." The blond elf spun around, and a green whip appeared around his body.

Hinata leapt back. Her heel hit a rock, and she stumbled back. Hinata tried to regain balance with her other foot. She planted it on another rock, but she slipped; rain had made it slick. Expecting impact, she tensed.

Instead of her head hitting a stone, there was whiplash. She opened her eyes. There were hairy tendrils above. Thick vines had sprouted out from the rocks, cradling her in the air.

Minoru sighed. "When the next youkai attacks you with tentacles, you won't be ready."

Although Hinata felt relief as the tendrils set her down, she also was embarrassed. "The first youkai I defeated had tentacles."

"Interesting," said Minoru, meaning it was not interesting at all. He grabbed a vine and spun it in a circle. "I am dreadful with using vines as whips, actually. I more enjoy using them as hindrance mechanisms." Minoru flicked his index finger. The plants tightened around Hinata's legs, making her squeak. A dagger emerged from Minoru's sleeve. "Now parry all of my attacks."

Hinata felt more constriction on her body. Thicker tendrils were now locking her legs in place. Minoru strode towards her, his long legs dodging the jagged mountain rocks as if they were nothing more than leaves of grass.

He came closer, his face serious. In his palm rolled a dagger, which flashed green. In reflex, Hinata shot two fingers at his wrist.

A grunt of pain escaped Minoru as he stepped back. The green blade dropped from his hand, and burst into shreds of old vines upon contact with the earth. The blond rubbed the hit area of his wrist, meanwhile allowing a sea of green tendrils to swallow her.

The Priestess let off a short scream. The chakra in Minoru's plants was blinding; her Sight caused her to see nothing but a harsh, tan color.

The moment she turned off her technique, there was only black. She was completely surrounded.

Hinata felt the vines squeeze out circulation from her arms. The more she struggled, the tighter the vines seemed to become.

Hinata pushed, pulled, and tugged in every direction. She used every move that the Nawanuke no Jutsu required. 'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.' Hinata sawed upon a thin tendril with a chakra-infused hand. 'Loosen your wrist, and gently move.'

Hinata aimed. She hit. She tried every trick in the book.

A familiar desperation overcame her. How could a non-ninja best her like this?

Minoru's voice traveled through the mass. "You still have a chance to get out, Priestess. If your regular vision cannot see an opening, make an opening."

Through the vines trapping her, she now saw small rays of light. Outside the mass of vines that encircled her, the sun was out. Hinata thrashed her limbs. 'Ican't.' She wanted to cry. 'Even after a Class Change, I can't... I can't!'

"Priestess!" Minoru's voice was firm, but gentle. "Do not convince yourself to give up so quickly, just because of a few obstacles. Turn that stress into your motivation."

Hinata swallowed. Her nose stuffy, she blinked at the thin beams of sunlight.

Another attempt at her Holy Sight? Perhaps she could do it. With a prayer, she sent holy chakra to her eyes. For a split second, she wanted to scream at the brightness. The vision hurt like the sun.

After about ten seconds, her eyes began to adjust.

With her Sight, Hinata looked around. Minoru's vines looked like a vast network, a brain, with tan-colored ki forming the nerves. Hinata decided to study the vines more closely. She noticed that more ki flowed within the thinner tendrils. The thicker tendrils had also power flowing through them, but not as much.

'The thicker vines are the weak link,' Hinata realized. She grabbed hold of a large, hairy tendril near her stomach. She sent chakra to her fingertips, and squeezed with the power of a cat sinking its claws into a mouse. The vine burst apart. Hinata rejoiced inside.

Hinata cut through more vines with her Jyuuken. With more room to move, she looked down. There was another thick tendril in front of her feet. Sending chakra into her toes, she kicked at the layers. The sounds of hacking told her she was making her way out. Hinata felt her hand burst into clean air and sunlight. There!

Hinata stumbled out of the cluster. She panted from the workout that was her escape, then made a defensive stance towards the sadistic blond.

Minoru smiled back. "You have passed the first round. Congratulations." The blond clapped once. "Your next task is to put me on my back."

Hinata shifted her leg's position, ready for more dirty tricks up his sleeve. "Will I have to go all out on you, Minoru-san?"

"You are much too kind to ask questions like that." Minoru crossed his arms. "Now, aim your holy attacks, right at my vital areas."

"No," Hinata said immediately. She then colored, stunned at her boldness. She had actually said the word no. To a stranger, no less! "I mean, there must be another way —"

A tendril wrapped around her ankle. Hinata's face slammed into the dirt.

"It's a taboo in your culture and upbringing to say the word no," said Minoru. "And instead of saying the obscenity, it is considered proper to offer alternatives." Minoru crouched down next to Hinata. "Lesson two, Priestess: while some enemies will find relief in the harmony you offer, some will take it as an opportunity to catch you off-guard."

The tendril released Hinata. Minoru struck with his fist.

Veins rose around Hinata's cheeks, and her hands burst out white chakra.

Hinata moved, her head gliding out of Minoru's punch. Her left hand caught his wrist. Before Hinata could touch a tenketsu, he wound his arm around, and suddenly his hand was holding her fingers in a death grip.

"Lesson three." Minoru squeezed Hinata's fingers. "The best counterattacks are your opponent's attacks, turned against themselves."

"I don't understand," Hinata said. She yelped as he threw off her wrist.

"Watch carefully," Minoru said. The tall blond made a fist, and raised it. Hinata backed away.

"I'm impressed that you can read postures," said Minoru, "but when you're being attacked, you shouldn't always back away." He slowly moved his fist towards Hinata, and stopped it a quarter of a meter away from her nose. "At this point, you should make a counter attack."

Hinata was hesitant. "Where?"

"It's up to you," Minoru said. "In my current position, where would it be best to disable me?"

Hinata thought a moment, and poked a spot on his elbow. It was harmless, as she put no chakra in the Jyuuken attack.

"That is one option." Minoru reached for her other hand, and folded it. "While I move to punch," — here Minoru guided Hinata's fist towards his torso — "I also create a new vulnerability for myself. One side of my chest is closer and more open to you."

Indeed, Hinata noticed it was a fairly easy target. And it was only open because of Minoru's stance as an attacker. She moved her fisted hand, and her knuckles rested onto the vulnerable area.

"We probably should also teach you a new martial art. If you use only ninja techniques to defend yourself, there's a possibility that people will notice you as a Hyuuga."

Hinata bit her lip. Indeed, her identity as the Hyuuga heiress was something she preferred to keep separate from her duties as Priestess of Souls. She already had to fight demons, so fighting foreign ninja now seemed a hassle.

"So..." Hinata bit her lip. "Does that mean I should abandon the Jyuuken?"

Minoru was briefly stricken. "Heavens, no!" he said. "The Jyuuken is extremely useful against demons. I only suggest training in a new martial art to increase your stamina, strength — and most importantly, a new mind set."

Hinata paused. "A mind set?" To her, frankly, it sounded lame at best and a scam at worst.

"It sounds simple, but it takes practice," said Minoru. "When you are in a life-threatening situation, your body has a built-in reflex to seize up, tremble, or lash out, correct?"

Hinata nodded. "Of course. The fight-or-flight response."

"Although," Minoru said, musing off to himself, "I supposed we could train using a few techniques from aikidō."

Hinata was about to ask what aikidō was, until she felt another presence. The cold, dry air of the mountain suddenly turned humid.

A clump of fog appeared on the hillside. As it rolled down, Minoru turned to speak to it. "Devil-child."

The fog cleared, its water collecting and forming into a petite girl.

"Hiya!" Potamos said to Minoru.

Potamos then turned and hugged Hinata. The priestess stiffened for a moment, but relaxed. Though Potamos had cool skin, her embrace was soft as bath bubbles. "Hina-chan," Potamos murmured, "you're not doing grueling work because of Mino-chan, are you?" The water-demon gave a chilling breath in Hinata's ear. "Say the word, and I can try to kill him."

"Try," Minoru stated.

Hinata felt a new pulse from the water-demon. It felt dull and dark, like the Hardened Soul — the previous state of her Yasanagi no Magatama when it was unpurified. Hinata drew away, not so much afraid of Potamos herself, but of what she seemed to be holding.

"Did you fetch the item?" Minoru asked.

Out of her bust, Potamos flourished an octagonal mirror. "Ta-dah!"

One glance told Hinata immediately that it was a fragment of the sacred mirror. "The Yata no Kagami," said Hinata. "A piece of it, anyway." She then turned to Minoru to see his reaction.

At first, the blond elf gave a strange silence, as if waiting for something in addition.

"Devil-child," Minoru said, then exhaled. "You were supposed to look for two fragments of the mirror. I see only one."

Potamos tapped it with a gloved finger. "This is the second fragment."

"What happened to the first?" Minoru's tone hinted that he already dreaded whatever answer was coming up.

"I traded it with a Jinchuuriki who had a fragment of his own!" Potamos wrapped her arms around her shoulders sensuously. "Oh, it was lovely to tame him."

Hinata paled. The vision! "Sabaku no Gaara?"

Potamos' head whipped towards Hinata. "Was that the redhead's name?"

Hinata now felt ill with the horrifying — or hot? — pictures that burned itself in her thoughts. Potamos had been intimate with him! "Gaara-sama is a chronic insomniac because of the Bijuu sealed inside him," Hinata said, as if babbling would bleach her mind of the images. "If he had a piece of the mirror..."

"Gaara-sama?" Potamos wondered why Hinata had addressed him with the honorific. "I thought demon-carriers were shunned by society here."

"Well, Gaara-sama is a demon-carrier," admitted Hinata, "but he's also the—"

"Devil-child," Minoru said. The blond elf held a stern expression towards Potamos. "Are you telling me that you willfully gave away a piece of one of the Sacred Treasures, to a human who carries a demon?"

The statement sunk into Potamos, and she briefly hesitated. "Um... yes?"

Minoru's blue eyes took on an angry blaze. "GO BACK AND RETRIEVE IT!" Minoru roared.

The water-demon squeaked before shooting off.


Sakura balanced herself along the spine of a roof. Under her feet, a dark aura radiated from the building.

She pulled together the front of her montsuki-shirt, attempting to preserve body heat.

'I should have known Sasuke wouldn't do anything.' She smelled the evil stench from beneath. 'Or at least, he wouldn't do it fast enough.'

Sakura went through several hand-seals. She locked her hands in a gesture of prayer, and closed her eyes. A serene chakra pulsed throughout her body. She separated her hands glowing with rose-colored chakra, and slammed them on the tiles of the house.

Nothing happened, save the wind blowing.

Sakura blinked at the exorcism — or the lack thereof. She was sure that she had expelled an amount of chakra. Yet upon emerging, it had disappeared.

Sakura again tried the set of seals. She raised her hands up as high as a madwoman, and slammed them down onto the roof's tiles.

The pink aura of her hands fizzled out.

The medic was left with a sinking disbelief.

Sakura leapt upon another building which jarred her demon-senses, and attempted the spell. Again, there was a brief appearance of her pink aura, but no exorcism. She went to the next, and tried again. The same thing happened.

A strange feeling rose in her. Was it fear? Her pink aura, the only energy that repelled demons — or rather, ate through their flesh like acid — was going out like a dying lamp. And she did not know why.

There was a pulse of evil chakra in the air. Sakura swallowed. The glow appeared behind her, to her left.

Large, rolling eyes flashed above her shoulder.

Sakura leapt away, adding a layer of illusionary petals around her form. She managed to end up in the shadows of an irregular roof.

From her hiding spot, Sakura squinted at the creature. The eye of a giant chameleon cranked in her direction. Its tongue snapped against her arm. Sakura hissed as miasma burned her shoulder.

Her body rolled violently across the rough tiles of the roof. She opened her eyes, and saw she was supported by nothing but a pool of air.

Sakura send chakra to her uninjured arm, and latched onto the roof's edge.

She hung there, a bit frazzled. Sakura took a gulp of air. She send another wave of chakra to her arm.

The kunoichi made a pull-up with a single arm. She scrambled up the roof, and landed a powerful punch into the mutant lizard.


Naruto banged on the wall. "HEY! Let me out!"

The zaps from the wall alerted him that it was a sealing jutsu. It felt like hitting an iron door, even though no bruises were forming on his knuckles. Worse, this seal also appeared to have some chakra-draining properties.

'How dare they try another seal on me?' The roar was murderous. 'I'll tear them to pieces!'

In Naruto's mind sprung images of the Hyuuga clan's bodies, bathed in blood and fire. Back in the real world, Naruto slammed a red-glowing fist into the wall.

Naruto gave a relieved sigh as the wall sucked in the angry, red chakra of the Kyuubi. "Here's a perk of chakra-sucking walls," Naruto muttered, "shuts up the voices in your head."

A wisp of smoke trailed from his hand. He had an idea.

He charged his palm again with Kyuubi chakra, and touched the wall. Fire roared in his veins, before he pulled his hand away again.

Heavy pants escaped Naruto. It had glowed only a second or so, but feeding chakra to it had highlighted the seal's pattern.

Naruto struck it again. White lines formed on the quaking wall. The pattern reminded Naruto of ocean waves.

'Ocean waves?' Naruto scratched his chin. 'Ocean. Water. Water jutsu.' He reached into the memories that he had received through the Class Change ceremony, and seized upon one thread.

Naruto saw a waterfall before him. He noticed he was wearing priest's clothing — or more accurately, the person whose original memory this was, had been a priest — and a red-glowing stone sat in the middle of the lake.

His consciousness rushed back to the dirty, stale library. But his mind still possessed the spell. His fingers worked the sequence, and he slammed his hand on the wall. 'Kai-in!'


A sharp wind bit at Sasuke.

Latched in the underside of a roof, his skin was in goose bumps against the night air.

Ah, the blissful pain of Nature.

He admitted a bit of masochism in this manner. Getting hurt from other ninja sucked, because that just proved his incompetence. But when it was the greater forces of nature, Sasuke embraced pain. The Uchiha had before caught many a chill while training during storms, in caves, under waterfalls.

The advisors inside the warm room chattered over mostly mundane issues. If it were not necessary for him to glue himself with chakra to the underside of a roof, Sasuke might have fallen asleep listening to the conversation.

Sasuke withdrew his left hand, and raised it in front of him. An open book appeared, and Sasuke found himself browsing it, studying the details of demons while the formalized gossip went on.

"Next lord of inquiry," one voice bellowed, "Kokugami."

Sasuke let the book disappear. Finally, a review of his acting performance.

"There's nothing that looks odd about Kokugami, save his previous status as a servant," said Suisei.

"It's not Kokugami who is suspicious. It's his wife, Sakurako." One of the generals was speaking. "She reminds me of a particular warrior."

A muscle in Sasuke's leg was beginning to pull.

"It was last fall's public ninja examinations. There was a woman-ninja with the name of Sakura."

Sasuke's mouth grew tight. The conversation could only grow worse.

One advisor gave a skeptical huff. "Even if this Sakura were infiltrating this place, she wouldn't be so dumb as to take a name like Sakurako."

A full cramp entered Sasuke's leg.

"We must examine everything." Suisei's voice was sharper than Sasuke had heard in public. "What information did you gather of that Sakura?"

"Inhumane strength," said another advisor, reading from a list of notes. "She could disintegrate the ground with her bare hands. Her hair was the color of her namesake. And she used a broadsword to slay her opponent." An ill murmur passed the room. "Of course, Lady Sakurako seems to show more refined sword skills than that forest barbarian, so..."

Suisei remained suspicious. "What other things featured that woman-ninja of the Leaf?"

The general cleared his throat. "She seemed to like girls."

"And?" rumbled Suisui in an impatient tone. "That's normal for teenage girls."

That comment nearly made Sasuke fall. He grabbed a tighter hold, remembering that eight stories' worth of thin air was underneath him.

"I mean, more specifically, that the Sakura-woman liked only women."

A consensus of understanding swept the meeting. "Oh..."

One advisor burst out, "Sakurako despises her husband, Lord Kokugami! That must mean she's—"

"She displays many things, but she does not hate her husband," said another. "She even seems to fuss over him at certain times. Like a prostitute."

Sasuke heard a bit of envy in the comment, but he barely cared, as he had to hang on for dear life while fighting torture in his leg. He let some chakra to trickle into the painful knot of a muscle, hoping that chakra could somehow ease his discomfort. It did not.

"The honeymoon act could be a mere front," said Suisei. "What is the activity in their room like?"

The Uchiha inched his hands across the bars. He craned his neck, and found a crack through which he saw the whole room.

One advisor fingered his collar, uncomfortable. "Nothing..."

Suisei frowned. "Lord Kokugami is not taking her?"

"There's nothing!" The officer was flushed in slight embarrassment. "There is no sound whatsoever in Kokugami's room that indicates... copulating!"

A strange rush of heat entered Sasuke's face. He tried to keep focus on the lords' conversation — but now it sounded like twitter.

"Perhaps he prefers men?"

"No, I already tried. His eyes were frightening."

Sasuke wished someone else could do this spying for him. No, wait, he did not want such embarrassing ideas to leak out to anybody else.

The right side of his rib cage began to feel warm.

The omamori! Sasuke never thought Hinata's protective charm would be so welcoming. He grasped at his clothing, digging for the silken packet. It was somewhere in his shirt.

Under — or more accurately, above — Sasuke's feet, the pieces of the roof shattered.

Several of the lords looked out the window. Nobody was there. They shrugged, and continued their meeting.

Sasuke was already in free fall. The ninja bit hard on his thumb. 'Kuchiyose no Jutsu!'

There was an awkward jolt.

No snake came out of his hand.

The ground was racing towards him. With no time to curse, Sasuke put chakra into his hand, and grabbed the speeding wall. The bumps and ridges raked across his palm. He decelerated.

Sasuke's feet hit the ground with a soft pad. 'I'm alive.' He took a breath, thankful for his own safety. He looked up, and saw a long, vertical scar on the wall, produced by his own chakra. He fled the scene.

As Sasuke ran, he thought of possible reasons of why the Kuchiyose no Jutsu had failed. Perhaps he had not giving enough chakra into the calling technique? No, he had done it millions of times before. Neither had he been terribly drained of chakra, even after hanging upside down while listening in on the lords.

Sasuke then remembered the disaster that was Sakura's initial attempt in entering the palace: the chakra barrier.

It blocked calling jutsu. That was his best theory, anyway. It would also explain why Hinata's enchanted paper-dolls — shikigami — had only appeared in the city outside the palace gates.

He had to leave the barrier. At least for now.

The barrier washed over Sasuke as he jumped over the fence. He ran down, and landed onto the dirt road of the commoners.

The flow of adrenaline slowed as he walked into the commoner's district. He was back in territory that was familiar to him. Dirt and shadows.

Sasuke looked at his palm, the one he used with chakra to slow down his fall. The flesh had small pebbles imbedded. He send another burst of chakra through, making the grit burst out with blood like tiny volcanoes. It hurt, but it was better to do it now rather than later. He twisted around a roll of gauze that Sakura had given him, tying it with help of his teeth.

Something hissed from the darkness. "Master."

The Uchiha saw a dark tendril on the ground. Sasuke swept it up in his hands. "I didn't think a mere chakra-barrier would hinder our link," he said, his form of an apology. Sasuke drew out a dead rat from his pocket, which he had killed on reflex while crawling through the narrow spaces of the palace.

The small anaconda locked its jaws over the dead animal and swallowed it whole. "You should be better acquainted with your jutsu and its possible limits."

"Orochimaru said a calling contract went past the fourth dimension," Sasuke groused, leaping onto the rooftops.

"Time is the fourth dimension," said the snake. He coiled around Sasuke's left arm. The Uchiha could feel the lump that was the consumed rat. "A calling jutsu ought to go through a normal chakra barrier."

Sasuke looked back at the palace walls, and back at the anaconda. "Explain."

"Things are not what they seem." The reptile disappeared with a poof.

Sasuke frowned, and continued to walk. The omamori grew warm in his hand.

A black sheet covered Sasuke's vision. He looked up, and saw two red slits for eyes in a sea of black.

He zapped a kunai with sliver chakra, and used it to slice through the phantom. Sasuke heard a hollow scream, and the miasma dissolved around him in droplets. The crescent moon hit his eyes once more.

The Uchiha examined the house he now perched. The tiles of roof seemed to rattle.

Sasuke willed his silver aura to his heel, and stomped hard on the roof. The silvery aura traveled through the tiles like a ripple on water.

Spheres of blue light burst from the undersides of the tiles. To Sasuke's disgust, the glowing hitodama feathered all over him before taking off in the air — some towards the palace, and some wafting upward to the stars. The souls were only grateful for the release, but for Sasuke it was still unwanted touch.

Sasuke clawed at the air, and The Book of Demons and Curses appeared. He had faith that Sakura was all right, so he would track her later. But the amount of souls that he found around the kimono shop alone was more than he had calculated. There likely was a demon in the commoners' area, and he wished to be ready.

He slid down the roof, and flipped onto the neighboring household, to get a better angle of what building had released the collection of hitodama.

- Orihime's Kimono Shop -

It was the shop where he and Sakura had found clothing implanted with demon eggs. The owner's involvement was uncertain. But it was proof enough that the nobility were being targeted.

Sasuke reached over, and fingered the wall. A silver piece of paper appeared.

A crash jolted him out of his stillness. He leapt up to the highest building, looked down, and saw a line of Tsunade-style demolition. It was Sakura all right.

Sasuke decided to conceal himself, and watch her.


Sakura's leg swiped the remaining bones of the giant lizard. They collapsed into a pile of dust.

After the black blood hissed off her blade, Sakura slid Tennyo back into her scabbard, and made her way to the castle gates.

Sakura lifted her hand. She focused, and a small dot of chakra emerged.

'False alarm,' she thought with relief. 'My holy ki is not gone.' Sakura looked back at the commoner's district. Now she had to figure out why her spells had not been working in certain places.

It was as if select buildings were refusing to be rid of demons.

Exhausted, Sakura decided to just call it a night. She turned in the direction of the palace.

A spear was thrust before her face. It was a guard at the gate.

"Halt!" Saliva flew from his mouth. "What business do you have here at this time of night?"

Sakura lifted her straw hat a little, just enough for the guard to see her face. "Just out for a night stroll." She managed to make her eyes glisten with tears. "To escape my husband for a moment."

The guard jolted at the sight. "Lady Sakurako. O-of course." He did not notice the haze of rosy sparkles around him as he spoke.

Sakura lifted a hand to the guard's cheek, barely feathering it. "You must be tired." The guard made a nod. His eyes closed at her touch. Sakura's hand left him, and he was still. The guard had fallen asleep while standing in armor.

Uchiha Sasuke simmered as he watched Sakura walk away from the guard. Sasuke forced himself to pass the snoozing guard without tipping him over.

Sakura now appeared to be speeding up. She knew that she was being followed.

"Why aren't you in bed?" asked Sasuke.

Sakura halted. "I... wanted some fresh air?" Her clothing was speckled with dried youkai blood.

Instead of accusing her of lying, Sasuke focused on a rip on her uniform, its frayed edges matted with blood. "You need to get that wound treated."

"I've already healed it," said Sakura. "The uniform just needs a wash. And a patch-up." Sakura turned, and saw that he was still displeased. She continued hastily, "If you're upset, then I promise I won't sneak out." She gave a shifty glance. "At least until further notice."

How vague, he noted. "A talk," Sasuke said.

Sakura looked up at him. She gave him a quizzical look.

Sasuke blinked at this. He thought a bit, and realized that she was requesting him to elaborate on his words.

"Us," Sasuke ground out. The word mortified him.

His former teammate paused in thought. "You want us to talk," Sakura translated.

The Uchiha nodded.

Sakura looked at him as if he were crazy. "Why?"

A strange feeling prickled in Sasuke's head. The discussion in Suisei's inner circle only minutes ago echoed in his mind.

(( "Inhumane strength. She could disintegrate the ground with her bare hands. Her hair was the color of her namesake. And she used a broadsword to slay her opponent." ))

Sasuke did not like this situation. Sakura had just left a trail of craters, for slaying one demon. She also happened to be walking around with a sword.

"You could have run," Sasuke finally said.

Her face turned a bit cross. "Even if I had run, it would've caught up to me."

"The protective chakra wall?" Sasuke said. "Around the castle."

Sakura colored. She obviously had forgotten about it. "S-so what!" she stuttered. "What about the townspeople? They need protection from youkai."

Sasuke shoved his hands in his pockets. "I already told you, I would take care of it."

"Oh, and you are so good at it," the kunoichi snapped. "A demon egg hatched."

They exchanged no words as they marched through the garden. Sasuke felt the tension was not so much of a married couple, but of business rivals. Sasuke lifted a hand to his head. The odd pressure in his temple was still building.

(("Kokugami is not taking her?"

"There's nothing! There is no sound whatsoever in Kokugami's room that indicates... copulating!" ))

He needed to tell her.

"I," Sasuke said.

Sakura let off a yawn, not bothering to cover her mouth. "Yeah?" she asked.

"I'll take care of the commoners' district," he repeated. The urge to sleep, with nerves, pounded on Sasuke's thought process. "Just..."

Sakura paused. She seemed to realize that Sasuke was trying to tell her something important.

(( "Perhaps he prefers men?"

"No, I already tried. His eyes were frightening." ))

Now Sasuke realized that the whole court of the Mizumai palace pissed him off. Half the nobles were frivolous and ignorant, and the other half was made up of terrified captives who seemed to grow weaker by the day.

Sasuke felt something warm touch his wrist. He turned his head, and saw Sakura's expression of concern.

"Your pulse is weak." Sakura cradled his wrist, which made him tense. Her warm hand reminded him of family. But she was not his family. "Are you alright?"

The Uchiha finally concluded the best course of action. He just had to tell her the truth. He had to explain everything to her. Sakura was a rational kunoichi.

Their guest room back in the castle has listening devices, not cameras. So he and Sakura had to only make it sound like —

"We're copulating."

Sakura dropped his hand as if it were a toad. After a bewildered pause, Sakura said, "Excuse me, what?"

Sasuke inwardly cursed. Ripping the words from Suisei's advisors had only made him sound like an illiterate pervert.

"I mean," Sasuke said, seeking to correct his words, "we have to have sex."

There was another moment of dead silence.

The Uchiha wondered why the pink-haired medic was so still, and so quiet. Her reaction was, in essence, nothing.

"Oh," Sakura finally said. "Just checking."

Her hand locked onto the handle of her sword, Tennyo.

Sasuke took one step back. "What are you doing," he stated.

"I'm tired of this happening to me." Ill humor laced Sakura's voice. Her eyes seemed to blink several times, before she glared at him. "Who are you?"

The two stood like statues.

Being a ninja, Sasuke easily understood what she meant. "You think I'm an imposter," Sasuke said.

"Of course," Sakura said. "That man would never try that sort of intimacy with a woman, at least not until first ambition is fulfilled." She looked strangely sad. "And he would never risk giving his seed to the wrong woman." Sakura flexed her fingers over the katana's hilt. "Now, on the count of three, tell me who you really are, and why you are here."

Sasuke remained motionless. "It's me, Sakura."

"Don't call me that." Sakura's thumb landed on Tennyo's guard. "One."

He heavily exhaled. All this trouble could have been avoided if they had first agreed upon a code word. 'Code words,' he thought. 'Definitely code words in the future.' And what the hell had Sakura meant, that she was 'tired of this'? Tired of what? That other ninja impersonated him and showed up before Sakura, or that other ninja asked to sleep with her? They deserved a long and painful death, Sasuke decided.

"Two," Sakura chanted.

Sasuke wished for the ability to laugh. This mission turned out to give more trouble than he had calculated. Seriously, though, he had to come up with something fast within the next second.

"Three."

Sasuke jerked back. The sword reflected the red lanterns swinging in the garden. "You're crazy!" Sasuke hissed.

"I've had a bad night!" Sakura said in an almost hysterical voice. "And seeing yet another idiot trying that trick on me — oh, you are so DEAD!" She cut through the air, her green eyes livid. Sasuke enveloped himself in a blanket of leaves. He reappeared behind Sakura, and grabbed her from behind. With chakra in her muscles, Sakura threw him off.

He was already flying. Sasuke glanced back. A wall of stone was coming near. He turned on his Sharingan. The image of a domestic cat flashed in his mind. The creature could land on its feet — logically, then, he could reapply that movement to his own limbs, and make safe impact against a wall.

A nauseous pain shot through him a second later. Sasuke pulled himself from the wall. He had no broken bones; good. But still did it smart.

He drew his posture upright, and tried to give Sakura a glare. Instead he saw a coming swing of a katana. He lifted up his kunai, which blocked the katana with a loud clash. "Sakura, it's me!"

The clack of geta sandals made both of them turn. Another person was there.

From a cluster of leaves and jasmine flowers, a young woman emerged, carrying a lyre. Her luxurious kimono was draped artistically over her shoulders. Her hair was in an elaborate style that geisha wore, with pins and combs in every direction like a halo. Her gait and coy smile, however, suggested a more earthly occupation.

Sasuke and Sakura pushed their weapons off the other, and stared at the woman.

Sasuke felt his pocket grow warmer. The omamori was reacting to the presence of the courtesan.

"Lover's quarrel?" The eerie woman gave a lazy smile. "You two are a terrible match."

Sasuke sent out a mental command. The Book of Demons and Curses obediently warped in his hand — and clamped over his fingers. He cursed, flinging the book into the dusty ground.

The loud thwack made Sakura and the strange woman jump. Sakura huffed at the interruption, and put her focus back on the woman.

Within the haze of floating dust, the pages of the book flipped in the windless air, and stopped. Sasuke's eyes caught the page. It had the painting of a demon. It had no resemblance to the woman before them, but there was a way to confirm it.

"Nopperabou," said Sasuke, looking at the courtesean. Her eyes turned wide in response. That was enough confirmation for Sasuke.

"Nopperabou?" Sakura repeated, not knowing that youkai would have names.

"It's a youkai that peels the faces off people." Sasuke took a great gulp of air and made several hand-seals. 'Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!' A sphere of fire exploded from Sasuke's breath, catching hold of the courtesan's face. Whether the opponent was a savage beast or a well-dressed lady, Sasuke did not give a moment's mercy.

With his Sharingan, Sasuke glared at Sakura, enough to confirm his identity.

It was only for a split second, but Sakura froze. She looked away. Sakura turned her blade to point towards the youkai. "We'll talk later," she told Sasuke. "I'll take care of her." The medic draped herself in an illusion of flower petals, and disappeared.

Sasuke lowered his book. He had expected Sakura to show relief at seeing his bloodline limit. The Sharingan was what made him an Uchiha. Instead, he had seen pure terror.

Before he could think further on the matter, his thoughts were interrupted by a sharp laugh.

The face of the courtesan, known as Nopperabou, was now burned beyond recognition. "The Book of Demons and Curses?" Still giggling, she peeled off the charred skin from her face. "In the wrong hands, that's just a cheap little book," she said. "Can't you even do a single curse?" Her lips crumbled away into ash.

Sasuke shuddered. Nopperabou's figure was every bit the dainty woman, with loose, lavish clothes. The only problem was her face. Nopperabou was a demon with no eyes, no nose, and no mouth. Her face was now just a blank, round ball of skin.

The pages of the Book flipped again within Sasuke's palm. His eyes drew towards the paper, curious of what else it had to tell. At that moment, Nopperabou charged. Her hands disappeared in the sleeves of her kimono, and emerged with long, white nails glowing with youkai energy. She aimed at the young man.

Sakura burst from a curtain of jasmine flowers. She planted a fist in Nopperabou's ribs. The faceless demon flew meters back, crashing in the center of the orchard.

Sasuke was beyond belief, then disgusted with himself, that he dared to attempt reading a book in the midst of battle. He turned away as Sakura approached him. "I got distracted," he said, his form of an apology.

"Don't worry about it. Starting with a fire-jutsu was the correct decision." Sakura rubbed her wrist. "My joints are a little out of practice, and I don't have my protective gloves. But I can protect you while you check Nopperabou's stats with that book of yours."

Sasuke was still angry at himself, but determined to get up to speed. "I can do this alone."

Sakura's lips tightened. She put a hand to her chest, and took a deep breath. "Very well." Her hands flicked into a sequence, and her image dissolved in a swarm of flower petals.

Sasuke followed her with his eyes. Even if no excess ki escaped Sakura's body due to her flawless chakra control, his Sharingan could still pick up on other clues of her movement.

Sakura planted herself in another tree. From her hiding place, Sakura's fingers bend again, directing the illusion to swarm around Nopperabou's senses.

Taking advantage of the moment, Sasuke glanced at the book. It had opened itself to the Introduction.

- This book is an index of demons, and a medium of casting spells which will temporarily impede your opponents. Speed, power, mental clarity, whatever strength you can imagine of your opponent, you can modify to your own advantage. This is the key to creating weakness. -

Nopperabou wandered out of the orchard, and circled aimlessly around the grass.

Sakura inhaled slowly. She tightened her grip on the illusion she was casting on Nopperabou.

Sasuke's mind halted at Nopperabou's blank face. Something in his logic tugged at him. That demon had no eyes.

"It's a trap!" Sasuke shouted to Sakura.

Long, sharp needles shot out from Nopperabou's sleeve, extending like a pole. A gasp escaped Sakura's mouth before she twisted to evade the attack. One scratched by the side of her rib cage. Sakura let her katana fly, and the glowing, white-painted pieces scattered over the grass. 'Nails?'

Light laughter came from Nopperabou.

Sasuke tightened his jaw. He now saw that Nopperabou had long sensed Sakura's illusion, but had only acted that she had been under its influence. But Sakura's visual illusion could not have fooled Nopperabou – after all, without a set of working eyes of her own, the youkai was effectively blind.

Sakura leapt back with chakra in her legs, moving quietly over the soft grass. Nopperabou's head turned to follow the kunoichi's movement. Sakura now noticed what Sasuke already knew.

Silently, from her pocket, Sakura drew an exploding bead — a kanshaku-dama — and threw it to a rock. The explosion made Nopperabou jerk her head in the other direction. Tiny ears showed as Nopperabou moved. Sakura remained frozen in her area. The blind Nopperabou circled around, trying to find the kunoichi.

Sakura was about to draw her sword, when a line of blood spurted from the youkai. Nopperabou stumbled back, with a large needle in the pale mound of flesh that was her face.

"Use arial weapons." The Uchiha twirled a senbon in his fingers. "If we stick to distance, this thing is finished."

The demon, now in a panic that her weakness was discovered, latched on the stone wall of the outer castle gate. She was trying to escape.

Sakura exhaled. It appeared Nopperabou had no idea that beyond the wall she was wafting up, there was a chakra wall. "I'll put her out of her misery." Just when Sakura was ready to run up after the demon, Sasuke grabbed her wrist.

"Didn't you hear me?" said Sasuke. "I said, use arial weapons."

"Let go!" Sakura threw off his wrist. "It's not like you've gotten the hang of your Class Change!"

He felt something tug on his hand. He looked down, and saw that the Book of Demons and Curses had appeared in his hand on its own. He let it fall open. A blank page glared a single sentence at him.

- The ability to cast impediments will only be granted to those who are willing to know its gravity. -

'Useless!' Sasuke put his focus back on Sakura. "I merely pointed out that projectiles are needed," Sasuke said, pointing at Nopperabou from a distance. "I am better suited."

"I can take care of this alone," Sakura said.

Sasuke watched as the medic-nin sprinted after the youkai. He wished he could yell. He was so frustrated with her! Why wasn't Sakura taking his advice? Sakura knew perfectly well that the Uchiha specialized in the shuriken arts. A pen appeared in his hand. With little thought and much fury, he wrote the words down.

- Haruno Sakura: chakra inhibition -

Honestly, Sasuke had not believed it could work.

Sakura was already halfway up a wall. Nopperabou's long kimono was an arm's length away from Sakura. The medic reached, a glint in her eye. "I've got y—"

Her left leg turned stiff. Then her right.

Nopperabou heard Sakura's choke of disbelief. The blind demoness turned her empty face, and shot her nails towards the sound.

Sasuke watched, frozen, as two long needles went through Sakura's torso. He did not even shout. He only ran towards her falling figure.

Sakura crashed into him. Ignoring the pain, Sasuke got up and scrambled to get her in a better position. The heightened sight that the Sharingan gave him made his hands look slow and clumsy, which only increased his panic.

Sakura opened her mouth.

"Don't talk," Sasuke ordered. The Uchiha glanced up. Nopperabou was retreating. Sasuke turned his attention back on Sakura, looking for where she had been stabbed. He found a dark-red stain over her chest.

The sound of flipping of pages roared in his ears. Sasuke glanced to the side, and saw the Book of Demons and Curses lying on the grass. It stopped open at the endnotes. Where before there was a blank page, new words glowed in silver.

- Congratulations. Through your wish to witness a curse on a friend, you have been granted the ability to curse all, both allies and enemies. -

A pit grew in Sasuke's stomach. 'No. That wasn't a wish! I wrote...'

"...ke."

His normal senses snapped back to the present. Sakura was speaking to him. Sasuke pulled his eyes away from the sick handwriting, and dared to look at her.

"Sasuke, lift my right hand," Sakura whispered. "Put it to the wound."

Sasuke only nodded, once. He grasped her hand — bony and cold, a sign of blood loss — and rested it over her chest.

Sakura cracked a smile. "She missed the heart," said the medic. "Only a lung got poked." She released an enormous cough. Her blood flecked on Sasuke's face. His tongue constricted.

Sakura pushed away his hand, which he realized had been still attached to hers.

The medic-nin's expression remained calm, even stubborn, as she sank her green-glowing fingers into her chest. She held it there for ten seconds. She next treated the gash on to the right side of her rib cage. Finally, she stretched her left arm and reached for her shoulder blade, the third and last place she had been wounded.

Sasuke turned away. It was to examine all angles of their surroundings, but also to avoid looking at her. Sakura was healing wounds that he had essentially caused.

He heard a soft exhale. He glanced to the side, and saw Sakura peaceful, her eyes almost closed.

After moments of silence, Sasuke realized Sakura's gaze was locked on him. Her arm was lifted. She was pointing one finger. At him.

Sasuke felt like a knife was put in his chest and twisted. He was responsible for Sakura's current state, all because of a book. He had disabled her chakra for just one moment, and —

But Sakura didn't know. She couldn't have known.

Her sign was not an accusation. It was a warning.

The sound of silk cloth ruffled behind him. Sasuke remembered that Nopperabou had been wearing a kimono.

Still crouching over Sakura, Sasuke unraveled a Fuuma Shuriken, and flung it upward.

The blade gouged into the youkai's chest. From the wound poured out miasma. Nopperabou's mouth formed a silent scream as she disappeared.

Sasuke reached into his pocket, and felt the omamori. Its temperature was waning. He saw Sakura open her mouth to speak. "I know," he stated, "She's not dead. Yet."

The medic blinked, then gave a weak nod. Using Sasuke as an anchor, Sakura pulled herself in a standing position. At the hint of a wobble, Sasuke easily caught her. She relented at his support.

A heavy cough burst from her. Sasuke quickly drew out a handkerchief. Sakura grappled after it, and shoved it into her mouth to silence a long episode of hacking.

Sasuke quietly watched as dark liquid spotted through the cloth. After a minute or so, the coughs died away.

Sakura pulled away the stained handkerchief from her mouth. Her eyes were red and watery. "Leftover blood." She found Sasuke's left hand. "From now on, I'm checking this," she said, squeezing a hard callous on the middle finger. "Okay?"

Sasuke gave a weak nod. That was the callous that showed his experience in writing left-handed. That was not something that could be easily mimicked with a Henge no Jutsu. "What about you?"

"I don't know." Sakura rested her head against his shoulder, and made a clear sigh. "Let's sleep on it."

Sasuke tensed at the unnecessary closeness, but then realized that she was just exhausted. He put one supporting hand on her shoulder as she leaned on him.

Then her fist made a light pound on his chest. "What in hell's blazes is going on?" Sakura asked.

Sasuke looked at her, confused.

Sakura's anger showed in her temple. "Do not force me to repeat your awful choice of words."

Oh, right. Copulating. He had to explain that.

"They're suspecting you." Sasuke again felt ill as Sakura raised her eyebrow. "The court. One of Suisei's advisors had seen you at the Chuunin Exams. So they think..." He trailed off, not wishing to explain further.

Her comprehension was immediate. "Because Lady Sakurako is bitchy to her husband, and they still believe that old rumor that Haruno Sakura is a lesbian — they believe they're one and the same person?" Sakura gave a laugh no louder than a murmur. "What simplistic advisors. Lady Sakurako could just be repulsed by Kokugami's low birth as a former servant."

"They're paranoid," Sasuke said. He swallowed. "They also bugged our room again."

"Sick," said Sakura.

Sasuke silently agreed. He was too tired to talk further about it.

"So that's why you said we should — no, you demanded..." Sakura did not finish the sentence, instead giving his shoulder another light pound with her fist. "I could have killed you, you insensitive prick."

"Forget what I said," Sasuke said, now embarrassed. "I didn't mean it."

"Of course you didn't." Sakura's light laugh signaled that she was back to normal.

"In the meantime," said Sasuke, "refrain from acting like a lesbian in public."

"You jerk," Sakura said pertly, "All girls act weird, no matter what their preferences." Her green eyes were now impish. "Besides, it's considered healthy for young girls to have small girl-crushes on their sempai."

He scoffed, not believing her. "Even you?"

Sakura gave him a mysterious smile. "Maybe."

Before Sakura could dare to elaborate, the Uchiha grabbed her and flipped her over his shoulders.

"Hey!" Sakura spat out strands of pink hair that had flown into her mouth. "I'm not a carcass!"

Actually, Sakura decided, the view down his back was rather nice. Not just Sasuke's backside, but the view of the city as he carried her higher and higher, from palace building to another. She squinted as the walls flew by. "Is that a chakra scar on the main building?"

Sasuke slid open the window of wood and paper, and swung in. He set Sakura down on the closest futon, and checked the outside for any possible witnesses. None. He then closed the window. Sasuke exhaled, and stepped towards the area where the futons were. "Sakurako."

Silence. Sasuke's foot hit softness, and he knelt down. Sasuke wanted to know why she was not answering. He reached forward. His hand accidentally hit her knee, and she flinched. "What's wrong?" Sasuke asked.

"Don't you dare," said Sakura, her voice low.

Sasuke pinched the bridge of his nose. Because he had carried her to their sleeping quarters, Sakura thought that he wished to bed her. No, he could not. Not in a room that he knew was bugged with listening devices. Uchiha Sasuke had some standards of privacy, thank you. It was a pathetic court indeed, that a lord like Suisei had paranoia that drove him to what was technically voyeurism. It made Sasuke disappointed in humanity.

Sasuke stood up, and retraced his footsteps back to the window. He slid it open. A thin crescent moon met his eyes. The Uchiha gestured to Sakura. "Come here."

Hesitant, she looked up, and approached. She stood by him at the window, and tilted her head up to the cool night air. "The moon is lovely." She turned around, ready for bed. "Thank you for showing me."

Sasuke caught her arm. "Not that."

Sakura tightened the front of her sleeping robe. She looked again. Besides the half-moon and dark blue sky, she could not see anything in peculiar. Sasuke pointed lower, and her eyes cast down.

Deep, bright red lanterns dotted the streets. Sakura was in awe. It was the city at night that Sasuke wanted to show her. During daytime the place was loud, bright, and full of energy. Now its inhabitants slumbered, but the hundreds of glowing lamps gave the city a silent, eerie vibrancy.

Sasuke felt a weight in his hand. The Book of Demons and Curses had arrived again. The Uchiha stared at the thin, black pen. It was lodged in the pages, as if it had been shoved there as an impromptu bookmark. Deciding that this was just one of the many characteristics of the cursed book, he simply took the pen, and began to write.

- Orihime's Kimono Shop: spark -

When he stopped writing, the book disappeared.

Sasuke glanced again to the medic. He caught a glimpse of her peaceful expression. He closed his eyes, took a small breath to calm back to his usual self, and embraced her from behind.

At the gesture, Sakura stiffened.

For a moment, nothing happened. Except for the strange pit growing in Sasuke's stomach. He was not even sure why he was bothered that she was as rigid as a tree. It made Sasuke want to hug harder, just to check that she was alive. Wait, he could not do that.

Sakura gradually relaxed. She saw that the embrace was one of comfort, not one of lust. "Danna-sama," Sakura murmured, "You're so warm..."

An odd feeling jumped in Sasuke. He did not know a proper reply after being addressed as 'dear lord husband.' Instead, he continued to hold her.

Sakura was about to close her eyes, when a loud noise hit her eardrums.

In the midst of red lanterns in the commoner's district, a large ball of fire exploded.

"A fire?" Sakura's body automatically jerked forward.

Sasuke clamped his arms around her. "Don't." He could already hear the palace guards shouting at each other.

Sakura was in a new panic. The red flames were already consuming a whole house. If she were to jump from this room and try to reach it, there was high risk that night guards would see her running the rooftops.

The roof of the burning building split apart. From the cracks, rose-colored beams streaked upward to the sky.

Sakura froze in partial surprise. 'My exorcism spells?' She then remembered the houses on which should could not perform her exorcism techniques. It turned out that her spells had not been deficient. Instead, something about the buildings had absorbed the spells, and kept them for future use. And now her magic was being released, with more physical destruction than she had ever seen.

Tiny youkai emerged from the roofs, dying at birth as the fire and exorcism spells consumed them at their hatching. Their burning remains rolled over and dropped to the paper lanterns, which spread the flames throughout the district.

Sasuke only kept his hold on Sakura, making sure that the guards caught her horrified scream.


Notes:

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please tell me! If I suck, by all means tell me. In an intelligent manner.