My admitted want of thoroughness requires me to mention that my customary preface is at the end of the first chapter.

Chapter 1: Chance

Shadows fell away behind the shinobi as he raced into the light. Breathing heavily he prevented himself from falling by a hand to the nearby street lamp. It didn't provide him with the slightest bit of protection, but by instinct he had ran toward the light.

One place was as good as any, out here. This far from any other shinobi or decent civilization, the people tracking him could follow him anywhere. He shuddered and began to shiver, though not from the cold. What was following him he wasn't completely certain, but he didn't want to believe it was human. Deep within his mind, he knew it was, but this fact refused to penetrate the thick cloud of fear in his mind.

"So the little shinobi had finally stopped to catch his breath." The voice was smooth and polished, yet somehow terribly malevolent. "It is fitting, in a way, that you chose this place to run to." From the darkness another man stepped, looking down at the panting shinobi with a slightly amused expression fixed on his face.

"Get back!" The shinobi hurled several shuriken toward his opponent, who batted them out of the air with a closed fist.

"As I was saying, you shinobi are well known for always finishing the task you have been given, no matter what the circumstances. Ironically enough, the very man you were sent to assassinate lies in the building on this very block. Of course, I can't allow you to go any further, but I thought I would mention the irony."

With a burst of chakra to the soles of his shoes, the shinobi burst into the air. He didn't get far before something snapped around his leg, jerking him back down to the street heavily. Whatever it was retracted back into the shadows, where he could see another man crouched by the ground. The next moment a hand gripped his neck, slamming him backward and into the wall of the building.

"How shameful. A shinobi, running away from his duty? And are these actually tears? I thought that a shinobi was supposed to hide their feelings. No shinobi cries," the man mocked. "But now I sound like a grade school bully, don't I?" His gaze narrowed dangerously. "A grade school bully who picks on the weak simply because he is strong. Sound familiar?"

"Enough," another voice entered the conversation. Both the shinobi and his attacker glanced to the side, to discover another man had stepped from the building. He was wearing a very similar suit, slightly rumpled as if it had been used for several days. In reality he looked very ordinary, but to the shinobi the light falling over his face were terrifying. "Ceriman, stop chatting around."

"If you insist, Brother," the large man hissed. His hand tightened, and the shinobi's world grew brighter and brighter, everything fading away into a blank whiteness...

"These two statues, kids, have been the place of some of the greatest battles in modern time," Konohamaru explained. For once, he didn't need to try to keep the kids in line; they were all far too awed by the massive statues on either side of the river. Dozens of academy students lined the side of the boat with their mouths hanging slackly and their eyes wide. "For example, Sasuke-sama and Naruto-sama fought here in their youth. These battles are part of why both of the statues are so damaged; they were built extremely well and bound wi-"

"Hey, mister!" one of the students waved a hand at him. "Is it true that you actually knew Naruto-sama?"

Konohamaru grinned. "You bet. When I was just about your age we were huge rivals."

"I guess that changed, didn't it?" another of the kids said, folding his arms cynically.

"Hey now! No mouthing off! Not if you guys want another field trip!" The teacher's strict expression relaxed to another grin. "But hey, we're both still young. I'll still beat him, one of these days."

Several shuriken whizzed through the air, and Konohamaru only barely deflected them with a kunai. Eyes wide, he immediately began glancing about their boat for the source of the attack. Who would attack Hidden Leaf in a time of peace? A group of children, no less. His eyes fastened on a man standing some distance away on the water.

"You!" He remembered this person, remembered them all too well. They'd considered themselves rivals for a while, but then he'd left for a mission in the capital of Fire Country and vanished. Konohamaru had thought he was dead... "What are you doing attacking a bunch of students?"

"They gave you the teaching job!" the other shinobi growled at him. "There wasn't any reason for them to choose you over me, except that you're the Third Hokage's grandson! It isn't fair!"

"But why are you trying t-"

"Die!" the shinobi reached into two pouches, pulling out two handfuls of shuriken. As he moved, however, Konohamaru leapt off the boat, making it rock dangerously in the water. He grabbed his rival's wrists before they could fire the barrage of weapons in the direction of the children.

"Snap out of it!" Konohamaru hissed, doing his best to hide the cold feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. "What are you going to accomplish by attacking a bunch of kids? Or me, for that matter? It isn't going to change anything!"

"That's what you think." The other shinobi managed to rip his arms from Konohamaru's grip, but the Chuunin leapt over his head. Whirling, the shinobi hurled his shuriken in the opposite direction of the children. They slashed through Konohamaru's body, which dissolved into a puff of smoke a moment later.

Appearing just behind his opponent, Konohamaru landed a kick to the back of his head. He pitched forward, then sprung off the water and landed on his feet some distance away. His hands began moving together in hand seals, but Konohamaru was too distracted to notice. There was a man clad entirely in black near the children, hacking at the base of the boat. One of the academy students launched a stream of flame at him, but the attacker easily evaded and continued to sink the boat.

"No!" Konohamaru abandoned his battle and sprinted across the water, only to stop short as the other shinobi flashed into being in front of him.

"Running away already?" he hissed. Over his shoulder, Konohamaru could see that the other man had created a large hole in the boat and was now pulling a kunai on the kid who had attacked him. He gritted his teeth and began to move; if I let his blade go through my side I should be able to-

A pink ring of chakra suddenly dropped from above, wrapping around Konohamaru's opponent and binding him in place. From some distance to the side Konohamaru's former partner gave him a nod, twin braids bouncing. Returning it, Konohamaru shot around the now immobile shinobi.

He barely leapt in the way of the kunai in time to take it in the wrist. The man before him seemed somewhat annoyed, and the student behind him breathed a sigh of relief. Pulling the blade from his arm, Konohamaru tossed it aside, too angry to wince.

"Who are you?" he demanded. His opponent merely leapt up to his level on the sinking boat and struck. The first of his blows Konohamaru managed to block, but the second sent him sailing back and crashing through one of the boat railings. His students gasped in shock, and the assassin leapt after their teacher, blade sliding to his hands.

Midway down he was sent flying by a kick from the side. A new warrior landed on the water just beside Konohamaru, who was making it to his feet. He pushed his glasses back up his nose and gave a brief nod.

"We'll get the kids to safety," he told his former partner. "You handle this guy."

"Right!" The man in black, Konohamaru was still at a loss to identify him or his village, was back on his feet, charging across the water. Bursting off the water, Konohamaru met him head on, his kunai clashing loudly against the man's blade. For a brief moment they traded blows, and then Konohamaru leapt back, realizing he was outmatched. This guy was powerful, and it was going to take a serious jutsu to finish him.

As his opponent charged, Konohamaru smashed a chakra laden foot into the water before him. A geyser erupted around his opponent, who was for a moment blinded. Some distance away, Konohamaru appeared and began flashing through hand seals. If he could just manage to build enough chakra, he should be able to pull this off...

Behind him his opponent burst from the water, eyes blazing and blade flashing. A pink ring descended from the sky to drop around him, but he leapt over it. Glancing over his shoulder, Konohamaru's eyes widened in horror, but it was too late for him to do anything about the blow-

From the shore a green, plane-like bolt of chakra flew through the air, hammering into the attacking warrior from the side. He crashed heavily into one of the cliffs, sending dust through the air. Looking to the shore, Konohamaru saw his partner, hands still in a kata, smile just slightly.

"Finish him off, Konohamaru-kun!"

Nodding back, Konohamaru finished his jutsu just as the other warrior dropped back to the water, landing on his feet. He took off, just as Konohamaru seemed to dissipate. For a moment the assassin paused, then flesh sprang to life around him.

"Harem no Jutsu!" Konohamaru cried. For the first time in the battle, the opposing warrior in black spoke.

"Just what the bloody hell is this supposed to be?"

At that moment Konohamaru grinned. Each part of the jutsu was not a solid body, but rather an illusion... surrounding an exploding note. The seals erupted in flame, and an inferno exploded around the shinobi. Gigantic waves burst from the explosion, nearly reaching the shore. When it faded, the remains of the enemy were lying face down in the water.

Eyes nearly closing, Konohamaru dropped forward toward the water the next moment. His partner caught him gently and kept him on his feet. Coughing water out of his lungs, Konohamaru tried to clear his head. He didn't remember being this tired in quite a long time; the jutsu had taken more out of him than he'd realized.

"He's dead," his other partner announced abruptly. The other two glanced up, and realized she was standing beside the shinobi from Hidden Leaf, not the mysterious attacker. He was still bound by the pink ring of chakra, but sagging to the side. "Probably poison."

"Alert Hokage-sama," Konohamaru hissed. "We'll get home ourselves, just get there as fast as you can."

"But, Konohamar-"

"Do it! This is bigger than us. A lot bigger."

She was playing with her cup again. Just a slow rolling motion around the rim, both hands moving it in endless circles, both eyes fixed down on it. Though she told herself that she couldn't help it, she was even more worried that she really could. But yet she kept doing it, rolling her cup the instant her thoughts drifted away.

It wasn't so much the motion itself that bothered her, it was the fact that she knew she was just doing it to burn nervous energy. That nervous energy exemplified everything that hated about herself: her restlessness, her lack of confidence, her inability to make herself understood. These things haunted her, because she knew that years hadn't changed them, and that they would probably be with her for the rest of her life.

Hyuga Hinata sighed heavily and set her cup down just as heavily. She would leave it there, not roll it, not make any other nervous gestures. Blinking solid white eyes, she glanced around the room once more, just to make sure of her surroundings.

The restaurant was fairly busy, and felt even more so because it was so small. There were people bustling about in every direction, waiters carrying trays and people speaking loudly across tables. She had chosen this restaurant because it was so small, thinking that no one else would be there.

Bad idea; why did she always do things like that? Apparently this restaurant was a fairly popular one, though there had been a lull when she had arrived. By the time she had sat down, it was already too late. Now she was trapped in a crowd, and she was nearly paralyzed in place.

Long ago the meal had come and gone, and now she was alone with her water. No one had sat at her table, it was a small one in a corner, and for that she was grateful. An older man glanced in her direction, a bushy eyebrow raised, then quickly looked away. Biting her lip, Hinata tried to convince herself that it didn't mean anything. People had been glancing at her for some time, but no one had tried to talk to her.

Again she sighed, and looked down at the water in her cup. This was supposed to be a vacation. Normal people had fun when they got off work, didn't they? Yet she was miserable, just hoping that it would be over soon. Of course, she had no one to blame but herself; she had chosen to come here.

Konoha felt so very far away. She had never really appreciated how much she was used to it until she found herself in a new and unknown city. Fire Country was a lot larger than she had ever thought, a lot more desolate than it seemed on a map. This was a fairly large city; she had only gone because Neji had suggested it. But it was too strange, too different: there were no clan houses, no training fields, nothing that she had grown to rely on at home. All of the people were strangers, and that frightened her.

A slight smile flickered onto her face, but quickly wilted. It was funny that all these people frightened her so much. They were just normal people, merchants and professionals, all trying to go about their daily lives. None of them stood a chance of hurting her in any way; not a Chuunin of the Leaf.

Thinking of rank only depressed her even more. She should never have taken the Chuunin Examination again. But she had wanted to prove to herself that she could do it, change a little bit of who she was, become a better person. Well, she had managed to pass it, but it hadn't done her much good. In fact, it had made her life worse.

Leading a team hadn't gone well at all, as she began to panic whenever she had to make decisions. Teaching had gone even worse, because she was scared of some of the students. Eventually she'd just been put in the position of a Jounin but with lower level missions, and even in that she wasn't very good. Why did she mess up everything she did? Why was she so incompetent? Neji said that it was ridiculous for her to feel this way, that she was a worthy heir of the Hyuga if she would just apply herself. Hearing that didn't make her feel any better.

She was doing it again! Taking a deep breath, Hinata set down the glass and again vowed to stay away from it.

"Hey! Look who's here!"

Immediately Hinata looked up, shrinking back in the same motion. She recognized the voice after a moment and relaxed, but only slightly. There wasn't much reason to relax.

"H-hi Ino-chan." There; she had actually managed to reply without making a fool out of herself. That probably wouldn't last.

Ino Yamanaka slid into the booth beside Hinata, giving her a cross between a smirk and a grin. She always made Hinata so terribly nervous, as well as inadequate. Ino was everything that she wasn't: bold, pretty, strong. At the moment she was obviously on vacation as well, as Hinata was fairly certain her uniform wasn't fishnet and tight leather. There was no chance she could pretend to be leaving now, though; Ino had effectively boxed her in next to the wall.

"I never thought I'd see another shinobi in a backward, normal city like this," Ino told her, flicking back a lock of shimmering blond hair. "It's been really annoying dealing with all these people; they don't have any idea about clans or jutsus or anything."

Even had Hinata wanted to respond, she wouldn't have been able to. Ino's words fell like a waterfall: unending and swiftly. She realized that she was rolling her cup again already but didn't try to stop herself.

"Aren't you on vacation too?" Ino asked, raising an eyebrow and glancing down at Hinata. "Why are you still in uniform?"


"You really need to relax a bit and get out of those things. At least wear something a little more flattering." Ino added nearly inaudible. "You certainly need it."

Blushing and shrinking back, Hinata hid by taking a sip of water. Ino didn't take the slightest notice and continued on. She cut off her tirade briefly enough to order food, but basically kept up a conversation with herself, occasionally using Hinata as an object in the conversation.

"I thought this place would be more fun, but it's surprisingly boring. There's basically nothing to do at night." Briefly she looked to the side, then whispered in Hinata's ear as if she had a great secret. "I really just came here to get closer to Sasuke-kun. Rumor has it he's in the Northern parts of Fire Country. This is the biggest city far north, and I was kind of hoping to find him."

Quickly averting her gaze, Hinata avoided looking Ino in the eyes while she talked about Sasuke. If Ino could look at her, she might be able to see a bit of what Hinata was feeling. That would only make her talk a lot more, and be insulting, and generally make her feel even worse.

She couldn't understand how Ino could still be so obsessed with Sasuke. Twelve year old girls could have crushes, and they could even last quite a few years for someone like Sasuke. That much she understood. But how could anyone remain in exactly the same state for so many years? Of course, their obsession had been transformed over the years as they grew older, but it still wasn't any better.

They were all, Ino and her kind, still convinced that they could capture the Uchiha's eye. This dream had never really faded for them, though it had likewise obtained new incarnations. Hinata had long since given up on anyone liking her, at least in that way. Naruto... a soft smile appeared on Hinata's face.

Now she really didn't "like" anyone, as Ino would put it. And she was completely fine with that; it made her so much more free. Part of her told herself she just thought this because no one could ever like her back, but she determinedly told that part that it was lying. For all her failings, she did have some friends, friends who actually cared about her.


Looking up, nearly as panicked as before, Hinata glanced at Ino blankly. "I'm s-sorry. Did you say something?"

"I asked you the question twice," Ino scowled. "I asked you what rank you are now?"

"I'm still a Chuunin," Hinata admitted meekly.

"Still?" Ino asked, incredulous. "Have you even tried to enter the Jounin Trials?"


"That's silly of you. I'm the captain of the West Division of the Anbu now. I never realized just how many Chuunin they let into the ranks these days. Little punks with too much power who get the rank early. Trying to organize all of them is a real pain, and I might have to ask the Hokage for a better job. Of course, you know how he is- hey!"

"What are the chances of this?" Haruna Sakura stood before the table, hands on her hips, head at one side. The other two female shinobi glanced up at her, Hinata nervously and Ino with a smile that turned into a glower.

"And what are you doing here?"

"It seems you look a much like a slut as always," Sakura sneered.

"At least I have something nicer than a stinky old uniform," Ino returned. The next moment both of them grinned at each other, and Sakura sat opposite them. Hinata shrank back further, not wanting to get anywhere between the two of them. Their eyes made it obvious that they were actually good friends, but for some reason they felt the need to show this in such aggressive ways. She couldn't begin to understand them, and so merely stayed quiet, as she usually did.

"I, unlike you, am actually on an assignment," Sakura said, glancing at her rival down her nose. "Something very important."

"And yet you have time to go to restaurants?"

"Oh, hush. The best part about this job is that," she dropped to a whisper that transformed into a giggle midway through, "it takes me closer to Sasuke-kun!"

Sighing yet again, Hinata tried to sink into the background and keep entirely away from the conversation. Unfortunately, her sigh caught Sakura's attention, and she refocused her gaze for a moment.

"Oh, hi, Hinata-chan. Are you here on assignment too? Something with a whiny merchant?"

"Um, no," Hinata answered. "Actually, I just finished an A rank mission and they said I needed a break."

"You don't look like you're having any fun," Sakura observed easily. Hinata didn't respond, but just began pushing her index fingers against each other. Please, don't keep talking about me. "We might need to do something about that, eh, Ino-chan?"

"I think that sounds like a great idea," Ino said brightly. "We should take you shopping and see if we can find you something decent to wear!" Abruptly she adopted a sickeningly sweet smile. "But don't you have a mission to do, Sakura-chan? Mayhaps you better do that while Hinata-chan and I go alone."

"Like you have any taste," Sakura mocked. "I wouldn't trust you wish dressing my dog!"

"You have a dog?"

"Well, no, but..."

Their conversation faded away as Hinata realized that something was wrong. They continued to argue, and their nearly constant chatter hadn't allowed her to realize it earlier. Sound in the restaurant had dropped significantly, and it was clearing out. There were a few waiters and a few parties still at tables, but now things were strangely vacant. Another group hurried out the door, seeming in quite the hurry.

Biting her lower lip, Hinata closed her eyes. When they opened again the table caved away, letting her see the floor below. As inconspicuously as possible she glanced around the restaurant, checking to see what was wrong. It wasn't closing time yet, not even past the dinner hour. Why was everyone leaving so quickly?

Only a few groups were still in the restaurant now. There were the three shinobi, then there was a drunk in the booth over. Several people sat at one of the tables, talking softly, and there was a heavy-coated man by the desk, waiting to pay his bill. Her eyes flickered closer to the ceiling, and abruptly Hinata gasped. Two men were standing one level up, glancing down below. Both had chakra carefully built around them, and one was carrying a short sword.

She was just about to try to say something when someone moved violently. The apparent drunk abruptly leapt to his feet, whirling in the air and slashing with a long katana. In a flash the blade swept down, splitting through the panel between booths and aiming to sever Sakura completely in half. Breath caught in Hinata's throat, and she couldn't bring herself to call a warning-

Sakura's hands slapped over her head on either side of the blade, stopping it cold. Turning swiftly and pushing the sword to the side, she attacked with a flickering sweep of her hand. By her hip she snagged a kunai, which embedded itself in the would-be assassin's elbow the next moment. He gasped in pain and the blade fell from his hands.

"Is that the best you can do?" Sakura smirked, glancing over her shoulder at him with a toss of her hair. "You'll have to do a lot better than that if you want to take down a shinobi." With an angry roar the man attempted to strike her with his bare hands, and he earned a kunai to the forehead for it. He fell back against the opposite booth with a thud.

Around the restaurant, there was stunned silence. The other party was staring in horror, the heavily-cloaked man stepped back nervously. All the restaurant staff were rushing in, as if to do something but without anything to do. Ino and Sakura had both stood, and were moving over to check the fallen warrior.

"L-look out!" Hinata called. Her warning came just as one of the men on the ceiling performed a final hand seal. Columns of flame shot from his eyes, and the floor beneath him lit like a torch. It caved away instantly, burning floorboards crashing to the level below as the two shinobi landed heavily. By this point, however, all three of their targets were gone, bodies dissolving into smoke.

Completing her flip, Ino landed on one of the restaurant tables, hands moving to where her kunai pouches should have been. Great; she really wished she was better equipped for a battle. Not that she expecting to be fighting every time she entered a restaurant. Fortunately, she kept backups on her at all times, and-

The table jolted into the air, knocking her off balance before she could get a weapon to hand. It shot upward the next instant, breaking its way through the roof and flying into the sky. By that point, however, Ino had flipped off it. Landing on the floor this time, she instantly identified her attacker. His hands were together in a hand seal she didn't recognize, and he wasn't moving.

No way are you completing that jutsu. Rushing forward, Ino flipped a kunai to hand easily and struck, aiming to embed the weapon in his temple. Midway there, however, nearby chairs hurtled from their places toward her. She managed to skid to a halt and bash them aside, one moment before her opponent's boot connected with her face.

Flying back, Ino crashed into a nearby wall and dropped to the floor. A telekinetic jutsu. Great. But she didn't have much time to complain, because the enemy ninja was bearing down upon her, a blade singing down toward her neck. The best she could do was roll out of the way, and that was barely enough.

Midway across the floor Ino struck it with one hand, launching herself into the air. She landed just in time to see another table flying toward her. All she could do was raise both arms before her; the wood splintered away but drove her backward. The instant she dared open her eyes she did so, to find her opponent waiting, sword in hand, chakra building around him.

"Not bad," Ino admitted, tossing back a lock of hair. "But in Hidden Leaf that just wouldn't cut it."

Seeing her opponent's hand rise to his mouth, Hinata executed a body switching jutsu as quickly as possible. Chakra exploding around her, she grabbed a nearby chair, slapped an illusion around it and sprang away. She was sailing toward one of the walls when her opponent exhaled, flames consuming the chair completely and scorching the wall.

Lowering his hand, the shinobi immediately realized that he had missed. Evidently she was better than reports had indicated. Best to finish her as quickly as possible, before the two more dangerous targets could get involved. They were definitely good enough that he only wanted to take them on one at a time.

Ducking as fast as possible, he narrowly avoided a kick at the back of his head. He tried to catch the leg, but it was gone too quickly. She was overhead, and moving faster than he had expected. Not good. Still, he could probably hit her with an uppercut- at that moment both her hands touched his shoulders, and she sprung away from him. Now what had that accomplished?

She wasn't facing him now, and he rushed forward in a violent attack. His eyes narrowed as she flowed around his attack, and tried to punch him in the motion. All she managed was a light tap on the back. Good. Fast, but weak. He could probably handle this one without any trouble. Hopefully the others could handle the other two.

Completing her spin, Hinata found solid footing just in time to realize that her opponent was just a clone. She recognized his true location the next instant, but not quickly enough. A knee struck her stomach, knocking her back. In the same motion he also clamped each hand on her upper arms, driving her backward and pinning her to one wall of the restaurant.

Smirking at the girl, the shinobi gathered chakra without seals and concentrated it in his mouth. About half power should be enough to scorch her to a crisp. Hinata shrank away from him, but also moved at the same instant. Abruptly her hand broke free from his grip and clamped over his face.

With a growl he knocked her hand away, and released his finishing attack. The jutsu spluttered out midway through, leaving him blowing only hot air. She struck in a sideways motion, but only barely traced a line across his stomach. He moved with his dodge and smashed a leg into the side of her face.

Flying backward, Hinata managed to flip in the air and land gracefully. Her opponent just laughed, observing the blood on her lip.

"Damaged already? You're weak."

Observing the battle calmly, the man in the heavy coat abruptly made a violent movement. In an instant both of his hands ripped from his coat, hurling shuriken across the restaurant. They barely had time to move before they curled and struck Sakura, sending her bleeding body into the air. One target down...

Cold steel was pressed against his neck the next moment, a hand painfully forcing his arm behind him. He tried to turn, but the pressure of the kunai immediately intensified. All he could see was a wisp of pink hair. A drop of sweat began to work its way down his face.

"H-how did you know?"

"They leave the check at the table," Sakura told him. "The desk is only used to wait to be seated. You couldn't have been more suspicious." She tightened her grip, and he gave a grunt of pain. "Now, why did you attack us?"

"You think I'll give you information?" he asked, with a forced laugh.

"That or I kill you."

"Hasn't anyone ever told you what a shinobi is?" There was a loud crack the next second, and some green liquid shot from his mouth. Instantly he slumped in her arms, all resistance gone. Poison, Sakura realized, probably in a pill in his mouth. Someone is interested in staying secret. There was no way of knowing what village had hired him, either, because he was dressed ordinarily. Perhaps they could get more information from the others.

Glancing up, Sakura analyzed the other battles taking place in the restaurant. The shinobi Ino was fighting seemed to have killed one of the customers, but the rest had gotten away. They were still locked in combat, but Ino could probably handle him. But where had Hinata gone?

Her question was answered the next instant as Hinata exploded through a nearby wall, flying from the kitchen to crash into the floor. The other assassin was breaking from the kitchen, intending to drive a boot into her face. Interesting; his forehead protector was completely blank. Barely jumping into the air, he brought his foot down violently-

Sakura flashed in from the side, delivering a kick of her own into the side of his head. He hurtled away, crashing into one of the walls. Broke a pretty expensive looking picture, too. We sure as hell aren't paying for this, Sakura thought. They'd better find out who was responsible for this quickly.

"Thank you, Sakura-chan," Hinata said, over Sakura's shoulder. The female shinobi glanced back at the other, raising an eyebrow, but just shrugged. Time to take this guy down.

Flipping backward, Ino narrowly avoided a hail of plates raining in her direction. This restaurant was a terrible place for a fight; her opponent had basically unlimited ammunition to hurl at her. Until she could take the fight to closer quarters, he was going to keep the upper hand.

Again he clamped his hands together, and a storm of silverware built around him. They flooded forward the next instant, forming a solid column of metal flying at her. This time, however, Ino was ready to counter attack. She hurled as many shuriken as she was able and leapt away at the last second. Her weapons sheared through the floating silverware, several striking her opponent. He staggered backward but did not fall.

That was all the shuriken she carried on her. Only two kunai left, and she couldn't afford to throw them. Best just to finish him now, while he was weak. But while Ino was in the process of charging, her opponent abruptly stabilized himself. His blade shot into the air of its own accord, slashing in front of her and tracing a line of blood along her face.

With the katana buried in the ceiling, however, he was left only with impromptu weapons. Wiping away blood, Ino let herself grin. How much more could he throw at her now? He had moved across the restaurant, out of her immediate range, and chakra was building around him violently. Ino waited, doing the same. Abruptly it seemed that everything nearby lifted into the air, then hurled itself toward her.

The projectiles flooded toward Ino from every direction, trapping her in a sphere of attacks. Just before they could strike, however, the other shinobi coughed and shuddered. Everything fell to the ground harmlessly, and Ino stood motionless in a circle of objects.

She grinned, and her opponent's mouth moved. They walked toward each other, movements mirroring each other perfectly. Both slipped a kunai to their hand, and spun it around to stabbing position. Just when their faces were nearly touching, Ino acted.

As violently as possible she pulled her spirit back into her own body and struck, stabbing the kunai into the side of her opponent's face. He didn't recover nearly quickly enough, and the metal went in deep, sending him flying to the side, where he landed heavily. Leaning on both knees and panting, Ino looked around to see how the others had done.

Flames leapt toward her, leaving her only a fraction of a second to avoid being incinerated. The remaining enemy shinobi stood at the edge of the kitchen, hand dropping from his mouth. Did this guy ever quit spewing fire? Sakura and Hinata had leapt to opposite sides of the column of flame, and were just now preparing to attack again.

Before any of them could do so, their opponent dissolved in a puff of smoke. Eyes widening, Ino immediately moved toward the other two. They were apparently thinking the same thing, and the three of them formed a triangle facing out. These guys didn't seem the type to run away. He'd strike again; she was sure of it.

"Do I have to save you guys all the time?" she asked over her shoulder with a smirk.

"I do not need any saving," Sakura sniffed. "I've killed two of them, thank you very much."

"Have you done any damage to him yet?"

"I kicked him," Sakura commented. "I'm not sure Hinata-chan did anything."

"He d-doesn't have usable ch-chakra to his face," Hinata said. She was shivering just slightly. "A-and..."

"That's okay, we understand," Ino told her. "Not everyone can be a first rate shinobi. We'll take it from here."

The floor exploded beneath them the next instant, and their opponent shot into the air, chakra flying around his fist. Ino barely jerked away from the attack, and Hinata flowed around it. Sakura had already taken a step forward and was turning by the time he was landing on the floor, her sandal striking his chin.

He flew backward through the air and landed heavily. When he glanced up, Ino was already flying toward him with her last kunai. There was a loud crack, and then he slumped back to the ground.

A long silence dominated the restaurant, no one daring to speak. Tables and chairs lay splintered across the floor, and there was smashed glass and metal scattered throughout the room. Half of the lights had been broken, and nearly everything was scorched or burning. The d├ęcor lay in waste, and one of the surviving cooks was shaking his head sorrowfully.

"Ninjas," he muttered under his break. "Hate 'em."

Sighing heavily, Ino moved back to one of the corpses and began retrieving her shuriken. Sakura began checking the body for any signs. Hinata just drew her arms close to herself and tried to fade into the background. The people who had fled were cautiously returning, and seemed terrified by the aftermath.

"An attack by unknown enemies on neutral soil," Sakura thought aloud, voice breaking the silence. "Four opponents of varying level and style. Treaties between every major shinobi village and official peace between all countries." She glanced up at the other two and took a deep breath. "I think we've gotten ourselves into something a lot bigger than I expected."

This story will be updated in two weeks with another chapter. Now, however, there are a few points that I wish to get out of the way, to clarify everything with those who may be reading.

One thing that must constantly be kept in mind regarding this story: it was written before the completion of Naruto. Hence, I didn't make any effort to guess at what Kishimoto Masashi would do with his characters. I have set this at an inspecific time in the future, using my own chronology of events that will be left vague. If Kishimoto contradicts anything in this story (those character deaths have a way of throwing a wrench in the works), consider it an alternate universe.

I will note that this story was planned prior to the three year training jump in Naruto, so character style directions were not known to me. This is most noticeable in the character of Sakura, who is not a medical shinobi in this story. Believe me, had I known about this development, it would have made my task much easier. However, it was not practical to change such things retroactively, especially because the manga is continually being produced.

For this story I have used Japanese suffixes. This is solely for the purpose of adding a different layer of depth to the story. I hope that it does not mar the reading of this work for anyone; if you are not at least vaguely familiar with them you may want to become so or ignore the suffixes entirely (which are not necessary for understanding the story).

Another word before the story begins: Yes, this story is listed partially under the romance category due to what is commonly termed a pairing. However, I feel that to reveal it now would cheapen the story, and make the reading of it more an exercise in futility than anything interesting. I won't claim that it will be difficult to figure out who these characters are, but at least I can avoid that part of the ending being a foregone conclusion.

This chapter, being introductory, is somewhat longer than the others will be. They are, however, grouped based on plot, so the lengths will vary frequently. Hopefully I will be able to update on a regular and exact basis. A final word: if you do not review the story, I will not be aware that you read it at all. Feedback, even limited feedback, is appreciated.