Disclaimer: See previous chapter.

Notes: A/U, spoilers, etc. It will merge with the canon, later.

Human Nature
By: TF
Beta: Asteroid Blues

Chapter 07: Menagè à Trois avec Rose
(Threesome with Pink)

Sand whipped around the group of bandits, sending them face first into the ground as they tried to escape the grains that were rubbing their skin raw. A few shouted and scrambled, only to be confronted by a six-legged creature that creaked and groaned before breaking into a wave of motion that swept over those who had broken cover. They tried to get back, but were cut to pieces before they had taken three steps, sending a shower of blood into the wind, whipping it high into the air.

As the wind died down the remaining bandits peered around the edge of the outcropping that shielded them, looking down onto the patch of chunky red that had been their literal partners in crime. One whimpered, then staggered a few paces to empty his stomach while the blood drained from their faces. Once again the wind whipped up around them, trapping them each in their own little cyclone that was slowly grounding them down, despite their upraised hands and weapons.

Two forms appeared next to the multi-legged monster, the wind obediently dying down, dropping the swirling sand at their feet. The fan-wielder snapped her fan closed, dropping the sand around the bandits as blood slowly started to ooze from their numerous scrapes. One shuddered, then dropped to the ground, blood squirting from the jugular vein that the shuriken had pierced.

The fan-wielder smiled nastily and snapped her huge fan open, spinning around in a complicated maneuver that sent crescent blades of wind slicing through half of the bandits before she'd even completed her turn. Her partner twitched his fingers, sending the wood and metal monster slamming forward into the bandits in a spray of blood and gore that was spread over the area in a fine crimson mist.

"This isn't as fun without Gaara to herd them," Temari remarked as she snapped her fan closed and watched the bloody mist settle with bored eyes.

"That's only because your attacks can mow down a small forest with one swing. Your technique doesn't take the concentration needed to make a hunt more eventful," Kankuro commented, ignoring the glare that Temari sent his way at the slight to her fighting style.

"Gather up your toys so that we can leave," Temari snapped, smirking when her brother flipped her off.

"Watch it, or my toy may find its way into your accessories. Then it will be bye bye make-up and jewelry," Kankuro replied, carefully wrapping his puppet before hoisting it onto his back much like Temari had done with her fan.

"My make-up? What about that crap you smear all over your face? As if you can keep your day and night looks separate."

Kankuro snarled at his sister as she laughed and dodged away, taking the time to actually throw a knife in her direction when she started giving him tips on how to accentuate his eyes and shape his mouth. She laughed and retrieved the weapon with a smirk from where it had buried itself in the sand and spun in around one of her long fingers for the duration of the trip home as their conversation moved from idle banter.

Bandit missions were assigned more frequently in Suna than in any other hidden village due to the open land and lack of water for miles between the small number of villages and cities dotted across the desert. Between small, unorganized bandit raids, and the larger nomadic clans there were always plenty of missions available for any shinobi who needed some extra income.

The siblings were home before the sun had dropped below the horizon, giving them enough time to catch dinner before most of the shops closed for the night. Once home they separated to opposite ends of the small house to shower, clean weapons, and do the other small things that needed to be done after a mission, even a short, straightforward mission like they'd completed. Afterwards both found themselves in the living area of the small house, idly searching for something to do before the night got on its way and they separated until morning.

"You know, it's still odd without Gaara in the house, even if the amount of sand still hasn't diminished," Temari commented, looking around their sparsely furnished home.

"Yeah. It's been a few months and I still expect to see him raiding the cabinets for something to eat after his late night excursions," Kankuro said, looking anywhere except at his sister.

"Well, I'm going out," Temari said after a moment of silence. They'd said those two lines, or some variation thereof, too many times to count in the last few months. She smirked as she looked over her shoulder, calling out to Kankuro as she dodged the kunai thrown at her head, "Have fun playing with your toys, fatty! Don't stay up past your bedtime."

The puppeteer glared until he couldn't hear his sister's light footsteps outside. With a sigh he turned to the materials piled near the couch and the two puppets that were in need of repair. It wasn't going to be a long night until Temari returned in a few hours with a few excess drinks in her stomach. Until then he was going to enjoy a night free of insults and her snide comments. Really, how did Shikamaru put up with her company on a regular basis as well as that mouthy blonde?

Naruto groaned as he and Gaara were herded towards the Yamanaka flower shop by Sakura. First of all, it was lunch time, and Naruto really should have been eating, and secondly, it was flowers, and as a guy, he didn't do flowers. Naruto was pretty sure that Gaara didn't do flowers either, but Sakura hadn't cared when he'd voiced that either.

"Why are we doing this again?" Naruto whined, looking around for any avenue of escape.

"Because Ino requested help, and you two weren't doing anything anyway. Think of this as some odd mission that involves you to actually socialize with girls, instead of just eyeing them," Sakura said, keeping a close eye on the wayward blonde.

"What about Gaara, doesn't he have a say?" Naruto asked, gesturing towards his partner.

"Both of us know that Gaara doesn't do anything he doesn't want to," Sakura said, nodding to the red head when he glanced away from the crowd and towards her.

"That's not fair," Naruto whined, glaring at his partner for a moment before Gaara returned the look and raised an eyebrow. "Totally not fair."

"Get over it," Sakura snapped as she climbed the steps in front of the shop.

"Forehead-girl, I see you've brought some help," Ino smirked as she opened the green shop door.

"Forced, not brought. We were forced," Naruto muttered, only to be ignored by both girls.

"Naruto will help, I'm not too sure about Gaara. He does what he wants," Sakura said as she followed Ino through the door, a glance over her shoulder insuring that Naruto followed her example.

"That's okay. I only really need help with some of the larger deliveries. Both of my parents are occupied with other things today, so I'm left to man the shop," Ino replied as the led the trio into the humidity of the shop.

At the cloying smell of flowers Naruto wrinkled his sensitive nose and looked over to Gaara whose face was painfully blank. Naruto wasn't sure why the other boy had allowed himself to be led around the village, and into a flower shop of all places, but Gaara was a variable of his own, one that Naruto knew he would never figure out.

"Here's the list of addresses and which arrangements are to be delivered," Ino hadn't stopped talking during Naruto's lapse in attention.

Sakura took the offered list and looked it over for a moment before handing it back to Naruto, "We can handle that without a problem. Just tell us which arrangement is which and we'll get the job done."

"Thanks, Sakura. You're a real lifesaver. I couldn't find Shikamaru or Chouji anywhere," Ino said, smiling brightly at her pink-haired friend and her companions.

"It isn't a problem. You know that I'll always help you when you need it," Sakura said, shaking her head at Ino's relief.

Naruto and Sakura split the addresses up, electing to leave Gaara to his own devices as the Sand shinobi preferred. With a groan Naruto picked up his first vase and arrangement and left the small shop to enter the bustling market crowd, Gaara tailing him by a few feet. It wasn't that Naruto minded helping Ino, it was helping Ino with flowers. He growled lightly, Shikamaru's lazy habits were really annoying when he had to pick of the bum's slack.

As Naruto walked the streets of Konoha oblivious to the looks he was receiving, his partner was painfully aware of the attention they were drawing. Sand shifted ominously in his gourd, some seeping out to swirl around his feet in agitation as he glared at anyone who would meet his eyes, sending most of the crowd a few steps back. By the time he and Naruto had started their third delivery there was a small sphere around them where people avoided walking close.

"You get used to the looks and the comments after a while," Naruto commented after he caught Gaara giving the rest of the crowd a look that promised death on a whim.

Gaara looked at his partner and raised one almost nonexistent eyebrow before resuming his annoyed look while trailing the blonde. Naruto sighed and shook his head. If Gaara wanted to walk around and purposely scare the crap out of people, then that was his problem. Not that Naruto hadn't thought about doing the same thing more frequently than he liked to admit.

Shikamaru knew that hiding from Ino was going to have consequences, it always did. Every time that he'd hidden from Ino since they'd been small children she had always found a way to make his life hell after she found him. So his usual plan was to stay as far away from her as he could until she'd calmed down, which meant avoiding her for a few days. Chouji was lucky, he was actually doing some intense training in his family compound, Shikamaru, on the other hand, was just avoiding his female teammate.

It really wasn't safe to be venturing from the deer paddock so soon, but he was hungry, and he hadn't eaten all day. The noodle stand was rather obvious, but it was cheap, and he would only have problems if Naruto showed up. For some reason the blonde was always forced to do Ino's bidding whenever he couldn't be found, which led to Gaara trailing his partner through the streets and scaring most of Konoha's civilian and some of the ninja population.

So, Ichiraku probably wasn't the smartest place to go, but it had the cheapest food in the area. He should have expected it when Naruto loomed —or leaned, Naruto wasn't exactly a giant next to anyone—over his shoulder, and he definitely should have expected it when Naruto started yelling at the top of his lungs.

Shikamaru sighed and frowned up at the ranting blonde, eyes slit with irritation as one of Naruto's wildly gesturing hands whacked him on the back of the head. By turning he was able to see Gaara standing a few feet away, sand idly moving around his legs as he smirked. Shikamaru sighed before hunching back over his food, letting Naruto rant until he started repeating himself. Why did Ino always have to get Naruto to help her? No one else uncannily tracked him down afterwards.

"Naruto. Ramen."

The lazy jounin shook his head at how easily his attacker was sidetracked by his stomach. Quietly he finished his food and tried to slip away, only to find himself lightly encased in sand up to his knees, a silent warning to stay where he was until Naruto was ready to deal with him again.

"That was sneaky, Shikamaru. And again I was forced to help Ino by doing your job," Naruto admonished in between bites of noodles.

"If you were forced to help a harpy like her daily you wouldn't stick around either," Shikamaru replied, looking for any avenue of escape.

"I am, my harpy just has pink hair or huge boobs," Naruto replied, laughing when Shikamaru let his head fall to hit the bar of the stand.

"What were you saying?"

Naruto's eyes were comically large as he turned to see Sakura standing over him, hands on her hips as she watched him with a feral gleam in her eyes. Shikamaru groaned and tried to move his feet only to find them still encased in sand. Sakura shot a glance at Gaara who was standing in a corner of the stand arms crossed over his chest as he stood out of the way of Sakura's wrath.

"I wasn't saying anything Sakura," Naruto protested, working hard on appearing innocent and failing.

"And Shikamaru, you wouldn't be saying anything either, would you?" Sakura asked, eyeing the brunette boy with a predatory gleam in her eye.

"No," Shikamaru answered sullenly, testing his legs a few times before coming to the conclusion that short of knocking Gaara out he wasn't going to escape.

"Good, just what I wanted to hear. Oh, and Shikamaru," Sakura turned from where she had started to loom over Naruto to give the brunette a victorious look, "Ino's looking for you. You might want to talk to her before I tell her where to find you."

Shikamaru sighed and muttered a bothersome before he felt the sand around his legs sliding away. After glaring at the unconcerned red head he got up, stretched his legs, shoved his hands in his pockets and left. As soon as Shikamaru's hunched form had disappeared from view Sakura sighed and slumped into his vacant seat under the wary eyes of Naruto.

"You need to be more aware of your surroundings Naruto. Tsunade-sama could have come up behind you and heard that comment and knocked you into the next country," Sakura admonished, smiling at Naruto's sheepish look.

"Nah, Tsunade-baba loves me too much to do that," Naruto said, smiling brightly back at Sakura.

"Then why are you always bruised when you come out of her office?"


"Because he opens his big mouth and blurts out something stupid," Gaara said from his corner, causing both to look at him.

Naruto raised his hands in question and Gaara shrugged, causing Sakura to burst into laughter as Naruto started pouting. The blonde finished his noodles while Sakura was still laughing at him, then ordered another round of noodles for the both of them, Gaara choosing not to eat at the ramen stand.

"Tsunade wants to meet us later this afternoon," Sakura said after she'd finshed her lunch.

They were all still in the stand, leaning against the bar as they watched people walk by outside the hanging cloth that separated them from the street. At her statement both boys looked at her, then looked at each other in confusion.

"Me, Gaara, or both of us?" Naruto asked, looking between his partner and old teammate as Gaara's face went blank again.

"All of us, me, you and Gaara," Sakura replied.

She sighed and hopped to her feet, turning to face the two boys again, "She said that we were to meet her at four, so please try not to be late."

Naruto looked up at Gaara after Sakura had left, trying to judge what his partner was feeling and failing. Gaara was looking as stoic as Naruto had seen him since they'd gotten back from their last mission. With a shrug Naruto got up, dropped a small pile of bills on the counter to cover his meal and Sakura's, and led Gaara out into the crowd so that they could find an abandoned training field to train in.

Tsunade sighed as she flipped through yet another folder from the pile on her desk, trying to figure out what exactly needed her signature. Most of the pile was paperwork that needed her signature, papers needed to keep Konoha up and running, nothing more. Only a few of the folders and scrolls actually contained important information concerning scouting reports, treaties, important incoming missions, and spy reports that slowly filtered in from their spies spread across the countries close to them. There were a few spies scattered across the rest of the mainland, but their reports were few and infrequent due to the lack of trustworthy couriers and sometimes the sheer distance between the spy and Konoha.

"I'm surprised to see you actually doing paperwork," Jiraiya commented from the open doorway, shutting the heavy doors behind him as he came in and sat down on the other side of Tsunade's desk.

"Shizune's overworked as it is, and we don't have enough people with the authority to sign these available right now, so I'm stuck pushing papers instead of dealing with important matters," Tsunade said, dropping the signed file into the growing stack of folders sitting in the crate on the side of her desk.

"And yet you've called me here to talk about the brat and his homicidal partner," Jiraiya commented, leaning back comfortably.

"They need to be in a normal three man team instead of just running around on their own. That worked in the beginning, but now we need to have them working with someone else as well. There needs to be someone to counteract their head on tactics," Tsunade said, quickly signing another form and dropping it too into the crate.

"Who were you thinking? Most of the other chuunin their age are already on a team or working elsewhere," Jiraiya said.

The door opened and they both looked over to see Kakashi entering the office. Tsunade waved him in and he took a seat in one of the empty chairs, his back to one of the room's four walls.

"Now that Kakashi has joined us, we can get a better idea of the shinobi who would be compatible with Naruto and Gaara," Tsunade said, ignoring the incredulous look Kakashi sent her way before rolling his visible eye.

Jiraiya eyed the masked shinobi for a moment before concentrating on the task at hand. "What about Sakura? She doesn't have a team, and she can get along with the both of them easily enough."

"I do have her coming in at four with the boys, so Sakura is a possibility," Tsunade said, still working her way through the pile of papers.

"Sakura would be my first choice. Anyone else that Gaara would tolerate already has a team, and I'm hesitant to place him with anyone new, especially combined with the reputation of Naruto," Kakashi said, pulling out his book, but leaving it overturned on one of his knees.

"Gaara is the wildcard in this situation," Tsunade said with a sigh.

"I'm still not sure that allowing this boy on high ranking missions with Naruto is a good idea," Jiraiya said, leaning forward and frowning. "I wasn't here during the initial commotion, or during this boy's placement, but I still have reservations."

"Gaara and Naruto have been doing fine. There have been very few commotions between the two of them, and most of the complaints have been from villagers or Naruto's landlord who hates Naruto anyway," Kakashi said, still keeping a hold on his book as he watched the other two in the room.

"You put an already violate and irritable ninja into close quarters with Naruto, who has enough problems on his own, and just because nothing bad has happened you want to add another person to the team. I don't approve, but," his tirade wilted at Tsunade's look, "if you're set on this, then I can still only suggest Sakura. I don't know many of the younger generation, and most of the people Naruto talked about already have teams."

"Sakura has always managed to cow Naruto pretty well. If anyone can keep him in line she can. I've also found her in the company of both Naruto and Gaara and there were no problems between the three of them," Kakashi added.

"That's because both Naruto and Sakura pretty much let Gaara do what he will as long as no damage is done," Tsunade said, slamming a folder onto the desk in front of her as she looked over it at the two men. "We seem to be stuck on Sakura. Can anyone think of anyone else?"

"I would suggest Rock Lee, or Nara Shikamaru, but they both are on active teams," Kakashi stated, starting to sneak his book up to his face so that he could watch the exchange between Jiraiya and Tsunade covertly, but a look from Tsunade stopped him.

"They are both on teams that work smoothly, we aren't going to break them up. So, I guess we're settled on Sakura," Tsunade said with a sigh. "You can both go."

"Oh, and Jiraiya," Tsunade's voice caught him on the way out, "we'll discuss these arrangements later. For now they're working and they're not changing. Until we have a problem things will be left as they are."

Jiraiya frowned, but nodded before disappearing through the heavy doors, letting them swing closed behind his larger frame. Tsunade closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before opening them, letting the breath out, and continuing with the ever-towering pile of papers.

If there were ten things not to do or say in front of a woman, Shikamaru had done all of them in five minutes of talking to Ino after lunch. Chouji had managed to catch the end of the conversation and had barely managed to dodge the kunai that had cut a nice shallow line across Shikamaru's cheek. The blonde was just lucky that he was able to duck as well as he had.

They had retired to one of the more secluded training grounds so that Shikamaru could lick his wounds in peace. Chouji had trailed behind his muttering friend uncertainly, keeping a little distance between himself and the jounin in case the other boy decided to lash out. Not that Shikamaru was prone to outbursts, but the brunette was never really normal after one of his fights with Ino.

Chouji was about to ask what exactly had started the one-sided yelling match when Naruto's distinctive voice rang out over the training field. With a sigh he stood up and moved to head off the other blonde who was most likely to be followed by Gaara. Gaara still creeped him out, despite the alliance between Sand and Leaf and Gaara's apparent change of heart.

"Chouji," Naruto said when he and Gaara came into sight.

"Naruto, Gaara," Chouji said, keeping a wary eye on the red head.

"We came by to see how Shikamaru is doing. I caught part of the conversation between Sakura and Ino and it didn't sound pretty," Naruto winced in sympathy as Gaara rolled his eyes.

"He made her mad again, and she chucked a kunai at him. She nicked him on the cheek pretty well. We figured that this would be the last place she'd look if she tried hunting him down like she normally does after they fight," Chouji said.


"Yeah. I don't know how much you can help, but there's almost no way to make things worse," Chouji said with a shrug before turning and heading back to where his friend and teammate was sitting and licking his wounds.

Chouji led them back to where Shikamaru was sitting on one of the logs, keeping an eye on Gaara for anything suspicious the whole time they were walking. He didn't trust the other boy after the attack by the Sand, even if the red head had shown up to help against the Sound Four after he had been knocked out. Even the other boy's aura was off, sending off vibes that made him shiver and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Just being in the other boy's general vicinity was nerve wracking. Chouji didn't understand how Shikamaru or Naruto could spend so much of their time with the raccoon-eyed boy.

"I see that you've come to jeer," Shikamaru said, looking at the cloth he was using to dab his cut, trying to get the blood to clot a little quicker.

"Nah, that's too easy. We've come to see if you'd like help or advice. Not that I'm that great with girls either," Naruto said, taking a seat on the ground near Shikamaru.

"What advice do you have? It isn't like there's any way she won't be mad at me for the next week," Shikamaru muttered, glaring at the cloth when it continued to come away with blood.

"Maybe you should stop hiding from her. She wouldn't get so mad then," Chouji said helpfully.

"Why don't you stop eating when she nags at you? It's the same thing. She finds something that she dislikes and then she picks at you and picks at you until there's nothing you can do except hide," Shikamaru snapped, smashing the cloth back against his face hard enough that there was a sound from where his hand hit his cheek. "In sixteen years neither of us have stood up to her, and it seems like we never will."

"That's a little harsh," Naruto said, wincing when Shikamaru glared at him.

"Sakura is the same way, and Temari. I think all girls are just tyrants waiting to be set loose," Shikamaru growled, looking at the cloth again in disgust.

"Temari's worse," Gaara said, ignoring the surprised looks he was getting from the others.

"I'm an only child, I wouldn't know. All of the girls in my clan are nice to me, especially now that I'm going to be thin forever," Chouji said, idly poking his stomach where he used to be larger.

"Everybody hated me when I was little, I wouldn't know. Sakura can be nice at times, but then she hits me, and Tsunade-baba is a gambling drunk," Naruto added, blinking at the looks he received. "What? She is. Where do you think we found her? In a bar after she was done gambling for the day."

Shikamaru shook his head, "I'm tired of playing these troublesome games with that girl. She's either happy or she's not, and she's mostly not."

"Give her a present."

All three boys looked at Gaara as if he'd grown an extra head. He glared back, sand shifting ominously until they looked away.

"A present? Like a festival present, or jewelry, or what? And why? It's not like she'd talk to me now anyway. How bothersome," Shikamaru muttered, taking the cloth away from his face again, satisfied that his scratch wasn't bleeding anymore.

"Barrettes, or hair things," Gaara said, sitting down and ignoring the odd looks he was receiving.

"How do you know this?" Chouji asked, frowning at the red head.


"Temari?" Shikamaru asked. "Temari likes hair things?"

"Presents," Gaara said, rolling his eyes when they continued to give him odd looks. "She gets mad at a boy and they give her presents. She likes hair things the best, but candy does just as well."

"How do you know this?" Naruto asked, storing away these ideas for later use when he upset Sakura next.

"Because I'm not an idiot."

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean!"

"It means that you're stupid along with the rest of us because we don't pay attention," Shikamaru said, ignoring Naruto's indignant look.

"You think it'll work? You may have to dodge more weapons," Chouji said, watching his friend closely as the brunette sighed and looked at the ground.

"I'm ready this time. Besides, she can't make herself any more trouble than she already has. Sheesh, what a pain," Shikamaru muttered as he got up. "Here goes nothing but trouble."

Anko stepped away from the dango stand, happily carrying her food as she searched for Genma. The light-haired jounin had found them somewhere to sit and eat their separate lunches, she just wasn't sure where. She was about to give up and terrorize a few of the chuunin exam applicants while eating dango, but Genma's raised hand turned her away from the chaotic bustling of the midday lunch rush.

"This new bunch of applicants are crap," Anko said after picking through the pile of applicant forms that had been turned in early.

"They aren't any worse than they've been in previous tests," Genma said, idly twitching the senbon needle hanging from his lips with his tongue.

"Which means that this time they aren't even crap with potential. Shit, the next generation is screwing us over already and they haven't even done anything," Anko muttered, pushing the papers aside so that she could hit her head on the table.

"Oh, come on Anko. Give them a bit of a break. Some of them have improved from the last test," Genma said, watching the dark-haired woman moan and groan. "Just because the ones with the greatest potential have already become chuunin doesn't mean that there won't be any surprises."

"Shit. I'm almost tempted to let Naruto eat a few pounds of sugar before letting him loose in the Forest of Death along with that sand wielding psycho partner of his," Anko said, leaning back in her chair.

Genma shuddered at the idea and blinked rapidly for a few moments before finding his voice, "That was probably the most traumatizing idea for everyone that you could possibly come up with, wasn't it?"

"That was the idea," Anko's grin verged upon malicious as she watched the other jounin's face pale.

"I'm afraid for everyone involved now," Genma muttered, making Anko laugh for a moment.

"On another note, what have you heard from the border patrols?" Anko asked, leaning forward with a frown.

"Nothing, which makes me suspicious," Genma said, rolling his senbon between his lips some more as he too frowned.

"Orochimaru is still out there. I'm sure he's up to something, but I'm not sure what. My problem is the Uchiha boy," Anko said, absent-mindedly rubbing the botched seal on her neck.

"Hasn't he taken over the boy's body yet?" Genma asked, watching Anko as she sighed, still rubbing her neck.

"No, which is odd. I'd know if he switched bodies again, I always know due to this damn thing, but he hasn't. I don't know what's going on in the Sound, but it can't be anything good," Anko frowned, then sighed and picked up the pile of applications again.

"We'll deal with whatever they throw at us," Genma said, picking up his own pile. "Right now we have to concentrate on our future, not our questionable pasts."

"Speak for yourself. My future is my past."

Naruto, Gaara, and Sakura were all silent as they filed into Tsunade's office, letting the door shut behind them as they took up all of the chairs in front of Tsunade's large desk.

"Thank you for all arriving on time, for once," Tsunade said, her eyes lingering on Naruto, making him squirm for his normal tardiness.

"Now," she continued, "initially I asked Sakura to be here as well to help with the process, but instead she's here for the same reason you, Naruto and Gaara, are here. After reviewing mission reports and the reports written by Kakashi as he checked in on the you per the probation requirements, I've decided that the two of need a third person on your team to round out your techniques and personalities."

Naruto and Sakura blinked at this statement before looking at each other, then at Gaara who was carefully watching Tsunade for signs of subterfuge.

"So, who's the new teammate?" Naruto asked, still watching Gaara for any signs hinting towards something untold.

"Sakura of course. Between you two and your injuries a medic-nin, even one who isn't completely trained," Sakura rolled her eyes as Tsunade continued on, "will be needed. It will also save on hospital costs since training and mission related injuries are covered by the administration office."

Naruto grinned sheepishly as Sakura rolled her eyes. Everyone in the room knew how many injuries Naruto collected almost on a daily basis. They both looked over at Gaara to see him reclining in his chair, still watching Tsunade with an air of suspicion that he seemed to reserve for Tsunade alone.

"That's all. Come back in a day or two for your new mission assignment. You three are free to go. Please don't kill each other. Sakura, that goes doubly for you when Naruto acts up," Tsunade said, waving them out of the office over Naruto's indignant protests.

Shikamaru knew that going to Ino's house when she was upset was practically suicide, but he was there anyway, standing in front of her door despite the little voice telling him to go far, far away. He took a deep breathe and raised his hand to knock on the door, only to find it yanked open before his fist had even started its descent.

"What do you want, Shikamaru?"

Ino's angry voice cut through the cooling night air, making him flinch at the venom in her words. She was angry with him, he knew that, but he hadn't been expecting such malice. Suddenly the words he had planned seemed to be sticking in his throat.

Ino glared at him as he fidgeted before snapping at him again, "Why are you here? I thought throwing the kunai at you was hint enough."

"Look, Ino-"

He was cut off when she stepped out of her house and slammed the door behind her. Shikamaru took a step back as the angry blonde turned to face him, her eyes blazing as she looked up at him.

"Seriously Shikamaru, you can't just come to my house like this. I'm really sick of your attitude, of you expecting things to be easy just because you're lazy. Shit, I'm just sick of this!" Ino's voice had risen as she yelled, her hands clenching into angry fists.


"I can't believe that you hide from me when I actually need help, then you won't go away when I don't want to see you. What are you thinking?"

Shikamaru growled in the back of his throat as Ino cut him off again. Finally he looked down at her, placed a hand over her moving mouth, and shut her up.

"Ino, shut up and stop being a pain. I came to give you this."

He took his hand off of her mouth and shoved a small box into her fluttering hands before she could protest. When she stared at him he sighed and turned around, hands shoved deep into his pockets as he walked into the falling night. Ino stared after him for a moment before looking at the box in her hand. Tentatively she removed the small black lid, then stared again when tiny dragon barrettes winked in the light that fell from the open windows.

The wind blew softly through the village, bringing with it the scent of rain and summer nights. The village lights sparkled in the dim light, winking like miniature stars against the falling veil of night. Loud, wild laughter rang out from one of the many ninja bars, carrying across the village's varying architecture. From the largest tower he looked over the village, taking in the twinkling lights and the conglomerate of architectural styles that made up the sprawling Sound village.

He'd watched for over three years as buildings had been created and destroyed, Mist and Grass and Rock and Cloud and others coming together for as long as they were alive until someone else moved in and did some cultural remodeling. It hadn't taken him long to figure out that things in Sound were almost never constant, changing as people came and went. Oh, there were constants, but they were easily ignored compared to the massive changes that took place almost daily. It was amazing how quickly someone could build a house with added shinobi abilities.

Sasuke sighed as the breeze ruffled his long bangs, sending them flying into his face. He would have gotten them cut a while ago, but he didn't trust anyone with sharp objects near his face, especially not anyone left from the Sound Four, Kabuto, or Orochimaru. So he was stuck dealing with his hair himself, therefore his bangs were long so that he didn't accidentally stab out an eye because Tayuya surprised him, and the back was as short and even as he could get it with the help of the said kunai and a mirror.

Being in the Sound was certainly different from living in Konoha. Thinking about the differences was a waste of time, time better spent watching his back. Just because he was important to Orochimaru didn't mean that he wasn't fair game to anyone who wanted to try to beat him in order to gain prestige.

Without a sound he turned his back to the sights and sounds of the falling night and headed inside, shoving his bangs out of his face in sheer irritation before darkness swallowed him whole.

Naruto sighed as he watched the dance of small nightlife lights flickering across his ceiling. His partner was on the balcony, doing whatever he did when he was out there. Most of the time Gaara hung out on the roof, but for some reason he was just sitting on the balcony, his sand shifting calmly around his body as he stared into the gathering darkness.

There was a small pull on his stomach and a flare of chakra, then a small fox sending appeared, settling itself on his chest and flicking its tails before baring its teeth in a canine smile. Naruto rolled his eyes, recognizing the small form that Kyuubi manifested when he felt the need to either talk to Naruto or get out and stretch his metaphysical legs. The sending form had appeared accidentally during one of the training sessions Jiraiya had put together to help Naruto access the fox demon's chakra easier. Instead they had just given Kyuubi a form to wander in for short distances, creating yet another secret the villagers would go ballistic over if it ever became public knowledge.



Naruto scowled at the greeting, "Why have you chosen to grace me with your presence now? I thought that you were still plotting to take over my body while I sleep."

The fox snorted, twitching one of his tails in amusement as it shook its head, "I have no need to explain myself to a cub like you."

"You do when you're sitting on my chest."

The fox rolled its eyes, "If I had my real body-"

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto cut the fox off with a wave of his hand. "If you had your body you would eat me and everyone else. Understood, acknowledged, whatever."

Naruto yelped when the fox dug his claws into his chest, leaving dark indents in his smooth skin before dodging away to avoid Naruto's wild swing. It settled into a corner and settled down again, resting its muzzle across crossed paws, tails and ears occasionally twitching.

"What the hell was that for?" Naruto snapped, sitting up and rubbing his chest.

"Your impertinence. Despite being confined to this form, I am still a being to be afraid of. That is something that you can't understand," the fox snapped back, its eyes blazing for a moment.

"We've discussed this before. It isn't my fault you're stuck in my stomach. Get over it," Naruto said, still rubbing his chest even as the marks faded before his eyes.

The fox rolled its eyes, "Stupid kit. It's a wonder you weren't kicked out before you gained any power at all."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Naruto asked suspiciously.

"It means that all of you humans are so stupid that you don't even take care of potential threats before they have a chance to gain power. Hell, you humans don't even teach your young how to use their powers to their full potential. Idiots, all of you."

"So what? The villagers should have killed me before I learned anything?"

"If they were smart. In the desert they tried for the tanuki boy you're partnered with, but they didn't count on Shukaku or whatever it is that controls his infernal sand."

Naruto blinked at the small fox that was watching him with faintly glowing red eyes, "You know what's going on around me?"

"Just because I've been trapped doesn't mean that I don't pay attention, unlike you," the fox managed to smirk up at the indignant blonde. "They hate you and fear you, and rightly so, but they're too stupid to do anything about it."

"Too bad, you lose. I'm not dead," Naruto said, watching the sending as it shrugged, then stretched in the corner.

"I can wait," the sending replied, ignoring the way Naruto bristled. "With how much trouble you get into it shouldn't take long."

"Are you done insulting me, fuzz-face? Why have you decided to grace me with your presence?"

The fox sighed and started to lazily move around the room, sniffing under the bed before recoiling and moving on. Naruto watched from the bed as the fox explored, glowing faintly in the dimmed light from the chakra that powered its form. After a few minutes of silence the fox jumped on the bed, paws barely making impressions on the coverlet as it returned to Naruto and curled up at his side. They'd learned early on that they couldn't inflict more than surface wounds upon each other, anything else and the sending would become intangible and Naruto's body would just pass through the fox's form.

"We need to get out and away," the sending started, moving a few times before settling down. "It's too cramped here, surrounded by all of these humans. Ants, all of them, scurrying ants. Only the one with pink fur and the tanunki boy are worth dealing with out of all of the pathetic creatures. Pink-fur would only be useful for mating anyway, all of the others are to weak to become mate material."

"What the hell?" Naruto squaked, swatting at the sending but missing.

The sending glared at him and flicked its tails, resettling into the bedding once Naruto had calmed down again. "Stop shrilling, you sound like a mewling newborn when you do that. It's unbecoming of someone with an ounce of power. Stop acting like an idiot and screaming about every little thing."

Naruto scowled, but kept quiet at the fox continued talking, "We need to leave, to get out of these confines of human existence. They hate, they kill, they hunger, they abuse power, they enjoy the pain of others. Living in this filth makes me sick."

"Then why did you attack if you knew this?" Naruto asked, curious despite the disdain he could feel seeping out from the sending bristling on his bed.

"Food. About the one thing you humans are good for is a meal. Matter-wise you're nothing, but the ones with power make up for it."

Naruto blanched, much to the fox's amusement. The sound of the sliding door to the balcony opening brought their attention to Gaara who had started to enter the bedroom, then stopped, his gaze locked on the bed and Naruto, his sand's swirling accelerating with his agitation.

"What is that?"

Naruto watched the fox get up and jump off the bed as he answered his partner, "It's Kyuubi in sending form. He came about like this accidentally, of course."

Both were quiet for a moment as they watched the small fox pad over to Gaara. The sending sniffed at the swirling sand, then sneezed and jumped back. It inched forward again as Gaara calmed the sand, leaving it swirling at a slower pace. One paw tentatively reached out and patted the sand before it wrapped around the outstretched paw and tugged, sending the fox sending stumbling before it growled and hopped back onto the bed, fur standing on end as it bared its teeth at Gaara.

"Good job, furball," Naruto said, chuckling as the sending growled at him as well before curling into a ball and disappearing in a poof of smoke.

"I see that your demon makes itself a pain as well," Gaara said, standing at the foot of the bed as he watched his partner rub at his stomach where the seal was standing out vividly.

"He comes out to extol the virtues of being human," Naruto said, dropping his hand away from the seal when he saw Gaara eyeing it.

"Ah," Gaara said before heading for the bedroom door. "Goodnight."

"'Night Gaara."

The mist that drifted through the small clearing was disrupted, sending eddies of shimmering mist skittering across the clearing as nine figures stepped out from the darkness.

"Due to the new developments with the demon carriers we've been set back in our plans."

The words carried across the damp night air, but none of the figures shuffled nervously, they were above such petty feelings as nervousness.

"Together they are more of a problem than apart," Kisame's voice echoed from the shadows, his teeth flashing in the dull moonlight.

"The sand boy is unpredictable, yeah. He'll be harder than the other," Deidara's voice added. "Yeah, more of a challenge."

"Don't be so hasty. The Kyuubi boy can be just as bad as Shukaku's carrier," Itachi's cold voice broke through the darkness, adding to the conversation.

"Continue along the lines that have already been laid down. We'll meet again later to discuss further developments. Keep to the shadows."

As the figures faded into the darkness four stayed, two pairs looking across the clearing at each other. There were wooden sounds, like a spider crawling across the floor as the largest of the figures moved, figure blurred in the darkness.

"We'll continue watching the Shukaku boy. You two keep to Kyuubi."

Itachi's eyes swirled in the darkness, pinwheels of black cutting through blood red, "Just keep out of sight. There are to be no reports of us in the area."

As Itachi and Kisame disappeared, Deidara huffed, flicking his blonde bangs out of his face as he stared at their retreating forms.


"Drop it, Deidara. We have our objectives," Sasori cut him off before he could get going.

With a sigh she nodded and they faded into the darkness of the night, Deidara's voice hanging in the air with his last remark, "I'm going to beat his smug ass some day, yeah. Then he won't be so haughty."


A/N: Betad! W00t.

Alright, here's a few notes that I wanted to put up after the first version was posted: Deidara is a boy (Thanks Saria-chan!), there are nine members in Akatsuki after Orochimaru left (I went back to Volume 27 on narutofan(dot)com and checked, there's nine shadows), and this will not be a Gaara/Naruto pairing. Sorry. All others are open though.

Thanks to everyone who reviewed last time, I appreciate every single one of them. Sorry if anyone was disappointed.

This was more drabble and character development than plot, but it's all relevant, so be prepared for the pace to pick up in the next chapter.

Look out for Chapter 08: Mission Accepted and Escalating!

Thanks, as always, to Asteroid Blues for taking time away from video games to deal with this.