Chapter Soundtrack: "Blink" by Hidetake Takayama


Haku scrubbed the pan thoroughly while in the kitchen. It was his turn to do the dishes, and unfortunately last night's meal had fed many mouths that weren't inclined to wash their own plates. Due to his accommodating nature Haku had gone ahead anyway and did the task that no one else was interested in. Later there would be a short reproving speech for his friends.

Tsunami walked in after him, carrying more plates and bowls stacked on top of one another. She saw Haku and smiled widely at him, "Now aren't you such a good son, Inari? Thank you so much for all of your help, sweetie!"

He blinked at the woman in alarm. He couldn't think of anything to say.

"So how was your day at the Academy, then?" Tsunami continued, helping him dry dishes on the side of the sink, "Did you master the replacement technique just like you told Grandpa you would?"

"Tsunami-san…I…I haven't attended the Academy for some time…" Haku said slowly, confounded, "And please…my name is not Inari. I'm Haku. Your son is a young boy who you raised with a man named Kaiza, remember?"

"Oh dear…there you go spouting nonsense again," She smiled obliviously, "Now that you mention it Daddy is a bit late today…he missed dinner again."

"Tsunami-san please, you have to tell me what's-"


He turned round to face the owner of the voice. Haku could see an open doorway leading from the kitchen and he cautiously ventured outside. There seemed to be no overlapping land between the house and the Great Naruto Bridge, and he set foot on the concrete overpass, bewildered. He had just stepped out the door.

Gaara gave him a hateful look, "Haku…I don't want to be an uncle yet."

He didn't understand and Haku was certain that he didn't want to. He didn't bother trying to console his irate friend as Gaara continued on angrily, "I will never let you see Temari again! Not after what you've done! I knew I couldn't trust you…all you'll do is hurt her."

"Gaara-kun that can't be right! I promised that I-!" Haku felt something approaching and ducked down, barely moments before a zanbato arced over his head. He felt his heart rate pick up. Fear filled him. Suddenly Gaara was gone and he was left to face Zabuza as he raised his massive sword threateningly.

Haku faced the nukenin, not having the faintest inkling of what was going on, "What are you doing here?" Zabuza charged again and Haku evaded, tumbling away and slashing in retaliation with an ice blade he conjured. It hacked off the careless mist ninja's arm and he wasn't bothered by it in the slightest.

"I've seen better…" Zabuza grunted, eyeing the wound with a blasé look, "You don't know anything. Your blood. Your lineage. You think you're just like everyone else…but deep down you were bred to be so much more than what your Hokage leads you to believe. You could have been strong but you are just a fool."

Haku stared with his jaw hanging as Zabuza moved through an ice mirror and disappeared into it. He wanted to know why he had left so abruptly and why he could use the same jutsu. The nukenin's departure wasn't half as strange as Naruto's emergence.

The blonde boy walked up to him, smiling normally, but a pair of small ginger fox ears protruded from his mop of wild golden hair. Haku narrowed his eyes suspiciously as Naruto's bushy red tail wagged amiably behind him, "Hey Haku-kun! Are you feeling alright today?"

"Not by any stretch of the imagination, Naruto-kun."

Naruto scratched lazily at one of his ears, fighting off an itch, "Sorry about that buddy! Hey! I met your mom back over that way!" Haku assumed he was mistakenly referring to the very confused Tsunami, "But it was weird, Haku-kun…why was your dad holding a knife?"

"A…knife?" Haku repeated quietly, and Naruto nodded in confirmation before running off on all-fours. He turned, sensing another presence, and Haku was not in fact shocked to see his own father had been standing behind him the whole time, "Hello…Father."

He was in fact holding a knife. Haku looked at him curiously for a moment, startled by how much he did resemble his father in terms of eye color and height. He had never considered that they were alike in any way. Haku swallowed the lump in his throat, seeing that the older man was standing silently in guilt, grieving over what he had done to his own family, "Father…please…there are so many things that I want to ask you. I just can't understand why you were so afraid of us."

His father looked up and gazed at him moon-struck for a moment. Haku blinked, not thinking to move when he raised the knife up in defense, "No don't! I won't hurt you. I'm not angry with you at all, Father. Just tell me why it happened!"

The knife came down anyway, sinking cleanly into his heart. Haku felt no pain, but watched mutely as blood rapidly soaked the front of his gi. He looked back up at his father questioningly.

"Haku…I am sorry. I do love you, no matter what you think about me." His words were hushed and the dark haired boy felt tears sting at his eyes as his father wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulder, the other still held the dagger firmly in his son's chest.

"But you know…I would've loved you more if you had been normal."

Haku woke up from the nightmare in a cold sweat. He had suspected that he had been dreaming at the point Tsunami had mistaken him for Inari, but he had still been lost in a fantastic world that seemed to warp around him and take him to all the places he needed to revisit and ask questions. The answers slipped away just as his eyes batted open.

Sunlight gleamed in through the window, lighting up the bedroom. He sat up, wiping the perspiration from his brow and sighed heavily, 'Morning already…I've overslept.'

And right on cue Gaara stuck his scowling face into his friend's room, "You overslept."

He nodded absently and apologized for his blunder, "I'm sorry, Gaara-kun…I'll be ready in a few minutes."

"Hn." Gaara left with no further comment. He didn't have to rattle the boy to consciousness as he would for Naruto, so he let him be and went back into the living area.

Haku stood from the bed and proceeded to meticulously neaten it. He reflected on the dreadful dream. Though it had made his stomach turn it had still contained many painful truths. He dressed quickly and tied his hair up to get it off of his sweaty neck. Though he was again in reality he still felt nervous. He knew he couldn't afford any indecision on the day he was leaving for Suna.

His bag had already been prepared the day before. It was an eerie feeling as he went about the apartment with Gaara, turning all the lights off, closing doors, and eventually locking up the apartment one final time after they had exited. They traveled in silence through the building. Though neither had packed much, their bags weighed heavily against their backs.

"I'll meet up with you and the others soon." Gaara informed his friend lowly, "I have to go see her now."

Haku nodded pleasantly, "Of course, Gaara-kun." He continued on and turned off down the street towards the Hokage's tower, while Gaara moved up to the rooftops at great speed.

Sakura paced anxiously on a rooftop in wait. She and Gaara had come to an agreement the day before that he would not forget to wish her farewell before leaving the village. She hadn't been specific about what time she'd be expecting him, so she had been up for a long while simply waiting in the designated area, fearing however irrationally, that he would leave her behind.

'Gaara-kun would never do that…he said he wasn't like Sasuke. He isn't going for himself…' Sakura repeated the thought like a mantra, 'He won't go until he sees me first…he promised!'

The red haired nin arrived promptly and she felt her heart rate quicken at the sight of him, "Gaara-kun! What took you so long-?" He had seized her about the waist and backed her up against a ventilation duct with a hollow thud. He had managed to do it gently.

Sakura opened her mouth to protest his rushing but he silenced her; his mouth was terribly persuasive and delivered kisses that were full of pent-up emotion. He wanted to go but he wanted to stay as well. She could understand that and he hadn't even said anything.

Sakura let his lips hover over her own for a while, allowing him a moment to calm down. Her arms were rested comfortably on his shoulders, and she nuzzled his neck once he had stopped for a moment to breathe. Gaara pressed up against her greedily, inhaling her flower-like smell. He would not know any trees or vegetation while he was away. She would have to be his memory of all that was verdant while he was in Sand.

"Say that you're mine..." He growled, almost angry, "Don't think about Sasuke anymore, Sakura. No one but me; I am the one who dreams of you always, whether I am here or far away, there is nothing else I think about…"

The pink haired girl stared at him for a moment, dazed, "Well…I suppose I won't be able to help it now will I?" She grinned at him, "I'm yours, if that's what you want to hear."

"…yes…" His voice dropped a few octaves.

"What was that?" Sakura laughed, wondering why all of his neediness had to manifest just before he left, "Are you going to be alright, Gaara-kun?"

For a very brief moment Shukaku had exercised some control over vocalization, and yet it had said everything that Gaara had been feeling. For once Gaara couldn't say that he despised the demon because it was acting in accordance with his desires and not trying to eat away at his soul. Perhaps it too had grown fond of Sakura.

"I'll be alright." He confirmed, his speech adjusting again, "I'd ask you to come with me if Tsunade hadn't realized how talented you were."

"Yeah well, she can't be legendary forever! Someone has to take over for her." Sakura smiled proudly, "I'll still be here when you get back you know…but just remember while you're over there that I'm the prettiest girl you know, your favorite."

He nodded, liking how her mouth mumbled words against the line of his jaw.

"Well…maybe except for my forehead. That may be one thing that could use improvement." Sakura corrected herself, not completely confident in her appearance.

"Nothing about you needs to be changed." Gaara announced, "Everyone's forehead should be as beautiful as yours, Sakura."

"You're such a brown-noser…"

He kissed her again and this time she cooperated. It was soft and wonderful, but it didn't last long. Gaara pulled away, knowing better than to dote on her too long. If he had done that, Shukaku may have gained enough control to have attempted to kidnap her…and he doubted he'd try to fight against it.

"Time to go." He said somberly, and the pink haired girl followed after him without objection. It was a quiet walk across town to the Hokage's tower. Haku was already waiting out in front of it with Temari and Kankuro. Tsunade and Hinata showed up a few moments later as well.

Both Hinata and Sakura took their time saying goodbye to their friends, and Tsunade only watched with a smiling expression, finding the parting bittersweet. Once everyone had been hugged and wished luck, the Hokage spoke up, "All of you have a safe journey to Sand! I want a report in about a week or so to see how you're all doing, understood?"

She received an affirmative response from both Gaara and Haku and she was pleased.

"Well then, kids, I'll see you around." Tsunade's voice was a deep rolling chuckle, "Sakura, let's go now. It's time for your training…"

"Yes, Master!" Sakura gave one last look as Gaara and his group continued on down the street without her. She hesitated to follow Tsunade for a moment. The pink haired girl turned to Hinata, "Hinata-chan…would you like to join me and Tsunade-sama for a lesson?"

"I am afraid I can't Sakura-chan…" The Hyuga girl smiled weakly, "It's time for me to go water Naruto-kun's plants for him. I try to keep it at three times a day just like he said."

Sakura laughed and hugged Hinata in response, having a feeling they would do just fine without the knuckleheads they so adored.

Sasuke sat on the edge of his bed meticulously wrapping both of his arms in tape. His onyx eyes stared down, hollow, as his hands worked methodically, hiding his skin from sight. It wouldn't be long before he'd have to train again.

His new life in Sound was like a well-oiled machine. It was quiet, organized and his regimen was completely controlled by his own needs. If he needed to eat he was served food. If he needed to learn a jutsu scrolls were given to him. There was very little one-on-one instruction when it came to his training…or rather, he didn't want it. He kept his distance from Orochimaru when he could.

His room was overly ornate, spacious, and the walls were painted a deep crimson that added to the darkness of the place. There were no windows.

He hated it.

Sasuke stood once he had finished his task and he left his room, stepping out into an echoing corridor. People who had been standing in the hallway, servant and shinobi alike, ducked away at the sight of him. Upsetting the young 'Uchiha Prince,' or so they called him, would result in swift punishment or death by his hand. His skills had grown rapidly since he had left Leaf.

The only creature that didn't flee at the sight of him as he continued on was a small, gray cat, who had a bandana tied around its neck. It stopped and looked up at Sasuke, twitching its whiskers, "Good morning, Sasuke-sama!"

Rather than ignoring it, which he did with most people, he greeted it politely the same way. The cats that lived in the hideout often proved valuable to him for collecting information that he needed. Keeping a good relationship with them was vital. Sasuke moved on, turning left at the end of the corridor and pushed open two heavy doors.

From there he entered a dimly lit laboratory, filled with rows of water tanks. Some held captives used for experimentation. He wasn't initially interested in the lab at all, but the stairwell near its back that led to an arsenal, from which he intended to select better weaponry. Sasuke crossed the room slowly, his dark eyes occasionally scanning a tank or blinking meter that he passed.

"Wait, is that you again, Sasuke-san?"

The Uchiha prodigy paused and looked over his shoulder irritably, "What do you want, Suigetsu?"

He had happened upon an annoyingly chatty experiment when he had first arrived in the hideout weeks earlier. Now there was no reasoning with him.

In a tank that at first appeared to be empty, a watery form took the shape of a person, who pressed himself up against the glass inquisitively.

"The only thing I did want is out of reach now…" Suigetsu droned in boredom, "If only you had succeeded in bringing that water-nin boy Orochimaru-sama wanted then I'd have some company here!"

"Haku was a waste of time." Sasuke replied shortly, not addressing the matter further.

"It seems there's a rumor going around that he's still alive, though!" Suigetsu added, smirking, "Orochimaru-sama can still sense his chakra..." His expression then soured, "Damn…if Kabuto wasn't dead I could go for a swim outside in the pond! Orochimaru-sama doesn't let me go anywhere unsupervised."

Sasuke snorted at the statement, "Can you blame him?"

Suigetsu laughed in response, revealing shark-like teeth, "No…and I don't really want to be here either, so if he let me out I would run, of course. Here I am only an experiment, but outside I am a shinobi again. Remember, Sasuke, you may have come here of your own will but most of us were kidnapped."

"And somehow I still have no sympathy for you." The Uchiha smirked and continued on walking.

He paused after a few paces, keen to the chakra signature of Orochimaru, who had appeared in the doorway. Quickly he bristled, having hoped he could have gone an entire day without having to look at the snake sannin.

"We have a visitor, Sasuke." Orochimaru's sing-song voice carried through the lab, forcing the Uchiha to turn around and face him. Sasuke and Suigetsu both looked to the double doors where another ninja had appeared.

The newcomer's headband signaled to them that he was a Rock ninja. He was tall and slender, dressed plainly in dark attire. He had to have been about Itachi's age, Sasuke assumed. The man's hair was a shock of intense violet, offset by stunning gold eyes. He looked as if he had been painted to life and his heedless smile also appeared to be a thing of fiction.

"Ah, so this is the infamous Uchiha Sasuke! I'm pleased to meet you at last!" The man's smile was friendly and sincere, "My name is Shimofuri Koinyu and as I suppose you've already seen, I've come here from Hidden Rock."

Orochimaru concluded the introduction, "Koinyu-kun will be standing in for Kabuto from now on. He will prove far more useful to us; so no attempts must be made on his life while he stays here, understood Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke grunted in acknowledgment, though he could honestly care less about Koinyu.

"Orochimaru-sama, would it be alright if I asked Sasuke-sama a few questions?" The Iwa nin inquired respectfully.

"You may," The sannin answered, then turned to leave the lab, "But that does not mean he will cooperate."

He had left just as swiftly as he had appeared, and Suigetsu called out after him, "Wait! Orochimaru-sama! Could you maybe let me out for a little while?"

There was no response. Sasuke glared at the wall behind Koinyu's head, his Sharingan activated merely for the effect of intimidation.

Koinyu blanched for a moment, but then heaved a heavy sigh and approached the Uchiha. Suigetsu spitefully bared his teeth at the newcomer, wondering what sort of effect they would have on him. Koinyu thoroughly ignored him and stopped a short distance away from Sasuke, "I won't take up much of your time, Sasuke-sama, and you won't have to answer in too much detail either."

Sasuke still remained unimpressed.

Koinyu fished through his tunic briefly before holding up a picture. There was no need to hand it to Sasuke, his Sharingan was already scanning every inch of it. The image was of a shinobi, who wasn't at all recognizable, but he didn't appear to be the focus of the photograph. The weapon he was wielding was a golden long bow in which he was captured forever in the moment of launching a blue arrow.

"Do tell me, Sasuke-sama, have you ever seen a weapon such as this in the Leaf Village before?" Koinyu asked amiably, narrowing his amber eyes as he waited for a response.

He scrutinized the picture in boredom, not seeing why it was pertinent at all. After a moment, a weak, distant memory floated up from the recesses of his mind, 'The Chunin Exam…'

"Something like that was used in the Chunin Selection Exam months ago." Sasuke reported dully, folding his arms.

Koinyu's eyes lit up with pleasant surprise, "Well that certainly is good news! Now can you tell me who was wielding the Hiyumi?"

"…just some girl."

"Yes, I know it's a girl!" Koinyu snapped impatiently, "Her name: I need the kunoichi's name…"

Sasuke paused momentarily, realizing that if he answered the question he could quite possibly be jeopardizing Konoha. He had not yet decided if he was fully withdrawing his allegiance from Leaf, so he took the situation into consideration.

Iwagakure, he reasoned, still held hostilities with Konoha since the war. Their interest in this weapon could be some sort of trap that would endanger the Leaf Village. Also, Sakura was in Leaf. She was his salvation and his only chance at redeeming himself when his vengeance was carried out. He didn't want to risk her life while he was away.

Conversely, Tenten, the owner of the weapon, also resided in Leaf. He held little sympathy for her and didn't care to know why she possessed a weapon from the Rock Village. All that he was sure of about the kunoichi of Team Gai was that she had nearly killed Sakura once, even if it had been inadvertent. He judged that was something worth punishing.

"Her name is Tenten. No family name that I know of…" Sasuke replied, finding the information truly unhelpful. He still didn't see why there was any interest in the kunoichi.

"Ten-Ten?" Koinyu laughed, enunciating the name with a mocking tone, "That is the name of the last Sasagainu? Bi-sama will be amused with this!" He tucked the picture away, still chortling wildly to himself at the thought, and thanked Sasuke for his assistance before exiting the lab.

Suigetsu was terribly confused over what had just transpired, "What the hell is a Sasagainu?"

"It's a name you idiot," Sasuke informed him dryly, "…a clan name."

Gaara followed behind Kankuro as they passed through the Fire Country. It wouldn't be a very long journey to Sand, and things seemed to be going smoothly as he and his companions spoke light-heartedly and predicted things to come once in Suna. Haku, as to be expected, was the quietest of the group.

He hung near the back of the procession, his eyes downcast. The dream he had early that morning was still eating away at his mind. No matter how twisted and random it had been, the message it had relayed was still very clear to him.

'This isn't my path…'

He had been living life so far as if it had been a daydream. Everything had been handed to him and been made simple. Haku was aware that the complexity of his true goal would possibly bring him to his knees. It would be the hardest mission he could ever undertake in his life, if he chose to pursue it. He was torn between Sand and the truth.

"Hey, Haku, you don't look so good." Kankuro informed him, concerned, "Is something the matter? We'll be at the country border soon; it isn't more than a day's walk."

He wanted to thank Kankuro for his reassurance but he found that he simply couldn't, 'No more lying…'

"I…I don't think that I can make the journey to Sand."

Temari turned around to face him, her eyebrows raised, "Sure you can. You've gone much farther than this without complaint, Haku."

He shook his head weakly, "It isn't because I can't make it…it's because I won't."

Gaara, who was a few paces ahead of him on the path, paused. He turned and looked at Haku in silence. Earlier he had sensed the indecision in his friend when they had first left Leaf. In a way he had already known Haku's intentions.

"Come on kid, you can make it to Sand!" Kankuro laughed, feeling that Haku's insecurity was pointless, "You don't have a good enough reason to stay in Leaf, going somewhere new will be good for you. Trust me, I know."

"I won't be in Leaf…"

Temari balked at the statement, her slate eyes widening a bit. She didn't bother asking Haku what exactly he meant because she expected him to explain. The kunoichi did her best to keep her bafflement under control but it was difficult.

"Gaara-kun," Haku spoke up, finally raising his eyes, "This may be my only opportunity…if what Zabuza said is true then I must go find out for myself!"

"Who the hell is Zabuza?" Kankuro asked, puzzled. He was unfamiliar with the name.

Gaara narrowed his eyes. He didn't even remotely trust the nukenin they had battled long ago in the Land of Waves, but he understood that Haku had no other way to begin searching for his clan. Certainly once he was in Sand he wouldn't be permitted to leave lightly, there was too much hype from Leaf of losing him to Sound.

Gaara folded his arms, his voice was low, "If you do not come to Suna with us I will not lie for you. If Tsunade-sama finds out that you are in the Water Country instead, there will be huge consequences, as well as the threat of Orochimaru."

"I would never ask you to lie for me, Gaara." Haku smiled at his friend.

Temari was promptly infuriated, "Did you say the Water Country? Don't even think about it! You're coming with us! That's already been decided!" She and Kankuro turned to look at Gaara, and they were troubled when their sibling turned his back on Haku.

Gaara closed his eyes and then called aloud to the dark haired boy, "Go then, if you must. Find what you're looking for and then return quickly."

Haku nodded in understanding, "Thank you, Gaara-kun…"

"Gaara…are you sure that this is a good idea?" Kankuro muttered to his younger brother, "You can't just give him permission! Then the Hokage will hold you responsible for what happens to him!"

Gaara said nothing. He didn't want to watch Haku leave, even when he knew it had to be done. He didn't want to acknowledge the fact that his two best friends were going to be very, very far away from him for a long time.

Temari opened her fan to a full three moons, her eyes on fire, "You're not going anywhere! I'll break your legs if I have to!"

She swung her weapon and stirred up a powerful gale that was so sudden Haku didn't have time to evade. The fierce wind knocked him back against a tree trunk with a crack, and Temari's scowl grew even more after seeing she had only destroyed a water clone.

Enraged that he had gotten a head start, Temari barreled on ahead into the woods beside the road they had been following. She could see Haku ahead of her and she aimed ferocious wind jutsu for him. With his new awareness of his wind ability, he blocked the gusts with his own thanks to the Hyoton.

"I hate your stupid fucking blood limit!" She screamed after him, loathing how she had suddenly become powerless. After hearing Temari's shrill cry Haku stopped and turned to face her, knowing it could prove to be a foolish decision.

Temari crashed headlong into him, not slowing down in the least, and pinned him roughly against the trunk of a nearby tree, seething, "I swear I'm not letting you get away!"

"I'm sorry, Temari." His apology was a sorrowful mewl.

"You're running away!" She yowled, her eyes were flashing with anger, "You're just like that Uchiha-asshole after all!"

There was a painful silence.

Temari felt her eyes begin to water but she refused to let herself cry. Not for him. Not over something as preposterous as this, 'This shouldn't even be happening!' She let herself calm down a bit, taking deep breaths, but she wouldn't remove her hand from the collar of his shirt. She wasn't letting him leave.

"So…had you actually been planning on leaving your village like this?" She asked slowly, still unsure if it had been a spur-of-the-moment choice. It didn't seem like something that he'd do.

"Yes." Haku answered softly, "I just never imagined it to be this way…"

"Then if you were going to leave anyway…even after they brought you back home…why did you say all of those things to me? Why did you do all of those things? Why couldn't you have just left me alone you selfish bastard!" Temari hissed, her face an inch from his.

Her grip on his top was tightening. She didn't want to be with someone who was only going to run off to a place she couldn't follow. She felt it was a waste of time.

"I love you." He said it with sincerity, "I did everything I did because I wanted to show you that…" Haku made a vain effort to pry her hands from him but it was no use, "I never wanted to hurt you…not even when we first met, and that was certainly no friendly meeting. This…this may be my only chance to search for my clan, Temari."

"You don't need a clan! You have us!" Temari protested loudly, "How would you find them anyway when you don't even know your own surname?"

"I won't be searching alone," Haku informed her, "Temari…I will go to Sand. I will stay with you. But for now I must go and see if my family still truly does exist."

"You already have one!" Her voice rose to a screech again, "What more could you possibly want? Even if you do find somebody like you, you'll be strangers to each other! They won't love you the same way, Haku. No one will."

"Temari…I can't thank you enough for all that you've given me…"

"I don't want your gratitude you ignorant little shit-!" She was cut off when he moved to kiss her, succeeding, but she reciprocated in one of the worst ways. Temari drew a knife in response, and pressed it smoothly against his throat, threateningly.

"You're forgetting that I'm a shinobi, and I will act as a shinobi and make sure that Orochimaru can't get you at all…if it comes to that." Temari warned, her voice growling and sharp.

Haku was utterly unafraid of her, "He won't. Please trust me, Temari."

She bared her teeth at him, furiously, "I don't care about you! Even if I did it was all an experiment to see how things would turn out…looks like I made a stupid choice!"

"Just trust me, Temari…"

"No!" The kunoichi crushed him against the tree trunk, "I will never trust you again! You've lied to me just like I knew you would!"

"Not once have I lied to you…and I am not lying now." Haku, fearless and love struck, guided her hand and poised the kunai over his heart, "You have my heart now. Do whatever you like with it because I've given it to you willingly. I trust you."

"I don't want it! You don't mean anything to me!" Her howls shook through the surrounding forest, scattering birds that had been perched close by.

"You are in my heart always."

"Then I'll cut myself out!" Temari shrieked and the brief moment in which the blade did come down she had ignored it. It was satisfying to stab him and make him feel pain. It was terrifying to stab him and make him feel pain. It was final.

She stared dumbly as his eyelids batted shut after her strike. She wanted to take it back but she knew she couldn't. Temari stared in horror, with her mouth hanging open in shock. 'He deserved it. He was a traitor and a liar. He was leaving.' It was too quiet.

'…I do love you, otherwise I would've let you go.'

The shadow clone dematerialized with a brief puff of smoke, and there was a moment in which relief and wrath mixed into a dangerous concoction in the pits of her stomach. Of course he would've left a kage bunshin behind to stall her, she reasoned. By now he must have been a mile ahead and Temari knew he wasn't coming back.

Kankuro arrived a minute later, disheveled, and descended from the treetops. For a moment he only stood there, and then he looked at his sister uncertainly and asked, "Did he…did he really leave?"

"It doesn't matter, we're going home now." Temari snapped angrily, storming past her brother, "As far as I know Haku's dead and I'm the one who killed him!"

She hurled the knife pitilessly ahead of her, sinking it into a tree branch, and then rushed ahead to rejoin Gaara.

The current hideout was situated in a diminutive rocky location north of the Wind Country. They would be staying in it for some time, the leader had said. It was secluded enough so they wouldn't have many visitors. They came and went from the place like shadows.

The hideout sat on a high cliff and the mountainside was barren. The entrance was constantly buffeted by strong winds. Statues of lions dotted the uneven edge of the drop-off, and Kisame was perched on top of one of them lazily, seated between two great ears. He looked down to his left, where Itachi was leaned against the side of the stone lion. His partner stood in silence with his eyes closed.

Kisame wondered what he was thinking about briefly before turning his gaze back to the horizon ahead. The sunlight was considerably bright due to the lack of shade. He adjusted his hat to shield his eyes from the unforgiving beams. A flock of doves raced past.

"Itachi-san…how many birds are out there now, do you think?" He mused, blinking up at the acrobatic congregation wheeling through the sky.

"There are nineteen."

"Ah." Kisame smirked slightly at the answer, "You didn't count the falcon that's chasing them…or…is that because you didn't see it?"

"My vision is none of your concern, Kisame." Itachi dismissed the subject yet again. This was the fourth time that week his partner had brought it up.

"As your partner I'd say that it is my concern," He adjusted his hat again, knowing that he had little chance of effectively arguing with the Uchiha, "I'll only suggest that we find a healer soon to look at those eyes of yours…they certainly aren't getting any better."

Itachi lowered his face behind the collar of his coat as a freezing wind rushed up against the cliff. "I'd prefer not to." He said, killing the discussion completely.

A hunched figure approached them as it left the cavern. It paused a good distance away and then spoke in an irritated voice, "Leader wants to speak with you now, Itachi-san. Go to him."

Without another word the Uchiha straightened and then left, walking in silence to the building.

"What does Leader want with Itachi-san?" Kisame asked after his partner had gone.

"It isn't any of our business. He just seems to favor Itachi-san over the rest of us…" The newcomer answered, his voice was a low rasp.

Kisame wasn't about to deny that Itachi was, most likely, one of the most powerful shinobi in the organization besides Leader. Few could match him if there was ever inner-conflict, (which he had proven with Orochimaru) and Kisame would even go as far as to say that even he would be slain if he raised his sword against his partner.

And yet Itachi was suffering from overuse of the Mangenkyo Sharingan. His vision was strained and Kisame could see it was beginning to affect how he performed on missions, even if it was only minute, 'What sort of consequences will he face if his eyesight continues to deteriorate, I wonder…' The outcome could certainly not be good. Though he didn't say it to Itachi, he was concerned for his life.

A shrill cry pierced the air, "Sasori! You take so long! Hurry so we can reach the Lightning Country!" Riding on top of a clay bird ahead, a blonde man impatiently urged Sasori to catch up.

Kisame chuckled darkly as he looked down at the hunched form again, "My sympathies, Sasori-san. Looks like you're stuck with a bothersome partner…"

Sasori grunted in response, walking away, "His art is an abomination. I've never seen such trash until he came along…"

It was another reason he was grateful Itachi was his partner. It meant he'd never be landed with a block-headed shinobi with a big mouth. He intended to keep it that way.

"Hey fox, are you there?"

Where else would I be you dim-witted twit?

Naruto peered up at the Kyuubi through the bars of its cage. For once, it had been a purposeful visit. He had decided earlier that if the Akatsuki were so interested in the demon he possessed he should learn a bit more about it.

I would rather not be irked by your pitiful excuse for an existence right now, The fox sighed heavily, almost dramatically, Leave me be, Naruto. I have lent you enough of my services these past few months…

Naruto frowned, wondering where the fox's apathetic attitude came from, "Oh come on! I just have a few questions is all."

And I am disinclined to answer.

'Must come with the territory…I'd be miserable too if I was locked up in here all the time…' Naruto supposed, but still, he wasn't about to give up. The Kyuubi certainly couldn't avert its hearing and if he did ask a question, he may just receive an answer.

"Listen…there's something that's been bothering me." The blonde boy went on, coming up precariously close to the glowing bars, "During the Retrieval Mission from a while ago…I'm pretty sure Hinata-chan's eyes are different now because of it. And I don't understand how Kabuto didn't kill her or...why she's even different in the first place."

You're referring to the young Hyuga that your mouth was practically glued to for a week?

Naruto hollered at the fox in response.

You needn't worry over such a puny female.

"Don't talk about her that way you son of a bitch!" Naruto snarled, marching up fearlessly to the Kyuubi's grinning face, "I'm worried about her!"

Of course you would be…but I suppose she would prove to be useful. It won't be long before she will be fertile and ready for mating…she would produce powerful offspring thanks to her evolved Kekkei Genkai.

"Would you cut it out? Just answer the question!" His face was turning red very fast.

Oh just leave already would you? The fox groaned in exasperation and after it spoke the cage began to rattle violently as if in protest. The Kyuubi disappeared into the darkness of its prison, howling angrily into the shadows.

Naruto, accustomed to such random behavior, waited for the fox to end its tantrum and return. After it had reappeared, to Naruto's surprise, it did answer, The Hyuga girl met certain conditions and that is what caused the change.

He frowned in puzzlement, "What conditions?"

The loss of a close bond. Did someone die?

"Yeah…" Naruto muttered, seeing that it may have been a psychological result, "We thought we lost Neji…"

Ah. The fox continued after getting an affirmative reply, She must have also been faced with some sort of adversity. There was a struggle.

"That's definitely true…"

This has happened before in the long history of doujutsu. Many react powerfully to strong emotions. The fox then grinned, But the most important factor in the change of the blood limit was the absence of a restraint.

"Absence of what?"

She had no restraining seal. The one that those Hyuga fools put on the heads of their children?

"Yeah…Hinata doesn't have one of those." Naruto nodded thoughtfully, seeing she met a surprising number of criteria.

The Kyuubi continued, And that is why when she was struck with a death-blow her body acted to protect itself.

"D-Death-blow!" The blonde boy repeated, stunned, "Are you crazy? How could-?"

She died you idiot. Briefly. The fox sneered, as if there was no reason for Naruto to make a fuss, Stranger things happen to evolve Kekkei Genkai, believe me. Is it really so unheard of? How else would you expect the Byakugan to dip into inter-dimensional vision?

Naruto shook his head, terrified and amazed all at once, "I…I just…can't believe it. I don't understand how Hinata-chan made it…" It was then he knew that Kabuto's final attack had truly been fatal. There was still little explanation of how it had happened.

Once the girl was killed, by whatever means, the Kekkei Genkai sent a signal to her tenketsu to restore chakra flow. It is self-regeneration on an autonomous level. The Kyuubi clarified, rather proud of its knowledge.

Hyuga, in a time before they were called the Hyuga, were aware of this power. The ability was a technique known to the very first shinobi, long before the Uchiha and Senju clans founded Konohagakure. It has long since been forgotten, as you can imagine.

"How…how do you know so much about Leaf?" Naruto demanded, furrowing his brow in suspicion, "There's no way a monster like you could ever know all that!"

The cage rumbled so fiercely in that moment that Naruto was knocked off of his feet and fell to his rear, landing in the sewage water. He blinked up, watching the Kyuubi withdraw and it was then he understood, 'The cage…the fox isn't the one rattling it! It's got to be something else!'

Cretin! The Kyuubi howled, fed up with interruptions, Your opinion does not exist here! The giant fox crashed around, snapping its jaws and yowling ferociously. Naruto rose to his feet again and ran up to the bars.

"Fox! Hey! Who's in there with you? There really is someone else!" Naruto shouted, trying to get its attention, "Tell me! What's going on in there?"

The biju reappeared suddenly and its fangs cracked up loudly against the bars, LEAVE!

Naruto awoke with a jolt.

Sheer terror raced through his veins. He had felt certain the Kyuubi would impale his tiny body with one massive tooth if he had been any nearer. Naruto had never witnessed such rage with the fox before and now he knew better than to test it again.

He sat up straighter in his seat, breathing deep in an attempt to relax. Naruto's eyes focused, and he could see Jiraiya sitting across from him on the opposite bench. His mentor wore a thoughtful look. The sight of his teacher helped him calm down completely.

Naruto glanced over the side of the boat they were on. Land was no longer in sight. He had fallen asleep shortly after they had boarded the ferry. It wouldn't be long before they reached the small, Southern peninsula Jiraiya had spoken to him about.

The toad sage smiled at him, "Did you sleep well, kid?"

"Not really…"

"Well, I'm sorry to hear it." Jiraiya replied, "But now that you're awake it's time for your first lesson, or rather, question."

The blonde scratched his head, "A question, Ero-sensei?"

"Yep," He then held up a bizarre kunai to his pupil, "Take this, Naruto. It's yours to keep."

"Gee…thanks." Naruto accepted it and then observed the knife, having never seen one with such a strange shape before.

The sennin drew out his pipe and lit it. He then said, "Now if you can tell me by the end of the day what's so special about that kunai…I'll teach you three new jutsu."

"Psh. You'll just teach me crap, I bet."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow at him, "You call three jutsu known to the Fourth Hokage crap?"

Naruto's eyes widened in astonishment and then he quickly looked back to the kunai in his hand, "Gah! What does it do? What does it do? What does it do?" He waved the knife in front of his face, trying to decipher any of its hidden qualities.

His teacher only laughed at his panic.

"That's enough for today, Sato…" Kakashi sighed, watching his nephew slow down as he raced past again.

The Chidori he had been wielding fizzled out and the genin faced his uncle, "Finished already? But I still have plenty of chakra left!"

"I know," He answered and chuckled, "But that last attack totaled my vest if you didn't notice."

Sato glanced over to Kakashi, observing how his most recent strike had been a direct hit. His white Chidori had shaved away half of his uncle's jounin vest, "Wow…I did it. My technique definitely still needs work, but it's not bad for a new jutsu!"

Kakashi tossed the ruined vest aside, "You did very well, Sato-kun."

He moved a few paces away to lean against a training post and catch his breath. His nephew sat beside him and snapped a picture of the smoldering vest. When he offered to buy Kakashi a new one his uncle told him not to worry about it.

They rested in silence and Kakashi drew out a copy of Icha Icha Paradise out of habit.

"Um, Kakashi?"

He glanced over to his nephew, "Hm?"

Sato looked up at him with curious eyes, "What do you remember about my dad?"

Beneath his mask Kakashi frowned, but still replied, "If I recall…he lacked all discipline that wise ninja should have and he came from absolutely nowhere. No home, no background, no money to his name."

"No background? Is that why I kept mom's name?" The boy asked keenly.

"Yes, that was what she wanted." Kakashi confirmed it, "When Riei first came here he left his clan name behind to start anew; most refugees who come to Leaf do that."

"Right…and…he's from Hidden Dragonfly, right?" Sato quickly corrected himself, "Was from Hidden Dragonfly?"

Kakashi flipped a page in his novel casually, "Not exactly."


"Your father was born in that village but he never lived there as far as I know." He explained.

"Er…I don't get it…" Sato mumbled. He had been certain that it was his father's place of origin. His mother had told him so many times. Was Kakashi even sure he had his facts straight?

Seeing the boy's confusion, his uncle continued, "Leaf was at war with Dragonfly, long ago. We destroyed that village completely. As morbid as it was, the survivors who fled were left to fend for themselves and made bands of wandering ninja who traveled through many countries. That's why your father grew up so…deprived."

"My dad wasn't deprived!" Sato barked in disagreement.

Kakashi looked up from his book, "Please understand…that the first time your father had a permanent roof over his head in eighteen years was when he met your mother. He had nothing. And that roof he lived under happened to be my roof."

Sato smirked, "So you took him in, Kakashi?"

"No," He groaned at the mere thought of it, "Your mother did. Riei moved in and I moved out. She was twenty and innocent still. She was perfect and she loved him. Him, of all the men she could've chosen…"

"Was he really so bad?" Sato pressed, finding his uncle's account held much bias, "Mom said he was always laughing and making friends…what was it like when you first met him?"

Thus began one of Kakashi's less cherished flashbacks.

It was late in the morning. Wednesday. Normal.

Kakashi inhaled the sweet air as he soared through the treetops on his way to the south bridge. A passing group of Inuzuka looked up at him from the path below with admiring eyes.

He was seventeen and extremely confident. Kakashi had entered the ANBU a short while after the loss of his teammates. He was both feared and respected in the Fire Country. Copy Ninja Kakashi had killed many men by that time.

Once he arrived at the footbridge a blonde haired man came into view and he grinned widely at his student. Kakashi greeted his sensei with a brief, professional bow.

"Good morning, Kakashi," Minato addressed his pupil, "Please take that mask off, would you? You hide your face well enough as it is…"

"Ah," Kakashi removed the animal mask that was customary for shinobi of his rank, "What are the details of the mission, Minato-sensei?"

"You aren't on active duty today so Hokage-sama has decided to assign us a B-rank mission." His teacher reported with a smile.

Kakashi's annoyance glimmered darkly in his visible eye. The blonde man noticed it too.

"Kakashi…Hokage-sama and I are concerned about your social health." Minato told him, his eyes serious, "You need to be able to interact normally with other people. Being in the Black Ops makes it difficult for some ninja to assimilate with society again."

"I can interact very well, sensei." Kakashi assured him, "I just don't see the point in my participating on such a low-level mission…"

The blonde man only smiled, "There is always room for improvement, Kakashi. And since when did B-rank become low level?"

"Since I began taking S-rank missions, sensei."

"I take those more often than you do, remember." His teacher admonished lightly, "And it is possible even for someone like me to be killed on a B-level mission. They aren't to be taken any less seriously than an A or S ranked task. Now…I wonder when our teammates will get here?"

After a short while two people appeared on the path ahead. There was a considerable height difference between them.

The taller ninja was clad in a jounin vest identical to Minato's. He was lean muscle beneath tan skin and his hair was a mop of black spikes. Emerald eyes locked onto Kakashi, slightly unnerving the young ANBU, 'What's he doing on a low-level mission like this? He's practically the Sandaime's right hand.'

Beside the docile yet remarkably intimidating ninja was a young, shy boy who appeared rather sickly-looking. He walked quietly and tried to hide his anxiety. Kakashi noticed the boy's nervousness immediately. It was a quality he preyed on in most missions. Though it was apparent he wouldn't be able to terrorize the boy with two seasoned ninja with them.

"You're early, Minato-kun." The veteran jounin greeted pleasantly.

"And you are right on time as always, sempai!" Minato smiled in response.

"Please stop calling me that…"

"If you prefer," The blonde nin turned to Kakashi, "Takaharu and young Hayate here will be joining us. We'll set out for Mist after a quick briefing…"

Kakashi couldn't keep in his snort of disbelief, "We're bringing a genin with us?"

The young boy seemed to shrink behind his teacher in fright after hearing the harsh words.

Takaharu's forest eyes burned when he looked at the silver haired nin, "Yes, Kakashi, that is correct. My apprentice has shown remarkable skill and I believe he is ready for a more serious mission."

Kakashi fell into silence again.

Minato snickered playfully at his student's reaction and then turned to comfort the nervous genin, "Your sensei and your master have told me great things about you, Hayate-kun. Takaharu-shishou believes you will make a fine swordsman in time."

"I hope so," Hayate answered, his voice was surprisingly steady, "Takaharu-shishou teaches me well."

Takaharu patted his apprentice affectionately on the head, but rather abruptly, his entire body tensed. Minato gave his fellow jounin a curious look, seeing the change, "Is something wrong, Takaharu?"

"Minato…there is a strange presence. Don't you sense it?"

The blonde man frowned, "Now that you mention it…"

A sudden explosion in the forest outside the village gates was enough evidence to support Takaharu's suspicion.

"The briefing can wait," Minato decided aloud, "The village may be under attack! Let's go!"

He and his companions moved swiftly to the outskirts of the village, which was comprised mostly of woodland and training grounds for the village's shinobi. Rather than the intruders they had expected, they saw something very different had caused the disturbance.

An enormous bird prowled just above the treetops, hunting an unseen object, and on top of its head a ninja shouted commands to it. It was certainly strange and not something they had witnessed before.

'It must be searching for something…' Minato suspected to himself, 'But it's getting dangerously close to the village! We'll have to stop it if comes any nearer.'

"We should wait before we act. He hasn't seen us yet." Takaharu advised while they took cover in the shaded canopy, "Let's see just what he's after…"

They continued to observe the rogue shinobi atop the bird's crest. It wasn't long before they realized he wasn't alone. He spoke haughtily, calling aloud to the forest below, "Come out baby cousin! Stop hiding!" He laughed pitilessly, "You can't run forever!"

Kakashi, followed closely by the rest of the group, moved nearer. It was then they could see the person who was being pursued. He was moving incredibly fast; a speed that had to have been assisted by a chakra gate, Kakashi estimated. He was running without direction, desperate to escape. He didn't blame him. Giant birds didn't bode well for anyone being chased.

He looked to be about Takaharu's age, Kakashi guessed. Maybe a bit younger. He had white hair like snow that was dirtied from reckless movement. He was clearly from another region. The Hatake blinked in confusion when the pursued ninja sharply turned, leaping up to the top of a tall pine and faced his cousin.

His cry was distant but could still be heard, "Nisa! Why are you doing this? You killed everyone and took everything; there's nothing left! Just let me live my life in peace!"

"I've chased you for a long time, Riei, and I am not about to give up yet! Not when I am so close to finishing you," Nisa grinned sinisterly from his perch on top of his summon, "You also have the contract…because of that I can't let you live!"

"It was given to me! You stole it even when you knew you weren't worthy enough to have it!" Riei spat furiously, "You've used it to pick off those who were weaker than you!"

"And the weak deserve to perish, just as you will," His cousin glowered down at him, "I am the predator and you are the prey…fight me for once you cowardly rat!"

He was more than willing to comply. He was through with fleeing.

Riei made seals and summoned another owl, but she was only half the size of her opponent. He leapt for her back, and the two birds rushed up to each other, clawing and screaming and kicking up fearsome gales with every wing beat. It was a defining battle with a bad location.

"They'll be a threat to the village if this fighting persists," Kakashi pointed out, "They have to be stopped."

"I agree," Takaharu nodded to him, "I'll go break it up then!" After volunteering he moved ahead and Hayate mewled for his master to wait.

Nisa's owl, after gathering a massive amount of chakra, spat a vicious energy beam that tore up a long row of trees, barely missing Riei and his owl.

"You alright, Kutaishi?" He called to her, concerned that she had lost her balance.

"I will manage…" She squawked, "Let's finish him!"

The huge tawny soared upward again and Riei made seals that allowed him to breath fire. Kutaishi fanned the weak flames with her wings, and the once-common fireball was escalated into a firestorm that consumed Nisa and his owl entirely, "Katon: Burning Wind!"

There was a pause and then the fire subsided, it revealed the opponent had been unscathed. The bird's feathers hardened into metal to act as a shield, rendering the attack useless.

"Rip her apart!" Nisa howled, and his owl dove forward, talons stretched. Kutaishi scrambled to evade but wasn't fast enough. Nisa's bird snatched her wing in a vicious grip, sinking into flesh and tearing out feathers. She screamed in agony.

The larger owl hurled Kutaishi away, sending her crashing down to the forest, crushing trees beneath her. Riei scrambled to hang on, debris and sharp branches snapped up and cut into him during the tumble. She floundered, trying to right herself before Nisa's next attack.

"Kutaishi! I'm sorry." Riei apologized to his friend, "I know this isn't a fair match up for you…" She wheezed for him to save his sympathies. She was born and bred for battle. The blood that came with fighting didn't discourage her at all.

Riei again made seals, knowing it was up to him to defend from the next attack. He launched a hail of shuriken for Nisa as he approached, "Raiton: Lightning Shuriken!"

His elder cousin blocked the projectiles but was promptly zapped in the process. It only added to his anger.

"Finish him now!" Nisa ordered, and again his owl gathered chakra for another energy beam. Riei looked on helplessly, having no way to counter. Kutaishi's wing was in disrepair and she lacked the strength to fly again. She wasn't prepared to use another jutsu either.

Nisa's owl spat another beam of elemental energy, expertly aimed, and Takaharu leapt ahead to meet it, "Doton: Mud Wall!"

A huge portion of the ground seemed to liquefy and rise up, buffering the owl's assault and saving Riei and his summon. He looked on in shock, not having expected another ninja to arrive, let alone help him. It was an opportunity he wouldn't waste, and he spoke to Kutaishi, pleadingly, "You have to leave now! You know I didn't want to get you involved in any of this…and if you keep at this you'll get hurt even more. I don't want you to suffer because of my weakness!"

"I won't readily leave you to die, fledgling," Kutaishi sniffed, too proud to admit her disadvantage, "If you die only he will remain to summon my kind and I will not serve a murderer!" Despite her injuries she planted her clawed feet solidly on the ground, ready to fight again.

Takaharu's focus was on Nisa. He decided to give fair warning, "I will tell you now to leave this place and take your quarrels elsewhere. You are endangering the Hidden Leaf Village and if I must I will use deadly force to protect it!

"Leaf can rot for all I care!" Nisa snarled in response, "Don't interfere!" He hurled a fuuma shuriken for Riei, ignoring the warning completely. Takaharu threw a volley of kunai in response with fatal accuracy, but he could do nothing to stop the fuuma that raced past.

Riei had left Kutaishi, and was nearly blindsided by the fuuma, but Hayate had followed after his sensei and darted ahead with a sword strike that deflected the oversized shuriken. It sank into the bark of a nearby tree, and Riei retrieved it, looking to the genin gratefully, "Thank you my friend!"

Hayate nodded, still jumpy with adrenalin, and then sheathed his sword. He moved on to find his master. Riei also backtracked: he ought to return Nisa's fuuma to him!

Ahead, Takaharu attacked fiercely, "Doton: Earth Break!" Two slabs of ground cracked up and connected solidly with the head of Nisa's owl. It departed in a puff of smoke, leaving Nisa to fight for himself. Once Riei came into view he rushed for him, but his little cousin had the fuuma which he immediately threw.

Riei skidded to a confused halt as the projectile sailed harmlessly through Nisa's middle, "Genjutsu!"

Hayate, not far from Riei, was caught in a rolling dive by his master, moments before Nisa could impale him with a naginata. Nisa leapt back to regroup just as Kakashi soared in and punched a hole through his chest with the Chidori.

"Damnit!" Kakashi couldn't draw his hand back after the attack. Nisa had substituted himself with a tar-feather clone that had him thoroughly trapped. Nisa reappeared swiftly and between the moment he began to slash downward and Kakashi attempted to counter with his free hand, a yellow flash was only briefly visible.

Minato raked Nisa's throat with a kunai before he could attack Kakashi. It was a strategy he used in battle many times before: his Hiraishin was the key to eliminating nearly any enemy. The clone that had trapped Kakashi dissipated after the original had been killed. The Hatake quickly went to his teacher after he'd been freed. The blonde jounin stared down at the fallen ninja, lost in thought, 'What on earth was that fighting about? It even sounded as if they were related…'

Kutaishi, exhausted, departed finally in a puff of smoke. Takaharu, accompanied by Hayate, went to Riei afterwards.

"Are you alright?" Takaharu asked him, "That was a great struggle for any shinobi. I suggest you get some medical attention."

Riei nodded, growing delirious, "Thank you…I…I think I just need some rest."

He fell over promptly after that and Hayate rushed to him with a cry. He looked up to his teacher uncertainly, "Is he dying?"

"I don't think so," Takaharu told him, hoisting Riei's limp form over his shoulder, "He used nearly all of his chakra and he barely had any left when he started fighting…I'm actually impressed he fought as hard as he did. Don't worry, Hayate-kun, we'll take him to the hospital now."

They rejoined Minato and Kakashi farther ahead, where the young ANBU was inspecting Nisa's body. He looked up after a moment, "He bears a symbol of Hidden Dragonfly, sensei."

"That's ridiculous!" Takaharu didn't take the information seriously, "That village is long gone now."

"That's true," Minato agreed with him, "And yet we were the only witnesses to this battle. That makes it our responsibility to report this incident to Hokage-sama."

The mission had been canceled for the time being. They'd set out after explaining the raucous to Sarutobi. Minato smiled at his pupil, seeing he was irritated again, "Don't worry, Kakashi! There's still a chance for you to improve your people skills today!"

He wasn't pleased by the news, "And how is that?"

Takaharu walked up to the younger man and passed off the unconscious shinobi he had been hauling, "There you go! Now you can make a new friend, Kakashi-kun!"

Kakashi looked wearily to his nephew after the memory had glanced across his mind, "Trust me, Sato. Riei caused quite a stir when he came to this village."

The boy smirked, "Well now I know where I get it from!"

Sakura had been kept busy for a solid four hours alphabetizing the books in Tsunade's office. Tsunade said she would be busy meeting with the village elders for the day and had given her apprentice the day off. Oddly, the pink haired girl requested work so the Hokage obliged her. She wanted to stay as busy as she could, that way she wouldn't stress as much over Gaara.

'I wonder how he's doing…and Haku-kun…' She thought to herself, sliding an encyclopedia back on the shelf, 'And Naruto-kun too…it just isn't the same when they're not here.'

There was a brief knock at the door. Simply by that gesture Sakura knew it wasn't Tsunade or Shizune, since she barged in all the time to tend to the Hokage's needs. "Come in!" She called out, supposing she'd have to tell the visitor that Tsunade was out.

Ino entered, smiling widely, "Ah ha! I thought I would find you here…"

"Hello, Ino." Sakura greeted her, but inwardly she felt exasperated. Whenever the blonde girl came about she always made it a point to antagonize Sakura. Her rivalry with Ino had died a long time ago, she felt. And yet she still disliked talking to her simply because Ino was too stuck in the habit of butting heads with her, 'I'm sick and tired of it…can't we just be friends again?'

"Well, I heard that Tsunade-sama made you her apprentice!" Ino began, resting her hands on her hips, "So I just wanted to congratulate you. She wouldn't have picked you if she hadn't seen potential in you."

Sakura decided to take the comment in stride, unsure if Ino had been serious about it, "Thank you, then…but it really is a lot of work to have on top of training with my team. I don't get many breaks these days…"

She nodded, "I can understand that. Though…I actually came here to ask you something…"

"Go ahead." She kept on working, waiting for Ino to speak.

Ino looked very uncomfortable, but it was deeply rooted in her nature to speak her mind. After a moment she asked quietly, "Did you ever really…care about Sasuke?"

Sakura paused while she had lifted a medical journal.

She turned to look back at the blonde girl, frowning slightly, "I did. A lot, actually…but…I don't think I could ever feel for him the same way I do for Gaara-kun. It's really different."

"I suspected that," Ino nodded, taking a seat on a bench, "I…I'm happy for you, Sakura. I started to see a while ago that you were always hanging around with Gaara. I had always thought that he was creepy…but it turns out he's really great, huh? Look how Sasuke turned out. You must've done something right."

Sakura smiled proudly, "I didn't do much. You'd be surprised by how not-creepy Gaara really is."

"You're probably right." Ino laughed softly, "The truth is…I never really liked Sasuke all that much. Back then…I guess I used him as an excuse so I could be your rival because…I was jealous of you. You always had lots of friends around you who really respected you…all of my friends just liked me because I was popular."

The pink haired girl stared at her incredulously, "That's crazy, Ino."

She shrugged, "I guess it was…"

Sakura paused in her book organizing, "Look…I only ever wanted to be your friend, but I couldn't be; there was always too much animosity…too much bickering. Ino…those days are finished. It's useless to reflect on them now unless you're going to change it."

"I really am sorry, Sakura," Ino said quietly, "To you and to Naruto. To everyone. I do want to change it…so what do you say we start over?"

The pink haired girl thought on it for a moment, "Hm…I don't see why not! I suppose I could teach you a bit about medical jutsu too while I'm at it…"


"But first help me with the rest of these," Sakura gestured to the stacks of books surrounding her, "It'll go quicker with two people."

"I guess it won't kill me..." Ino strolled over to her and began sifting through the piles.

Tenten had spent a long while floundering around in her own apartment. She paced up and down the hall, rereading her father's note, trying to see if he had left any helpful clues in it. She could come up with nothing.

'A black scroll. There's no such thing. Not that he's shown me anyway…where would he put it?' Tenten pondered to herself, growing anxious, 'Great…I'm almost a half hour late now! Lee and Neji are going to love me today…'

She tried to get ready while she searched but it was difficult. Tenten scuttled into the bathroom, snatched two hair ties, and began tying her hair up into the traditional buns, her father's note was held in her teeth. While she prepared, she decided to look again in her parents' room which she considered her room, at present.

Her bedroom, which she had slept in when she was younger, was still filled with children's paraphernalia that she no longer had use for. It was also small: her other complaint. She rarely entered it, disliking the memories of her youth that came to her while she was there.

Once her parents had been killed she began sleeping in their room. It helped her remember their smells and their appearances. She kept their clothes and belongings the way they were, unwilling to part with them. If the scroll her father had been guarding would be anywhere, it would be in the arsenal he had mounted on the wall of his bedroom. Both he and her mother had been dependent on it for reloading before missions.

Yet none of the scrolls that were there even remotely resembled the one her father had spoken of. Tenten reexamined it, wondering if she had missed something. She found nothing. She dressed in irritation, and then grabbed her travel bag beside the door.

'I'll swing by the forge real quick. The arsenal in there is even bigger so maybe that's where he put it…' Tenten thought to herself, 'He has every scroll, weapon, and poison that's in existence in there.'

She could only hope that she would succeed in finding it. In all honesty, Tenten really had no idea what was contained in the scroll anyway.

'All I do know is that Dad wanted me to protect it…and I won't let him down!'

The fateful day came that Ukigaru's students had mastered their techniques and settled in a new ninja community. His best student, Kamizuru Kosa, had grown powerful and wise and assured his master that he would care for the newly-forming ninja clans in the region. Ukigaru was happy he could finally settle down and have a family.

Ukigaru had two daughters with Mameha. He loved both of them dearly and wished to one day train them to be fine ninja who would succeed him.

His eldest daughter was named Tian Tian. She was very much like her father: a determined, hard worker who was devoted to her studies of ninjutsu and kenjutsu. She trained tirelessly and read through many scrolls that her father had provided for her education. She loved her father fiercely and was completely loyal to him, and with time became one of his most powerful shinobi.

His second daughter, Hanone, was less involved in training. Her talent rested in politics and philosophy. She was a beautiful gem of the mountains, bearing a much greater resemblance to her mother. Though many men came to adore and woo her, Hanone was never satisfied. She was, in secret, terribly jealous of her sister. The grown sisters had trouble seeing eye to eye on the best of days.

One day Ukigaru called Tian Tian before him for a special task. He introduced her to a young man who was from a noble clan of Iwa. He had been sent by his father to receive ninja training since he had completed all of his advanced vocational studies. Ukigaru believed there could be no better teacher for the young man than Tian Tian.

Although she accepted her father's task she greatly disliked it. Tian Tian had always hoped to pass her knowledge down to another woman because she was frustrated that shinobi of her village were predominantly male. Quickly her student began to bother her, merely because of his gender.

The young man, however, was very respectful to the princess and introduced himself as Yuanjia. He was more than happy to be trained by a woman, since he was to be trained at all.

Once her father had dismissed them Tian Tian left the palace with her pupil in tow, aggravated, and guided him up to the mountaintop. There she told him he was to stay and meditate until she returned for him. If he came down before then she would punish him severely. Yuanjia did as he was told and remained there as Tian Tian slyly went back down the mountain and returned to the palace.

When Ukigaru asked her where her student had gone she sadly reported that he had run away. Her father told her not to fret and that Yuanjia had given up an excellent opportunity by forsaking training with her. Tian Tian bade him goodnight after that and went to her room to sleep.

She did not intend to return for her student. She supposed by the next day he would realize that she had abandoned him and then, motivated by thirst or hunger, he would disobey her and return to the village for sustenance.

The next day when Tian Tian awoke she practiced her sword skills and passed the day merrily. She paid no mind to the fact that Yuanjia had not appeared in the village then. "It's only a matter of time before he gives up and goes home." She thought to herself. Tian Tian went to sleep that night without giving him another thought.

The next day, however, there was still no sign of him. Tian Tian passed her time as she normally would, believing eventually he'd give up. Five days passed and still Yuanjia had not come down the mountain. Tian Tian briefly feared he had taken her seriously and stayed, thus starving himself in the process. Her father would be angry if she allowed her own student to die.

On the sixth day Tian Tian climbed up the mountain again to look for him. To her surprise, she found him in the exact spot she had left him in, meditating peacefully. She demanded to know how he had been able to stay there for so long. Her student was cunning.

"You told me to stay on the mountaintop until you returned but that was your only command." Yuanjia reminded her, "I hunted birds and conies that lived on the rocks for food, and drank from a nearby stream for water. I had flint and tinder to build a fire on cold nights. Now that you have returned my task is complete."

Tian Tian, at first, was unsure what to think of his survival method. Rather than punishing him as she said she would, she commended him, impressed that he had persevered without disobeying her. She then agreed to train him properly and promised no more tricks.

"Neji, are you ready?"

His reading was interrupted by Lee, who had slid the door open and poked his head into the room, "Where is Tenten?"

Neji stuffed the book into his travel bag, giving his teammate an annoyed look, "I haven't seen her since yesterday. I thought she was supposed to be with you."

"It is not like her to be late when we have a mission…" Lee frowned to himself, wondering what was keeping her.

He and Neji left the Hyuga compound and went to the Hokage's tower to meet with the rest of their team. All the while, Neji thought about what he had read, mainly Tian Tian.

The Hyuga suspected that because Tenten's father had loved the book so much, it would explain why he had named his firstborn daughter for Ukigaru's child. Though he personally found Tian Tian's character deceitful and irresponsible, 'I don't understand why Takaharu would take a liking to someone like her…' He had to admit, Tenten did share a striking number of qualities with the princess from the book.

Tenten's feminist views of women being just as lethal as men in the shinobi world overlapped with Tian Tian's beliefs. Both were stubborn, clever and educated with weaponry. Neji, after thinking it over for a few minutes, decided to pass the personality traits off as mere coincidence.

He and Lee joined Shikamaru, the team leader, (Gai was assigned to a mission in the Land of Bears currently) outside the tower, and got a short briefing from him about their assignment. He was even less pleased than they about Tenten's tardiness.

'Women.' The Nara thought; knowing better than to badmouth Tenten in front of her overprotective teammates.

Kisame was beginning to wonder if Leader had taken notice of Itachi's failing sight. If he did, he was curious to know what Leader planned to do about it. Would he dispatch Itachi? Trade him in for his healthier little brother? Terminate him?

He doubted that his partner could be killed so easily. Even if he began to go blind, his skills and knowledge would still be superior to most other shinobi; he'd still be valuable. Kisame was concerned over such things mainly because he had not seen Itachi since he had gone to see Leader. Much time had passed.

Kisame had explained these things to Zetsu, who happened to be in the vicinity for the time being. He was one of the most detached and trustworthy people in the organization. All information passed to him was certainly well-guarded.

They loitered on the bank of a shallow riverbed in a valley to the east of the hideout. Zetsu's blank golden eyes stared out into the distance. "Leader would not throw Itachi aside over such a petty disability!" His white half stated, after that his black half suggested, "If it comes to it, a new set of eyes could be acquired for him from someone else if necessary."

Kisame chuckled darkly in agreement. An easy fix. Itachi did have one obvious resource for a new set of eyes.

"Now go away." Zetsu told his companion sharply, "I am waiting for a patron who will arrive soon. You are not to be here." His black half added it would be extremely bad business if someone like him stayed.

Kisame snickered, but then moved to leave, knowing better than to try the Grass ninja's patience. After he had gone Zetsu waited for a while longer, not moving an inch from where he stood. He had seen his client approaching from a way's off.

On the opposite bank, a tall figure emerged from the shadows of the forest and then paused. They stood on opposite sides of the river for a long, silent moment and then the newcomer spoke, "I killed the old man as promised. You better have brought what was agreed on, or you'll be having your own funeral in a moment…"

"No need to be so hasty, Kurosuki-san." Zetsu replied and then thanked him for his cooperation. A week earlier an elderly shinobi had discovered the Akatsuki's hideout, and wanted to deliver the information to the Mist Village. He needed to be eliminated, or else the organization would be uprooted again and have to move. It would've been too troublesome.

Zetsu drew a small bottle from his cloak and threw it across the river to the other nin, "It is medicine. It will help if used in moderation."

The other shinobi caught the vile and passed it up beneath his hood. "Take this, Ranmaru…" He murmured. A small voice thanked him and accepted the medicine.

"Raiga-san, would you be interested in another mission the Akatsuki needs filled?" Zetsu offered, aware that outside help was very useful while members of the organization hunted jinchuriki.

"I'm not going out of my way for filth like you again!" Raiga flatly rejected the idea and then left, disappearing back into the forest after the exchange had been completed.

Zetsu had been expecting such an answer. He still found it bizarre how the other ninja kept a ward. It seemed it would be more of a hindrance than a help, at first. But Zetsu was keen to notice the child's Kekkei Genkai and how it could prove useful to the organization.

The trip through the desert was surprisingly agreeable. Gaara found he wasn't bothered by the dry, hot air of his birthplace, even after living in such a mild climate in the Fire Country for years. As he and his siblings crossed through the sand wastes to reach their village, Gaara thought about how he had allowed Haku to leave.

He was deeply concerned for him. He would've been safer in Suna by far, but Gaara knew he couldn't have told him to stay. As his friend, Gaara understood that he was in many ways obligated to allow Haku to follow his own path. He'd be back, he was certain of it. Haku couldn't bear to be away from the ones he loved for long.

Their arrival in Suna was strange. Gaara found the place looked smaller than it had when he was a child. The village he remembered had seemed like an endless wasteland of cruel people back then. Now it looked like any normal ninja village would.

After entering the village they were almost immediately received. Baki had been waiting for them near a ruined statue of the Buddha. He couldn't help but grin at the sight of them, "Thank you all for coming back so soon. I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear that you've all received chunin rank."

"I was not recognized as a chunin in Leaf." Gaara informed him, wondering if that held any impact on the decision.

Kankuro smirked at his younger brother, "Even if you didn't achieve the rank in Konoha you've still earned it here. We wanted it to be a surprise for you."

Gaara assured him that it was.

"Gaara, as of now you will be assigned to Kankuro and Temari's team." Baki informed him, "You will all begin taking normal missions tomorrow so you have the rest of today to settle in."

They thanked him for the update and he then moved on to schedule missions for other squads. The siblings moved further into the heart of the village, not very sure what to say. Temari hadn't spoken at all since Haku had left. She kept her eyes downward while they proceeded up the main street of the city.

The last thing Gaara wanted was to see his sister heartbroken. It was another drawback of letting Haku break away from them. He wasn't certain how to apologize to her about taking away something she cared about. In a way he felt responsible for it.

He touched her shoulder gently after they stopped outside of a pawn shop. She calmed down considerably, grateful for her brother's compassion.

Temari looked at Gaara for a moment and then spoke, "I know it must be harder for you to get on without Haku since you've lived with him most of your life…I shouldn't act this way. I'm being selfish. I should be happy that we're home now, right? That we're together again…"

"He will return as soon as he can. That I promise." Gaara assured her. He didn't doubt it in the slightest; he knew his friend too well.

Kankuro told them to save their heartfelt exchange for later. He wanted to get home.

They arrived at the Kazekage's mansion a short while later. The sight of it prompted Gaara to wonder how exactly the village could function without a leader.

"It certainly isn't functioning well…" Kankuro admitted to his brother as they entered the building, "There are stand-ins for the position but none of them are leaders. They just get the paperwork done. Soon we'll have to decide on a new village leader."

They gave their younger brother a brief tour of the main floor of the mansion. After demonstrating the layout of the place they went upstairs to the second floor.

"We're the only ones who live here now, so we'll have plenty of privacy." Temari guaranteed Gaara, "Anyone who shows up here has to be invited first." Gaara was uncomfortable with the grandeur of the place. It was nothing like his old apartment in Leaf.

They stopped outside the first door on the left. Kankuro gestured to it, "This is me here." Two doors down was Temari's room, he added. Gaara inquired as to why there were so many rooms.

"Our family used to be a lot bigger," Temari told him, "It's much smaller now, as you can imagine." Gaara moved to the door just after Temari's room. He assumed it would be his.

"You…probably don't want to go in that one, Gaara." Kankuro warned him quietly.

The red haired boy gave him a puzzled look, "Why?"

"That was Yashamaru's room…"

His hand left the doorknob as if he had been stung. Gaara quickly turned away from the door and continued on down the hallway as a foul mood descended upon him. His siblings followed after him, beginning to feel bad about how he had reacted to their home.

Gaara felt out of place because he had never lived in the mansion when he was a child. His father had always kept him in a separate building so he wouldn't injure anyone. It was just another reminder of how lonely he had been.

At the end of the hall they stopped and Gaara stood outside the last door on the right. Kankuro nodded to him, "This one is yours, Gaara."

Tentatively, his younger brother entered and paused after a few paces into the room. It was a suite. Huge, decorated lavishly with rich colors, and a number of beautiful paintings adorned the walls. Something so luxurious could not be meant for him. He stared out a large window on the opposite wall and asked, "Who's room was this?"

It was quiet for a minute.


Gaara again tried to leave straight away, but Temari entered and pushed him further in, aggravated, "Stop trying to dodge the past, Gaara! There's no need to. It's done and this is where you're going to stay."

He stared at her, disbelieving. How could she even begin to tell him to stay here? His father, their father, rather, had wanted him killed when he had been a child. He had never been a decent figure in Gaara's life. He did not want to stay in the place that his father had dwelled in. Temari and Kankuro, however, blocked his exit thoroughly.

Their stubbornness forced him to relent, but Gaara was far from okay with it. He tossed his bag childishly to the floor, furious, "I don't want to live here."

Temari glared back at him, "Tough shit. You're not staying in any of the spare rooms! They're too small and they're all empty. It's either this or Yashamaru's room!"

Gaara scowled.

She took it as a sign he preferred their father's room to their uncle's.

"Good. Thank you for your cooperation…" She stomped out of the room and announced, "I'm taking a bath now. Don't even think about trying to sneak off somewhere else, you hear me Gaara?"

She left after that and Gaara paced for a moment, feeling trapped in his new space. Kankuro watched his nervous behavior for a moment and then told him to relax.

"How easy do you think that is?" Gaara snapped at him. He traveled to the far end of the suite, eyeing a large chest of drawers there. It had caught his attention. Out of annoyed curiosity he pulled open one of the drawers to investigate and saw that some of his father's clothing still remained. He slammed it shut in disgust.

Kankuro desperately groped for a distraction. Anything to make the transition easier for his brother, "You're…definitely going to need new clothes now that you're here."

"I brought my clothing with me." Gaara said in a low voice.

Hence the bag. He certainly hadn't been carting china with him to Sand.

"That's all well and good," His brother nodded in understanding, "But the climate here, even if you haven't felt it yet, is different here than it is in Konoha. You'll need more practical attire, Gaara."

It was too much to take in all at once. Gaara breathed deep, thinking it over, trying to relieve some of his anxiety. Kankuro was only trying to look after him, he knew. He couldn't allow himself to get disgruntled just after he had arrived. He relaxed a margin.

"Alright then." Gaara agreed and his brother nodded, sighing in relief.

They left the room and Kankuro added, "I'll help you get all of Father's crap out of there and we'll get you what you need. I know a few good shops we can look in, and when we're finished we can meet up with Temari later and get a bite to eat. How's that?"

Gaara nodded mutely. He'd go. He'd cooperate. But so far he didn't like it.

All day long Naruto had spent trying to understand just what was so special about the kunai he had been given, aside from its shape.

He and Jiraiya had disembarked from the ferry and traveled westward along a mountain trail. The toad sage had been very amused by Naruto's frantic thinking along the way. They stopped for lunch at an old shrine on the roadside.

After eating, Jiraiya went over his notes while smoking his pipe contentedly, and Naruto settled down for a nap. This one was also intentional, but he had been so high-strung he had nearly been unable to fall asleep at all. When he did, he quickly made contact with the darker part of his subconscious mind.

"Fox come on! I'm sorry about earlier, but I need your help with something!"

You rely too much on me for assistance. For once do something yourself.

Naruto ignored the Kyuubi's complaint and proceeded to describe the kunai he had received, "What does it do? You know so much already I bet you can tell me something about this, right?"

A hateful grin crossed over the biju's muzzle after hearing the boy's explanation, Three-pronged kunai are designed with a special seal that is vital to the Flying Thunder God Technique…and it was used by none other than your beloved Yondaime Hokage.

Naruto's excitement grew, "You don't say?"

Such a jutsu had no effect on me, The fox boasted, recalling his fight against the Fourth, And yet…I have never seen another human use the jutsu equally. If your Toady-Teacher wants to teach it to you somehow he'd be better off asking you to fly! You can't do it.

"And just to piss you off," Naruto grinned, "I'm going to master that jutsu. Thanks for all your help fox!"

Do me a favor and kill yourself to put me out of my misery…

Team Gai, led by Nara Shikamaru, traveled northeast to the mountainous border of the Country of Lightning. They had passed by the Sound Village without a fuss and during their journey got to know more about their client.

They were guarding a merchant named Sukazu Kon on his journey home from a long season of selling goods in the South. It was more than standard protection however; there was quite a predicament Kon was faced with.

He had a younger half-brother named Sen who, unfortunately, happened to be a chunin with financial issues. He swore to Kon after pleading many, many times with no success, that he would come after him for money. He would take it by force if necessary, and his older brother knew better than to take the threat lightly.

So it was understandable that they did run into Sen before they had reached Kon's home. It was a rather messy ambush too: Sen had attacked during a terrible rainstorm leaving nearly everyone, with the exception of Neji, practically blind during the downpour.

Sen attacked mainly with earth jutsu, tearing up the road to buffer them. No one was hurt, but the cart that Kon had been peddling with him was overturned during the assault. Its contents tumbled out, landing in the thick mud of the road, ruining many of his goods.

Neji and Lee subdued Sen quickly, and Shikamaru trapped him in a Shadow Bind shortly after that since Kon had begged them not to hurt his younger brother. Though they would've liked to have beat on Sen for all of the trouble he had caused, they heeded their client. All the while, Tenten was busy digging, trying to help Kon salvage some of his possessions. Many of them were lost and too damaged to be of use.

The entire congregation was miserable and unable to escape the pouring rain. They continued on the path, demanding an explanation from Sen.

The foreign chunin spoke of how his village didn't pay well, and how even after asking his brother dozens of times he still refused to help him monetarily.

"Your money problems are not your brother's responsibility." Tenten informed Sen, deeply irritated.

"A good brother would have helped me anyway!"

"And a good brother would also not threaten or attack his honorable older brother either." Lee replied, backing up Tenten, "You are at fault, Sen-san."

"If things get hard you should find other work on top of taking ninja missions." Shikamaru suggested to Sen, who was still bound in his shadow as they trekked through the downpour.

Sen complained about how his work was hard enough as it was, "I can't handle another job and I shouldn't have to! I should get paid better for risking my neck all the time!"

His attitude, along with the dreadful weather, had thoroughly angered Tenten, "Shinobi work isn't always enough to get by. You can't expect those earnings alone to support you. I would know! I have a second job that pays my rent and puts food in my mouth. I don't want to hear any of your excuses, especially when you've compromised your brother and destroyed half of his stock!"

Sen was quiet for the remainder of the journey.

They stopped at an inn for the night to wait out the storm. Sen, again trustworthy, was released from Shikamaru's hold at Kon's request. They entered the establishment, soaking wet, and both Tenten and Kon looked worse for the wear; covered head to toe in mud. The owner of the inn took pity on them and let Kon buy out three rooms at half price for the night.

Sen gave a heartfelt apology to his brother, who was more than willing to forgive him. He helped Kon with the rest of his possessions, and stored them in a room to attempt to clean and repair them. Lee and Shikamaru dried off and also went straight to bed, exhausted from the ordeal.

Tenten returned to the lobby after checking on their client. Neji was there waiting for her. Seeing the great amount of stress she was under, he took her bag from her, "Are you alright?"

"Not really." Tenten sighed, hating how the mud was beginning to dry and crust against her skin. She appreciated Neji's concern though. It was the thought that counted. She went ahead to the baths to wash up, and Neji moved on to the last remaining room without her.

He set their bags aside and then changed into the dry tunic the inn had provided. The storm outside raged on and Neji considered that if it didn't clear up by morning, they probably wouldn't be able to continue on schedule. His fatigue was beginning to show; he was shivering and out of energy. He slumped to floor beside their travel gear and wondered if he should continue reading his book with his stolen time.

Neji decided not to and instead activated his Byakugan to check on the rest of his companions. Down the hall he could see Kon and Sen talking to each other. Their spirits seemed to be up, as if they had come to some sort of agreement. Next door he could see Lee and Shikamaru were already fast asleep, and had barely changed into dry clothes before having passed out. He didn't bother looking for Tenten. He knew where she was. Neji deactivated his blood line limit and then stood again, moving to the table where tea had been set out for him. He poured some for himself, glad it was still hot.

Tenten returned after a short while from her bath in nothing but a skimpy blue yukata that was cut off mid-thigh. As a paying customer she had demanded fresh clothes and they obliged the irritable kunoichi. Her hair was still wet and it hung loosely over her shoulders as she prowled into the room.

Neji watched in fascination as she violently tugged her bag open and retrieved two hair ties. Tenten marched up to a mirror hanging on the wall and proceeded to tie her hair up again, frowning at her reflection. She was still upset about how Kon could so easily forgive Sen after he had caused so many expenses in damage. She didn't know very much about sibling-love so she had to admit she couldn't relate.

After a moment, Tenten's gaze in the mirror flicked to the background and she caught Neji ogling her. It didn't bother her.

She finished pulling her hair into buns and then turned to face him, trying to stop frowning. It kind of worked. He had finished his tea and gone over to his bag to fetch a map. He wanted to reestablish the course they had plotted to reach Kon's home near the border.

Tenten poured some tea for herself and while she did, she let her eyes glance over to her teammate as he checked their current route.

His short hair almost suited him. His face was as calm and handsome as ever. The gi he was wearing was black and hanging open, revealing a slight glimpse of the ivory skin beneath. It piqued her interest. She stood up, sipping her tea, and then asked, "Neji, can I see something for a second?"

Neji looked up when she spoke and folded the map in half, "If you'd like."

Tenten crossed the room with her teacup in hand and didn't ask for permission before she began tugging open the gi wider to get a view of his chest. Neji said nothing and only watched interestedly. He tried not to smile.

She examined him clinically, noting how the scars from the previous mission were surprisingly faint. It still bothered her that they were there at all. They reminded her of how terrified she had been that day.

"She did a great job with you…" Tenten sighed, closing his shirt for him.

"And by that you mean Tsunade-sama." He confirmed.

Tenten nodded and for a moment she considered taking advantage of her closeness to Neji. Normally she never would have thought of such a thing, being he was her most trusted, loyal partner and teammate, but recently her nerves were so shot she wanted to cave into weakness. To be alone with him and to receive no protest while touching him was something she couldn't waste.

In the abstract: a small, winged angel (bearing her likeness) was circling her heart joyously, persuading her to confess to the Hyuga; spill her guts and break down and tell him everything. Half of her sang along with the encouraging, cheerful creature, but the other half of Tenten raised a mallet and bashed the poor cherub into smithereens, prohibiting such an action.

Tenten sighed aloud. It seemed there really was just no hope for her and her beloved. She had already accepted long ago that his feelings for her would not change, but in spite of it she couldn't help but love him anyway, selflessly.

"What are you thinking about, Tenten?"

She blinked, snapped back to reality, and answered as effectively as she could, "I just hope that things can go well for Kon and Sen…"

He smirked at her, "That was almost a believable lie."

"If you already know what I'm thinking then why bother asking?" She snorted, sipping the last of her tea, and then placed the empty cup on a dresser beside her.

"Because I don't know, but I do recognize honesty in your expression and it is absent." Neji answered matter-of-factly.

Tenten then attempted to make the most truthful face she could, and earned a chuckle from her teammate for her effort. The sound of Neji's laugh instantly loosened her inhibitions, and Tenten was barely conscious of the moment when she took a step forward and hugged him.

I love you, I love you, I love you. She was glad she remained silent. Her mouth may have caused her serious trouble just then. She wondered if she would be able to get away with it.

"Ah." He said, and he touched her back curiously, "This is in fact honesty, but it wasn't what you were thinking."

Neji closed his arms around her experimentally, trying to see if it felt remotely normal. It did, he found. He had no problem with the proximity adjustment, and he suspected that it was something he would quickly learn to enjoy. Tenten didn't dare look him in the eye; she feared it may lead her to do something very, very stupid.

The Hyuga could sense her inner-conflict and he didn't understand it. Whether it was attributed to her earlier anger at Sen or the current physical contact he wasn't sure. He decided to ignore it. He wanted to enjoy what was happening.

A moment later she pulled away sluggishly and mumbled an apology.

"Why are you sorry?" He frowned, "Nothing is wrong."

That was news to her.

Tenten nodded in understanding and then looked off to the right, her face paling, "Right…so…who gets the bed?"

He looked to see that there was indeed only one bed. Neji wondered why he hadn't noticed it earlier. He blinked, thinking it over briefly, and then volunteered to take the floor.

"But Neji you don't have to-"

"Tenten. Go to sleep." He didn't let her protest, and he snapped the light off, plunging the room into darkness. She huffed and the settled onto the bed, huddling indignantly beneath the covers. Neji sat against the wall and rested his chin to his chest, prepared to sleep uncomfortably so long as courtesy was preserved.

For a long while Tenten lay awake, only able to hear the pounding rain outside. She believed if anyone deserved the floor it was her, 'This is not fair at all…' Guilt kept her from sleep.

"Neji…" She squeaked his name into the inky black darkness, "Just…just get over here, will you?"

He didn't decline her invitation, having concluded the wall was not meant to support a sleeping shinobi.

Neji stood up and padded through the gloom silently. He then took the empty space beside her without a word. She was annoyed that he chose to lie on top of the blanket, "Get under! You'll be cold."

"I won't."

"Oh just do it already! You're annoying the crap out of me!" Tenten hissed and he grumpily complied with the order and slid beneath the cover.

He laid on his back staring up at the ceiling, trying not to get in a bad mood. Tenten lay on her side facing the wall. Still, neither could sleep. After a minute Neji spoke up, "I know what you were thinking about before."

Tenten could feel her face heat up in embarrassment, "You…you could tell?"

If he already knew how she felt then perhaps she had no real reason to be uptight about her feelings. It was just as scary as it was a relief.

"Your father's warning." He said and her spirit dropped. Her heart rate returned to a normal pace as well. And yet he wasn't necessarily incorrect, because her father's bequeathal of the black scroll had been irking her to no end being she still couldn't locate it. But still, she was glad he guessed wrong.

"I'll be alright," Tenten told him, "I think I know what I'm doing, Neji."

He made a low noise of agreement in his throat before he too turned on his side to be comfortable, facing her back. He could smell spice and vanilla on her. It was a scent Neji approved of. He also appreciated the great amount of warmth she emitted, which was preferable to sleeping on the stinging cold of the hardwood floor.

It was then he could admit how intriguing she was. Neji had never thought much of girls before or had ever been attracted to one, but he was interested in Tenten because she was genuinely appealing…even if he had been able to overlook that for three years. She was the closest, most intimate person he had, and his trust in her had grown enormously with time. Neji decided that he did like being close to her.

He made sure to keep his hands to himself and he closed his eyes, trying to welcome sleep. Tenten had slowed her breathing to feign sleep, but he could see through the façade, "Tenten."


"You are my best friend." Neji said quietly.

She had not expected to hear him say that. Though she was both touched and confused by what he had said, Tenten found that she could not say the same. Her dearest friend was Lee. He did mundane things with her, openly showed affection, spoke to her with no reservation, and shared her laughter and sorrows. Neji was never that way. She couldn't award him a false title. She loved Neji but he was not a good friend.

She cared for both of her teammates differently, and she was unsure of how to explain it, "Thank you, Neji…but you know…my best friend is Lee."

"Of course."

He didn't sound mad about it so Tenten relaxed. What she didn't know, however, was that that behind her Neji's face had drained of all color. It was unsettling to hear himself placed second fiddle to Lee in anything, though in this case it was justified.

Neji closed his eyes tightly, refusing to acknowledge it anymore. The last person he would EVER be jealous of was Lee.

He tried to sleep, swallowing his unease, although Tenten added quietly, "…but you are precious to me."

He assumed she was referring to how she still regarded him as a close friend. He didn't want to hear it. Neji forced sleep upon himself and Tenten lay awake for a while silently, wondering if she should have told him how she felt.

"If only Sakura-chan could see you now." Temari was grinning at her youngest brother. She was very pleased with his new outfit.

Gaara was garbed entirely in black. The shirt was sleeveless and tight to the skin. Black sleeves were fitted halfway up his arms, which he kept loosely at his sides. He frowned at her staring. The pants were baggy and numerous belts dangled from his hips.

After a long observation, Kankuro had told him he was too skinny, "You've got to try to buff up, Gaara. I've seen girls with more muscle than you!"

"You chose this clothing, idiot. It's not my fault how I look."

"I like it." Temari objected, "Don't listen to Kankuro; skinny-twig looks good on you. You pull it off…" She fiddled with the new leather strap that had been fitted to hold his sand gourd, "And that headband works for you too. Now you're a real Sand ninja!"

Kankuro agreed enthusiastically and said that he fit the bill for chunin. Gaara only wanted a change in topic, so he asked a question that had been on his mind, "Baki said that I was assigned to your cell. What happened to your other teammate?"

"Miosuke retired from shinobi work after the exam." Temari replied, "He had no choice. His arms were screwed up even after they healed so he can't fight as well as he used to."

Gaara dismissed the guilt he felt about maiming their former teammate. Both Temari and Kankuro had been unable to tolerate him, and he had done them a favor by disposing of him. Dark satisfaction replaced the remorse quickly, and he followed after his brother and sister to get some lunch.

That night Gaara was unable to sleep. A mix of old, painful memories and nostalgia for Leaf kept him awake. He laid in his bed, hating how it had belonged to the Kazekage before him. Someone who he had barely even known: his father.

The dark rings around his eyes began to grow more evident. For five days he adjusted to life in Suna. Gaara trained with his siblings and took missions by day, and during the night he endured the excruciating insomnia that had gripped him. He didn't say a word about his suffering to Temari or Kankuro.

The new morning routine was established. Kankuro was a startlingly talented cook. He made breakfast while Gaara sat at the table, his expression blank and exhausted. Temari took longer to prepare than either of the boys. She would undoubtedly be down by the time the food was ready.

"Your Hokage will want a report to see how you're doing soon," Kankuro reminded his brother, dumping eggs into each bowl out on the table, "But what are you going to say about Haku?"

Gaara stared at the food that had been laid before him.

"I don't know." He admitted.

He hadn't decided on what he was going to do about his friend quite yet. Tsunade couldn't be fooled for very long, he supposed. If Haku didn't return quickly there could be trouble.

Kankuro sighed worriedly before sitting across from his brother. A few moments later Temari joined them, looking dapper in a crimson dress she had fished out of her closet. An armored breastplate was tied over it and Kankuro whistled at her, "Wow. Nice. Looks like I'll have to change my style too…"

"We'll change your face paint while we're at it." She smirked mischievously, "I was thinking cat whiskers and a mustache would really accent your-"

"Cut it out!" He barked in annoyance, "I'll take care of that myself, thanks. My face wasn't a finger-painting canvas, last I checked."

Gaara muffled a low chuckle by stuffing his mouth with rice.

Later that morning Baki assigned them to another B-rank mission. It was originally rated C-class but complications had increased the difficulty.

A team of Sand genin had gone out on a one day D-rank mission without their sensei. He had been busy trying to negotiate better funding for the village with the local daimyo, and had permitted his students to go on without him. The children were four days overdue. There was suspicion of foul play.

Gaara and his siblings set out to search for the missing genin, keeping a wary eye open. Kankuro had informed him that all Academy students in Suna received immediate survival training, so that if it came to it, they could last in the desert for a week or two if obstacles arose. He had faith that if a sand storm had hit they would still be alive, "They'll probably be hiding somewhere, poor little shits…"

Gaara paused for a short while, focusing his chakra. He did a scan of the desert, sensing for abnormalities in pressure or temperature. It was an ability that expanded upon his Sand-Eye technique which he first tested on the night he arrived in Sunagakure. The vast expanse of the place, as far as he could tell, was stable, "There hasn't been a storm here for some time…it was something else."

Temari exchanged a troubled glance with Kankuro and then looked back to Gaara as they moved on over the sandy wasteland, "You know, Gaara, things like this happen all the time. One of them probably got hurt or something and they had to stop to recover. It's even happened to us when we first started out."

Gaara insisted there had been a confrontation. He doubted they had even made it back to the desert. He could not sense any other chakra signatures nearby. The search could take them out of the Wind Country and into enemy territory, if their luck continued to be sour.

They entered an area full of large dunes, and after scaling a rather tall hill the team was surprised to see people ahead. Temari gave a sidelong smirk to her brother but Gaara frowned, seeing things were not as she had predicted.

On an adjacent dune, the team of Sand genin had indeed returned to the Wind Country. They were trapped, however, surrounded by a group of enemy ninja.

"They must have been followed when they were trying to get back!" Kankuro deduced, charging ahead down the dune with his siblings at his heels.

After nearing the fracas ahead, Gaara noted that the opposing shinobi were familiar. They were the same team of Cloud shinobi that had competed in the preliminary matches of the Chunin Exam. The very ones they had defeated.

"It's a small world." He thought to himself.

Kankuro snickered at his brother's comment and they rushed up the dune to aid their fellow Sand ninja, but once they approached they were spotted. A blue haired ninja snatched up one of the injured genin and pressed a knife to her belly, "That's close enough!"

Gaara and his siblings froze immediately. Kankuro recognized the shinobi threatening the kunoichi vaguely. He was Kanosuke Nari, the one who had been his opponent in the preliminary match.

"Robi-chan!" One of the girl's teammates threw himself at Nari and was easily kicked aside. The genin were out of energy and unable fight anymore.

Gaara folded his arms at the spectacle, "Just to feel powerful you would pursue them while they delivered a package to an outside village? No self-respecting chunin would need to terrorize younger shinobi that way."

"We didn't make chunin, if you guessed that much!" Nari's blonde teammate, Toshi, spat angrily, "And they got in our way! We're just teaching them a lesson!"

"We didn't do anything Kankuro-sama! Temari-sama!" The other of Robi's teammates cried from the feet of the third member of the Cloud team, "Please help Robi-chan!"

"Quiet you pissant!" Chiko stomped on the genin's shoulder and he cried out in pain.

Gaara blinked. His siblings took the action as a ready signal. Before Nari could realize what was going on, the young kunoichi he had pinned in his arms was nothing more than a sand clone, "What the-?"

He turned and could see Robi stumbling down the dune. At the bottom she jumped in terror into Kankuro's waiting arms.

"Ryuusa Bakuryu!"

A wave of sand crashed down on Nari, sending him spinning wildly from the top of the dune. Toshi and Chiko moved to threaten their own captives in response but Temari was quicker.

"Gaara!" She called for her brother's attention before she attacked, "Daikamaitachi no jutsu!"

Gaara breathed a fireball that was doubled in size by Temari's fearsome wind jutsu. Toshi dodged frantically to avoid the combination fire jutsu but Chiko was less agile. His teammate had been scorched terribly and was left to flail in the sand in anguish.

Robi's teammates slid down the dune to join Kankuro in safety. Toshi and Nari lost interest in them and regrouped, attacking Temari together, "Raiton: Dry Air Thunder Clap!" An abrupt shockwave barreled Temari over before she could attack with her fan.

She rolled bonelessly down the opposite side of the dune, stunned by the jutsu. Kankuro glared at the Kumo nin who had ganged up on his sister. He kept his guard up but he wouldn't join in the brawl. If he left the children unattended for even a moment they could be picked off. As it was, Gaara appeared ready to finish the fight anyway.

It was fortunate that Temari and Kankuro were not in the way. Gaara formed hand seals and drew on a massive amount of chakra. He laid his hands on the ground and a huge tower of sand rose up from the dune.

Toshi and Nari skidded to a startled halt, staring up as the tower began to take shape: an enormous sand clone of Gaara.

They hadn't the sense to move out of the way before the clone pinned them swiftly with one impossibly heavy hand. They struggled for a few seconds, unable to move beneath the monstrous flow of sand.

"Shin Sabaku Soso!" The clone slammed down, sending a quake through the sandy earth that crushed everything beneath it instantly: Nari, Toshi, and even the helpless Chiko. He hadn't hesitated for a moment while using the jutsu.

Gaara turned and breathed deep, trying to calm down. He could see Temari hobbling dizzily over to him. She grinned, dusting sand from her skirt, "Well that was new! You never told us about that jutsu Gaara!"

"I've never had enough sand to use it before," Gaara replied, knowing it was a matter of resources, "When I am here…the things I can do are limitless."

"Gaara! Temari! Get over here!" Kankuro barked, "They're injured…"

His siblings went to him after he had called to help him examine the children.

Robi had a worrying cut on her lower back that had clotted, thankfully. There was still risk of infection. She sat tiredly between her teammates, Gintari and Asuo, and they were worse off than she. Asuo's leg was broken in two places, Kankuro suspected. He had to keep off of it. Gintari's left eye was bleeding copiously, and on top of that he had been stabbed twice in the arm, but not in any serious areas.

"I'm just glad you got rid of scum who would attack genin without provocation!" Temari thanked Gaara and she then tore a piece of cloth to help Gintari put pressure on his wound.

Gaara looked at the children sadly, "My greatest regret is that they came to harm."

Robi and her teammates animatedly thanked Gaara for saving their lives, but inwardly he still felt that he had failed them. Their injuries could have proven fatal had they been found any later. He believed he could've done more to protect them.

Gaara and his siblings each lifted a trainee and turned back in the direction of the village.

They saw to it personally that the genin received proper medical treatment. Once they were tended to Gaara and his siblings wished them a quick recovery before leaving. They rested for a bit and then wrote a succinct report. Kankuro turned it in to Baki when he swung by to check on them.

He was impressed that they found, rescued, and retrieved the youngsters all in less than two hours. And Gaara's single-handed destruction of the opposing team also interested Baki, "Gaara…meet me outside the tower at sundown. You need to be reevaluated."

"Of course." Gaara nodded respectfully and then followed Temari down the road to find something to eat.

Kankuro did not follow after them immediately. He turned to his teacher, frowning, "Reevaluated? What? You think he's dangerous?"

"He's very dangerous, being that he is the container of Shukaku." Baki replied solemnly, "And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. This village needs someone like him."

Though it had not been requested, Temari and Kankuro joined Gaara at sundown to meet with Baki. They wondered if perhaps their sensei wanted to see how well Gaara could restrain Shukaku now that he was older. No one had gotten around to explaining how Jiraiya had strengthened the seal so his student could rest easy even in the presence of the biju.

As promised, Baki was outside of the tower waiting and he nodded to them when they arrived. He turned his sharp gaze to Gaara and then said, "Attack me."

"Are you crazy?" Temari snapped, and then balked when Gaara let a jet of sand rip loose at their mentor, "What do you think you're doing!"

Gaara's sand attacks were formidable and much faster due to the availability of sand. Baki evaded cautiously, reading his movements, and when an opportunity appeared he attacked with a wind sword. His slashes bounced off of the sand shield that automatically rose to defend Gaara. The red haired nin made hand seals, "Katon: Grand Fireball jutsu!"

"Futon: Gale Wall!" A huge whirlwind kicked up in front of Baki, ripping apart the incoming flames and nullifying the attack. Seizing his chance, Baki attacked again. He came in close and struck Gaara with a chakra-strengthened punch that would've been enough to blow through several brick walls. He recoiled in surprise when the chunin he had hit dissipated in a puff of smoke, "A…shadow clone?"

Kankuro and Temari watched, not hiding their pleased expressions. Baki had been fighting a fake the entire time. Their brother had actually positioned himself on a nearby rooftop before even coming to the meeting place. He finished making hand signs and then attacked the disoriented jounin below, "Suiton: Water Dragon Blast!"

The water tank beside him on the roof ruptured, and an angry jet of heated water streaked for Baki on the street below. Baki was nearly blindsided by the jutsu, and barely avoided it at the last second. He was still soaked, even if he had dodged the bulk of it. He struggled to regain his balance, and Baki was troubled even more by the sand that began to swarm around him.

He certainly would have been agile enough to escape, but the sand began to stick to his wet clothing, weighing him down and slowing his reaction time. Baki became clumsy as he tried to swipe it away, while still keeping an eye on Gaara.

Another shadow clone plowed into him from behind and Baki wheeled about heavily, defending against its ruthless taijutsu combinations. The distraction disabled him from fighting off the rest of the swarming sand, and within moments Baki found himself trapped in a spherical sand coffin with no hope of escape. The kage bunshin backed off, seeing Baki could no longer defend himself.

"Good!" The jounin called aloud to Gaara. The red haired shinobi promptly released him, seeing the spar was finished and in his favor.

"It looks like I made an error when I estimated your skill level, Gaara." Baki announced, swiping the wet sand from his vest, "You've improved your skills and control vastly. This is exactly what Kazekage-sama had envisioned when you were born to this village. Because I am in the position to award field promotions, I will confer upon you jounin rank!"

Both Kankuro and Temari were flabbergasted by their teacher's decision. Gaara was slightly less overwhelmed.

Baki looked to the red haired nin again, "Now that that's taken care of…there's a specific mission that I would like you to see to personally, Gaara."

The following day Sakura was again busy cleaning in Tsunade's office. The difference this time was that the Hokage was no longer held up in meetings. She sat in boredom behind her desk, sifting through paperwork and pawing at a near empty bottle of sake that had been put out in front of her.

A messenger hawk landed on the windowsill and screeched to get Tsunade's attention. With a sigh, the sannin stood and crossed over to the open window, taking the scroll the bird offered her.

Sakura kept working diligently, cleaning out a drawer that was full of nonsense stationary. Tsunade took a minute to read the memo and then grinned widely, "Oh Sa-ku-ra…"

She looked up when she was spoken to, "Yes, Tsunade-shishou?"

"This message is from Gaara…"

"Oh!" Sakura bolted over to the Hokage excitedly, anxious to hear how he was doing, "What did he write?"

"Well it says here that both he and Haku-kun have settled comfortably in Sand. Haku is now on the medical staff and Gaara has been promoted to jounin rank…" Tsunade couldn't hide her proud smile, "As I expected of the both of them!"

"Jounin?" Sakura was elated to hear it, "So soon?"

"I would have promoted him if he had stayed here, after completing official evaluations of course," Tsunade admitted, chuckling, "The same goes for Naruto and Haku, but there is always room for improvement. That's why I let them go on and train away from Leaf…it'll do them all good."

Sakura understood exactly what she meant. After the two finished their cheers of excitement, the Hokage told Sakura to begin reading one of the new medical journals she had provided, "I'll take care of that drawer myself. It's full of junk and there isn't much worth keeping…"

Her student went ahead to find the journal and Tsunade sat back down at her desk to write a joyous reply to Gaara. She had a strange, unexplainable feeling that something had gone wrong somehow. Tsunade felt concerned over what would become of the strong camaraderie that Naruto, Gaara, and Haku shared. Would their friendship withstand the time and distance between them?

'Huh…it's funny…' She thought to herself, 'It feels as if I'll never see them again…'

Final Note:

We would like to give special thanks to failedvocabulary; a reader and an inspiration.

We would also like to thank: Morlin, Wise Poison, anonymous naruhinafan, Master Sanosa, Lyra the Sorceress of Scholars, wolvknight, Morbious20, Silver Warrior, vanchagreen, Kitsuru, TrueSeeker, DarthValgaav, Sdarian, JustPlainPeachy, limes-eye, Conceptor, Eyes of Truth, isthisparadise, Dragon Man 180, Amei-chan, Marz1, Laegdin, Lady Silverhawk, shika-kun49, Seasle, IEatChicken, Foxtriller, Kell Shock, and everyone who reviewed, read, faved, alerted, or participated in any way in this fic. We love you guys.

The continuation of this story, Harbinger, can be found on tigerowl's profile.

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