Sorry this is late, though not nearly as late as my Blood Berserker. This story is really hard to write because it's going to be very, very long, as you can tell with the slow progress with which the characters are getting to know each other. Trust me, it does eventually turn into a KibaXSaiyuki fic, and you are starting to see the ShinoXSaiyuki, but it's still gonna be a while. SORRY AGAIN!

Chapter ten:

Violin strings

In order for one to know an enemy and know how to defeat them, one must first study them. Watch their every move, observe their every strength and weakness, and then exploit it and take them down in a fiery glory of battle. It was something all shinobi learned at an early age, that recon was one of the most important parts of the entire mission and one simple slip of misinformation would mean disaster for all involved. And so he watched and he learned. He didn't necessarily like what he had caught though.

It was night time again. The moon was large and hanging listlessly in the sky, lending the world its light that it in turn borrowed from the sun. Konohagakure was larger than he remembered, much larger, then again, all things seemed vaster when it was night and there were a plethora of shadows to hide in. It only made his gathering all the easier.

The moon fell upon the market district with a vengeance, out from the storms of the past few days and with glittering stars around it. And as it's silver rays caressed the leaf village they also fell upon blood, spiked blood that was messy and unruly atop a milky pale white head and body. Sea green eyes narrowed as they stared down upon the house where his newest opponent slept, ate, did everything that made a human feel alive. The large gourd upon the red heads back shifted slightly when he rolled a shoulder and crossed his arms over his steadily widening chest. Teenaged years had been kind to Gaara, he supposed. His body was getting far stronger with the development of his muscles and increasing height, his chakra pulsing was getting more under control and his demon no longer constantly howled within his ears.

But still sleep found little comfort for the vessel. So instead, he found himself newly obsessed, as he often did, with something that caught his interest. Someone, to be more specific.

"Gaara…? Why're you up here at this time of night?" Gaara mildly tensed, not to the point where his sibling that had somehow managed to sneak up on him would notice, but enough to make him curse his weakness. He turned slowly to where his teal eyes were locked with the same colors of his sister, his neck craning forwards ever so slightly. Temari stood behind him with a slightly confused look, her blond hair, as messy as his own, down and free to spike up whichever way it wished to.

It was no secret to him that his siblings were making an attempt to make up for past discretions, to make him see that he was not alone and he was not a monster. Gaara found it… pleasing in some ways that his only family, those that had treated him almost worse than the entire village, were actually starting to care about him. But on days, nights, such as this he wondered how much they truly did trust him after the amount of time he had changed. He was no longer the killing machine of his past, but he was by no means the perfect angle they were trying to make him into. The recent events featuring his obsession were just the latest proof.

He gave Temari a quick scowl before looking down at the window that was within his sight, his mouth firming up. She was there, craning over a scroll and trying to put her hands into swift signs only to stumble and end up kicking the scroll halfway across the room. And then bring it back and start again. Gaara had been watching whenever they came back to this village for treaty reinforcement and whatever, like a good Kazekage to protect his people and his newly loving family, and he had seen many similar scenes. Temari shifted behind him, though she was accustomed to his long silences before answering her questions he could tell she was still uncomfortable with it.

Finally giving in he muttered, "she's not getting stronger."

Temari blinked a few times then frowned deeply, her hands coming to her elbows. The night was chilly and she wore only a simple night dress that had been given to her by Sakura when they had first come here and she had forgotten her own. Plus… Shikamaru liked the color so she had kept it from the other kunochi. "Who?" she questioned.

Silence once more made her sigh heavily and she padded across the rough roof of their inn. She came to her brothers side, who was now towering compared to the small thing he used to be, so frail and disturbed, and shivered despite herself. Even still the overwhelming chakra that surged off of his body at a regular pulse was enough to make her want to run. The blond Suna native huffed when her brother remained silent and arched her neck over the roof to peer down into the lower ranking neighborhood that they were staying in at her Kazekage's demand. That was when she saw just why he had wanted to stay here, in the virtual slums of the Leaf.

From his view atop his perch Gaara could see clear into someone's house! And not just anyone's house, no, but that of the light brown haired, dark skinned, amber eyed Taijutsu specialist he had beaten into a bloody pulp the last time he had seen her! The cat like ninja was currently kicking a heavy scroll hard enough to make a dent in her bedroom door then punched a wall heavily, leaving what looked to be yet another large crack in its surface. The young woman turned and motioned wildly, yelling things that Temari couldn't hear, at her large black panther that just sat placidly on its own cot. Temari blanched when she finally processed just what was going on.

"Gaara! Is that really-?" before she could finish her question Gaara almost growled low in his throat.

This was his little ritual. His sister was disturbing his information gathering against this girl, something he was not inclined to let continue. He shot her a quick, withering look before turning back to his watching, his entire form letting off a cold aura. "She remains at one level. She isn't getting any better," he muttered in disappointment, finding that Saiyuki's inability to get stronger was taking much of the anticipation and excitement of his obsession away. He should be ruing in the fact that she wasn't getting any more powerful, that she was still weak and easily defeated, but that wasn't how he worked. He liked a good fight, a fight where he had to actually try to win, and currently she would be a mere fly against his sand shields. She was nothing, while he was steadily getting more and more in sync with his demon. It wasn't what he'd hoped for.

He had been hoping her powers would increase as his did, and that they would some day become a match. Like Lee's had. She had been able to break through the sand at one point, had even managed to get an arm free of his prison, and had she been able to improve she might have one day become a threat and thus a worthy opponent. Right now, she was only another Kunochi of Konohagakure.

Temari stared down in continued shock that her brother was showing interest in something. No, not in just something, but in a girl! She had secretly held the belief that her brother didn't know what the difference between boys and girls was and that he was asexual, that he would never even give a girl or a guy a second glance. But the fact that he was practically stalking this girl, however creepy it was for Gaara, showed her that there might be some chances of a future heir to the Kazekage. She watched on as Saiyuki slumped towards the hated scroll and once again began her practice of hand signs and chakra function, trying her hardest to form a genjutsu.

"She doesn't seem very weak," Temari offered in the girls defense. "Compared to you, a lot of people are 'weak' brother."

Gaara chose to ignore his sisters second statement but instead chose the first. "Compared to others, maybe, but she could be stronger. I don't see why she stays at one level like this," he growled.

Temari's expressions suddenly became sad as she shifted and tilted her head to one side, watching as Saiyuki buried her face into her hands after kicking the scroll for the hundredth time that night. He pursed her lips and then slowly suggested, "Maybe she can't? Have you ever thought about that, Gaara?"

Gaara stopped his brooding and blinked a few times. When he heard his sister padding away on the rooftop, unwilling to take his eyes off of the brown haired girl below, he had no choice but to dwell upon these words.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"What?" Kiba barked, staring down out of one of the many trees within the confines of the Konohagakure park. There, with her arms crossed over her chest, was the form of his 'rival' turned friend, Saiyuki, with her head cocked at him and her eyebrows raised with her inquired question.

"I said I'll help you get Hinata. You obviously are oblivious to anything a girl would like, nonetheless one like her," Saiyuki stated like it was nothing with a shrug, her hands coming from under her arms. She began to idly twirl a kunai, her eyes half hooded with boredom and waiting for her slowest witted friend to get over whatever kind of brain blockage he was afflicted with at the moment. Sometimes she wondered why she even talked to Kiba at all. He wasn't the sharpest shuriken in the pouch after all. He was just lucky that there was something about him that she couldn't' help but like. Otherwise she was fairly certain she would have caused him severe bodily harm a long time ago.

Kiba gawked at her, his jaw slack. He watched her intently, trying to pick out any possibility for deceit in her posture and chakra patterns. But he couldn't find any, in fact she seemed in the utmost serious about helping him, like it would finally get him out of her hair! Could she blame him for gaping like some kind of grounded fish.

Then something struck him. "What makes you so sure you can help me get Hinata? You're not a normal girl you know, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't like the same things as her. You're more into violence and weaponry, and she's into flowers and girl things. You're more like a boy than anything else," Kiba remarked and then held up his hands in defense when she shot him a dark look, her kunai stopping it's twirling and held threateningly in her fingers. He laughed nervously when her teeth were momentarily bared at him and his stupidity before turning back to watch the village from afar, her mysteriously colored eyes clouding over in thought.

She scowled lightly at his comment but still shrugged. "All girls like the same things on their baser levels. We like to be complimented, not insulted, try telling her how pretty you think she is. Also, flowers, or candy of some kind, figure out what her favorite thing to eat is. Do you want my help or not?" Sai questioned stiffly, not liking that she was putting herself out there so much when he had yet to even agree to her assistance. The truth was for the last two and a half months, since their little bonding episode in the rain, she had watched the dog nin flounder in his wooing of the Hyuuga heir, and she was tired of watching him stutter and blush and then end up ruining the conversation. But what was worse was that Hinata seemed just as clueless to his feelings as he was about expressing them. It was not helping matters in the least…

Kiba grumbled under his breath, his lower jaw jutting out in defiance. He swung his legs over the branch he was on and carefully studied the top of her almost blond haired head, trying to figure out if there was any level of dishonestly to all of this. It sounded good. Very good in fact. He had been hoping someone might give him advice for getting Hinata to notice him as much more than some other teammate. The only problem was that when he had asked Shino the boy had merely stared at him through those damn glasses and walked away, and her couldn't ask Naruto cause he wasn't here, and Shikamaru had merely said that girls were too tiresome and not to bother. He was starting to think his entire generation of males were complete idiots and he was going to have to just stare at Hinata helplessly all of his life. Now he was getting female help, the best kind in his opinion, and he hadn't had to embarrass himself for Ino or Ten Ten. It was almost too good to be true. Then again… in his experience as a shinobi if it sounded that way it almost always was.

He wrinkled his nose in momentary disdain. "What's the catch, Saiyuki-chan?" he puzzled.

Saiyuki tensed instantly at his sudden terming of her name. She stared at the village with widened orbs, her form freezing and her mind coming to a crashing halt. Never before had she been referred to by Kiba by anything other than 'cat-stink,' 'cat bitch', 'bitch', 'ass hole', 'flat chest', and her favorite when they had first started training, 'ugly'. So to hear the somewhat affectionate suffix –chan from someone like Kiba was making her very, very confused and stunned at once. She had to stop a few moments to make her brain work before she was able to digest his real question.

Seems the dog boy was ready to be civil. Well if he was then the hell with it, she might as well cut down on the dog breath comments. Though she was still convinced he needed to brush his teeth around fourteen times a day to get rid of the stench.

"No catch, Kiba-kun. Besides, I'm on leave for a few days anyway, I'm a bit burned out with all of the missions lately, and I thought that this could be entertaining. Besides, I'm getting tired of you hanging around me all of the time lately, you're worse than Saito. At least he goes off by himself for like half the day," she commented while stretching her arms above her head.

Kiba growled under his breath but thought for a moment. It was in these moments when he realized just how much like a cat Saiyuki was, without being one. She was independent to a fault, she would rather die than ask for help for small things that she would see as her problem, and if she didn't' like you she did not mince words she would simply say she hated you. It was something he was coming to admire in some aspects and hate in others. Sometimes he was bored and yes if his other teammates were doing crap he'd hunt her down. It was part of being friends after all! But… if she was offering help then who was he to put it down. She was technically a genius, taijutsu wise, and she was a girl. What could go wrong?

Deciding he was better off with another head in this dilemma he huffed gruffly before stating:

"Okay, deal. You better not make me do something stupid, baka-neko, or you'll regret it."

Saiyuki shot him a withering look, her mouth a firm line and her teeth clenched to where it formed a funny line along her jaw bone. Finally the jounin sighed and waved her hand around, signaling that she understood before sliding down the surface of the trunk to sit down on the soft ground of the grass. She looked up to the prefect blue sky with just enough sprinkling of cottony white clouds sailing by and couldn't help the small smile that came to her lips. It had been a while now since she had been this at peace. She was thankful that that horrible month was over and done with and she could move on with her year.

"So what were they like?" Kiba muttered quickly when he had jumped down from the branch and landed with a hushed thud. Saiyuki slid her rounded pupil eye over to him before shrugging her red clad shoulders, shifting her shoulders against the smooth bark of the Konoha cedar.

"Who?"

"You're parents. Ya said that they were murdered. What were they like?"

"Why do you want to know?" Saiyuki suddenly bit, her aura changing considerably in a short amount of time.

Kiba winced but snarled and scooted a few feet away, sitting down with his arms crossed over his chest. "Fine, I won't ask! Geez, just wanted to make conversation!"

"Then don't make it about that, baka-inu," she snarled right back. A silence settled between them and soon Saiyuki's eyes were drifting closed in a light doze from the warmth of the sun upon her already scorched skin. That was before she felt someone poke her with a sharp stick. "If you want to keep your hand Kiba-san…" she growled low in her throat.

"Well, since you're gonna help me get Hinata, then why not start now! Tell me what I need to do," Kiba put his stick down and stared at her intently, his red stripes under his eyes wrinkling with his narrowed orbs. He was interested and he wanted to get started right away. If things went the way he wanted them to then he could ask Hinata out by the end of the week!

Saiyuki on the other hand had other ideas. "Well, you'll need to ease her into the idea of liking you other than a friend or brother figure. Do nice things, like compliment her new outfit, hair cut, the mundane stupid things. Say she looks pretty today, console her when she's being all wishy-washy about Naruto being gone from the village. You have to start slow."

"That sucks ass! Why can't I just ask her out? Why not the ramen place?" he commented, tapping his chin and getting a feral grin, planning out his date.

Saiyuki choked and then looked at him as if he had just grown a third head to accompany the second. She shook her head and put a hand to her forehead. This would be harder than she thought! If the idiot was actually thinking of taking her to that place of all the restaurants in the entire village he was doomed before he started! Thank Kami she had offered him assistance!

Seeing her reaction he raised his eyebrows then furrowed them in an insulted glare. He crossed his arms before grinding out, "What's wrong with there?"

Saiyuki held up three fingers. "This many things are wrong with there. First, you don't know if she even likes ramen! Two, for your first date take her somewhere nice. And thirdly, and most importantly, is that is where Naruto likes to go, his favorite place to eat. Even I can see the fact that she would die for him if it made him notice how much she loves him! If you take her there she'll probably think about him the entire time. Not to mention asking her out right now would make things awkward between you two.

"Think of your team Kiba, if you were to jeopardize that, and if you don't do this just right, then the team will be dissolved and Tsunade-baa-chan will punish you and assign you all to different areas. Think, Kiba-kun," the cat jounin stated sharply before thumping him upside the head.

Kiba almost whimpered as he hung his head. He had wanted to ask her out sooner not later, this was just making him more depressed over his feelings for the heir. "I've liked her since we were in the academy. It was just some kind of little kid crush, ya know? But when we got to be in a team together… it got worse. She as so pretty, and after a while, she got stronger and stronger, she wasn't as timid anymore. It's just that she's obsessed with Naruto!"

"Kinda like you're obsessed with her?" Saiyuki scoffed and had to jump back as he tried to run her through with a wave of Kunai. "HEY!"

"Shut it!" he grumbled before standing and watching the academy get out for the day just beyond the hills of the park. It was hard to believe that he was now sixteen and far gone from his days in there. It was almost the good life back then. He didn't' have to worry about missions, life and death shit, or about how his feelings for a fellow ninja would affect the rest of the village. When had things gotten so complicated.

Saiyuki watched him brood with a bored look, her arms once again crossed over her chest. Finally, she snorted and waved him off in a shooing motion. "Well, you'll never get Hinata to accept you as a boyfriend if you just stand around here. Go, go start your little wooing exercises!" And get out of my hair, she thought smugly as he looked funny at her. When he didn't move she sighed and pushed him towards the village.

Taking the hint finally Kiba up and left, his hands shoved into his pockets and his mind reeling. Great. Just what he needed. Saiyuki alone was a harsh teacher, and now she was his love coach? This didn't bode well. Then again it was better than what he'd been doing by himself.

Saiyuki watched him walk away with a slightly confused look on her face. She gripped an area somewhere between her heart and her rib cage, her mouth pursed and her other hand gripping into a fist. She was doing the right thing. He was like a pathetic lost dog without the Hyuuga. Then why the hell was something in her screaming she'd done something wrong?

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Shino was once again idly watching bugs in his free time. It wasn't something anyone else but his family in the village considering soothing or even entertaining, but luckily he was an Aubrame. And currently, he was having a very interesting conversation with a large beetle, who was having a staring contest with him. He had needed to clear his head, he had needed to think of something other than what had been clouding his thoughts for a good month now, and had thus resorted to the one thing that had always helped before.

Talking with bugs. The only problem was that his head wasn't in it. The aching in his chest had gotten steadily worse, he had talked to his father about it… but the man had merely looked at him with an amused gaze, patted his shoulder, and stated that he would understand if he really thought on it. So Shino had. And he had cornered that it had to do with his latest friend, the taijutsu master and elite jounin. But that hadn't helped mattered much since he had pretty much already discovered that it was her behind all of this before. So he had come out here to try and distract himself from constantly thinking on it now, finding that his mind was too busy and buzzing with thoughts for his liking. Especially when it involved someone that he had just met and was just starting to open up to. The last thing he needed was to creep her out with talk like she made his chest hurt.

She'd run away screaming if he told her that. He idly thumbed a leaf as he listened to the beetle talk about how the weather was shifting again and that fall would be on its way soon, so to prepare by gathering up plenty of food for winter. He had also heard that there were some enemy beetles in the neighborhood that were trying to steal his mates. All fascinating, but his mind was not getting any quieter.

He had heard from Kiba earlier that day that Saiyuki would be helping him get Hinata to agree to be his girlfriend. And in a way he was glad that Kiba had absolutely no apparent interest in the jounin cat kunochi, and in another he was disturbed at his readiness to thank Kami for his friends disinterest. What would he have felt if Kiba had said he was going to go out with Saiyuki instead of Hinata? He probably would have gotten angry, depressed, and possessive all at the same time. She was one of the only people, much less girls, that spent any time with him whatsoever. The other times were spent with Kiba and at his house or speaking with bugs. It was no wonder that he felt a strong attachment to the girl that had willingly come to him and spoken with him, unmindful of the bugs that crawled beneath his skin.

She had saved him in a way. She was the one that had told him that it wasn't strange that he could command his kikai, that it was just his bloodline limit and that it wasn't anything to be ashamed of; she thought it was an interesting trait. She had shown him that there were other people in the world than his teammates and small circle of friends that appreciated just how helpful his bugs could be. She was one of the only people not completely grossed out at the thought of there being thousands of beetles under his skin constantly feeding on his chakra. Saiyuki had even commented once that he must have a massive amount of energy to constantly give it to his symbiotic partners.

Shino sighed heavily, somewhat uncharacteristic of him, and slouched down slightly. The beetle by this time had figured out that he was bored with the conversation and was teetering off, muttering about invading males and how it was unjust. He stared down at the mossy ground of his families small grounds, his hand coming to support his heavy head.

He… he didn't know what would happen if he actually listened to the damn pain in his chest. He thought knew what it was. He was actually pretty sure he knew what it was, but didn't' think it was possible. Someone like Saiyuki wouldn't think twice about a guy like him. She was unusual, exotic, and so much different than the usual Konoha kunochi.

She didn't care about getting dirty, she actually relished in it and said that if she was training and didn't get filthy that the whole session was a waste. She was toned and taught, built in some aspects like a boy, with muscles much more defined and larger than girls her age or older. Her hair was interesting in that she bound it in tight, dark grey fabric from the base of her head down to the middle of her back, and her fashion sense was all function over form. She was the opposite of someone like Sakura, she even had a brash and somewhat crude mouth, saying whatever popped into her head even if it be a swear. By all means she should be someone that Shino disliked, because she was so brash and so almost arrogant that it should drive him insane.

But instead it fascinated him. He wanted to know more, he needed to know more about her. Whenever he wasn't around her he would think about her for a good hour after they parted ways. And he was even starting to dream about her. It was disturbing him considering he had never felt this way about a girl or anyone in his entire life. He was beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with him. Was he a stalker? Was he sick? Would she hate him if he ever told her these things?

How had his simple life gotten so complicated in the space of a few months? She had come in like a hurricane and was settled in like a mountain, refusing to leave. Shino was a guy that liked order, neatness, the minimalism of all that life had to offer. And with the single presence of one person his life had been turned on its head and he was being forced into the light of being social and hold up an actual conversation. Just what did she want from him?

What did he want from her…? Shino blinked at that last thought, having let his mind run wild for a few minutes to see what it came up with, and found that he was anxious with that conclusion. They were friends, what more was there to hope for from Saiyuki? He wasn't a fool, he had seen couples walking around Konoha holding hands, whispering to each other, laughing, blushing… kissing. He had always assumed he was fine with not having that, with marrying someone from the very far off other Aubrame clans so that his marriage would be decision free. He had also always assumed that he would never meet someone that might make him question that line of thought, that maybe he wasn't fine with it and he wanted a normal relationship with all of the hand holding he could take, all of the whispering, hugging, oh Kami it burned him just to be close to someone that way.

He swore under his breath before pushing down his hood and running his fingers through his spiky, unruly brown hair. He had spent almost his entire teenaged years pressing down that need and want, saying that it wasn't for him, that no girl in the village could want that of him. He had numbed that burning and had even convinced himself that he was fine with a marriage of politics and convince, that he could learn to love his appointed wife. He just wasn't meant for a normal courting. But those feelings were back with a vengeance, his barriers had been broken, and it was all he could do to hold it in.

He had not been this depressed in years. He had been okay lying to himself, but it was not working anymore. With a grunt the bug nin took off his circular glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to rid himself in some way of the ache in his chest. Shino sometimes hated it when his father was right.

He wondered off handedly if maybe something was physically wrong with him rather than he might just like someone. Perhaps a trip to Sakura was in order?

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Kiba gulped hard as he fiddled with the bottom of his leather jacket. His jaw was shaking slightly, like the rest of his body, and his stomach was doing flip flops horribly. His already red tinged cheeks were seeping with more and more crimson with each and every passing moment as he thought about starting what would change his and Hinata's friendship forever! Well… minus the other fourteen times already that he had tried to ease into the whole, 'I really like you' business. Fuck, he was going to die alone.

The sun of Konoha was coming down brightly onto him from the afternoon position as he waited patiently outside of one of her favorite café's. This was after all where she went every third day after a mission, to replenish her wardrobe from the ones that had gotten ripped and torn. He chewed the inside of his lip, trying to think of something suave and debonair to say to her on why on earth he was stalking her! Growling under his breath the dog nin ran his hand through his hair anxiously before starting to thump on the bench he was leaning on. He could always say that he was just going through the market district… in the female area… for kunochi battle field styles… in front of her favorite store. Okay so that wasn't going to work! If anything that made him sound like some crazy guy that wanted to chop her up into little pieces and use her innards as some kind of strange lamp fixture!

Buzzing, happy people were walking by the sweating jounin as he continually bombarded his poor brain for something to say. Finally, just when his heart was about to stop dead in his throat from the anticipation and when he was getting far too many butterflies and was about to walk away from it all then and there a dangling of a door's bell sounded, altering Kiba that this was now or never.

And out of the shop strolled the figure of… Ino. That annoying, high pitched Ino that got on his nerves and made him feel like tearing off his own ears to get relief from her shrill voice. It didn't help that she had seen him standing there and was waving at him and making a straight bee line for the anxious dog, who was now looking from the coming blond to the door and back again. God damn it he had nearly had a heart attack and now it wasn't even the girl he was hoping for!? He hated his life… It was almost as bad as Hana making him eat spinach.

"Kiba-kun! Fancy meeting you here," Ino said happily when she came to a stop before him, her hands on her shapely hips. She cocked her blond haired head at him, her blue eyes analyzing, before asking, "you don't strike me as a cross dresser, why're you here?"

Kiba's eyebrow twitched when he heard her imply that he dressed in women's clothing. He had to resist the urge to pounce on her and start pounding her into the ground, considering she was a girl and all he held back. Though if she kept on talking about how it would be okay if he was, that was just what he liked, she didn't look down on it, and how she would have to tell a few people though, then he would overlook her gender and start to throttle her. He plastered on a wide grin as he slid his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, his dark eyes narrowing marginally. "I'm not, I'm actually here…to uh," Kiba had to bit down hard into the side of his cheek to stop the blood from rushing to his face, causing it instead to flow into his mouth and fill it with the tangy liquid.

"To, uh, what?" Ino asked, putting her shopping bag over her shoulder.

"I'm here to hang with Hinata okay? I heard she likes to go in there so I'm waiting for her to come out!" Kiba snarled bitterly, not liking that she was treating him like a simpleton. Though the dog nin was indeed not the smartest boy of their class he always was by far not to the dumbest, and he knew when he was being talked down to. Then again, Ino had gotten into the habit of addressing everyone that way since her and Sakura had had their huge falling out in the fifth grade.

Ino raised her eyebrows at him, her smile spreading almost sinisterly. She tossed her now long blond hair over her shoulder and glanced once more towards the store, her smirk now disturbing the inu. The last thing he needed was for her to get the right idea about this and to blather it all over Konoha and exposing his secret to the girl he liked before he had a chance to tell her. Oh Kami would that be mortifying.

"And here I thought you and that Haraku chick were together! Oh well, I suppose Hinata is a much better match for the likes of you anyway," Ino stated with a chuckle at him before turning and waving behind her head, walking down the street and towards the upper west district, where the richer half of the village lived. He gritted his fangs watching her walk away, his annoyance now through the roof for the simple fact that she could afford to go shopping frivolously while he and his sister had to save up for simple new uniforms.

Then what she had said struck him and he blinked a few times before spluttering. Him and Sai!? That would be insane! He wrinkled his nose in distaste, his arms crossing over his chest peevishly. Why on earth would someone think that he would go out with someone like that macho chick, besides the fact that he was spending almost as much time with her as he did with his current love interest? But seriously, Saiyuki was too violent, too spastic, too much like himself really for him to even consider her as anything more than a friend. Just as he was trying to get the idea out of his head the door opened again with a ding and out walked the object of his affection and the second member of his squad. Taking a deep breath and pushing the disturbing conversation, however short, with Ino from his mind he let out a call and waved his hand, smiling from ear to ear.

Hinata started at him being there then grinned shyly before walking over, holding a considerably smaller bag than that of the other kunochi. Her white eyes locked with his when she was before him, her somewhat longer purple hair shifting in a small breeze. He had to hold in his small noise of admiration at being so close to her after a good two days of separation now.

"Kiba-kun, how are you?" Hinata asked in that small voice of hers that made Kiba want to just hold her close to him and protect her from the world. She was like a doll in some aspects, though her days of incredible weakness were over, she was still something precious and valuable to him and she too could break, like every other thing and person in the world. He would give his legs and arms just to see her never get hurt again like she had when she had fought with her cousin…

Kiba ran a hand over the back of his neck and beamed at her in the same cocky way he always did. "Oh, I'm good, Hinata-chan. I was just wandering around and remembered how you told me you liked this store so I wanted to wait around and then just spend some time with ya. Since, you know, my training with Saiyuki-san has been taking up so much time lately!" he lied quickly, not knowing just how he had managed to pull something that strange together so quickly. But he couldn't just come out and say that he wanted to be around her so that he could make her feel comfortable with the idea of going out with him as boyfriend and girlfriend, no! She would stare at him like he'd grown a second head and either laugh or run away. His ego couldn't take either blows.

Hinata was quiet a moment, looking like she was debating the matter, when finally her stomach growled loudly. She put a hand to it and laughed nervously, blushing in embarrassment. "Actually, I am kinda hungry, Kiba-kun. Would you like to go get some… ramen?" she asked with a slight smile, her piercing eyes holding his.

Kiba felt something in his stomach jiggle at that. His legs were jelly and he couldn't help the small exhalation that came from his mouth, his heart pounding in his throat. She had asked him to lunch. Sure it had been as friends, as only she couldn't see the blush that was creeping its way slowly to his treacherous cheeks, but it counted to the chuunin all the same. He nodded quickly, putting his arms behind his head and glancing down to Akamaru who had been by his side quietly the entire time. The big white dog glanced from owner to girl then wagged his tail, instantly knowing that Hinata would end up giving him half of her bowl. The two walked off with the dog boasting about how he had actually managed to hit his current sensei a few times. He left out the part where she had returned the favor around fifty times and had made him black out with a shot to his neck. She didn't need to know that part, ever.

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Sensei… I need a word with you," the calm of the once quiet jounin break room was shattered. The click of a locking door informed the man in question that there was no getting out of this, and consider who was the one that had spoken he realized even if he did get out of the room she would just hunt him down and demand to have this conversation.

Light flooded in through the ground to ceiling window, bathing the ratty old couch and several arm chairs near it with golden light of Konoha. The bathroom was small as was to be expected for a mere break room where the jounin elite of the village just came to unwind before heading out to their homes, do paper work, or go on missions. Posters lined the wall, some formal and reminders of the village they worked for and what their purpose as shinobi of the leaf was, others were of a selected band, club, or even a particular jounin that all of the girls had found sexy and pasted onto the wall with an ungraspable jutsu. Poor Genma's head still hasn't come off its ego trip since then. There were several tables with hard, plastic chairs around the fake wood where people would randomly come and eat lunch if there was no where else to go. Stale coffee was still in the maker from whoever had made it this morning, and judging from how full it was both of the jounin in the room wagered it was Anko who liked to put grounds in the actual drink.

The man in question turned with a hand on his hip, his eyebrows furrowed. The light struck at the tight green jumpsuit that was stretched over his body and it glimmered on his unnaturally glossy black hair. He stared down his former student who had her arms crossed deftly over her chest, letting him know with a mere look that this was a topic that could not be dropped.

Gai smirked and put his hands behind his head, surveying the older version of his once pride and joy genin and chuunin. "You only call me sensei when you want something. Heck, you didn't even call me that when you were on my squad," Gai commented with a small raise of his eyebrows. From what little time that he had spent with the very brown haired girl before him as his pupil he could only remember the shear tenacity with which she approached all things in her life. And taijutsu was no exception to the rule. She had ripped into his teachings, learned every move, kick, and even breath that went with it, and had advanced to jounin in a blur of activity. Her former teammates, however, had unfortunately kicked the bucket a few years back after she'd been promoted, having gone on a mission far too dangerous for their own good. Gai remembered how the youngest Taijutsu master in rank had reacted, withdrawing and refusing to talk to even him or her pseudo guardian.

"Yea, well, I think I will," Saiyuki muttered. She shifted her weight to where her small hips popped out to one side, her hands in her pockets deep and a look of deep dissatisfaction on her face.

Gai smiled softly at his former pupil and leaned on the kitchen counter. He knew what this was about, he had seen this coming from a mile away. Though she had rocketed through the ranks with little regarded for her own safety or for anyone around her, her mind set on becoming the strongest she could, he could tell that there was going to be a wall that she would hit. She was a fighter, fists to fists, punishing blow for blow, and that could only be refined to a point. Your body could only get so strong, your bones so dense, your muscles so hard, until you reached your pinnacle. And Saiyuki had nothing to fall back on other than Taijutsu. She didn't know much ninjutsu, as much his fault as her own, and she could not do genjutsu to save her life. She was lucky to be a kunochi in fact, lucky to be a shinobi of notable merit with such lacking abilities.

He could see the resentment forming in her eyes already before he even said it. "This is about your inability to progress, isn't it?" he questioned, forgoing the usual semantics and posing he did with Lee. He knew that Sai would storm from the room if he resorted to his usual tactics to make a situation lighter; she was always too serious for her own good.

Her amber eyes burned at him and he swallowed consciously. There was something alarming about those eyes, it wasn't that they were particularly piercing or hard or even cruel, it was just… different. "How the hell did you know?" she snapped at him, evidently put out by his observation.

Gai sighed to himself and shifted against the counter. He watched her for a few seconds before watching the outside of Konoha, a small frown tickling his face. When he could hear her once again shuffling her feet, letting out irregular breaths giving away her discomfort at admitting a weakness, he started to tick his options through his head. He had to be careful with her. She was sharp and edgy, right now she was like a bomb ready to go off because of her frustration at her own inferiority and just her shear personality. He hated that about Saiyuki.

"We've been through this, Saiyuki-chan. I knew this was coming, as did you. You can only get so strong until you plateau and there's no where else for you to go but a stalemate," Gai commented with a wave of his hand. Indeed they had gone over this the night before her jounin exams. He had almost begged her to hold it off, that she needed a few more years, that if she didn't hone her chakra now and learn ninjutsu and genjutsu while she could that it would be much, much harder for her later in life. And here they stood, talking about the very same matter as two years ago.

Saiyuki grunted somewhere to his left and he saw her out of the corner of his walk over to one of the dying crimson arm chairs. She put her hands on the back of it, staring out at her city, her village, with a frown creasing her face. "I didn't want to admit you were right, okay? Happy, sensei?" she said with a softening tone, her face stoic. She hated admitting she was wrong about something; he had once commented that she would rather die than to admit she had made a mistake of any kind.

Gai shrugged it off and walked over, putting a hand on her shoulder. He felt her tense slightly then relax into the touch, closing her eyes and letting her defenses fall considerably. "You were young and rash, Saiyuki-chan. You still are. You are only a teenager, you will rush to decisions, they will be wrong half of the time, and you will get yourself into messes that will seem like the end of the world. Believe it or not I was once your age, I understand," she glared at him and he patted her on the head affectionately.

Then he sobered and so did she. He rolled his shoulders and stared her straight into the eye to get his point across. "It won't be easy. Your chakra is almost completely set in its circulation, it will not want to change from using primarily taijutsu and just pumping it into the muscles. It will fight you, and it will hurt, and you will get angry."

"I'm ready for that," Saiyuki stated firmly.

"I hope you are," Gai said. "You will not be getting special treatment just because you were a former student. We do things the way we always have, with difficult training, early mornings and late nights."

"I remember," she said to him quickly, rubbing her arms and glancing at the binding she kept over them. She was reminded of the scars that littered her hands and feet from her training with Gai-sensei when she was only eleven.

Pride swelled within Gai as he watched Saiyuki nod and then cross her arms yet again, determination set on her face. It would be a long, hard road to get her body to even perform a simple jutsu other than tai, but it would be worth it in the end. She would get stronger and it was his duty as a ninja of Konoha to give her the chance to become a better fighter for the village. Patting her on the back he went back over to the now whistling tea pot he had put on to make some of his famous jasmine tea, smiling to himself. "We start in two days."

"Hai, Gai-sensei!"