Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

Special thanks for inspiration and advice go to Griever, MageOhki, Vasey, Skelethin and TFF in general – you know who you all are.

Edited by Skelethin.



Chapter 9


"The stacked deck"


Three years ago.

"...in addition, Natsume Saya will be stripped of her status as a shinobi of Konoha and given immediate discharge following the proceedings. Team Thirteen is to be officially disbanded and remaining shinobi reassigned after a period of evaluation lasting from three to six months by the disciplinary committee as well as medical evaluation as per the procedure. Furthermore-"

Naruto stood, but he could barely feel the wood panels under his feet that made up the courtroom's floor. To be honest, if the floor broke apart under his feet at this very moment it'd offer him safer footing than what he experienced now.

"...you... you can't do this!" He protested, his shaking hands balling into fists. "This... are you kidding me?! It's not fair!"

"Genin." Koharu's chilly voice was like a whip crack. "You will remain silent during-"

"Are you fucking KIDDING ME?!" The jinchuuriki exploded, causing the whole courtroom, small as it was, to almost reverberate with anger that seemed to ooze from the young shinobi. "You bastards... you goddamn...! Saya loved martial arts...! It was her life! Kazuya... that... that goddamn stupid stuffy moron gave his life for this village, gave it his all and now you... you just...!" Naruto seethed, acidic bile rising in his throat. "You can't do that! It's not fair!"

"Your teammate wasted his life in a foolhardy, irresponsible manner." A middle aged Jounin sitting next to the old kunoichi said calmly. "His mistake almost crippled the entire operation."

"HIS mistake?!" The blond said incredulously, "We didn't even know-!"

"You were told to remain in your position." Koharu's voice cut into Naruto's sentence like a knife. "You were ordered to remain and await extraction by your commander, yet you blatantly disregarded the orders-"

"We didn't have a choice!" Naruto protested vehemently. "We'd be surrounded and those guys were-!"

"You'd be safely hidden!" The old kunoichi snapped. "Your rash decision is what led to this embarrassing situation! Have you got any idea how many ninja that foolhardy decision almost cost this village?!"

"...aren't... aren't we your ninja as well?" The genin asked, his voice teetering on a brink of fury.

"Losing a genin or two is an acceptable loss in a vital operation." The third member of the committee, an attractive kunoichi in her thirties, said calmly.

Naruto's face paled, his fists clenching spasmodically as blood started to drip from the wounds made by his nails piercing the skin.

"...acceptable loss...? Acceptable loss...?! You BITCH I-!" He snarled, taking a step forward, only to halt as his limbs froze in place - a courtesy of a modified Kanashibari.

"The next such attempt will be met with jail time, genin." The kunoichi informed him in her calm, dispassionate voice. "You were warned."

Blood dripped from Naruto's palm, but all he could do was shake in impotent rage that caused the flickers of deep red to dance in his vision.

"This isn't right! We did nothing wrong and you... what, hang us out to fucking DRY?! You bastards... Kazuya sacrificed himself for us, he was better ninja, better man than all of you fucking bastards and you call it a mistake?!"

"Had your team followed orders this foolish sacrifice wouldn't be needed in the first place!" The Jounin snapped, losing his patience for the first time during the proceedings. "Your sensei-"

"Our 'sensei' left us to DIE!" The blond screamed in rage. "Where was he when we had to run from Tanigakure ninja?! Where was he when some bastard blew off Saya's leg?! Where was he when Tanigakure's shinobi carved Kazuya like a piece goddamn of meat, EH?! WHERE?!" His voice broke. "Hayate... Hayate almost couldn't recognize him afterwards... his own brother and he couldn't... and you call us... you call him a... a mistake?" A faint, reddish haze started to coalesce around Naruto as the ANBU holding him in the Kakanshibari wavered, the jutsu ripped as if it wasn't there. "How can you...?! Mistakes?! We are mistakes and that bastard just... walks free?! After THIS?! This is your justice?! Covering his 'elite' ass because he is one of you?!"

"The decision had been made, and you will obey it." Koharu said calmly. "Additionally, for the blatant disrespect and unwillingness to cooperate during the proceedings, as well as behavior unbecoming of a Konoha shinobi, Uzumaki Naruto's shinobi status is hereby under six month suspension, effective immediately with all that it entails, and you are sentenced to house arrest for the duration. Your hitai-ate, along with weapons will be turned over to ANBU immediately." Koharu motioned to the nearby ANBU who walked up to Naruto, extending his hand.

The blond genin stared at the elite ninja for a long moment, before sliding off his headband. He looked at it for a long moment, before turning to Koharu and throwing it at her as fast as any shuriken. Any civilian would be injured, maybe even knocked out by the solid piece of steel, but Koharu, old or not, had once been among the most elite of jounin of Konoha and caught it without a problem.

"Nothing's changed, eh? Hitai-ate or not, it is all the same." He said bitterly. "I bet you've been just dying to do that, weren't you, old hag?"

The old woman looked at the hitai-ate for a long moment, her face unreadable, before turning to the blond genin.

"You are wrong, boy." She said, shaking her head slowly. "But I doubt I can convince you."

Naruto just barked a mirthless laugh.

The old kunoichi sighed, suddenly appearing tired and as old as she looked.

"I thought so." She murmured, watching as two ANBU guards led the young genin away.

"Utatane-sama... how could you allow that!?" The younger kunoichi looked at the old woman with barely restrained anger. "We should have done something! This is inexcusable!"

"Do something?" Koharu raised an eyebrow sardonically. "And what, if I might ask?"

"Demotion... or... or a detention, a fine... something!" The woman's face twisted. "It is bad enough he behaves like he does, but-"

"Demotion? To what?" The old kunoichi snorted. "Sending an experienced, blooded and angry genin back to the academy, maybe? That's just begging for an accident. Fine? That boy has almost nothing - his income from missions would barely cover his living expenses if not for that medic girl of his." Koharu's eyes narrowed. "Arrest him? For what? For being loyal to his team? For being distraught that one of his teammates is dead and disgraced while another will never walk again? Tell me Shizuko-chan, are you perhaps trying to create a missing-nin jinchuuriki with a grudge against Konoha?"

The kunoichi bit her lip, bowing her head with shame.

"...forgive me, Utatane-sama. I didn't think-"

"Yes, that seems to be the problem of your generation." Koharu snapped. "Keep on treating that boy like an enemy and once day he will become one, you foolish girl! No one asks you to adopt him or even like him, but thinking about the consequences of your own actions was required from Konoha shinobi the last time I checked!"

The two younger jounin fidgeted in their seats, avoiding the older kunoichi's eyes.

"This meeting is adjourned." The old woman said sourly. "Get out of my sight."

'Well Kanna, it is out of my hands.' She thought looking at the doors the orange clad genin walked out through. 'He's all yours now.'

She sat alone for a long moment in the courtroom, before standing up with ease and fluidity that belayed her age and walking out in a purposeful, steady gait. It wouldn't do to look unsure, after all. Not when she had a Hokage to convince.

'The things I do for this village...'



It was funny, Naruto decided. There were thousand and one things he wanted to ask her. Hell, he didn't know if he was going to virtually explode into chatter or brain her with something heavy once they found some nice, secluded spot for a talk, yet the moment they found one...

Naruto fumbled with the box, his fingers drawing a neatly rolled herbal cigarette on automatic. He tapped it over his wrist gently to let the herbs inside the off-gray tube settle - not that they needed to. Haku was almost obsessively precise rolling them, which was kind of a byproduct of being obsessively worried about his health. He tapped the cigarette a few times anyway. Then again for good measure.

Saya looked at the proceedings, her face thoughtful, and observed as he stuck the thin tube into his mouth, lighting it with a single seal.

Naruto took a long drag.


...and chocked as Saya jumped up from her proper seiza screaming like a banshee.

"...what the FUCK?!" The blond ANBU wheezed, smoke puffing comically in broken gasps from his throat and nose.

"That silence got on my nerves." Saya said cheerfully. "I thought it'd be a good ice breaker."

"Are you trying to kill me, you psycho chick?!" The young man sputtered, hitting his chest several times.

"Hey, it worked didn't it?" She presented a shameless victory sign. "Saya-chan's brilliant idea saves the potential day's worth of uncomfortable silence yet again! Yay! Maybe I should patent it?"

"A day? Are you kidding me? It'd be less than an hour!" Naruto protested, scowling indignantly. "And about that 'uncomfortable silence' bit, hell-O? Whose fault is that, I wonder?"

"Those accusing words... they make Saya-chan sad!" She pointed a finger at him accusingly. "You midget bastard! Show some consideration for a lady, dammit!"

"Sorry, Haku's out on an errand." Naruto shrugged, causing the young woman's eyebrow to twitch violently. "And I am so not a midget."

"Well..." She looked at him for a long moment, before ruffling his hair with a grin. "You did grow a little."

"A little?" He huffed. "I am almost as tall as you, dammit!"

"Aww! You're so cute when you're indignant!" The former kunoichi gushed, her arms once again turning into steel cords as she hugged him like an oversized plush toy.

"...hawa...?" Naruto's eyes bugged out and he started to writhe. "Shit...!" He freed his hand, a rather crumpled but still lit cigarette in it. "Watch it you psycho! I almost burned that fancy kimono of yours!"

"I've got more." She grinned "Burn all you want! Then I'll have my 'official Naruto hugging' dress done!" The young woman said gleefully. "And when I have it... I shall hug you with impunity! Mwahahahahahaha!"

"...so... kind of like you do now?" Naruto deadpanned, his voice muffled by the elegant finish of Saya's kimono's cleavage.

"More or less." She admitted with a nod.

"What the hell do you need an official hugging dress for that, then?"

"Ah come on, Naruchin!" Saya whined. "I always wanted to hatch some kind of master plan and laugh a villain laugh! Work with me here!"

"...do I have a choice?"

"No." She said without missing a beat.

"Wow." Naruto reflected, still face-full of Saya's not inconsiderable cleavage. "Now that is a deja vu."

"Huh." The girl, blinked, looking down at her captive. "You learned some new words?"

"Extensive recuperation periods make for a bored ninja." Naruto shrugged. "Mind letting me go now?"

"Yes." Saya said absently. "Hmm... your hair's longer. Cute!"

"To better Hari Jizo you with, honey." Naruto offered sarcastically.

"Hari wh- OI!" Saya let go of Naruto with surprise as the blond spikes turned into literal spikes, as sharp and solid as any sword she had seen. "Hey now! That's dirty!" The ex-kunoichi pouted.

"Heh." Naruto grinned. "Jiraiya-made. Tsunade-taught. Naruto-improved. Like it?"

"I hate it." She grinned in return. "But you're so teaching me that!"

"Jealous much?" Naruto said smugly.

"Hell yeah!" She nodded sagely. "Do you know how much time it'd save me on getting my hair done in the mornings? Man, aunty's gonna FREAK!" The young woman rubbed her hands gleefully.

The blond stared at his friend incredulously for a long moment, before laughing.

"God, Saya...!" He said, catching his breath. "I missed you, you psycho chick!"

"Missed me, missed me, now you gotta kiss me!" She sing-songed gleefully.

"I would, but then my girlfriend would probably rip my guts out with a spoon." Naruto chuckled, lighting another cigarette. "If I was lucky."

"Nah." Saya shrugged, waving her hand dismissively. "She'd investigate if I screwed up the kiss, and if I did, then she'd rip my guts out with a spoon and then serve my liver to you for supper with fava beans and some chianti. Haku's inventive like that."

"For the record - not amusing." Naruto winced. "Not fun at all. I am not talking about Haku, though, but about Hana."

The ex-kunoichi's eyebrows rose slowly.

"Trust me, it's complicated." Naruto winced.

"Oh don't worry, don't worry." Saya smirked. "I'll enjoy forcing the sordid details out of you immensely, you little pervert."

"Yeah, I figured that you might." He sighed, before smiling. "God... it's been along time... it is good to see you, Saya."

"It's good to see you too, Naruto." She smiled, ruffling his hair, letting her palm linger. "Hmm... you really became tall. Well, not 'tall' tall, but... taller. Bigger." She observed him critically, before her eyes softened. "Is it-"

"Yeah. Don't worry." he cut her question before she had a cahnce to word it. "It was bound to happen."

"Still, Naruto..." Her hands clenched as she hung her head with shame. "If we would-"

"Wouldda, shoudda, couldda... DIDN'T!" The blond snapped. "Get over it, dammit! I did!" He took a long drag out of his cigarette. "The page's written, the deed's done. Fuck it, I'm not gonna cry about it."

"...if you say so." She murmured, her hand hesitantly touching the sword he laid off to the side. "That's... Jougen, isn't it?"

"Yeah." The jinchuuriki exhaled a large cloud of smoke, before immediately taking another long, deep drag right away. "After all that mess, Hayate and Ritsuko gave it to me."

"Made quite a scene out of it, from what I heard." Saya smiled sadly.

"They tried - they were about the only ones that believed me." Naruto slumped, staring at the sword for a long moment. "I... didn't have many friends after all that. Being the only present survivor was bad enough, but the ruling of the tribunal and the 'demon' bit... well, you know how it gets. Kakashi got off scott free, of course." Naruto's hands clenched and Saya's eyes darkened. "He was their precious Copycat. The prodigy, the goddamn Yondaime's fucking prized apprentice - of course he could do no wrong!"

The young woman closed her arms around her friend, causing the sudden bout of old fury to abate slightly.

"I know, Naruto." She murmured, rocking him slightly. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you..."

"Don't." He sighed, letting his head rest on her shoulder. "I was... glad you weren't there." Her arms tensed. "Not like that. I... you didn't need to have all that shit with... that leg and all." Naruto said lamely. "I am used to that stuff, so not like much changed, right? I- OW!" The blond reeled form a strong punch that caused his face to get to know the floor rather intimately.

"You... you blind, moronic, half-witted, arrogant...!" Saya's usually bright and cheerful eyes were dark, sparks of fury dancing in them, even though her face was cold and expressionless. "Do you think you are so noble, so considerate? Do you even bother to stop and think about other people's feelings before you go and play some fucking 'tragic hero'?!"

Naruto's eyes widened before another punch caused his head to spin.

"You moron!" Saya snarled, her hand cocked back again, and Naruto braced himself for yet another punch, only to freeze as Saya's strong arms embraced him gently. "You stupid, stupid midget moron..." She whispered. "We're the 'unlucky thirteen', remember? We take care of ourselves. If we won't, who will?"

"Yeah..." Naruto closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink into Saya's warm embrace. "Yeah..."

They sat there for a while, not saying a word, nor moving away from each other.

"You are using this as an excuse to hug me, aren't you?" He asked finally.

"Yep." Saya nodded cheerfully.

"Thought so." The jinchuuriki murmured.

"And if you use that Hari Jizo on me I'll be annoyed, Naruto-kun." The ex-kunoichi smiled sunnily. "Very much so. Just so you know."

"Ah." Naruto's hair slackened, returning to its usual length.

"Now isn't that better?" She sighed happily.

"For who?" Naruto muttered with a scowl.

"Awww!" Saya patted Naruto's hair with a coo.

"Stop that!" The ANBU huffed. "It's annoying!"

"Ah, you know you love me anyway." Saya smiled sweetly, her arms tightening around her friend. "Don't you?"

"....yes?" Naruto hazarded. Stupid he occasionally was, suicidal he was not.

"Good man!" The kunoichi's smile relaxed as she let him go.

Naruto had 'finally' on a tip of his tongue, but then noticed that Saya's arms were still close by and three years or no, she was still as goddamn freakishly strong as she used to be. He was rash, but ANBU did teach him not to fight overwhelming odds. Sort of.

"I never thought you the type to use a sword, a katana even less." She said out of the blue.

"....huh?" Naruto blinked.

"Jougen. You're using it." Saya grabbed his hand gently, her finger tracing his callouses, worn from countless weapons that he held every day. "Given how you heal, such thick callouses... a weapon user?"

"Still sharp as ever, huh?" Naruto smiled.

"I always pegged you as a jutsu type. What with that chakra capacity and the fox and all." The woman raised an eyebrow, letting go of his hand. "What happened?"

"People change. Things change." Naruto shrugged, looking at his hands speculatively. "Don't get me wrong - I still use jutsu. I have a shitload of them but there is nothing quite like some good steel when you want to get the job done right."

"Oh dear." Saya sighed theatrically. "I'm gone for a few years and look at you, you're becoming Kazuya lite. That nice, sensible taijutsu I arranged for you betrayed for the slutty gleam and shine of metal." The woman shook her head sadly. "Where, oh where have I gone wrong with you?"

"Hey, don't go dissin' the blades, woman!" Naruto scowled. "My weapons are awesome! And my taijutsu is doing all right."

"All right?" Saya said incredulously "Naruto, you hit like a girl! Like an anemic, court-bred, willowy little thing fated to die tragically in a very courtly manner out of 'broken heart' or something equally idiotic!"

"Well pardon me for not using granite blocks for punching bags!" The jinchuuriki rolled his eyes with exasperation.

"And what do you have against granite anyway?" Saya protested. "It is one of the coolest, most sensible materials to train with, ever!"

"Sensible?" He stared at his previous teammate. "Sensible?!"

"What? It is!" She said with indignation. "It is solid, meaning it doesn't break as easily as wood. It is dense, so you don't need to reposition it every few swings, it breaks neatly instead of chipping, there is less dust to deal with, it is cheap, it is coarse so your hits don't slide all over and it is good for the skin and it comes in a variety of pretty colors! It is awesome! What's not to like about granite?"

"I rest my case." Naruto deadpanned.

"There is no pleasing some people! Really!" Saya huffed. "Why is everybody discriminating granite?"

"Because we're not nuts enough to use it as punching bags?" The ANBU snarked. "Well, maybe aside from Gai. He just might. He's crazy enough."

"Well, Maito-san at least doesn't punch like an anemic girl." Saya pointed out sweetly. "Should I buy you a dress, put some ribbons in your hair and take you dancing?" Saya paused, her eyes widening as Naruto's skin seemed to stretch slightly, before flowing, the hair lengthening and previously loose shirt stretching to accommodate a very generous bust pushing the limits of decency.

"Why, be my guest." The blonde said, her clear, smoky voice teasing. "It's been ages since someone took little ole me out for some fun."

Saya stared for a long moment, before carefully poking Naruto's breast.

It was solid.

She poked it again, before grabbing it gently.

It was not only solid, but quite perky and firm - not saggy in the slightest. Any woman would kill to have a pair like these, Saya would bet on it. She would.

"Oh, you tease!" Naruto giggled.

"...ha...?" Saya blinked owlishly. "That... isn't Oiroke...?"

It was Naruto's turn to blink.

"Um, yes it is?" She said with confusion.

"....huh?" The ex-kunoichi stared, before freezing. "Wait... that means each time you did... Oiroke..." She trailed off. "Naruto.. you... you...!"

"...ack!" The blonde cringed.

"You had such an awesome technique and never told me?!" Saya pointed at her accusingly. "We could have gone shopping together, we could have gone for ice cream or broken some guys' heads or do sleepovers and all kinds of neat stuff and you never told me?! How could you?!"

"...huh?" The now-bombshell blinked in confusion.

"Aww! Even you confusion is so cute!" Saya squealed, grabbing the blonde into a tight embrace, mashing Naruto's face into her cleavage. "Awwwww!"

The doors slid open.

"Naruto-sama, is there-" Haku paused, staring at the two women in a rather suggestive embrace, while Saya still gushed with a grin.

Naruto sighed.

"This can't get any-"

"Hey, Haku, what about din...ner..." Hana trailed off, freezing in the doorway. "...is there something I should know about, darling?" She growled the world with a sugary sweet smile as her hand clenched on door with a crack of wood resounding through the room.

Naruto slumped.

"Who am I kidding?" He muttered.

"...wait a minute..." The Inuzuka woman paused, her eyes widening. "...what the hell are you doing here?!" She pointed at Saya accusingly.

"Hey, it's Inuzuka-san!" Saya ceased her gushing, waving to Hana with her arm. "What are you doing here? I thought you were going away to live with your boyfriend."

"This is my boyfriend!" Hana snapped, pointing at Naruto.

"...she is?" Saya scratched her head.

"Yes, she is!" Hana snapped. "I mean, he is. When he isn't a she and is a he, that is."

"So right now she isn't." Saya said with a shrug. "So Saya-chan can hug all she wants, no?"

"If I could just-" Naruto started carefully.

"You! Stay silent!" Hana pointed at him. "You!" She pointed at Saya. "Hands of my man. Woman. Whatever! I was here first!"

"Well, technically..." Haku frowned thoughtfully.

"Aaah! Haku-chan!" Saya squealed. "Kyaaa! So cute!"

Haku blinked, finding herself in a tight, familiar hug.

"...hello, Saya-san."

Hana's eyebrow twitched.

"What part of 'hands off' don't you understand you noble twit?" She hissed.

Naruto slumped, palming her face.

"Kami? For the record? I hate you all very much right now." The buxom blonde said with resignation.


"The first thing you should understand is that there is no art to what I am going to teach you." A single coin jumped over the sniper's knuckles, drawing Ino's attention despite her best wishes. "There is no art to it, there is no metaphysical mumbo jumbo or deeper philosophy." The coin jerked once again, only to vanish.

Ino blinked.

"And I bet you're wondering where the coin is now, aren't you?" Kyo grinned. "Care to guess?"

"Well... it is like one of those magic tricks, so..." The blonde looked at the man for a long moment, before pointing at his hands. "Sleeve or maybe even in your hand. Come on, that's too simple!"

"Yeah." Kyo punched the tree they were sitting under, causing Ino to jerk as something hard but light hit her head. "Yeah it is. And that's precisely why it works."

The blonde scowled, darting her head to look at the branches above them.

"How did you do that?" She muttered. "You didn't even look and you could throw it just enough to lodge it between the branches..."

"First, I was the one choosing the time and the place. Second..." Kyo chuckled, juggling few of coins deftly. "Time and practice. A lot of practice." The coins vanished again. "That's what it all comes to, in the nutshell. However, had we the time for it, the one sitting here would be Yashiro, before her pretty, sexy, miraculous hands would beat into you the finer aspects from that treasure trove of martial arts she possesses. Instead, you are getting me - in other words, dirty, low-brow, basic and pretty much so back alley that it would leave the artful sensibilities of Hyuuga sneering and the highborn noses of Uchiha wrinkling in disgust. Welcome, my dear, succulent, loli-morsel to my humble abode. Don't mind the dirt - you'll be learning to love it soon enough."

Ino stared at the unshaven man for a long moment, before blinking once.

"Are you always this... wordy?" She said finally.

"I get worse when I am drunk." The 'true sniper' said cheerfully. "My lovely bird agreed to a date with me just to shut me up. That's pretty much the only reason she kissed me, too. It was glorious, let me tell you!"

"Yeah. I bet." Ino deadpanned.

"Anyway, as much as I'd love to talk about the lovely, peerless, sexy and delightful example of womanhood that is the love of my life, it is time to get to brass tacks." Kyo raised his index finger pointedly. "First and foremost - whatever works. It doesn't mean how silly, honorless or stupid it is - if it works, that's all the recommendation you need. Remember it, know it, live by it - just so you won't have to die because of it."

The young kunoichi nodded.

"And the second?"

"Did I even say there will be a second?" Kyo asked with a smirk.

"Well, you did say 'first'." Ino frowned.

"I also said 'whatever works' and that makes most of the potential rules afterwards pointless, doesn't it?" The true sniper shrugged.

The blonde glared at the older man, who leaned on the tree as if he was sitting in a bar or on a couch instead of training a future ANBU. She had to admit that Sagato Kyo looked unlike any ANBU she could imagine. Hell, the guy looked unlike a ninja! He was a lazy, laid-back and messy, frequently sporting a five o' clock shadow.

Even his choice of clothes - worn cargo pants and stretched out turtleneck that had its best days far behind it - as well as lack of anything resembling ninja tools on his person made him look like one of those slackers spending their time in bars trying to score with a waitress and failing miserably.

Needless to say, her vision of ANBU as disciplined, serious to the core soldiers was cut by Haku, broken by Naruto, but utterly, irreparably mangled by Kyo. At least his girlfriend, slutty pervert that she was, had an aura of danger going for her while Tenrou was just plain creeping Ino out. Kyo was... well, Kyo.

The fact that the man was also one of top Konoha assassins and the best long distance expert in the village bar none... well, that was an eye opener. Sort of like Haku, only less jarring.

Ino winced.

Her body still protested to the wringer the medic put it through on daily basis. At least the food was good...

The kunoichi's stomach growled.

She hung her head, blushing at Kyo's bewildered expression.

'What am, a... a dog or something?! I ate just an hour ago!'

It was embarrassing - Ino felt as if she was trained by the use of doggy treats. And, what's worse, it was working!

"Hey now." The blonde blinked as an acorn bounced off of her head. "I hate to go old and wise master on you princess, but focus on here and now, would you? I'll buy you a dinner afterwards. Or... we could drop by Naruto's and mooch off of him, waddaya say? Eating Haku's cooking every day... lucky bastard!" The ANBU chuckled.

Ino's eyebrow twitched.

"I think I'll pass, sempai." She said sweetly.

"Oh no, we can't have that. Ninja lives by his body." He frowned. "Admittedly, I would be perfectly happy with Yashiro-chan's scrumptious body, but that's just me. Anyway - ninja lives by his body which lives by its stomach. A rich and balanced diet is an important part of shinobi's daily life." He nodded sagely. "Kanna-chan says so, which means it is the Word of God. Admittedly, the god is an irritable goth loli from hell, but what can you do?" He shrugged philosophically. "Therefore any such moronic things like diets or some such are bad, evil and are to be killed with prejudice and fire."

"So ANBU have to eat their veggies like good boys and girls?" Ino snarked.

"Preeecisely!" Kyo grinned, pointing at Ino. "Besides, it is more important than you think." He said seriously. "Balanced diet is important in training and in recovery, especially given we can eat irregularly or even outright starve during some field operations. Besides, increased training and salads... well, you need the well-fed body for that."

"'Salads'?" The blonde kunoichi blinked.

"Herbs, medicines, drugs, chakra enhancers, passive and active anti-toxins... you know, the stuff."

Ino froze, her eyes widening.

"...what?" She whispered with horror. "You mean you are.. you are feeding me steroids?!"

"Not steroids - herbs." The true sniper sighed. "But, did you really think you get to keep the regimen you have on three meals a day and exercise alone? What are you, stupid?"


"Oh stop fretting, not like you didn't get some of that before! Hell, you use some of them on daily basis!" Kyo snorted. "Chakra restoratives, blood pills - rings any bells?"

"Well, yes but-"

"Listen, as long as you keep the regime? It is not only harmless, but necessary." The ANBU rolled his eyes. "It helps in the increase of muscle mass, allows for smoother chakra circulation, helps in the increase of stamina... girl, you are undergoing a rapid, exhausting and murderous regime that your body isn't capable of going through without some help right now. It is that simple." He sighed, laying his hand on the distressed girl's arm.

"You don't need to worry - Haku is really good and you are under constant watch. The process is a reasonably safe, proven method and we all went through it in basic training, so it isn't some cooky attempt to create a super soldier or anything - it is merely there to help the natural processes, that's it. If anything, you should be happy because it will make sure you never get pimples or anything like that, your average health level will get a boost and the bit of hormone jump and stuff will pay off nicely in puberty."

The blonde blinked, perking up slightly.

"Really?" She asked hesitantly.

"Yeah." The true sniper chuckled, patting Ino's head. "So be a good girl, exercise and eat your veggies. And remember to drink a lot of milk too and it's gonna pay off. Big time." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"You pervert!" Ino's face went scarlet, but she smiled none the less.

"Well, now that we have that little tidbit of drama out of the way, let me familiarize you with disgustingly artless yet oh so very utilitarian method of removing obstacles."

Kyo moved his open hand slightly, grabbing a kunai that he fished out of his sleeve - how Ino had no idea since she couldn't see anything resembling any kind of holster.

"First off, you are smaller, shorter, lighter and weaker. That's good - even experienced ninja tend to lower their guard that tiny bit because of it. That or become all that more guarded smelling a set-up but that can work to your advantage as well - making them watch left while you go right being the age old part of shinobi lore and all that." The sniper grinned.

"Konoha's academy taijutsu is rather generic - that is actually its strength since it is a nice platform to build on and develop further." The older man shifted his position slightly, the kunai vanishing out of his hand causing Ino to absently wonder how the hell did he do it yet again. "But it has one critical flaw - it is based on the principles of Gouken, meaning that for all of its simplicity it favors power. That is not exactly your forte and you so far lack the overwhelming advantage of speed to make up for it."

Ino frowned unhappily, opening her mouth, only to halt as Kyo raised his hand placatingly.

"Whatever you might think, that is actually an advantage during learning - you lack several bad habits that sometimes kill our shinobi and you have decent basics to build on. Now, as you lack strength, speed and technique, you will need to build all of it and add a little extra.

"Meaning?" Ino leaned forward, intrigued despite her apprehension.

"Meaning fighting meaner, dirtier and making a frequent use of such things like backstabbing, surprise and ability to turn anything and everything around you to your advantage."

"So does mean I'll learn how to kill people with a teacup or something?" Ino asked sarcastically.

"Teacups make for excellent knives when broken, good projectiles when whole or fractured for sharpness and ideal distractions when full of hot tea and flushed right into someone's face." The ANBU riposted without missing a beat.

Ino blinked a few times.

"You're serious." She said finally.

"Ino my dear pumpkin, three months ago our team spent several weeks trying to kill a daimyo without rising suspicions or provoking a war. I did it by using a peanut." Kyo deadpanned. "Teacups have nothing on that. Whatever works, remember?"

"...a peanut?" Ino gazed at her instructor incredulously.

"It was a very heroic ANBU peanut." The sniper nodded solemnly. "It made us proud."

The blonde stared at the older man for a long moment before snorting.

"Oh come on!" She complained. "I mean, teacups I can buy, sort of, but a peanut? How in the world could you kill a man with a tiny, crunchy peanut?!"

"A combination of prodigious accuracy, two hot kunoichi to act as dancers to distract the security, a rather loud party and one open mouth of a person allergic to peanuts and pepper, that said peanut was coated in and choking on it to the death." Kyo said proudly. "Trust me, it was beautiful."

Ino blinked owlishly, at a loss for words.

"Now, let's get to the brass tacks." The sniper pulled out a scroll from one of his pockets, rolling it open on the grass. "First thing you should know that human body has a lot of very weak points. For example golgi organs, like golgi tendons on elbows." He pointed at a marked spot on the scroll.

"It doesn't matter how tough or badass you are - if you are hit there? It both hurts like a bitch and your hand will jerk involuntary. No ifs, no buts, no maybes - it will. There are dozens such points on the body, the trick is how to use them right - ask Haku later to instruct you in that." Kyo tapped the scroll pointedly.

"We will focus on how to take advantage of them in the most efficient manner possible. It is not exactly the most elegant of ways to fight but trust me - it is very efficient, especially with something like this." He opened his palm, showing Ino a sort of a short senbon with a ring in a middle and two pointed tips at the end, causing Ino's eyes to widen.

While it looked simple and easily concealable, if used in the manner the older ninja was describing...

She winced slightly, rubbing her elbow with a small shudder.

"In a pinch you can use a stick, a pencil or your own fingers once you've trained enough - there is a whole martial art built around that, in fact." Kyo twirled the strange weapon in his hands deftly. "But for now, let's stick to basics. Later on I'll show you how to throw stuff from a concealed stance using your wrist rather than telegraphing your intent and direction for all around to see and some tricks that just might save your life as well as put a quick end to your targets in a quick, efficient manner. You game?"

Ino nodded slowly.

"Cool." The ANBU smiled. "So, the first lesson is punching. The theme is 'any time, any place'."


Konoha, for a village of its size, had a lot of hospitals. It came with a territory - injuries, whether from missions or training, were part of the daily life for shinobi. Even for a ninja village however, the number of medic nin and medical institutions as a whole was surprisingly high. It was the legacy of the Tsunade of the Sannin that was, according to some, greater than any of her contributions on the field of battle combined.

Second Konoha Hospital was, contrary to the First Konoha Hospital, mainly used by ninja. Mainly, but not exclusively - both institutions treated ninja and civilian alike, though the Second did the bulk on the work of ninja for reasons lost to history for the most of Konoha's citizens. The Third and Fourth were specialist hospitals, while the rest of medical duties was taken by several small but well equipped clinics that took care of the day-to-day, mundane affairs - shinobi and civilian alike.

There is, however, a fifth hospital in Konoha. While it is smaller than any of its compatriots it still should by all rights be called one, but isn't. In fact, it isn't called anything because it doesn't have an official name. It doesn't have a number or even an address either. At least not an address any civilian and the vast majority of ninja would know.

Those who know of it don't even call it a hospital - it is instead called The Garden. Why is it named so no one exactly knows, but the name stuck for years and those who know of it use that moniker almost exclusively.

The Garden is special - it deals in special cases, in special patients and uses special methods. Uchiha Sasuke would no doubt love it. Orochimaru certainly did, even if he never got permission to delve deeper into its secrets. Sometimes Sarutobi regretted that fact - sometimes he thinks that maybe, just maybe it would have allowed Orochimaru to satisfy his scientific curiosity in a more... wholesome way.

Had Tsunade, the former director of The Garden, ever learned of Sarutobi's sentiment, she just might have killed him - of that Hijikata Tenrou was sure. Just as she was sure Sartuobi would never voice it ever again. One scar was enough. Or so she hoped, at least.

The ANBU swordmistress stood in the room - painted in greens and rusty bronzes instead of traditional whites - taking in the... familiar atmosphere without any degree of familiarity whatsoever. The rooms were the same, but the feeling was... odd. Alien. It was hard to believe she used to all but live here but six years ago.

To her, it felt like a lifetime.

A mirthless grin twisted her lips.

'A lifetime indeed.'


Inoichi's voice wasn't even grim - merely resigned and tired. She didn't blame the man, he had tried and pushed beyond what most people thought sensible or probable. Was it guilt, determination, fear? Maybe all of the above? Tenrou didn't want to speculate. Not now, not here. Especially not here.

She peered at the bed - this one actually hospital white for a change, foregoing the extravagant dichotomy of The Garden for practicality - and the violet-haired, pale woman laying on it. The seal on her brow all but sang to her senses and memory.

A part of her wanted to go out the doors and never come back, while another wanted to prod it and take a closer, more intimate look, see the bindings of the ethereal knots that turned the mind against itself in a misunderstood grab for power and... something. Something even she couldn't understand - the seal was brilliant but undeniably a quite mad bit of the art. She didn't even want to speculate on its creator - she left that dubious honor to Inoichi. It was his clan's cross to bear, after all, and she left such things behind her long ago.

"I cannot help her." She said simply.

"You helped Naruto." The blond Yamanaka clan's head voice wasn't accusing or even hopeful - just tired. It was exhaustion of a man who ran out of options and knew the search was fruitless to begin with, but did it anyway hoping for the best. She knew that tone very well. Intimately so. If there was one thing she always hated, past, present and future, it was that.

"Naruto was a special case. His was..." The swordmistress seemed to be at loss for words for a long moment, before she finally finished awkwardly. "...different. This one..." Her billowy sleeve touched Murasaki Rei's brow gently, softly. The girl was a stranger but she was Team 4 - and Team 4 was never alone. "I can't even begin to speculate."

The older man slumped, sliding on a nearby chair.

" Damn it... what am I supposed to do?" He said softly, holding his head in his hands. "Tenrou, please... isn't there anything you can-?"

"No." The swordmistress said sadly, but with blunt honesty. "Not even my knowledge can help here. It never could to begin with."

"You talked to him, though." Inoichi murmured. "When he was in coma he said he... 'heard' you."

"Yes. But there is certain..." her lips twisted into a sardonic smile, a rarity nowadays. She blamed this place - it held far too many memories for her peace of mind, "kinship between us. Maybe that helped, I can't know for sure."

"I was afraid of that." The blond muttered, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. "I did such extensive studies since then... dammit, I never thought I'd run out of options so fast!"

"Not all of them." Tenrou said calmly, earning herself a glare from the older man.

"No!" He growled. "That... woman," he spat the words as one would a vile curse, "should never be allowed to walk free ever again! Out of the question!"

"Her knowledge of the Gyakusou seal is unrivaled though." The sword mistress pointed out softly.

"Yes, because she used one to rape an innocent child's mind with it!" Inoichi snarled. "A person like that..." The blond's hands clenched in impotent fury. "I am supposed to trust that monster?! Are you insane?!"

Tenrou's face, her eyes covered by her hair almost completely as always, turned to Inoichi without a word, causing the older man to flinch and look away.

"...forgive me." He murmured in a subdued tone. "But that... woman... The... things she did... the shame she forced onto my family alone..."

"Bear your shame as you will." Tenrou said calmly. "Her fate, however, is not for you to decide."

"...I know." The blond slumped bonelessly. "Gods help me, I know that very well..." He sat on his chair for a long time, staring blankly forward. "It is really the only option, isn't it?"

Tenrou remained silent, merely looking at Rei's pale face marred by the seal.

"...dammit." Inoichi murmured softly, pinching the bridge of his nose with resignation, before punching the wall hard enough to leave cracks in the solid concrete. "I hate that seal." He said slowly. "I hate it in a way that I never hated anything in my life save one. single. person. Now I have to use one to counteract the other and I can't decide which is worse - the disease or the cure."

The swordmistress touched the comatose girl's brow one, last time before turning on her heel and walking to the exit in silence.

"You are going to petition Kanna?" It was more of a statement than a question.

Ternrou nodded, not missing a step.

"And what the hell am I supposed to say to Naruto?" The Yamanaka Clan head asked with frustration.

The kunoichi shrugged, walking out without a word.

Inoichi leaned back in his chair, staring at the comatose ANBU for a long moment.

"Perfect." He sighed, before getting up and following his companion. "Just fucking perfect."

Some days it really didn't pay to get out of bed.





Tanigakure: village hidden in the valley

Jougen: crescent moon


To those who complained I abandon my old stories – here you go. I said it before and I say it again – unless I say so, none of my stories are abandoned and all are being worked on, one way or another. The gap between the updates doesn't mean a thing.

No, Tenrou isn't OOC – there are reasons why she is the way she is and they will be elaborated on as the story progressess, as will her connection to Naruto and Naruto's past in general. To those complaining I bash Kakashi in this, remember it is a story told from Naruto's view point and as shown he wasn't all that rational when this happened. Not to say Kakashi didn't fuck up, but it wasn't nearly as clear cut as Naruto wants to see it. It will all be explained, so have some patience.

The weapon Kyo shows Ino is a variant of Emei daggers, also called Emei piercers or thorns and it is a real and rather nasty weapon used in several styles of chinese martial arts.