Pain is the one thing everyone fears…

When you hurt, it in a sense changes who you are; pain, whether it's physical, mental, or emotional, subtly affects the inner person. Pain is always a catalyst…it…sometimes to purification, sometimes it has a worsening effect…All major religions have an explanation of why pain exists…often finding expression in the concept of purgatory, which cleanses a person of his sins through a process of intense suffering…

No one wishes for pain. But it is the fire that kills and- sometimes- restores at the same time.

It was blinding; she didn't have time to scream. She had been only knocked unconscious one other time in her life, during a sparring match with Sakon (what had that bastard done to her, anyway?). Same thing, really…a blinding, intense stab of pain and then the darkness.

Of course, Sakon-whatever the hell he had done- had nothing on a thousand-pound tree. She knew that she was dead when the branches started crashing all around her. Oddly, she didn't curse or scream. She just smiled.

Her whole f---ing life sucked. Why shouldn't end like this? Killed by a big f---ing weasel…

"Who the f--- uses weasels anyway?" was her last conscious thought.

----

The two medics had caught up with Nara Shikamaru. Fearing the worst, they were both somewhat surprised to find the chuunin in good health and talking with a rather attractive Sand-nin.

They were also somewhat surprised that Shikamaru appeared annoyed at his good fortune. Truth was, he was tired of being lectured by the kunoichi, who was currently lecturing him in a condescending tone about the value of aggressiveness.

"See, you would have pulled back in a situation in which we clearly…" blah blah blah. He sighed. How troublesome. Had she actually killed so many people that she could give a freakin' tactical briefing right after…

He noticed the medics about at that point. "Yo."

Temari, a bit miffed at being interrupted, fell silent. The taller medic nodded politely and then turned to the Konoha chuunin. "I assume both of you are in good condition, Shikamaru-san?"

Shikamaru shrugged. "Got a couple of my fingers broken, got my pride crushed, and now I'm being preached at by this troublesome…woman, but otherwise, I'm doing alright."

Temari smirked. "Woulda thought you'd be more grateful after I saved your ass. Well, can't expect much from you…"

The leading medic coughed. "I'm quite pleased to see that you…" Shikamaru interrupted with a tone of uncharacteristic urgency.

"Chouji! God, how could I….do you know how he's doing?"

The medic shook his head. "We were assigned to find you. Honestly, I have no idea what happened to Chouji-san or the rest of the team."

Shikamaru cursed softly. "Then go….please go figure out where he is. We're fine; don't waste anymore time here." The two medic-nins nodded. The leader leaned over to talk to his assistant.

"Let's check Sector Seven; last report I received stated that Chouji-san was in that area…"

They all paused when Temari called out. None of the three Leaf-nins had noticed her leaving. She had a habit of making sure her opponent was dead after a battle; one of her best friends had been killed in a fight with the Rock Village because she didn't take such a precaution. A ninja that appears dead is not always dead. Temari had learned that lesson well.

"The hell! She's still breathing a bit. I can't…well," she paused briefly, before shaking her head the slightest bit. The Sound-nin's legs were crushed, but apparently the tree limb had missed her vital spots. "Guess I might as well put her out of her misery."

Temari drew a kunai. She took no pleasure in what she was about to do. It was merely part of the job.

-----

Shikamaru opened his mouth about halfway. This wasn't something he wanted. 'Course, he had spent the entire day doing things he didn't want to. More like most of his life…

And then the stress hit him like a massive wave. Chouji very well could be dead. So could Neji and Kiba. He had no idea where Naruto was, or if Sasuke-teme was even still in Fire Country. And this was on his watch. He was responsible for every one of these men.

He felt a numbing pain spread through his head. It wasn't a physical pain like the migraines he suffered from sometimes; it was a disturbing sense of helplessness that seemed to shut down his brain.

"Dammit…" he muttered, leaning against a tree.

For a minute, he was just sick of it. He had never thought it would be this way (he guessed it was his own fault); just the horror of the thing. His best friend-God, he had better not have taken that pill! Kiba was probably dead. Neji was probably dead. Naruto? Only God knew now.

Life was such a troublesome thing, and everyone fights so hard to hang on to it. Yet everyone on the team was so desperate to bring a comrade back; and every freakin' one of the Sound Four had fought like hell…for no reason.

Pointlessness. He had spent many nights just fearing it. And now a sickening sense of meaninglessness (he had felt it before, but not like this) flooded over him. For all he knew, he had just killed his entire team for no freakin' reason. And this girl was breathing her last for even less of a reason.

There was no relenting from the war against emptiness. But maybe there could be one less casualty.

Temari was steeling herself (she had only killed two other people in her life, and never like this). She glanced over Shikamaru, who appeared to be in intense pain. "What's wrong with you?"

"Don't kill her. Don't. I can't f---ing take anymore of this!"

Temari wasn't shocked. A lot of shinobi broke down a bit after their first real combat mission. Besides, Shikamaru here was a Leaf-nin, and everyone knew they were too soft anyway (although a nagging thought at the back of her brain questioned this commonly-held belief). What the hell was Konoha thinking, sending a freshly-minted chuunin on this kind of mission?

"Get a hold of yourself. I'm being merciful, you stupid ass. She won't suffer at all, this way."

She sighed and noticed one of the medic-nins. He was standing right over the redhead's body. "What do you…"

"I apologize, ma'am, but we are under orders to bring back any captured enemies alive, as long as it does not interfere with our other duties. It is the order of Hokage-sama."

"What the…"

"For interrogation purposes, ma'am. It is quite possible that Konoha and Otokagure will be engaged in a lengthy war. We need all the information we can possibly obtain about the Sound Village and Orochimaru."

This bit of information caused mixed emotions in Shikamaru, who by this time had managed to calm himself. He was glad (why?) that the girl wasn't going to be killed right off, but what about Chouji? His best friend, after all, was a bit more important to him than his erstwhile enemy, never mind this damn mental condition he was in. He opened his mouth, but the medic-nin was one step ahead of him.

"My assistant has already begun to search for Chouji-san. Please do not worry, Shikamaru-san, the Konoha medical corps…"

"What about her?" Shikamaru interrupted, making a gesture towards the unconscious Sound-nin. "Is she going to live?"

Temari sighed as she re-sheathed her kunai. If Konoha's interrogation corps was anything like Suna's, she wished for the Sound-nin's sake that she wouldn't.

She looked down one last time at her enemy, who was having a difficult time breathing.

"Deus vobiscum." She then stood up and left.

-----

Nara Shikamaru was beginning to feel rather foolish that he had cared so much for his enemy. Not very shinobi-like, he decided. Shikamaru had departed around the same time as Temari, attempting to regain contact with the members of his team and hopefully to find out what the hell had happened to the mission. Hardly knowing where to go, he got directions to "Sector Seven" from the medic. Might as well start there…

Special Jounin Hayate Kaito was one of the premier medic-nins of Konoha. He was not pleased. Although he technically told the truth to Shikamaru, he had not relayed the urgency that Hogake-sama had placed on taking prisoners alive. Kaito muttered under his breath; he would much rather be healing his comrades than his enemies.

Nonetheless, orders were orders. He carefully performed the standard branch-removal technique; he severed the branch from the rest of the tree, and using chakra-enhanced strength, gently lifted the heavy piece of wood off of the girl's legs.

He then looked her over closely for the first time. He nearly winced; if the girl survived, it was quite possible that she'd never walk again. She also appeared to have taken a nasty hit to the head; after running a quick chakra diagnostic on her, Kaito also discovered a fair amount of internal bleeding. She was expiring fast, but the medic had saved people in worse conditions.

His medical instincts kicking in, he quickly lost all personal disdain for healing the girl and began to work intently. Inserting chakra into the girl, he stopped the bleeding within a few minutes. After doing a lung-rebuilding technique, her breathing became regular. Kaito wiped the sweat from his forehead and cracked a smile. The bugger was probably going to pull through.

He glanced at his watch. The recovery squad should have been here by now. Although he had stabilized the Sound-nin's condition, she was still a long way from being healthy…or at least healthy enough to be interrogated.

He frowned, and almost felt pity for the girl.