Well, well, well, fancy meeting you guys(and gals)here!

Also, GOD-FUCKING-DAMMIT!

I know, what a way to start off a chapter, but I'm mad. Why? Because NOTHING went as planned. Not a single damned thing. This was supposed to be a relatively simple, fun chapter with action and gore and whatnot, then on to the Chūnin Exams. But noooo, I just HAD to make things difficult on myself! I just kept building and adding more and more to it, and when I finally realized that I was in real danger of having a chapter that was too large to upload, I found that I didn't have fat to trim. I liked everything that I had and didn't want to get rid of it.

So, after much stress and deliberation, with help from fellow author "mecrazyfang", I decided to just say "fuck it" and go commando. Chapter's been split up, Chūnin Exams pushed back one more time. Boo, hiss, I know, I don't like it anymore than you do. But this has allowed me to put more content into this chapter, and turn it into something more than mere filler. This Kurama Clan mini-arc will be a major event in the story, with effects it has on the characters involved will impact everything they do afterward.

That said, this chapter doesn't have much in the way of action in it, though I did try to put in some humor to keep from boring you all too much. But for the most part, this is a pretty dramatic chapter. Lots of dialogue and emotional stuff. I don't mean to sound like I'm apologizing for that, I'm just warning those who like things more fast-paced and explosion-y. This might not be the kind of thing you'll want to read if you've just downed a couple of Red Bulls or something(though I doubt you'd want to read anything in that case).

Oh, and happy belated birthday to Black Flames! As of July, this story is SIX years old! And it STILL hasn't gotten to the Chūnin Exams! Seriously, I don't care how frustrated some of you might be because of that; I guarantee you I'm way more pissed off than you. I have dreams about what's going to happen during the Exam Arc.

Alrighty then. For those of you who are still here: Enjoy the show!

XXXX

(Konohagakure no Sato - Training Ground Seven, 7:25am)

It didn't take long for Sakura and Sasuke to realize they were in way over their heads. This revelation came at around the same time that they realized this first "serious" training session wasn't about teamwork at all.

Against what anyone would ever have thought, themselves included, they had actually managed to work out a solid team dynamic in the seven days their sensei was hospitalized. This came through a compromise from both sides. Sakura and Sasuke followed Naruto's lead and did what he said, when he said, without complaint or argument. And in return, Naruto would "lower" himself to their level to ensure that they would be able to keep up for coordinated moves.

But that self-imposed limitation had quickly become a problem when facing Kakashi, who used it to his advantage almost immediately. He singled out Naruto right off the bat, virtually disregarding his other two students entirely, dodging and/or countering their attacks, sometimes without even looking at them. And when they were taken care of, he worked Naruto over with blisteringly quick combination attacks that the masked terror barely managed to block.

When they sensed their teammate getting fed up with it, Sasuke and Sakura bowed out without a word and stood on the sidelines as spectators. This wasn't about them. Kakashi wasn't at all interested in testing their teamwork; he was after Naruto, and Naruto alone. Kakashi had already earned his stripes with Sasuke and Sakura, and even if he hadn't, they would have respected him just because he was a Jōnin and a legend in his own right. But Naruto was on a whole different level. One that rendered Kakashi's status worthless. He wasn't a bright-eyed rookie who looked up to his seniors, and in fact looked down on more than a few of them, such as Team Eight's sensei. Naruto had the competence, skill and power to not only question Kakashi's authority, but blatantly undermine it if he so chose, which he often did.

A team couldn't function like that. If not friendship or comradery, there at least had to be mutual respect, if only on a professional level. It was difficult to work with someone you didn't respect, and it was even worse if you had to take orders from them as well. Hell, even fear was enough to hold a team together, provided the subordinates never got over that fear. But Naruto didn't like Kakashi, didn't respect him, and damn sure wasn't afraid of him.

And so, Sasuke and Sakura were treated to a hell of a show as Kakashi set about trying to beat some respect out of Naruto. Of course, that was much easier said than done. Borderline impossible, all things considered. Kakashi was actually a bit out of shape compared to his prime as an ANBU Captain, while Naruto was even stronger and more experienced than he was in their first bout some three months ago, and undoubtedly had even more tricks up his sleeves.

"My God..." Sakura breathed out in astonishment as she watched the battle from her perch up in a tree. "They're freaks, both of them."

"Of course they are." Sasuke replied from below, having chosen to stay on the ground. "You don't get to their level by being 'normal'."

Once again showing the strides he'd made under Genma's tutelage, Sasuke kept his cool in the face of his own inferiority. The jealousy was still there, of course, but where he once saw the universe rubbing his inadequacy in his face, he now saw a learning experience. A chance to study other fighting styles and perhaps spot weaknesses in them. Unfortunately, they weren't throwing around any Ninjutsu for him to copy. But that didn't much matter, as anything worth copying would likely require more chakra and control than he had anyway.

"I suppose not..." Sakura trailed off with a sigh. Looking away from the fight, since she could barely see them move at this point, she studied Sasuke for a moment. If he was having as much trouble keeping up with the fight as she was, he wasn't showing it. In fact, it looked like he was following it just fine, if his sharp, bird-like head movements were any indication. He was so focused, he wasn't even blinking. She also noticed that he wasn't using the Sharingan, which puzzled her, but she didn't voice her confusion.

Sakura didn't know that Genma had given Sasuke quite a stern lecture about his Sharingan usage. After beating him to the point that he couldn't move, thus ensuring that he had no choice but to listen. The gist of it was that stealing techniques from enemies was fine, and was actually expected of him, as with all Uchiha before him. But copying the hard-earned techniques of fellow Leaf-nin, without their permission, was a quick way to become very unpopular.

Plus, there was no telling what Naruto would do if he ever found out one of his techniques was stolen, even if Sasuke wouldn't be able to actually use it.

So, he continued to observe with his unaided eyes, which were good in their own right, but he suspected he was only seeing about half of what was really going on, if even that. But it was enough to effectively analyze the fight and draw some solid conclusions, the first of which being that Naruto was physically the strongest and outright fastest of the two. However, Kakashi seemed to have better reflexes, possibly due to his strong Lightning affinity, as well as the Sharingan, which allowed him to avoid attacks that would've broken or ruptured something if they landed.

Another revelation was that both Naruto and Kakashi appeared to have mastered multiple styles of Taijutsu; at least three each, which they were able to switch between seamlessly. They were also just as proficient in armed combat, if not moreso. Naruto's prowess with a sword was already well documented, but he was certainly no slouch with the large, single-edged, clip point fighting knife he'd been using to match Kakashi's elongated kunai.

But the real shocker was that Kakashi's supposed experience advantage never seemed to come into play. Though Sasuke had seen it before, it was still mind-boggling that someone in his own age bracket was able to fight like a veteran. Kakashi had been a ninja for most of his life; hell, by the time any of the members of Team Seven had been born, Kakashi had been a Jōnin for over a year. But that huge gap amounted to nothing, as Naruto had an answer for everything Kakashi threw at him, and vice versa. So all in all, the fight had been a nearly twenty-minute stalemate, and the scales showed no signs of tipping any time soon.

'Kami, at this rate, it'll be another hour before someone even lands a punch!' Sasuke thought.

Actually, it would only be another three seconds. Sasuke didn't quite see what happened, but he knew that Kakashi had screwed up. How else could he have gone from matching Naruto blow-for-blow, to having the point of a knife half an inch away from his left eye?

"You know, if you wanted to die, again, all you had to do was ask." Naruto said, withdrawing his blade and backing off out of arm's reach.

"I...I'm sorry." Kakashi panted, suddenly feeling weaker now that he had stopped moving. He was more out of shape than he thought. "I got...distracted..." he trailed off, his eyes darting to the right for a split second.

"I noticed." Naruto grunted, his own eyes following Kakashi's line of sight, but seeing only trees.

"So...I guess it's two-to-zero now." Kakashi said with a smile that was anything but real as he covered his Sharingan eye with his forehead protector. "Pretty impressive. Don't tell Gai, though; he might start challenging you."

"I hesitate to call this a victory." Naruto grumbled.

Their "friendly spar" had gotten his blood pumping even more than his fight with the scythe-wielding "immortal". Yes, he'd been holding back, but only in regards to Ninjutsu and the fact that he wasn't fighting to kill. He'd been going more or less full-bore with his Taijutsu, and Kakashi still kept up, even when the weapons came out. And the one-eyed wonder himself was holding back as well, which made it even better. Naruto had always known that Kakashi could throw down with the best of them, despite his abilities having dulled since his ANBU days. But to experience his capabilities firsthand, particularly his stamina...Naruto was officially impressed. He couldn't wait until they could battle again, without an audience to potentially get hurt by stray attacks or see things they shouldn't see.

And he hoped that time would come sooner rather than later, because this latest "win" was a hollow one, in Naruto's book. It wasn't his own skill, power or cunning that had defeated his opponent; it was said opponent's loss of focus due to apparent outside interference. In a normal fight, that would've been A-Okay. If you let something else steal your attention when your life was on the line, that was your fault. But their fight hadn't been about life and death.

"Kakashi-san, before you awakened, the Hokage gave me the option of transferring out of Team Seven. He knows of our past issues with one another and not only asked me if I wanted to transfer, but actually tried to convince me to do so, to keep us from imploding and getting those two caught in the crossfire." Naruto jerked his head in Sasuke and Sakura's direction. "But I declined the offer, in part because I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. Are you serious about this, or did I make a mistake?"

"I've never been more serious about anything in my life, I promise you that." Kakashi affirmed. "I guess I'm still a little...jumpy, that's all." he lowered his voice so his other students couldn't hear his next words. "Still adjusting to being out of the warzone. There aren't monsters around every corner here, but that hasn't stopped me from seeing them."

"Then perhaps you should take some time off to get your head on straight. Before someone takes it off." Naruto replied just as quietly.

"And you'll look after them while I'm gone?"

"I've found that my urges to kill them have dwindled in both frequency and intensity, so I suppose I can keep them alive for another week." Naruto shrugged.

"Are...Are you...warming up to them?" Kakashi asked, unable to fully suppress a smile.

"..."

"Right, right." Kakashi held up his hands in a placating manner. "So, when did you start using a knife?" his curiosity had been piqued the moment the weapon was drawn from...wherever. He hadn't actually seen Naruto take it out; one second, his hand was empty, the next, Kakashi was suddenly missing a few strands of hair.

"I've been looking for a secondary weapon ever since my fight with that Akatsuki member in Kumogakure. My sword wasn't exactly the best weapon for fighting in confined spaces like that, and I wanted something for close range fighting." it was a partial lie, as the inspiration for using a knife in particular had come from training Hinata to use hers. "Kunai are...adequate, but I wanted a weapon geared towards direct combat. I do miss the handle ring, though." he shrugged, it didn't much matter anyway. The knife was a Darkness Construct, so he could change whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased.

The current form was similar to a typical large hunting knife used by outdoorsman, but obviously meant for combat above all else. It had a ten-inch blade in the classic "clip point" design, with a sharpened false edge and a saw-like back, but the teeth weren't designed for sawing through wood and the like, as you'd see for something made for wilderness survival. No, they were large, somewhat blunt and back-curved, meant for inflicting ragged, hard-to-heal wounds that would bleed profusely. If nothing else, it was far more intimidating than any typical ninja weapon, and just one more way to get into an opponent's head.

"I see...Look, Naruto," Kakashi sighed, "I'll take your suggestion under advisement, but let's at least finish out the rest of the day, hm? For you, I may have been out for only a week. But it was a hell of a lot longer for me. I've got some catching up to do with all three of you if I'm going to be an effective sensei. In fact, it's like you're strangers to me, almost. Them moreso than you, but you get the picture."

A glint appeared in Kakashi's eye, and Naruto didn't like it at all. "...Reintroductions?" he ventured, dreading the inevitable answer.

"Reintroductions!" Kakashi confirmed, with his signature eye-smile.

"...I should've stabbed you in the eye." Naruto grumbled as Kakashi called Sasuke and Sakura over.

"Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say." Kakashi chuckled.

"As I've been constantly reminded as of late." Naruto snorted. At least Kyuubi was talking to him again, though they hadn't had a real conversation as of yet. He missed her wit and flirtatious banter, but things were still looking up.

Unknowingly, Naruto mimicked Kakashi's thoughts, as his situation had its share of silver lining as well. Even though Naruto obviously still didn't trust or like him, the boy was at least giving him a chance. But silver lining aside, his cloud was still pretty damn dark. His eye darting over to the tree line once again. Even though he had only seen it out of the corner of his eye for a split second, he knew the Watcher had been there.

There was no daytime in Limbo, so Kakashi had never experienced it until now, but some of the notes he'd found said that the Watcher had no qualms about appearing in broad daylight, and was no less terrifying when his full form wasn't at least partially obscured by darkness. Kakashi supposed that was another way for him to get into his victims' heads. Monsters were supposed to lurk in the shadows, shunning the light and only coming out when the all-seeing eye of the sun dipped below the horizon. But the Watcher broke that "rule", and in doing so showed his targets that they were never safe. Night or day, inside or out, alone or surrounded by witnesses; it made no difference. But in this case, Kakashi suspected that the creature's brief appearance was meant to distract him, which would've resulted in his death had it been a real battle. It seemed the Watcher didn't understand the concept of sparring.

'Now, if only Ren would hurry his feathery ass up with those "charms", I'll be in business.' Kakashi thought. He may have resolved to stand his ground and not let his fear rule his life, but that didn't mean he wouldn't take all the help he could get.

"Are you alright, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked, giving the man a once-over with her eyes to check for any hints of injury.

"I'm fine, Sakura. My ego's a bit bruised, but I'll get over it." Kakashi joked.

"If you say so..." Sakura replied, trying not to let her disappointment show. She felt terrible for hoping that her sensei had been hurt, but she wanted an opportunity to show off her hard-earned medical skills and prove she deserved to be on the team, if only to herself.

Kakashi gave her an odd look, but it went unnoticed and was quickly replaced with another smile.

"Well then, team, let's introduce ourselves, shall we?"

"...What?" Sasuke and Sakura questioned in unison, identical looks of confusion on their faces, while Naruto just hung his head and sighed.

"This team started off on the wrong foot, that much I think we all can agree on. But this is the clean slate moment. This is the first day of the new and improved Team Seven!" Kakashi said happily.

"But we already know each other, so what's the point?" Sasuke asked, scratching his head.

"Do we? Sasuke, what's Sakura's favorite color?"

Caught completely off guard, Sasuke recoiled as if struck. "Uh...Pink?" he ventured, looking to Sakura for what he hoped was confirmation.

Sakura actually grimaced before replying sheepishly with, "...Red, actually." she really had no fondness for the color pink at all; other kids had ruined that for her years ago, with their constant taunting and bullying.

"Sakura, what's Naruto's favorite food?"

"Now that's just unfair." Sakura protested with a huff. She'd been tempted to say "human flesh" as a joke, but there was a good chance he would just roll with it and say something that would put very unpleasant images in her head.

"Naruto, what's my favorite book in the Icha Icha series to-date?"

"Was it amongst the ones I burned a while back?" Naruto answered with a question of his own, taking no small amount of satisfaction in seeing Kakashi's entire body stiffen at the mention of that particular "incident".

"...I'm sure you all see my point now." the Copy Ninja said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. "I'll kick things off. My name is Hatake Kakashi. I like good literature," he ignored Naruto's snort, "miso soup with eggplant and watching sunsets. My dislikes include sweets, formal clothing and cowards. My main hobby is reading, and my goals for the future...My goals are to do my father proud, and live for those who lost their own lives, as well as do my duty to you as your sensei." Kakashi finished with a respectful bow, then looked to Sasuke. "Well?"

"...My name is Uchiha Sasuke. I like training, tomatoes and...writing in my journal." he blushed in embarrassment. "My dislikes include sweets," he gave Kakashi a small nod, "quitters and Shiranui Genma. I...don't have any hobbies, yet, and my goals...I'm going to make my brother pay for what he's done, and when I finally have his head on a pike, I'll set about restoring my clan."

Sakura stared at her crush much like she did the first time, but without the all-consuming infatuation. That was a hard act to follow.

"My name is Haruno Sakura. I like learning new skills, anko dumplings coated in syrup," she glared at Sasuke and Kakashi when they shuddered in disgust, "and shopping. My dislikes include spicy foods, bullies and...thunderstorms." Sakura fought down a blush with little success. Yes, it was embarrassing, but it was better than the first thing her mind came up with, which was: "Being the obvious weak link of the team". Afterall, she couldn't go around advertising her lack of confidence. "My hobbies are reading and playing trivia games. My goal is to become the best medic Konoha has ever seen." she almost flinched as the words left her mouth. Though her goal was no less admirable than Kakashi's or Sasuke's, she didn't have their resolve, and, in her mind, it showed like a sign hanging over her head, reading "Bullshit!" in neon letters. But nonetheless, she kept her head held high as she finished, if only to keep up appearances.

Then, as one, the members of the "new and improved" Team Seven turned to Naruto with expectant eyes.

In turn, Naruto met their gazes one by one, lingering on Kakashi last. "...Really should've stabbed you." he ran a hand through his hair and let out deep sigh of irritation. "Fine, I'll play along. My name is Namikaze Naruto. I like training, barbecued chicken and worthwhile fights. My dislikes include overly salty foods, undeserved arrogance and disappointing opponents. Oh, and wasting time with pointless tasks is pretty high up on the list as well." Naruto added, looking directly at Kakashi. "My primary hobby is still collecting, but I also enjoy a walk through the woods every now and then. My goal...is to become a Hunter-nin and enjoy the freedom that comes with the job."

"There, now was that so hard?" Kakashi asked, chuckling when Naruto responded with a one-finger salute. "Seeing as how I've already seen a bit of your teamwork, how's about we devote today to some team bonding? Anyone want to catch a movie?"

"...Fuck it." Naruto said, then lunged at Kakashi...only to stab his knife into the "eye" of an actual scarecrow. In that instant, Naruto's annoyance was replaced by confusion. Just where the hell had Kakashi stashed this thing in order to use it for a Kawarimi?

While Naruto pondered possible explanations, Sakura was waving her hand in front of Sasuke's face, which held an expression of abject terror as he stared off into the distance.

"Helloooo, Sasuke-kun? Anybody home?"

(Shopping District, 1:00pm)

"So, does anyone have any suggestions for what to do next?" Kakashi asked his team as he walked down the street with them, a little orange book surprisingly nowhere in sight.

"How about-" Naruto began, only to be cut-off by the Jōnin.

"You go home while we all die in a fire?" Kakashi deadpanned. Naruto had been saying similar things at every opportunity, so it was a good guess.

"...I was going to say lunch, but I like your idea better."

"I'll bet. But lunch sounds good right about now. Who's hungry?"

"I'm in." Sasuke said. "A bucket of popcorn isn't exactly a decent meal."

"Especially when half of it's burnt." Sakura shuddered at the memory of accidentally biting down on an especially charred flake.

"If you had gone with the nachos, like me, that wouldn't have been a problem." Naruto remarked.

"That reminds me, what was up with the guy at the stand? You kill his dog, or something?" Sasuke asked, referring to the "incident" that had taken place at the theater.

Kakashi, Sakura and Sasuke had all gotten their food without problem, but the moment it was Naruto's turn, the clerk's attitude did a complete one-eighty. When Naruto ordered the nachos, the clerk slammed them down on the counter, breaking most of the chips. Seeing that, Kakashi had been fully prepared to step in, for the clerk's safety. But to his and the rest of the team's immense surprise, Naruto took it in stride and asked for the spicy cheddar cheese dip. The clerk, apparently a man who completely lacked any kind of self-preservation instinct, said they were all out of cheese. All of it. When there were multiple racks full of bright red and orange cheese cups right behind him.

He must have thought being in such a public place would save him from any retaliation. He was wrong, as he quickly found out when Naruto grabbed his head, smashed it into the counter and kept it there, applying enough pressure to make the young man whimper in pain. Naruto whispered something to him, undoubtedly a threat of further and far more grievous bodily harm, then let him go. The clerk got him a new pack of nachos and two cups of spicy cheese, shaking like a leaf the whole time.

"Never seen him before in my life." Naruto replied honestly. "Some people are just assholes."

"Asshole or not, if he decides to press assault charges, there won't be much you can do, considering the security cameras caught you doing it." Kakashi pointed out.

Naruto only chuckled in response, a sound that sent chills up the spines of all who heard it.

"Anyway...Where are we going?" Sakura asked.

"Hmm...Oh! There's this fantastic ramen place right down the street!" Kakashi beamed.

Naruto nearly tripped over his own feet. He hadn't been to Ichiraku's in five years, and with good reason, in his mind. After what happened to Yuki, Naruto had desperately clung to the only people he had left in his life. Hinata, Shino and the Ichirakus. But with the optimistic idealist in him dead and cremated, he knew that he would have to let them go, for their own safety. Hinata and Shino had their clans to protect them, and he broke his ties with them so he wouldn't jeopardize that for them. But the Teuchi and Ayame were like Yuki; run-of-the-mill civilians. Unimportant in the larger scheme, and thus vulnerable.

They had been a big part of his life for years, so it was hard to leave them behind. But when he saw Ayame get her head busted open by a rock meant for him, Naruto knew that the only way to protect them was to distance himself. So, for five years, he'd actively avoided the ramen shop that used to be his favorite place in the entire village.

'God, this is going to be awkward...' Naruto thought.

Apparently, he had unintentionally said this out loud, though not loud enough for anyone to make out the exact words.

"What?" Kakashi asked with just a touch of exasperation.

"...I said, 'I don't like ramen'." Naruto replied.

Kakashi didn't buy it; whatever was said before had more syllables than that. But he didn't voice his skepticism.

"Whatever you've had before, I guarantee it doesn't measure up to Ichiraku's Ramen."

"Taste is only part of the issue. Ramen isn't exactly healthy, and I don't eat much in the way of junk food."

Kakashi fixed the boy with a deadpan stare. "Really? That's your excuse, nutrition? Are you watching your figure?"

Naruto twitched at the comment. He'd walked right into that one.

"You do kinda sound like Ino-pig." Sakura giggled, then abruptly stopped when Naruto turned his gaze to her. "Well you do!" she insisted, edging behind Kakashi slightly.

"Alright, fine. You want ramen? Let's go get some ramen." Naruto turned back to Kakashi. "I trust that it's your treat?"

"Sure." the man nodded, furrowing his brow when a sudden shiver ran through his body.

"Good." Naruto then set off down the street towards his old stomping ground, a downright malicious grin plastered on his face under the mask.

That grin disappeared once he found himself standing in front of the modest little restaurant. He was actually getting nervous!

'What am I going to say to them?' Naruto thought, his distress building by the second. 'What are they going to say to me?'

What if they had taken his vanishing act personally? What if they were mad about how he had seemingly dropped them like a bad habit, after the kindness they showed him? Not to mention all the free meals...

"You guys are in for a treat!" Kakashi said giddily as he ducked under the banner to "enter" the stand and took a seat on one of the stools. "This place has always served great food, but last year they added some new items to the menu and revamped some of the old stuff. It's...You just have to try it."(1)

"Such a glowing review from one of Konoha's top ninjas!" a dark-haired man in his mid-forties chuckled as he walked up to the counter.

"You deserve it, Teuchi." Kakashi smiled. "How are things today?"

"Can't complain. Sun's shining, birds are chirping, heart's still ticking and I've got new costumers!" Teuchi grinned, turning his attention to the three Genin as they took their seats, eyeing the one in black somewhat warily.

"My cute little students." Kakashi said, looking directly at Naruto and grinning like a fool under his facemask. "Uchiha Sasuke, Haruno Sakura and Namikaze Naruto."

Teuchi's squinted eyes shot open and settled on the black-clad boy. There was no way in hell THAT was Naruto...But who else could it have been? Different family name aside, as far as Teuchi knew, there was only one person in all of Konoha named "Naruto".

"Impossible..." the man murmured.

Naruto's first instinct was to feign ignorance, but then a young woman with brown hair stepped into view from the supply room in the back. She looked around almost frantically before her gaze landed on him and her brow furrowed in confusion.

He had no idea what possessed him to do it, but instead of keeping with his original plan, Naruto put the last nail in his own coffin.

"Hello, Ayame." he blurted out before he could stop himself.

The next thing Naruto knew, he was forced to catch Ayame mid-air as she leapt over the counter.

"NARU-CHAN!" the girl squealed with unbridled glee.

"...'Naru...chan'?" Sakura repeated numbly, clamming up when Naruto growled at her.

Being all but adhered to his chest, Ayame felt it as much as she heard it. A deep rumble that made her entire body vibrate. She was reminded of a documentary about the alligators of Water Country's swamplands she'd caught on TV a few days ago. Specifically, the mating calls of the males, which caused the water around them to "dance" across their backs. How could a person duplicate a sound like that? Then again, Naruto had apparently realized his dream of becoming a ninja, and ninjas made a living out of doing things that were incomprehensible to normal people.

And that brought Ayame to another realization; Little Naru-chan had grown. A lot. Gone was the scrawny, visibly malnourished and overall diminutive boy. In his place, someone who stood a full head taller than her and had a body one could only get from constant training. Or so bragged the multitude of pompous jerks who tried to hit on her so often.

"I...I guess I can't really call you 'Naru-chan' anymore, Mr. Ninja." Ayame said as she looked up into...nothing. She couldn't see anything under Naruto's hood. Frowning, she reached up to pull it back, only to have her hand gently caught by his.

"Sorry, but that will have to wait." Naruto said lowly, so that only she could hear him. "I know we have some catching up to do, but I'd prefer to do it when the place isn't so...crowded." he took a moment to look the girl over as he watched conflicting emotions play out across her face.

She had grown as well, though not nearly as much as he had. Standing at five feet, two inches, she didn't get much taller, but she had certainly filled out. He couldn't make out just how much due to her conservative work clothes, but she definitely had some curves now. But her face was much the same as he remembered. Sharp chin, rounded nose, high cheekbones, fair complexion and big, dark and expressive brown eyes. She had a "girl next door" quality about her that Naruto was finally experienced enough to appreciate.

And then there was the scar. Though it was almost unnoticeable and her bangs hid it from view, Naruto knew exactly what to look for and where. There, above her left eyebrow, just in front of the left temple, a small, off-colored, slightly raised mark. A blemish on her otherwise flawless skin. It angered Naruto, but there was nothing he could do; the man responsible for it was already dead. In fact, Kai Ryoga was Naruto's first "real" kill. There was no self-defense, no outburst of demonic power, no blacking out and waking up in a pool of someone else's blood. Naruto had stalked the man for days, putting the skills he'd developed while playing ninja with Hinata and Shino to good use. Then, after waiting for Kai to get hammered at a bar, he lured the man into an alleyway and ambushed him. Naruto had punched him in the throat to keep him from screaming, then stabbed him in the abdomen three times and watched him bleed out with no small amount of satisfaction. He even stole his wallet to make it look like a mugging gone wrong.

It was the first time he had made a conscious decision to take a human life. Though his skull now sat in Naruto's trophy room with two-hundred and seventeen carved into its forehead, unofficially it was also number one.

"...I'll hold you to that." Ayame said, unknowingly bringing Naruto back to the present, then gave him one final hug and virtually skipped back around the counter.

She was taking Naruto's sudden reappearance well, but her father was a bit slower to recover from the shock. This made for a truly awkward staring match between him and Naruto, which only ended when the boy finally placed an order.

"Uh...I guess I'll take a bowl of pork ramen, large." Naruto said as he retook his seat, feeling the stares of his teammates on him, but choosing to ignore them for the time being.

"What? O-Oh, sorry, I'm just...I-I'll get right on it!" Teuchi snapped to attention and went to get to work, only to turn back around upon remembering he had three other customers to attend to. "Um..."

"Miso, large." Kakashi said.

"I, uh...I'll try the beef ramen, medium." Sasuke decided after one last look at the menu.

"...Shrimp, please. Small." Sakura was still staring.

"Alrighty, then, give me fifteen minutes and I'll have everything ready!" Teuchi smiled and set about whipping up his masterpieces with a vigor rarely seen since his younger years.

"So...'Naru-chan', hm?" Kakashi snickered.

"One more word, from any of you, and I swear to God, I'll stitch your mouths to each others' asses and make a human centipede." Naruto's eyes burned blue under his hood as he glared at the silver-haired man. "And you'll be the middle."

Sasuke and Sakura instantly averted their eyes, looking anywhere but Naruto's general direction, and Kakashi wisely decided not to try his luck. It was hard enough to sleep with just the Watcher lurking around.

The next five minutes passed in silence. And then, something very strange happened.

Naruto was the first to notice the sunlight dimming, as well as the first to hear the confused chatter from people on the streets.

"Hm? What's going on out there?" Kakashi wondered aloud, his instincts telling him something was off.

Sharing a brief glance, Naruto and Kakashi stood up in unison and stepped out from under the restaurant's overhang. They looked up and were greeted with an impossible sight. Storm clouds, the most dark and malignant either had ever seen outside of Kumogakure, gathered overhead with unnatural speed. Within seconds, the sun was completely blotted out, casting the whole village into a near night-like darkness.

"The hell is this?" Naruto mumbled. "There wasn't a cloud in the sky ten minutes ago." something was wrong, that much was certain.

"Kakashi-sens..." Sakura trailed off as her and Sasuke's eyes were drawn upward. "...Well, so much for the forecast..." she wasn't really trying to make light of the situation, whatever situation it was; she was just nervous. You didn't need to be a veteran ninja for something like this to set off some major alarm bells. Even the civilians were suspicious.

Then, in a brilliant flash of pale blue light, a massive lightning bolt tore through the clouds and struck the Hokage Tower dead-on. The entire roof of the structure was immediately engulfed in flames, and combined with the incredibly loud rumble of thunder, it was like a bomb had gone off.

"Holy shit!" a civilian man screamed before dropping the bag of groceries in his arms and running for cover. This was the catalyst to a wave of hysteria that quickly swept over every civvy in the vicinity.

The only exceptions were Teuchi and Ayame, who had rushed out to see what was going on.

"Rain check." Kakashi said to the older man.

"Of course...What should we do?" Teuchi asked, still staring wide-eyed at the raging inferno atop the tower just a few blocks away.

"Just stay in the restaurant for now. If we're under attack, you'll be safer in there than with all these morons running around." Naruto answered, casually sidestepping a panicked man who was paying more attention to the blaze behind him than what was in front of him.

"And us?" Sasuke asked. There was no point in either him or Sakura going, and they knew it. They wouldn't be able to keep up with Naruto and Kakashi, and there wouldn't be much they could do when they did arrive.

"Stay here, and be on the lookout for anything suspicious." Naruto ordered. "Maybe try to help these gutless fools get off the streets."

"Right!" Sasuke and Sakura said in unison.

Were the situation less serious, Kakashi would've been impressed with Naruto's display of actual leadership. But for the time being, they had to get moving. As close as they were to the tower, they'd likely be some of the first responders.

(Naruto's Apartment, 4:05pm)

"Ugh..." Naruto entered his apartment with a groan, and for once found it empty. "Wonder where everyone is." as he said this, he couldn't help but think of how weird it sounded. He'd spent most of his life coming home to an empty apartment, and liked it that way. And now here he was, questioning why no one was around. Had he really gotten used to the presence of the others so quickly?

They had just met a month ago, as enemies no less, and now they were living together. Why did he trust them so much? How could he trust them so much? Was it because they were so much like him? Because they were just so easy to get along with? Or was it something else?

"Naruto, a word, please." Kyuubi's voice instantly drove all other thoughts away.

After settling in on the living room couch to make it look like he was napping, so anyone who came in would be less likely to bother him, Naruto allowed his consciousness to be pulled into the mindscape. Specifically, Kyuubi's chamber.

"Yes?" Naruto asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of his voice. Over the years, he had overheard many a man in the village whining about their girlfriends or wives giving them the cold shoulder, and he'd scoffed at them all. How could NOT talking to someone be a punishment? Sounded like a reward to him.

But now he understood. As the saying went, you don't appreciate what you've got until it's gone. Kyuubi may have started talking to him again, but she might as well have been a whole different person. She wasn't HIS Kyuubi, and it got to him more than he wanted to admit.

"You understand why I haven't been speaking to you, correct?" Kyuubi asked, her crimson eyes betraying nothing with their intense stare.

"I do."

"And you understand and accept that you deserved it, correct?"

"I do."

"You've learned your lesson, and will never do something like that again, correct?"

"I have, and I won't."

"Good...Because if you do, I'll fucking kill you myself..." Kyuubi's voice trembled as her eyes began to sting and her vision blurred with tears. In an instant, she had Naruto wrapped in a hug so tight, it would've crushed a normal person like a soda can. "I'm serious...If you ever scare me like that again...I'll make you pay for it." she sobbed.

"K-Kyuu-chan..." Naruto stammered, completely unsure of what to do, or if he was supposed to do anything.

"I was so disappointed in you...I was your sensei before I was your mate, and I take pride in how far you've come under my guidance...You knew better than that, I trained you better than that, and to see you fucking around when so much was at stake...Fuck, it made me so angry." Kyuubi clutched at her mate tighter, burying her head into the crook of his neck. "But when Shizaru showed up...I've never been so afraid in my life. You bastard, did you forget that your life isn't yours to throw away?! Nevermind what might happen with the seal if you die; did you even spare a single thought as to how your death would affect your mate?! What about Kurohane? Hinata? You have people who care about you, you selfish asshole! You can't go around fighting like you've got nothing to lose!" she cried.

The floodgates had opened, and all of the emotions that Kyuubi had kept bottled up were now pouring out. She knew this would happen, which was why she had tried to keep Naruto at arm's length until she could sort her feelings out. The rage of a disappointed and disgusted sensei had run its course, and she was left with the fear, pain and depression of a woman who very nearly saw her lover die right before her eyes. Again.

She knew she would break down when she saw him, but she also knew that it was time to build a bridge over the rift between them. Just as much as Naruto missed their normal conversations and interactions, Kyuubi missed them as well.

"I...I'm sorry." Naruto said, having wracked his brain for something, anything to say, and coming up with nothing. He was just too much of an emotional novice to handle something like this.

Fortunately, Kyuubi knew that better than anyone and wouldn't hold it against him. She couldn't.

Finally releasing Naruto from her grip, Kyuubi took a step back and took off his mask, biting back a giggle at the look on his face. That combination of worry, apprehension and cluelessness looked so...alien on him.

"I know you are, and I accept your apology." Kyuubi smiled and wiped the tears from her eyes and cheeks with the sleeves of her kimono. "Just promise me that you'll use your head from now on."

"You have my word." Naruto nodded firmly.

"I'd better." Kyuubi then pulled Naruto into a deep kiss, their tongues battling for domination for nearly a full minute before they pulled away. "Now, off with you. Hinata's out there, worrying herself silly about whether or not to wake you up." and with that, Kyuubi ejected Naruto out of the mindscape, but not before one last peck on the lips.

The first thing Naruto saw upon coming to was Hinata standing at the side of the couch, poking her fingers together and muttering to herself about how mad he would be for her interrupting his nap.(2)

"Good afternoon, Hinata." Naruto greeted as he sat up.

"Oh!" Hinata squeaked in surprise. "N-Naruto-kun, I...Did I wake you?"

"Not at all, I don't sleep in the middle of the day. Though, after the day I've had, I think I've earned the right to..."

"That bad?"

"Team...'bonding'. Saw a movie and ate lunch with them." Naruto said. He would've told her about the "attack" on the Hokage Tower, which turned out to be a very powerful Genjutsu of "unknown" origin, but he was under direct orders from the Hokage not to say a word about it to anyone who didn't already know. At least until an "official statement" was made.

"That...sounds awful?" Hinata ventured.

"It sounds normal, if all the other teams are anything to go by. But that really isn't Team Seven's 'thing', so it was a very awkward experience all around." Naruto shrugged. "Hopefully Hatake-san has gotten it out of his system and we can get back on track. But enough about me. You're obviously here for something, so how can I help you?"

"Well...You remember that mission you went on with my team?"

"Of course. You want to learn how to use that spear you picked up, right?" Naruto asked as he stood up and stretched, taking a moment to look at the clock. 4:12pm, plenty of time to get some more training in and have Hinata back "home" before any Hyūga lackeys showed up to "retrieve" her.

Hinata nodded enthusiastically. "I realized that even with my knives, I still don't have any real reach in combat. Then I remembered that spear."

"Well, let's get to it. How familiar are you with Bōjutsu?"

"Uh..." Hinata shook her head helplessly.

"Then we'll start with the basics."

(Haruno Household, 7:00pm)

"So, how was everyone's day?" Hikari Haruno asked as she took her seat at the dining table.

At thirty-seven years old, Hikari didn't look a day over twenty-five, and she worked her ass off to keep it that way. Well, not really, as she was quite proud of her posterior. Soft and supple, yet tight and firm at the same time. An ass that could make a gay man do a double-take. In fact, she was proud of every part of her body, and with good reason. Her hourglass figure, baby-smooth skin, emerald eyes, heart-shaped face and long, luxurious hair were the envy of many a woman, kunoichi included. And they couldn't even hate her for it, because her personality was just as entrancing as her looks.

Humble, kind, generous, witty, loyal and confident, without being arrogant. As far as most were concerned, there was nothing not to like about her. She was as close to perfect as one could get, and that made her husband the envy of many a man, shinobi included.

"Not so good, to be honest. That new combat mask fell through in testing and I had to break the news to Minaka. He didn't take it too well. In fact, he got so belligerent that I had to have him escorted out, and I'm thinking about writing him up. He's convinced that I sabotaged the tests somehow, just because I told him all that digital stuff wouldn't go over well. Makes the mask too bulky and the HUD is way too cluttered and distracting." Hikari's husband shook his head.

Aida Haruno, formerly Aida Sanosuke, was a great match for Hikari. At thirty-two years old, he was a good-looking man by any standard. Fairly tall at just a hair shy of six feet, well built, for a civilian, with sharp facial features, piercing blue eyes and a full head of jaw-length brown hair. Like Hikari, he had his share of admirers amongst the opposite sex, as well as green-eyed monsters amongst his fellow men. And just like his wife, even those who were jealous of him couldn't bring themselves to dislike him. He was just too nice. But what really made him Hikari's ideal husband was his submissive nature and eager-to-please attitude. Haruno women always wore the pants in the relationship, and Aida had no problem with that.(3)

But Aida was a lot more than a pretty face and a dutiful husband; he was a certified genius and an accomplished inventor with hundreds of patents to his name. Hikari was no slouch in the intelligence department, but she would readily admit that Sakura got her IQ from her father.

"Minaka...He's the one with the white hair, right?" Hikari asked. All she knew about her husband's coworkers was what he told her himself, and what little she observed during the handful of times she'd visited him at the Konoha Research and Development Labs. Which was actually against the rules of the facility, but who was going to tell Hikari Haruno "no"?

"Yeah, that's him. He's good, if a bit...out there. But he acts like every little thing is some kind of personal slight against him. I don't know if it's because he's got an overinflated ego, or he's just that sensitive, but either way he needs to get his priorities straight before that attitude gets him fired." Aida said before popping a bit of crab meat into his mouth and groaning in pleasure. Tonight, Hikari had made a hearty seafood-based stew, with crab, lobster, shrimp and all manner of other ingredients that the woman would never divulge.

As if Hikari needed something else to make men swoon, she was also a fantastic cook. So much so, that she was once approached about having her own cooking show, but she turned it down because her secret recipes would no longer be secret.

"And how about you, Sa...Is something wrong? You're not eating." worry overtook Hikari's tone and facial expression. Sakura loved everything her mother cooked, and after a hard day of training, she usually ate like she thought she was being timed.

"Hm? Oh, it's nothing, Mom. Just..." Sakura wracked her brain for a plausible lie. "My day was a bit...surreal. I went to the movie theater and had lunch with my team; my ENTIRE team...And it wasn't a disaster!" she put on a smile that wasn't completely forced.

"Sounds like you had fun today." Aida said with a warm smile.

"For the most part, it was really awkward." Sakura admitted. "But it had its moments." a smile crept onto her face as one of those moments played through her mind.

Some bitch had seen her talking to Sasuke after the movie and saw fit to intervene and convince him to "ditch the little whore" and "go home with a real woman". Before Sakura could give the "real woman" a piece of her mind, and perhaps a broken jaw, Sasuke did it for her. He actually made the woman, easily twice their age, cry. And as she tried to run away, she'd collided with a brick wall known as Naruto, who'd heard everything and forced her to apologize. Well, less "apologize" and more "beg for forgiveness".

It was an incredible thing to witness, and had brought Sakura herself to the verge of tears. Just a month ago, neither of them would've given a damn, and Sakura would've just taken it like a timid little doormat, all while raging and shouting all manner of obscenities in her head.

"Sounds like that team of yours is finally coming together." Aida remarked.

"I think so. Now that Naruto-san is on-board, we're making real progress." Sakura replied.

Neither of them noticed Hikari suddenly tense up.

"Yes, from what you've said, it seems like he makes all the difference." Aida rubbed his chin in thought. "Hm, I wonder what changed as why he's being so...nice now."

"We changed." Sakura said. "Sasuke-kun and me, I mean. He's learned some humility, and I've been taking my training seriously. We used to be lower than dirt in his book, but now we've got nowhere to go but up. And then there's Kakashi-sensei. I'm almost certain there's some history between them, because it seemed like Naruto-san was always challenging him, for no other reason than to make things difficult, or maybe even start a fight."

"I remember you saying that a while ago. You think they worked it out?"

"Looks like it. I just hope it lasts...I enjoy being part of the team, and I don't want to see it fall apart again."

"Can we PLEASE stop talking about...all this ninja stuff?" Hikari all but hissed, glaring at her family with far more intensity than she meant to.

"Yes, ma'am." both husband and daughter replied, seeming to shrink in on themselves under the woman's harsh gaze.

Hikari's expression softened when she saw their reactions. "I'm sorry, it's just...You know how I feel about that particular topic." it wasn't exactly a lie, since she had made it quite clear that she didn't like her daughter's career choice. She still supported her child because that was her obligation as a mother, but she tried her damnedest to convince Sakura to look at other possibilities at every opportunity.

"Then why even ask me about my day?" Sakura mumbled and finally started eating, apparently unaware that she had spoken her thoughts aloud.

Neither parent said a word about it, though. Aida because he didn't know what to say, and in his experience that meant it was best to keep quiet. And Hikari because she could feel the guilt bubbling up inside of her, and knew that anything she said would likely make it worse for both herself and her child.

Dinner was eaten in silence.

(9:30pm)

Standing on the balcony outside her room, Sakura looked out over the village. This was something she often did before going to bed, but tonight she just wasn't into it. The cool night air, twinkling stars, bright crescent moon and the lights of the village did nothing for her. She had too much on her mind. She didn't even notice someone knocking at her bedroom door, or that person cautiously entering when there was no response.

"Sakura? Are you decent? Hello?" Aida called, louder than was really necessary, but one could never be too careful with a ninja in the house. Announcing oneself before entering could very well be the difference between getting a "Hello" or a kunai between the eyes.

As he opened the door fully, Aida had a direct line of sight to the balcony and his daughter, standing at the railing in her red pajamas, with her back to him. Apparently, she still hadn't noticed him, and that was a problem. If he startled her, the outcome wouldn't be pretty. Daughter or not, she would react based on her training, and that usually meant stab first, ask questions later.

A loud, high-pitched whistle roused Sakura from her thoughts and caused her to whirl around with a kunai at the ready. When her father poked his head around the corner with an apologetic smile, the girl let out an explosive sigh, as if she'd been holding her breath.

"Kami, Dad! Do you have a deathwish or something?!" Sakura all but shrieked.

"Nope! Hence me hiding behind the wall." Aida smiled cheekily.

"Just...don't do that again, please." Sakura muttered. She had been looking for a chance to show off what she had learned under Mirano's wing outside of the controlled conditions of the hospital and various Genjutsu-based simulations, but she most certainly didn't want her first real patient to be her own father. Especially if she was the reason he needed treatment in the first place.

"Well I did knock several times, and all but yelled before I came in." Aida pointed out.

"..." Sakura had no reply to that. Had she really been THAT distracted?

"What's wrong, sweetie?" Aida asked as he joined his daughter on the balcony. "If it's what your mother said, you know she doesn't mean anything by it. You know how she feels about you being in such a dangerous profession, but you should also know that she's still proud of you."

Hikari's unease about Sakura being a kunoichi had gone through an interesting metamorphosis over the past month. At first, she'd been worried that her daughter would make a horrible ninja, since she was doing it for all the wrong reasons. She'd woken up in the middle of the night in hysterics several times after nightmares about Sakura suffering a brutal demise. Hikari had cried literally for hours after hearing about what had happened while Sakura was in Wave Country, and how close she had come to losing her baby. But once Sakura started to take her job seriously, Hikari's worries had shifted from her daughter being a bad kunoichi and getting herself killed, to her being a good one and killing others. She respected Konoha's ninjas as much as anyone else, they protected their homes and their way of life. But she also knew exactly HOW they went about it, and she didn't fancy the thought of her little cherry blossom slashing throats and snapping necks, regardless of what it was for.

"No, it's not that. I..." Sakura let out a deep, melancholy sigh and shook her head. "Nevermind. It's just like Kakashi-sensei said; a ninja trying to explain their problems to a civilian is like a bear trying to tell a shark that its knees hurt. No offense, Dad, but you just wouldn't understand."

"Oh, I think I'd understand well enough. Yes, ninjas and civilians don't often mingle with one another, but I'm one of the exceptions to the rule because of where I work and what I do."

The Konoha Research and Development Labs drew up, crafted and tested everything, from air conditioning units, to ninja armor and weapons. Aida's work happened to be geared towards the latter, so he worked closely with ninjas on a daily basis. He made things for them, so he was always looking for their input and letting them test the products. Over the last decade and a half, most of the advancements in armor and reinforced clothing were the results of Aida's work. And one couldn't very well make things for ninjas if they didn't know how to think like a ninja, at least on some level. He couldn't always rely on someone else to tell him what they wanted, or what worked and what didn't.

"Working with ninjas and actually being one are two very different things." Sakura mumbled.

"Come on, try me." Aida insisted.

"Okay, fine." Sakura relented and took a deep breath. "Before we went to the movies, got lunch and all that, Naruto and Kakashi had a sparring match. A rematch from the first bell test when we became an official team. Sasuke and I had to watch from the sidelines because we were completely outmatched. They were moving so fast...I couldn't even see them. Just brief flashes here and there, when they slowed down for a fraction of a second, for whatever reason. And they were at it for nearly twenty minutes, so evenly matched that they couldn't even hit one another, or so Sasuke told me. I felt so in over my head, my only comfort being that Sasuke was in the same boat. I said Kakashi and Naruto were freaks, thinking that he would agree. He did, and said, 'you don't get to their level by being normal'...And when I looked at him, he was following the fight. Even without the Sharingan, he could still see them, while I was completely in the dark..."

"...And you've come to realize that you and Sasuke aren't in the same boat." Aida picked up where his daughter left off, surprising her. "He's not 'normal' at all; as an Uchiha, he's more or less destined for greatness. Now you think you're the 'odd man out', being the only normal person on the team."

"I..." Sakura started, astonished by her father's insight. "I don't belong. By the time he was my age, Kakashi was already a Jōnin, making a name for himself on the frontlines of a war. Naruto is...Naruto, and Sasuke literally has success in his blood. But what do I have? Who am I? Just some little girl from a rich merchant clan with no shinobi history." by this point, the girl was almost sobbing as she poured her heart out. "I try so hard to fit in, to act like I belong, only to be constantly reminded that I don't! I thought that I was catching up, making real progress, but I'm just being left further behind." Sakura soon found herself wrapped in her father's arms and crying into his chest.

"Sakura...Have you ever wondered why I support your choice to be a kunoichi? Why it's the one thing I refuse to budge on, no matter how much your mother insists?" Aida sighed as bittersweet memories flashed through his mind. "To say that your family has no shinobi history isn't entirely accurate."

Sakura's sobs stopped as she tilted her head up to look her father in the eyes. "Wha-What? You were..."

"Yep." Aida nodded. "I come from a clan much like the Haruno. Merchants, bankers, grocers, farmers; you could go back a dozen generations in my family tree and not find a single shinobi. At one point in time, I was determined to break that tradition. I had dreams, big ones. Becoming one of the elite, loved and admired by my people, respected by my peers and feared by my enemies. I wanted to put the Sanosuke on the map and pave the way for them to be Konoha's next great ninja clan." the man chuckled with no real mirth. "Oddly enough, everyone supported me. My father got me into the Academy, my brothers cheered me on, and everyone said I had potential. My friends, the Academy Instructors, even my Jōnin sensei when I graduated; they all thought I was going places. Tch, I never even made Chūnin." he scoffed bitterly.

"What happened?" Sakura asked in wonderment, completely enthralled in the story. Did Mom even know about this?

"I wish I could say I got wounded on a mission or a training accident, or otherwise forced into early retirement...I wish I could say there was no shame in how I went out, but I can't. I quit, plain and simple. The Third Shinobi War was in full-swing and I was hearing nothing but horror stories about what happened in the field. I let it get to me. On my first war-related mission with my team, delivering a scroll to an outpost twenty-three miles Northwest of Konoha, we ran into trouble. You see, just an hour earlier, a Chūnin patrol squad was ambushed on the same route. Fortunately, their attackers were inexperienced and uncoordinated, so they were able to deal with them quickly and continue on their way. But one of the enemy ninjas survived, if just barely. He was half-dead and knew he was living on borrowed time, so when my team ran into him, he didn't bother trying to run or hide. He just came at us like a wild boar. He went for me first, since I had taken point. You know what I did? Nothing. I froze. I could've put a kunai through his forehead before he even took a step, but all those stories I had heard spooked me too much. My teammates took care of him and we completed our mission, but that was it for me. After we were debriefed, I stayed behind and turned in my forehead protector."

"D-Dad, I...I never knew..."

"Of course you didn't. It's not something I like to talk about. All those people, my Dad, my brothers, my friends, my sensei; I let them all down. I've regretted it ever since, but I never got up the courage to try again. That's why I make armor and other equipment for ninjas; it makes me feel like I'm doing my part to protect the village, by making things that protect the people who protect the village. Before I met your mother, my job was the only thing that allowed me to look at myself in the mirror." Aida took a step back from his daughter and held her by her shoulders as he looked her in the eyes. "I see in you, what others saw in me; an ocean of untapped potential. And I can tell you from experience, if you let it go to waste, it will haunt you for the rest of your life. Even though I wouldn't trade the life I have now for the world, I still think about the 'what ifs' all the time."

"But I don't want to be left behind." Sakura whispered. "I may be stronger than I was, but so are they, and that still makes me the weak link. I've been lucky so far, in that we haven't had any missions lately, so I haven't been 'exposed' yet. But the Chūnin Selection Exams are coming, and Naruto and Sasuke are shoo-ins for a vest...And if I fail, it'll stay with me forever. No matter what I do from that point on, I'll always be remembered as the one who wasn't good enough. The one who smacked her big forehead against a glass ceiling, while her teammates just plowed through it." there was no doubt in her mind that those two would become legendary, perhaps even moreso than Kakashi.

And she could just imagine the things people would say when speaking about them. "Hey, weren't they part of a team?", "Yeah, trained by none other than Hatake Kakashi.", "But wasn't there a third one?", "Now that you mention it, there was this girl with them back in the day. Had pink hair, I think.", "What happened to her? KIA?", "Nope, she just wasn't cut out for it. Failed her first Chūnin Exam and never caught back up. I believe she's a nurse at the hospital now, wasn't even good enough to be a real doctor."(4)

Yeah, that's how conversations about her and her team would play out years from now, she was sure. She would always be the one who couldn't hack it. The one who faded into the obscurity while everyone else carved their names into the annals of history.

"Stop it." Aida said, his tone more commanding than Sakura, or perhaps anyone had ever heard before. "Right now, your only limitation is you, and with that attitude, you'll be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what if you're not as much of a natural as someone else? You're surrounded by prodigies; people you can learn from and ask for help. Even if it takes you a little longer, you CAN get there if you've got the drive. You say you don't want to be the one who was left behind, but would you really rather be the one who gave up and didn't even try?"

"But I AM trying. That's the problem! I'm trying and trying and trying, and not getting anywhere!"

"That's not what the backyard says." Aida countered, referring to the sizeable craters that dotted the huge plot of land behind their house. "A couple months ago, you hurt your hand just playing volleyball with Ino. But just yesterday I saw you break a five-hundred-pound boulder with a single punch. If you call THAT 'getting nowhere', you must have some brutal standards for progress."

"But it's still not enough." Sakura clenched her eyes shut as tears threatened to form again.

"It'll have to be. I've seen how you train, Sakura. I've carried you up to your room when you've passed out from exhaustion. I've seen your light on at ungodly hours in the morning and heard you thinking out loud when you're studying from those books. You're doing all you can right now; anything more and you're playing with fire. Accept your limitations and work towards surpassing them. Comparing yourself to Naruto and Sasuke isn't being fair to you, and it's obviously wreaking havoc on your self-esteem. Use yourself as a measuring stick, not them. If you want to be faster, don't focus on being as fast as someone else; focus on being faster than you used to be. If you can run a lap around Konoha in an hour, use that as your base and strive to get it down to fifty-nine minutes. Then fifty-eight, fifty-seven, fifty-six, and so on. Don't worry about the guy who can do it in twenty minutes flat, just worry about you."

Sakura opened her mouth to reply, but found that she couldn't. He was right. Validating her accomplishments based on what her teammates could do wasn't doing anything but making her depressed. Plus, it wasn't like they were pushing her to be as strong as them; they seemed pleased with her steady improvements, so why couldn't she be as well? With this epiphany, she felt as though a massive weight had been lifted. One that she had put on herself to begin with.

She couldn't help but smile. "Thanks, Dad." she wanted to say more, but she couldn't quite put her gratitude into words. She hoped a heartfelt hug would do.

"It's what I'm here for." Aida said before placing a kiss on his daughter's forehead. Something that he hadn't done in a while, now that he thought about it. "Good night, sweetie."

"Hey, Dad..." Sakura called before her father exited her room. "Does Mom know? About the ninja thing, I mean."

"Of course. I could never keep a secret from her, even if I wanted to." Aida answered.

"Do you ever do any training? Y'know, just to keep in shape?"

"Every now and then."

"Would...Would you like to spar sometime?"

"...Why not? As long as you promise to go easy on your old man."

"Eh, I'll think about it." Sakura grinned.

"Yeah, well, while you're thinking about it, remember that I already apologized for eating that last popsicle, AND I bought a whole box just for you."

"What? When?!" Sakura gaped, remembering that there had been no popsicles in the freezer after dinner.

"...Tomorrow!" Aida flashed his own cheesy grin, accompanied by a thumbs-up.

Sakura burst out laughing. "Good night, Dad."

Aida couldn't keep the smile off his face as he left the room and closed the door behind him. This was a milestone for him, the first time he had ever helped his daughter through something on his own. Sure, he was always there to support her, but it was Hikari who did all the "heavy lifting", so to speak. Aida simply had no experience with girls, and it showed. Whenever Sakura came home crying after a run-in with bullies, Hikari sprung into action quick as a blink, while her husband just kinda stood there in the background, offering awkward words of encouragement.

But this time he wasn't hopelessly out of his depth, and he was more than a little proud of how he handled the situation. Especially since it had been a major, life-altering crisis and not just a simple case of hurt feelings.

"You make it very hard to love you sometimes, you know that?" Aida wasn't the least bit surprised to see his wife leaning against the hallway wall just a few feet from Sakura's bedroom door. Nor was he surprised by the withering glare she fixed him with.

"Just sometimes, right?" Aida joked as he started walking towards the master bedroom, knowing what was about to happen and not wanting Sakura to hear it.

"This isn't funny, Aida." Hikari scoffed as she followed her husband. "This is our daughter's life."

"Exactly. HER life, not ours."

"Says the man trying to live vicariously through his child?"

"Is that what you think?" Aida asked, his tone and gaze uncharacteristically hard. "I know you don't like all this 'ninja business', and you probably don't pay much attention to what she says because of that, but I do. She likes being a kunoichi. She feels that it's her calling, specifically as a Medic. This is what she wants to do, whether either of us like it or not." they stopped in front of their bedroom door. "I'm just as worried about her as you are, and if she decided to quit for the right reasons, I would've stood behind her along with you."

"And what constitutes 'the right reasons' to you?" Hikari was surprised by how unyielding Aida was, but she didn't let it show, as her glare never faltered.

"Being unfit for duty, or simply getting over being a ninja. If your heart's not in it, there's no point in sticking with it. But that wasn't the case. Her heart is still very much in it, which is why she was so conflicted. She fooled herself into thinking she wasn't cut out for it just because she couldn't keep up with her teammates." Aida didn't miss how Hikari's scowl deepened at the mention of Sakura's teammates. It wasn't just the Jinchūriki she had a problem with. "She was driving herself mad trying to reach goals that were unrealistic from the get-go. The potential and the will are there, she just needed to accept that it's going to take a bit longer for her to reach that potential, and realize there's no shame in that."

"She's still too young...She doesn't understand what she's gotten into." Hikari said, dropping her eyes to the ground and releasing a shuddering breath.

In a second, Aida had her in his arms. He knew those morbid thoughts were getting the better of her again, and fortunately this was another situation he knew how to deal with.

"You don't give her enough credit. Remember what she told us about her first real mission? Remember how terrified she looked? But she never said anything about quitting. Didn't even apply for a transfer to another team. Sakura is stronger than you think, probably stronger than she thinks as well, and getting better every day. She's not our little girl anymore, Hikari. I won't say she's all grown up, but she can take care of herself now, and you have to trust her to do that." Aida said, resting his chin on the top of his wife's head while gently stroking her hair.

Hikari didn't verbally reply, but her arms encircling his abdomen and squeezing told him all he needed to know.

(7:00am)

Morning saw a very different atmosphere in the Haruno household. The tension from the previous night had evaporated, leaving everyone all-smiles as they prepared themselves for the day ahead. Sakura's self-esteem had been restored, Hikari had patched things up with both her husband and daughter, and Aida...Well, make-up sex was just awesome like that.(5)

"Sakura, are you staying for breakfast?" Hikari called from the kitchen. She already knew the answer, but it didn't hurt to check.

"No thanks, Mom!" Sakura yelled back from her personal bathroom. "I'm probably late as it is; I'll just grab a few granola bars before I leave!" she couldn't believe she had overslept! But she couldn't say she regretted anything; it was the best night's sleep she'd gotten in a long time.

Back in the kitchen, Hikari shook her head and sighed. "I remember when we used to eat breakfast together all the time."

Aida grinned from his place at the dining table. "What's wrong with just the two of us?" one would've expected him to help his wife cook, since he wasn't doing anything else, but he couldn't even if he wanted to. Hikari had forbade him from so much as boiling water after he nearly burned the house to the ground trying to make her a birthday dinner.

"Nothing, it's just...Now I know how my mother felt when I got my first job. The nest is getting to be too small for my baby." Hikari smiled sadly.

"I wouldn't say that. She may be a legal adult, but I think the last thing on her mind is finding her own place and striking out on her own. She's still our girl, just not our little girl." a second later, there was a knock at the front door. "Hm, must be Sasuke."

As Aida got up to answer the door, Hikari frowned at the mention of the Uchiha boy. Her daughter being on the same team as that monster in human skin was bad enough, and the Uchiha was just insult added to injury. Everyone knew about what Sasuke had been through, but Hikari had called in some favors to get his not-so-public records to see exactly what kind of affect the incident had on him. And she didn't like what she saw.

Hundreds of therapy sessions and psych evaluations, the results of which were mostly swept under the rug. PTSD, severe anger issues, a predilection towards violent behavior and a myriad of other confirmed and suspected problems, including the beginnings of psychosis, megalomania and antisocial personality disorder. The boy was a ticking time bomb, and being on a team with him put Sakura in danger of being right beside him when he finally went off. Hikari did her best to have Sakura reassigned, but as a civilian she just didn't have enough pull on the ninja side of things.

However, from what Hikari had personally seen and what Sakura told them about, Sasuke's mental condition had improved dramatically. But Hikari still didn't trust him, and neither did her husband. Unfortunately, Sakura wouldn't listen to either of them and was too infatuated to see what was staring her right in the face.(6)

Of course, they never gave Sasuke himself the slightest hint of their true opinions about him. So when Aida opened the door, he put on his best "salesman's smile".

"Ah, good morning, Sa...?" the man's greeting died in his throat when he saw that Sasuke wasn't alone this time. "Um...Hinata-san?" what was she doing here? With the Uchiha, of all people?

"Good morning, Mr. Haruno." Hinata bowed politely.

Aida was momentarily struck silent by the sight before him. He hadn't seen Hinata in over a year, ever since a sleepover Sakura had with her other female classmates. But that girl and this one appeared to be two very different people. For one, this girl carried herself with pride and confidence, but with a notable lack of the aristocratic arrogance associated with a typical Hyūga. This one also wore much darker colors, with her current outfit, a very simple long-sleeved shirt and pants, being a dark navy blue, matching her sandals. At least she had finally ditched that coat of hers. How she could tolerate that thing in Konoha's subtropical climate was beyond him.(7)

"Hello, Mr. Haruno." Sasuke nodded to the man. "Is Sakura still here?"

"She is. She overslept, I hope it isn't too much of a problem." Aida answered.

"Doubt it. We're going through a...weird phase as a team. Our sensei seems more interested in making us all friends instead of actually doing anything, so there's really nothing for us to be late for." Sasuke shrugged.

"I see...I'm sorry, it's not that it isn't good to see you again, Hinata-san, but what are you doing here? Are you and Sasuke-san...you know...?"

"Oh, God, no!" Hinata recoiled as if struck. "Ah, no offense, Uchiha-san."

"None taken." Sasuke took it in stride, unknowingly impressing Aida.

"We aren't dating or anything, I just went a bit overboard with training last night and ended up staying with my sensei. I left with him, since my team's training ground is in the same general area as Team Seven's." Hinata explained.

"'Him'? I thought your sensei was a woman, Yūhi Kurenai, right?" Aida questioned.

"'Officially', maybe." the answer didn't come from either of the Genin standing in front of the door, but rather from someone standing out of view off to the side.

A sudden, inexplicable sense of dread came over the man as he poked his head out to peek around the corner. That dread became outright fear when saw, leaning against the outer wall of his home, a hooded individual clad in solid black from head to toe. This was Naruto, and Sakura's descriptions of him were dead-on, right down to the fact that his mere presence inspired a deep, instinctive kind of terror. Like staring down a shark and knowing you had just dropped several notches on the food chain.

"I would introduce myself, but I think you know who I am." the newcomer drawled.

"Na-Namizake-san, r-right?" Aida tried to smile, even as he was starting to sweat. On reflex he extended his hand for a shake, just as he had done the first time he met Sasuke, and his breath hitched. That was just about the last thing he wanted to do, the last thing he had any right to do, but he couldn't just pull it back. Not until the gesture was rejected, anyway.

Naruto looked at the hand, noting it was visibly trembling, then back up to its owner. Then, surprising all present, he shook it. And didn't even take the opportunity to make the man squirm in pain from the pressure of his grip.

"Namikaze, Mr. Haruno." Naruto pulled his hand away and gave a light grunt when found his palm wet.

"I, uh...S-Sorry..." Aida stammered as he hastily wiped his hands off on his pants. "I'll go and, uh, tell Sakura that you're here!"

"If it's not too much trouble." Naruto said dryly, wiping his own hand off on his jacket. When the man closed the door, Naruto noticed the looks his two cohorts were giving him. "What? I played nice."

"Keyword: played." Sasuke replied. "Freaked me out and I was just watching."

On the other side of the door, Aida hadn't yet moved. He was still trying to gather himself so he didn't go to his daughter looking like he'd just woken up from a nightmare.

'Kami...Is that who Sakura has to deal with all day?!' Aida though, then froze as another thought crossed his mind. Was that who his wife had been antagonizing all these years?

"Honey, breakfast is ready." Hikari called, poking her head out of the kitchen. Her brow furrowed when her husband nearly jumped out of his skin and whirled around, looking for all the world like a frightened rabbit. "Is something wrong?"

"No, no, nothing at all!" Aida answered, his voice far more pitchy than he would've liked.

"Uh-huh..." Hikari deadpanned as she fully exited the kitchen. "Was that Sasuke?"

"Who? Oh! Yes, yes it was." Aida could feel the sweat dripping down his nose.

"...And you closed the door in his face?" sure, the pinkette wasn't the Uchiha's biggest fan, by a long shot, but she'd never be so rude to him. Unless he did something to deserve it, of course.

"Uhh..." he hadn't even thought about that; he just wanted to put something in between him and Naruto.

"What's wrong with you?" Hikari demanded. Aida couldn't keep a secret from her, and he knew better than to even try.

"Sasuke, he...He wasn't alone this time."

"That's even worse!" Hikari pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a grumbling sigh. "Who was he with? Please don't tell me it was Sakura's sensei."

"I wish."

"...It's Him, isn't it?" Hikari all but snarled. That thing dared to show its face around her home?!

"Don't!" quick as a blink, Aida grabbed his wife's wrist as she went to rip the door open. "Just...Just don't."

"You think I'm going to let that animal get away with-"

"Get away with what? Walking on the street? Being in our neighborhood with his teammate? What, exactly, would you say to him? The Sandaime's law applies to you as well, Council seat be damned." Aida whispered harshly, understandably terrified at the thought of what would happen if he allowed Hikari to open that door. One slip of the tongue and her life was forfeit.

"..."

"Please, don't fight me on this." Aida pleaded. "If not for me, then for our daughter. If you make him mad, who do you think he's going to take it out on?" he didn't really think the boy would do that, but he knew that it would get through to his wife.

Hikari's eyes widened and she finally stopped fighting her husband's grip. He was right. Letting her daughter go out with her team was like handing her over to the demon on a silver platter. The last thing she wanted to do was give it a motive when it already had opportunity. No, she would have to play nice, but she couldn't when that beast was involved. It was best to just walk away, which is exactly what she did without a word.

Aida released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding when his wife stormed off. Crisis averted. But for how long? He couldn't shake the feeling that Naruto hadn't come here on a simple whim, and that this was just the beginning.

(Training Ground Twelve, 1:00pm)

"Oof!" came Kiba's pained grunt as his back hit the ground. Hard.

"Oh, God!" Hinata squeaked, backing away from him with her hands over her mouth. "I'm so sorry! Are...Are you alright?"

"Yeah...Just fine..." Kiba lied as he slowly sat up. His head was throbbing, his vision was blurred and he felt like he needed a chiropractor ASAP. "Have I told you that you're a lot stronger than you look?"

"I believe that's the third time you've said it today." Shino commented from the sidelines, patiently awaiting his chance to spar with the winner, which was apparently Hinata.

"Well here's number four: You're a lot stronger than you look." Kiba winced as he got to his feet, unable to stand to his full height at the moment.

"I'm really, really sorry, Kiba-kun, I...I didn't mean to do that." it was true, the throw that she had just performed on Kiba was out of pure instinct; her body reacted before she was even able to consciously process what was going on.

Hinata's attention had been on her team's sensei, Kurenai Yūhi, whose own attention didn't appear to be on them. She looked troubled, and as Hinata contemplated what the red-eyed woman could be upset about, Kiba had taken the opportunity to go for a sneak attack from behind.

Unfortunately for him, Hinata's senses were far sharper than before, hearing and smell in particular rivaling those of the Inuzuka himself. Not only could she hear his footsteps and his breathing, but he had been upwind, so she could even smell him. He may have been keeping his promise to take baths regularly, but the scented anti-perspirant he used, though nice, betrayed him.

When he'd gotten close enough, Hinata's body kicked into action. She'd spun around so fast that Kiba barely registered the movement. As she did this, she had grabbed his right arm with her left hand, completed the rotation, leaned her upper body to the left, hooked her right arm under his left armpit and around his torso, used his own momentum to flip him over her hip, and slammed him into the ground in front of her.

It had all happened so fast, Shino had almost missed it when he blinked. Kurenai had only caught it by chance, as she'd been going back and forth between watching the sparring match and her own thoughts.

But they had seen it, and the exact same thought went through both of their minds: that was NOT a move from the Gentle Fist Taijutsu style.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Hinata pressed, noticing her friend's pained expression and slouched posture.

"Of course! It'll take more than that to keep me down!" Kiba boasted with a laugh, which nearly turned into a yelp when he tried to straighten up.

"You don't look alright..." Hinata said, her eyes narrowing slightly as they bored into Kiba's own.

"I must agree with Hinata's assessment, Kiba. Judging from the estimated amount of force you hit the ground with, it is highly possible that you have suffered a minor concussion." Shino tilted his head forward slightly, sunlight shining briefly across the lenses of his sunglasses. "Furthermore, your posture, strained voice, facial twitches and false bravado lead me to conclude that your back is in terrible pain. That being the case, you are most certainly not alright."

Kiba wanted to refute his teammate's "diagnosis", but he couldn't. Not when his head was pounding and he felt like someone was stabbing him in the back with a kunai. A kunai that had spent a minute or two inside a furnace.

"Kiba, how many fingers am I holding up?" Kurenai asked as she walked up to her students.

"Three." Kiba answered.

He'd gotten it right, but he had taken nearly two full seconds to answer. That was too long for a civilian, let alone a ninja.

"Right. Hinata, Shino, make sure he gets checked out by a doctor." Kurenai ordered.

"Sensei, aren't you coming?" Hinata asked, hoping for a chance to talk to the woman. She had helped the Hyūga' heiress through many difficult times, and Hinata was eager to at least try and return the favor.

"No, I...I've got some things to take care of." Konoha's resident "Ice Queen" declined.

"Oh, well...okay." Hinata tried not to let her sadness show, but failed miserably.

"Hinata...That throw you used on Kiba, it's not a part of your clan's Taijutsu, is it?" she already knew the answer, but Kurenai wanted to hear it the Hyūga's mouth.

"No, it's something that Naruto-sa-ensei taught me." Hinata gave a mental sigh of relief when she managed to catch her little slip-up in time.

"I see." Kurenai did her best to keep a scowl off her face. "Dismissed." and without another word, the rookie Jōnin vanished in a swirl of leaves, leaving behind three thoroughly confused Genin.

"Huh...I think we just got snubbed, guys." Kiba remarked somewhat bitterly.

"It would appear so." Shino remarked, staring at the spot their sensei had just vacated. "The question is: for what?"

"Eh, doesn't much matter to me." Kiba said with a shrug, wincing as even that simply action caused a spike of pain to shoot through his spine. "Either it's not important enough for her to tell us, or it's just plain none of our business."

Contrary to popular belief, Kiba was far from ignorant when to came to females. Growing up in a predominately female household, he figured out how to read the signs at an early age. With a single sniff, he could tell if a female was stressed, sad or flat-out angry. With a single glance, he could evaluate their body language and tell just how far-gone into a certain emotion they were.

And from what he picked up from his sensei, Kiba could confidently say that he wanted nothing to do with whatever was going on with her. He knew that he most likely wouldn't be able to help, and would probably get in trouble if he tried.

"That's kind of heartless, Kiba-kun..." Hinata said, idly scratching Akamaru's head. She didn't remember ever picking him up.

"Hey, I'm just being realistic." Kiba shrugged again, then let out a sharp yelp immediately afterward. "Okay, I think I'm ready for that doctor now."

"Then let's go." Shino said, then turned on his heel and began walking towards Konoha General Hospital.

"Hey, a little help here?" Kiba huffed. Just standing up hurt like hell, and he wasn't about to even attempt to walk the nearly two miles to the hospital, "tough-guy" status be damned.

"What would you have me do?" Shino asked as he stopped walking. "You've already said that you don't want me to touch you outside of training or missions." he resumed his trek without another word.

"...He's still sore about that?" Kiba whispered to Hinata.

"Well, you did call him creepy, so..." Hinata trailed off, slightly ashamed of herself for not sticking up for Shino during that "incident".

"I didn't call HIM creepy; I said his bugs were!"

"Same difference, as far as he's concerned." if it was one thing Hinata had learned about Shino, and the Aburame in general, it was that they took insults towards any type of insect personally. Especially the chakra-eating beetles housed within their bodies. "If someone insulted Akamaru, wouldn't you take personal offense to it yourself?" both Hinata and the white-furred puppy looked at Kiba, awaiting his response.

"Well, yeah, but..."

"No 'buts', it's the exact same thing." Hinata said sternly.

"Uh...sorry?" Kiba ventured, going with the standard response when faced with a miffed female and lacking anything else to say.

"For what? You haven't done anything to me." Hinata replied, setting Akamaru down. "Shino-kun's the one who should apologize to."

Akamaru have a bark of agreement before jumping up into his master/partner's jacket for a nap.

'Just whose side are you on?!' Kiba thought with a frown, but didn't say anything on the matter. It's not like he could, either; the pup had most likely picked up the habit of agreeing with whatever a female said from his master.

"Now, do you still need some help walking, or does the 'no touching' rule apply to me, as well?" Hinata teased.

"Oh no, you can touch me anytime you want." Kiba said, using his best "lady-killer" smile.

"..."

"Sorry..."

(Hokage Tower, 1:10pm)

Kurenai sighed softly for the umpteenth time in the last couple minutes. She felt horrible for blowing her students off like she had, but she felt she had done what she had to do. They didn't need to see her like this. The Genjutsu Mistress knew that her Genin squad had noticed her strange behavior today, but this was a side of her that she could never let them view.

She was a Jōnin Sensei, dammit! A pillar of strength! A vision of the poise and power her students should strive for! That's what they needed to make it in the cruel and unforgiving world of ninjas. Not a moping, melancholy woman, lamenting past failures and missed opportunities like some old hag. She would only be doing them all a disservice by guiding them in such a sorry state.

'But...aren't I doing them a disservice already?' there it was. That dark thought which had been running rampant through her mind all day.

It appeared in countless variations, but always as a question, leaving seeds of self-doubt in its wake every time.

Why did she volunteer to become a Jōnin Sensei? She'd been a Jōnin for less than two years when she made her decision.

Why had she been chosen by the Hokage, out of all the other volunteers? She had absolutely no experience in teaching.

Why had she been given the heirs to the Hyūga', Inuzuka and Aburame clans? All three of them could get by just fine without having even a single Genjutsu in their arsenal, as the rest of their families had for generations. And as a team of trackers, they would've been far better off with the likes of Kakashi or even Anko; people who were accomplished trackers themselves.

What had they learned from her? Hinata and Shino had already been well-versed in the basics thanks to their clan training, and had helped Kiba with the water walking exercises more than Kurenai herself. Beyond that, there really wasn't much she could teach them in the first place. Though she would never admit it, Naruto was right about her limited capabilities for someone of Jōnin rank. She had no business teaching anyone Taijutsu, her arsenal of Ninjutsu left a bit be desired, and the only weapons she could handle expertly were standard ninja tools such as kunai, senbon and so on.

So why?

As usual, Kurenai's traitorous mind provided the answers she didn't want to hear.

She had volunteered to be a Jōnin Sensei because she was ambitious and felt she had something to prove. Taking on students was serious business, and doing it successfully could open up a lot of doors. Her quest to prove her worth was further fueled by the fact that she'd already had one student, a potential apprentice, not work out. Selfish reasons, no matter how you looked at it.

She had been chosen by the Sandaime Hokage because he took a liking to her heart and determination, as well as her compassion and discipline. He hoped she would instill those same qualities in her students. He had mistaken her self-serving desires for a drive to do her duty to the village and usher in the next generation of warriors and protectors. And she let him think that. She let them all think that.

She didn't know why she had been given the heirs to such prominent clans, but she had her theories. Perhaps it was because she was a woman; a natural nurturer and caregiver. Maybe the Clanheads felt that their children would be safer with her, even if they learned little from her. Or, less plausibly, they wanted their kids to learn Genjutsu to make themselves more well-rounded ninjas, as well as plant the seeds for future Genjutsu-users within the clans. Kurenai highly doubted that possibility. Hiashi Hyūga', as well as the Hyūga' Elders, abhorred Genjutsu, for one reason or another. Tsume Inuzuka just wasn't the type for "fancy illusions"; she would rather get up close and personal with her opponents, and tear them to shreds. And Shibi Aburame...Well, Kurenai wasn't exactly sure why the Aburame didn't make use Genjutsu; with their love of mind games and deception, it seemed to be right up their alley.

As for what her students had actually learned...Teamwork. That was one thing Kurenai could always look back on with pride. She had taught them the true value of comrades, both in and out of battle and missions. If that was the only thing they ever learned from her, then at least she would have left her mark on them. Which was more than she could say she'd done for her previous student.

"Yakumo..." Kurenai murmured to herself as she walked through the surprisingly empty halls or the Hokage Tower, on her way to the Sandaime's office.

Her former student was the reason for her bouts of depression and feelings of inadequacy. More accurately, what she had overheard concerning her former student just yesterday.

(Flashback)

"Hmm...My outfit seems a bit more...snug than I remember. Perhaps I should think about going on a diet...I have been eating more junk food lately." Kurenai mumbled to herself as she walked down the main road joining Konoha's shopping district with the residential area most ninjas lived in. 'Listen to me; I sound like that Yamanaka girl that Asu-kun's stuck with!'

It was just after eight o'clock and the streets were all but packed with people either going home from work, or heading out for a night on the town. Kurenai herself was one of the former, on her way to her apartment with a bag full of groceries. It had been a while since she'd had a good home-cooked meal, and she really had been eating a disproportionate amount of what she labeled as "junk food".

Speaking of junk food, Kurenai actually had to force herself to keep walking when a certain smell drifted into her nostrils. However, she did slow down considerably, and her eyes involuntarily darted up and to her right, locking onto the segmented banner hanging above the entrance. Ichiraku's Ramen. Oh, sweet Kami...

'No...No! This is exactly what I'm talking about!' Kurenai's mind raged as she tried to kick her body into gear. 'I don't care how delicious it is; it's bad for you! It clogs your arteries, slows you down and goes straight to your hips! I like my hips just the way they are! So move it, damn you!'

"Say, did you hear about what happened to the Hokage Tower?" Kurenai stopped struggling with her uncooperative body as her attention was drawn to the ramen stand for a completely different reason.

"Yeah, Toshio told me. Said the roof spontaneously combusted, or something." came a second male voice.

Now Kurenai's interest was truly piqued. She hadn't heard anything about a fire at the tower. Silently moving closer to the stand, she tried to get a look at who was talking. Unfortunately, the banner was blocking her view of their faces, and the flak jackets told her nothing.

"No, that wasn't it." came a the voice of a third male ninja. "The tower was struck by lightning."

The other two started to laugh, and even Kurenai found herself suppressing a giggle.

"I heard that it happened in the afternoon; that's kinda early to be getting hammered, don'cha think?" shinobi number one chuckled.

"You can laugh all you want; I know what I saw." shinobi number three grumbled. "But that's not even the weird part."

"Oh? The Hokage Tower getting set on fire by a lightning bolt in the middle of a sunny, cloudless day ISN'T the weird part? Okay, this I gotta hear." shinobi number two laughed.

"Whatever." shinobi number three snorted before starting his story. "So, I'm walking along, minding my own business, up around that big hill near the tower."

"The one where those calendar photos are taken, right?"

"Yeah, that's it. Anyway, I got nothing to do, so I figure I'll go up to the hilltop and take a nap under a tree, or something. But, when I get up there, I see I'm not alone. There's this girl, a civilian, painting something. I said 'hello', but she acted like I wasn't even there. Kinda like my ex-girlfriend; once she got into that zone it was like nothing else existed. Needless to say, I was curious about what she was so focused on, so I walked up to look over her shoulder. It was a damn-near photo-realistic painting of the entire business district, with the tower dead center. But there was something off about it...Even though there wasn't a cloud in the sky, the painting made it look like the storm of the century! I wanted to say something, but just a few seconds later, the sky clouded over, just like in the painting." the ninja paused.

"Dude...are you shaking?" one of the other ninjas asked.

"You're damn right I am! And you would be, too, if you had been there. If you had seen the look on that girl's face when she did...whatever the hell it was that she did. All I know is that she loaded one of her brushes up with white paint and just...slashed in this huge line, going from the clouds, straight to the tower in the painting. Not even a second later, the biggest lightning bolt I've ever seen came down and lit the tower up like a damn roman candle! Of course, I'm all 'Holy Shit!', not believing what I just saw. But the proof was in the pudding; the fucking tower was on fire! I looked back at her, and she's smiling like someone just handed her a free puppy. But it was her eyes that really creeped me out. I've seen eyes like that before...when I used to work as a guard at the prison. That girl wasn't playing with a full deck, you know what I mean?"

"...You sure you weren't drinking?" one of the ninjas asked, causing the other to let out a barking laugh.

"Hey, fuck you, Daisuke!" the storyteller growled and slammed his hands down on the counter. "I wasn't drunk, I wasn't high, I wasn't poisoned and I wasn't hit on the head! I know what I saw, and I saw a civilian teenager conjure up a fucking thunderstorm, with a fucking painting!"

"Okay, okay, just calm down, Kentaro." the one identified as 'Daisuke' placated.

"Can you blame us for being a little skeptical? You gotta admit that's kinda...out there."

"And when's the last time I lied to you or made shit up, Seta? When I told you I saw Mizuki run off with the Forbidden Scroll, it was true. When I told you I saw Haruno Hikari scare off a giant bear just by screaming at it, it was true. When I told you I saw the Hokage reading Icha-Icha Paradise, it was true. So when I tell you that a little girl used a painting to set the Hokage Tower on fire, it's true!" Kentaro let out an exhausted groan.

"...So, what happened to her? The girl, I mean." Seta asked, a noticeable tremor in his voice.

"...After seeing what I saw, and knowing that she was responsible for it, I was going to detain her and bring her in for questioning. But before I could do anything, two Medic-nin showed up. She tried to run when she saw them, but one of them injected something into the side of her neck and she went down. I was about to ask what was going on, then an ANBU just appeared right in front of me and gave me the 'you didn't see anything' routine. He took the painting and left with the medics and the girl, didn't even spare a glance at the tower."

There was a whistle before Daisuke spoke, "Damn. Must be something heavy if the ANBU are involved."

Kurenai didn't hear the rest of the conversation. She didn't need to.

(End Flashback)

"-nai-san...Kurenai-san!" the red-eyed woman was jolted from her memories by the voice of the Hokage's secretary.

"Sorry, Mihoshi-san." Kurenai apologized with a small bow.

"No need for that, you just had me worried. Are you alright?"

"I've been a little...distracted as of late. In fact, that's actually why I'm here. Is the Hokage available?"

"He is, since all of his appointments have been cancelled due to the fire." Mihoshi giggled into her hand. "Well, actually it's because of the ones who tried to put it out. Turns out Hokage-sama had the windows open, so the water got in and drenched most of his papers. They're still being rewritten." those same shinobi had been given extra pay, equivalent to an S-Class mission, for their "heroism", but Mihoshi had been instructed not to mention that. She then pressed the button on the intercom on her desk. "Hokage-sama, Yuhi Kurenai is here to see you."

"By all means, send her in." came the Hokage's typically friendly reply.

"Go right ahead." Mihoshi chirped with a smile. "I hope you have a wonderful day!"

"...I don't think that's in the cards, but thanks anyway." Kurenai said as she walked up to the door to the Hokage's office, steeled her resolve and opened it.

"Huh...And here I was, thinking she was one of the more straight-forward ones." Mihoshi mumbled before returning to her work. Really, why did so many ninjas feel the need to be cryptic and ominous all the time?

(Ichiraku's Ramen, 1:30pm)

"I still don't know why you didn't let them treat you, Kiba-kun." Hinata said with a disapproving frown as she and her team waited for their food.

The Inuzuka waved off her concern. "They treated me just fine. See?" to prove his point, Kiba rotated his upper body left and right, showing he had full range of movement with no pain.

"I believe Hinata-san was referring to Medical Ninjutsu." Shino said. "You wouldn't let them do a second diagnostic."

"They didn't need to." Kiba replied somewhat defensively. He despised hospitals. That horrid, artificial stench of sterility; it was like someone had used countless gallons of bleach to clean up a crime scene. If he didn't have to be there, he wasn't going to be there. So once the pain stopped, Kiba was gone before the nurses or his teammates could get a word in.

"I wasn't aware you were qualified to make your own prognoses." Shino remarked. "Looks like you have competition for the position of team medic, Hinata-san."

Kiba stared at the Aburame heir in confusion and surprise. Was that...sarcasm? Since when did Shino do sarcasm?

'Probably when he's mad at the person he's talkin' to...' the Inuzuka thought, then Hinata caught his eye. She was giving him "The Look". A bit on the amateurish side compared to his mother, but there was no mistaking it. "Look, Shino...I'm sorry about what I said, okay? I wasn't thinkin'. When you used those bugs on me...The feeling, the sound, it freaked me out. I didn't mean to say it; it just sorta came out."

"...So you're apologizing for telling me how you really felt, as opposed to lying to spare my feelings."

"Now you're just bein' an ass." Kiba snorted. Being all but forced to apologize was bad enough, and he wasn't about to have his apology twisted and turned back on him. "Hinata told me to look at things from your point of view, and I did. Now I need you to look at it from MY point of view. Knowin' you've got bugs crawlin' around under your skin is one thing. I'm not afraid of bugs or anythin'. But being swarmed by 'em and picked up like a friggin' poodle, with no warning whatsoever? I'm sorry for offendin' you, but I think my reaction was justified."

Hinata hung her head and sighed in resignation. Only Kiba could turn an apology into an argument in less than a minute.

Fortunately, Shino quickly concluded that Kiba was right and that he shared just as much of the blame. Shino hadn't given a single thought to how Kiba would feel, since the bugs didn't seem to bother him very much during their sparring matches. But the incident hadn't taken place during a combat situation, nor had Kiba been informed of/expecting what Shino was going to do. And after the fact, Shino allowed his emotions to blind him to what should've been obvious. He was used to "outsiders" seeing his clan's abilities as creepy, or even downright horrifying, but he, like all the others, shrugged it off. Their opinions didn't matter and the clan's track record spoke for itself. But words like that from the mouth of a close friend? That pierced right through to the heart.

"You're right, Kiba-san. I made an assumption and acted irrationally when it proved to be wrong." Shino admitted.

"I'll accept your apology if you accept mine." receiving a nod, Kiba grinned and held his left fist out towards the other boy. "Are we cool?"

"Yes, I believe so." Shino extended his own fist, almost hesitantly, and bumped knuckles with the Inuzuka heir. Though his poker face remained intact, on the inside Shino's heart leapt into his throat. While he had embraced being an outcast like the rest of his clan, he couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to just be "one of the guys". If this was it, he most certainly could get used to the feeling.

For her part, Hinata blinked several times in rapid succession, as if unable to comprehend what she had just seen. Then again, when was the last time anyone in her life had admitted they were wrong or took any percentage of blame unto themselves? No, it was always her fault, and hers alone.

Once again, Hinata hung her head, this time in shame. She should've been happy that her teammates and friends had resolved their differences, but instead she felt bitter about how easily they'd done it.

"Oh, Hina-chan, I forgot to tell you!" Hinata nearly jumped out of her seat when Ayame seemingly appeared out of thin air right in front of her on the other side of the counter, with a near-radioactive grin on her face. "Naru-chan stopped by yesterday!"

"Who are you..." Hinata trailed off when she remembered what Ayame used to call Naruto back in the day. "Really? Naruto was actually here?" she just barely suppressed a groan. Of course that's how it would work out. When she had a plan to jog his memory by meeting up at their old stomping ground, it was like he made a conscious effort to avoid the place. But AFTER they reconnect, under far less ideal circumstances, he shows up and she's not even around.

"...'Naru-chan'?!" Kiba guffawed. "Oh, Kami, she...she called him...Naru-chan! I can't breathe!"

Hinata stared at Kiba with a completely flat expression, then looked over her shoulder, out towards the street.

"Please don't hurt him too bad, Naruto-kun." she said in a pleading voice.

"Gah!" Kiba yelped as he whirled around, falling off of his stool in the process. However, instead of an angry Naruto bearing down on him, he saw...nothing. Just people walking by in the street, minding their own business. "...That wasn't funny."

"Agree to disagree." Shino said, prompting another round of giggles from Hinata, and a withering look from Kiba.

"Did Naruto-kun talk to you about anything?" the Hyūga heiress asked.

"Nothing, really." Ayame shrugged. "He was here with his team and I don't think he trusted them very much."

"There are very few people he does trust."

"Are you one of them?" Ayame asked with a suggestive wiggle of her eyebrows.

"Yes." Hinata replied without hesitation, and only the lightest of blushes. She knew exactly what Ayame was implying, and she did have a guaranteed date with him. But beyond that, Hinata was privy to things that a select few people knew about. People in Naruto's "inner circle". He trusted her with his secrets, and she was immeasurably proud of that.

"Aww, so I suppose that means you wouldn't entertain the idea of, ahem, sharing?" Ayame's inquiry was met with silence, to which she just grinned cheekily.(8)

Meanwhile, Kiba stewed in silent anger at the turn the girls' conversation had taken. Just how in the blue hell did freakin' NARUTO, of all creepy-ass people, have girls falling for him left and right?! Hinata, the hottie in the leather outfit, and now even the cute ramen girl! It just wasn't fair!

'It has to be that "mysterious bad boy" thing, just like with that asshole Uchiha.' Kiba reasoned.

He would admit that he could be a bit of a pig sometimes, or, more fittingly, a dog. But at least he had some personality, was easy on the eyes and knew how to have a good time. Naruto? If he didn't ignore girls, he probably threatened to kill them if they so much as waved at him. And what kind of Genin walked around wearing a mask twenty-four/seven? Someone who took himself way too seriously, or was one ugly sumbitch. Kiba was putting his money on both.

"I believe females are attracted to the 'mystique' surrounding Naruto-san." Shino supplied, as if reading Kiba's thoughts. Which actually wasn't hard to do for someone skilled in deciphering facial expressions and body language.

"Then why aren't you beatin' girls off with a stick yourself?" Kiba grumbled.

"How do you know I'm not?"

"..." it was impossible to tell if the Aburame boy was serious or not, so Kiba smartly chose to drop the topic before he set himself up to be the butt of a joke, or learned something he probably didn't want to know.

"I was hoping I'd find you all here." all three Genin turned at the sound of their sensei's voice.

"Kurenai-sensei..." a sudden feeling of dread welled up in the pit of Hinata's stomach as soon as she laid eyes on the red-eyed woman. A quick glance at Kiba and Shino told her that they were suspicious as well.

"Mind if I join you? My treat." Kurenai offered with a small, disarming smile.

It worked.

"Well, we already ordered, but how can we say no to free lunch?" Kiba replied with a smile of his own.

As Kurenai took a seat on the stool next to Hinata's, the girl still couldn't shake the feeling in her gut. Something was wrong about this whole situation, she was sure of it...Just not sure enough to speak her mind about it.

By the time the others had finished their bowls fifteen minutes later, Hinata's confidence hadn't grown any, but that horrible sensation had. To the point where she had just barely managed to choke down her ramen, and it was taking every ounce of willpower to keep it down.

"So, what's the bad news, sensei?" Kiba asked, narrowing his eyes at the woman in a blatantly accusatory look.

"What?" Kurenai blinked.

"What's the bad news?" Kiba repeated. "How many times have you lectured me about eatin' unhealthy food? How many times have you preached the values of proper nutrition to me? And now you not only sat there and watched me down two bowls of 'junk food' without a word, but you paid for it and even ate some yourself. I know an attempt to soften a blow when I see it." his mother had bought him a brand new gaming system just a day before she told him the real reason his father had left. He still cried for hours upon learning that his dad was a flat out pussy who ran away from his family and responsibilities, but the games helped ease the pain.

"I must agree with Kiba-san's assessment." Shino said with a nod. "The behavior you've exhibited over the past twenty minutes is very out of character for you, and the logical conclusion is that there is an ulterior motive." at first, the Aburame thought their sensei was simply trying to make up for not only her hasty departure, but the almost complete lack of participation in today's training. She had been little more than a silent spectator, and a distracted one at that. It was actually somewhat insulting.

But Kiba's theory made so much more sense, given what Shino had gleaned of Kurenai's true persona since Team Eight had been active.

"And since I doubt you're tryin' to butter us up to ask some kind of favor, I can only think that you've come here to tell us somethin' that we're not gonna like."

Hinata's eyes widened in realization. Why hadn't she seen it herself?...Because she didn't want to see it. Kurenai was just about the closest thing she had to a mother right now, and she just couldn't bear to think ill of her at all. But now she had no choice. Kurenai was up to something, and had likely chosen to meet them at Ichiraku's, a public setting, to lessen the chances of them making a scene once she dropped whatever bomb she was carrying.

She could feel a tickle in the back of her throat as her stomach churned and growled.

It only got worse when Kurenai gave a small chortle and shook her head. "A Jōnin, caught in the act by her own students...Just reaffirms I've made the right decision."

"What 'decision'?" Kiba asked/demanded, getting a little antsy himself.

"The decision to step down as the Jōnin Sensei of Team Eight." the expected protests didn't come immediately, as the Genin were shocked into silence, so Kurenai took the opportunity to continue. "I've recently been made to realize that I'm not fit for duty as your sensei, and continuing to act as such would only be detrimental to your growth as ninjas. The Hokage has already approved my resignation, and it is effective immediately. I'm sorry, but this is for the best."

"So that's it? You're just gonna wash your hands and walk away?" Kiba growled, his fist clenched so hard that his sharp nails cut into his palm, drawing blood and causing Akamaru to whimper at his side.

"Would you rather I stay on as an ineffective teacher and hold you all back from reaching your full potential?" Kurenai countered.

"Who will be taking your place?" Shino asked, his tone, as usual, betraying nothing. But the low buzzing of the bugs inside him gave away his displeasure.

"I have no say in that, but I'm sure, whoever it is, will be better than me." while a resigning Jōnin Sensei had the right to choose their own successor, Kurenai didn't know anyone well enough to trust them with her former students.

Actually, when she really gave it some thought, she found that she didn't know anyone. She had no friends, not even so much as a drinking buddy or two. She had spent most of her life focused on her career and never made time for socializing. In fact, if she was honest, she probably had more enemies than anything even resembling a friend. People she had used for her own purposes and thrown away, or otherwise slighted in her dogged pursuit of rank and recognition.

"And what if we don't WANT 'better'?" Kiba asked, struggling to rein in his temper.

"Then you should probably think about resigning as well. If you don't want better for yourself, then there's no point in even being a ninja." Kurenai answered with a level of effortless callousness that momentarily rendered the Genin mute again. "You're a good team, strong individuality and able to work together flawlessly. Jōnin will be lining up around the block for the privilege of teaching you." it was Thursday, and Kurenai was confident there would be two-dozen Jōnin Sensei applicants by Saturday, once word got out that a well-trained team of prominent clan heirs was up for grabs.

"B-But...But you're our sensei..." Hinata finally managed to speak, though it was more her involuntarily speaking her thoughts.

"Which means it's my responsibility to do what's best for you, and if that means getting out of your way so you can reach your full potential, that's what I will do. This may seem outrageous to you, but ninjas make hard decisions like this every day. Decisions that put their personal feelings and desires aside for the sake of the greater good."

"Yeah, because this is real difficult for you." Kiba scoffed. "Are you even listenin' to yourself? It's like you're readin' from cue cards! If you're gonna drop us like this, at least be fuckin' honest about it instead of givin' us a bunch of bullshit!"

"If that's how you feel, I'm sorry. But I have been nothing but honest with you." technically, it was true, as she wasn't really lying, just withholding some information. That didn't satisfy that nagging little voice in the back of her mind, however. "You'll understand, eventually." she set some money down on the counter and stood up. "I don't like this any more than you do, but if I stayed with you, it would amount to sabotage, knowingly hindering your progress. I care too much about you all to do that to you. I hope we can still be friends, but I can't be your sensei. Goodbye." and with that, she was gone, disappearing into the hustle and bustle outside the restaurant.

"Tch, first we get snubbed, then we get dumped." Kiba snorted in disdain. "What a fucked up day."

"Indeed." Shino said as he, too, stood up from his seat. "Excuse me, I have to inform father of these new developments."

"Yeah, I guess I should tell mom about it, too. Say, you wanna go to the Hokage Tower later on, see what's up? We might get a real answer, instead of the 'it's not you, it's me' bullshit." Kiba proposed.

"Three o'clock?"

"Sounds good." the two boys then turned to Hinata, who had yet to speak or even move. "Um, Hinata?"

"...Yes...Three...I-I should go...tell father as well..." the girl mumbled in response, then, in a series of stiff, jerky movements, stood and left the stand without another word.

"...The Hyūga place is in the other direction, right?" Kiba asked his remaining teammate as they watched Hinata more or less shamble down the street.

"It is."

"So where's she goin', then?"

"..."

"Right. I dunno what help he could possibly be, but at least he can't make it worse. I hope."

(Hokage Monument - 2:25pm)

Standing atop the stone head of the Sandaime Hokage, Kurenai looked out over the village with a deep frown marring her elegant features. She hated what she had done to her students...her former students. The look on Hinata's face alone after she'd delivered the news broke the Jōnin's heart, and very nearly her resolve as well. Even so, she stood by her decision; she was no longer fit to be their instructor. Not that she had been in the first place, but in her current state she was even more unfit for the job. She was compromised, and had done her duty by taking herself out of the equation before any damage was done. Part of being a ninja was knowing when to swallow your pride and bow out, and she knew what she did was for the best.

But that fact would do little to chase the image of Hinata's utter despair and panic out of her dreams.

Kiba and Shino had reacted as expected, though the former proved to be far more perceptive than she'd given him credit for. Hinata's reaction was as Kurenai had predicted as well, but that didn't make it any easier to shrug off. Kiba and Shino were far more independent, and Kurenai had never really connected with them on a personal level. But Hinata was an entirely different story; the girl might as well have been her stepdaughter.

"...She's a strong girl, moreso now than ever." Kurenai nodded to herself as she took a sip from a can of fruit juice. "This is just another bump in the road. She'll get over it, and be better for it."

"For your sake, you should hope so." Kurenai nearly jumped out of her skin, whirling around and dropping her drink in favor of a kunai.

Naruto took note of the fact that she didn't put the weapon away once she caught sight of him.

"Was that a threat, Namikaze?" Kurenai asked, eyes narrowed.

"Was that a rhetorical question, Yūhi?" Naruto replied, walking past the woman without even sparing her a glance.

Kunai still drawn, Kurenai eyed the boy warily, watching for even the slightest hint of ill intentions. She also noticed, with some curiosity, that he'd modified his outfit since she'd last seen him, and he also appeared to be taller, though she had no idea how he could've grown nearly two inches in just a couple weeks.

"Do you have a problem with me?" Kurenai asked, fed up with the complete lack of respect and outright hostility she endured from the masked Genin every time they met.

"Why ask questions you already know the answer to?"

"Why? What have I ever done to you?" Kurenai was genuinely clueless as to what she had done to draw the boy's ire.

Before she came to be a Jōnin sensei, she'd never even met Naruto, at most walking past him on the street every now and then. His status as a Jinchūriki meant little to her, though she'd be lying if she said she didn't hold a little resentment towards the beast within him for killing her father. But she made the distinction between said beast and its vessel. To her, he was just another citizen of Konoha. She'd never so much as given him a funny look! So what the hell was his deal?!

"Nothing, which is why I've never done anything to you." Naruto answered as he looked out over the village.

Kurenai's scowl deepened at yet another sign of disrespect; he couldn't even extend her the courtesy of looking at who he was speaking to.

"So this is just you being an asshole, then?"

"The fact that you can't figure it out on your own only reinforces my disdain for you." Naruto said, finally looking at her from over his shoulder. "Before today, you and I only had three things in common: being ninjas of Konohagakure, senseis to Hinata, and one other. As it stands now, the second no longer applies, so we have only two things in common. When you figure out what the other one is, I think you'll find your answer. And if not...Well, I'll just be all the more justified in treating you like dirt."

"Just who the hell do you think-"

"Someone who can make you disappear, and get away with it. But this isn't about me; I'm here on Hinata's behalf." Naruto interrupted, smirking behind his mask when he saw a large vein begin to bulge under the skin of her forehead.

"...She asked you to talk to me?" Kurenai blinked in confusion as Naruto's second sentence finally cut through the haze of rage that had begun to settle over her mind.

"On her behalf doesn't necessarily mean at her request. As far as I know, she's still curled up on my couch, crying her eyes out because one of the only people she could rely on has abandoned her, and she thinks it's her fault." while he showed no outward signs of anger, the spike of killing intent conveyed his true feelings better than a raised voice or clenched fist.

"Abandoned? I didn't-" once again, Kurenai was cutoff mid-sentence.

"What you did and your reasons for it don't concern me, Yūhi. I'm here because you didn't bother to explain yourself to your students. You know Hinata better than anyone else. You know what she's been through and how her mind works because of it. You should've known the kind of conclusions she would jump to if you didn't make yourself clear."

"I'm sorry if Hinata feels that way, but my reasons are my own, and I know she would respect that." Kurenai inwardly winced at how callous her words sounded.

"Which is why she didn't track you down herself and ask for an explanation. But that's who she is. Even when it hurts her, she doesn't question or protest; she just waits until everyone leaves and finds a dark corner to cry in. It's been that way for most of her life, and you know what they say about old habits."

"That's not my fault."

"No, but you were the one who was supposed to be helping her out of it. In fact, you were the only one helping her with that particular personal issue. And now you've left her on her own, snatching away a crutch that you gave her in the first place, knowing full well she wasn't ready."

"And what about you? Since you've decided to take on the role of 'sensei', shouldn't you be doing something other than teaching her how to break bones?" Kurenai sniped, not at all appreciating the accusations. Mostly because that rebellious inner voice of hers was agreeing with them.

Naruto scoffed. "You and I both know I am ill-equipped to handle such matters. You know my policy: Someone hurts me, I hurt them back. Sometimes mortally. I don't think that would work with Hinata." he looked at her once again. "In fact, wasn't that your greatest fear? That she would turn out like me? Cold and ruthless, with little, if any, regard for anyone but herself? An evil little Hellion who got off on hearing people scream and beg for mercy?"

Kurenai grimaced. That wasn't just what she was worried about; that was exactly what she had said, word for word, to Asuma during a "kinda-sorta-maybe-not-really-date". She'd thought they had been alone, but apparently that wasn't the case. If Naruto had been listening in then, who knew what other spying he'd done and what else he'd heard. What else he could use against her.

And the worst part was there was nothing illegal about it, unless he tried to blackmail her. There was no law against spying or eavesdropping when it took place in a public area. In fact, it was encouraged, especially when one found a comrade behaving suspiciously or suspected them of a crime. If you were going to say something that you didn't want anyone else to hear, it was up to you to take the steps to ensure what you said remained between you and whomever you intended to say it to.

"I don't have to justify myself to you or anyone else." Kurenai spat. "Only the Hokage has the right to know my reasons, and he already approved my resignation from Team Eight. I won't sit here and be chastised by the likes of you! They may not see it now, but I did my students a favor. I recognized that I was no longer fit to teach them, and I would not allow myself to be responsible for ruining their futures! They don't need to know why."

Naruto didn't respond immediately, instead choosing to regard her silently, with his head cocked slightly to the side. Then he let out a derisive snort, making Kurenai's hands involuntarily clench into fists.

"Very well, then. If you don't feel you owe them anything, I'm not going to press the issue. But I will tell you to stay away from Hinata, unless she comes to you."

"Alright, that's enough. I don't care what kind of hotshot you think you are, I'm your superior and you'd best show some respect!" a second after the words left her mouth, Kurenai suddenly found it difficult to breathe as a wave of killing intent unlike anything she'd ever felt before crashed over her.

She collapsed to her knees as her legs went numb, and she continued to choke and gasp for air. Her fingers groped at the air around her neck, as if trying to find purchase on an invisible arm to pry it off. Her lungs burned as her heart hammered away behind them, desperately trying to pump as much oxygenated blood into her muscles as possible so she could either run or fight, thus making the demand for air that much greater. Her brain began to malfunction, heavily distorting the images her eyes sent to it, causing her to perceive the world as a place where everything was blurred and bent out of shape. The only exception was Naruto, who was in perfect focus and stalking closer with a calm, steady gait. As he moved, everything around him seemed to bend outward even further, as if reality itself was afraid to get too close.

Naruto crouched down to eye-level with her and the killing intent dissipated somewhat, allowing Kurenai to suck in huge gulps of air, which her body wasn't ready for and responded with a coughing fit. Once it subsided, she found her chin being grasped to guide her head up to look Naruto in the eyes, which she swore were smoldering like blue embers from under the unnaturally dark veil of shadow cast by his hood.

"I'll respect you when you show me something worth respecting. Until then, and until you're ready to explain yourself to her, stay away from Hinata. It will be difficult enough to get her past this, and I don't need you ruining her progress any further by showing up and pretending to care." Naruto said, his voice as calm and even as could be. "If she decides to seek answers from you herself, that's her choice. But if she shows up on my doorstep in tears again because of you, our next meeting won't be nearly as pleasant as this one. Asuma-sensei won't like it, but I think he'll get over it when he realizes that you were no great catch. You're on your second strike with me, Yūhi. And when number three rolls around, you won't just be 'out'; you'll be inside out." and with that, Naruto let go of the woman's chin and stood up, then turned on his heel and walked right off the edge of the monument, dropping out of sight.

With his inhuman killing intent gone, Kurenai was free to try and get her trembling body back under control. What the hell was that? What the hell was he?! Was THAT what Kakashi had to deal with on a daily basis?

'Kami above, that man must have balls of steel...' the crass expression immediately conjured thoughts of Anko, which acted as a catalyst, kicking Kurenai's mind into a higher gear and bringing her back to what Naruto had said about why he was so hostile towards her.

Anko was the answer. She was that second thing they had in common; they both knew her on a personal level, and were part of a very short list of people who could make that claim. Well, the past tense applied more to Kurenai than Naruto, as she and Anko had barely spoken in over two years. Considering the Tokubetsu Jōnin's tendency to be somewhat clingy, Kurenai had been surprised when she became so distant literally overnight, but had never given it much thought. Afterall, they'd never really been friends in the first place; Kurenai just let her tag along, if only to have someone to talk to every now and then. And the fact that men seemed a lot less willing to hit on them while they were together was a bonus.

Why did Anko break off so suddenly? One day she'd been celebrating Kurenai's promotion Jōnin, and the next...

'Oh no, the party...' Kurenai's hands went to her face. She'd completely forgotten about that night, due in no small part to the amount of liquor she'd consumed before being escorted home by Asuma.

But now that she thought about it, she remembered saying some admittedly harsh things about Anko. Things that the purple-haired woman had heard. She remembered Anko leaving the bar like a bat out of hell, followed by Mitara Hagashi, a decorated ANBU Captain. Word of the incident must have gotten back to Naruto at some point, most likely from Anko herself.

However, Kurenai still couldn't see what the big deal was. Yes, what she'd said was a bit mean, but she was tipsy! That should've afforded her some leniency, right? And it's not like she said anything untrue...Right?

'Dammit. I'll have to track her down later, but right now I've got to get up to that safehouse.' Kurenai thought. She had to go confront Yakumo before she lost her nerve.

Hopefully, she'd be allowed to see her as a sensei coming to visit a former student, though she had never done so before. If not...she had her ways. It would be difficult, as anyone assigned to watch over her would undoubtedly have a good bit of skill with Genjutsu, but nothing she couldn't overcome. Afterall, the village wouldn't waste a truly talented Illusionist by having them babysit such a low-value target.

(Hokage Tower, 3:05pm)

Just as planned, Kiba and Shino arrived at the tower, ready to get some straight answers. But the third member of their party hadn't shown up yet, and neither could say they were surprised. They both knew how much Kurenai meant to Hinata, and it would take damn well more than an hour for her to get over it, if she ever did. But that didn't mean they were content to stand around and wait for her.

"Should we go get her?" Kiba asked, checking his watch for the tenth time since arriving.

"Logically, no. Because her not being here implies that she isn't ready for this, and forcing her to come along may do more harm than good...But I feel that we shouldn't do it without her. Hinata-san needs closure far more than either of us, and if Hokage-sama is willing to answer our questions, she has to be there to hear it." Shino replied, radiating more of his typical quiet intensity than normal.

"Then let's go get her. You've got one of your tracking bugs on her, right?"

"No need for that." the two boys turned to see Hinata walking towards them with purposeful steps. "I've got a better idea."

Kiba and Shino shared an cautious glance. They had seen this Hinata before, though it was a very recent development. This was the Hinata who emerged when a fire was lit under the girl's ass. Confident, determined, unyielding and a little bit scary, this Hinata had a chip on her shoulder and something to prove. And when she took charge, there were no arguments.

(?, 3:15pm)

Anko took her time wandering through the forest on the Northern outskirts of the village. A far cry from her normal haunt, the Forest of Death in the South, but this was an area she frequented often. Almost every time she got back from a mission, in fact. While most would go straight home pass out on their nice, warm beds after debriefing, Anko had a different way of winding down. The walk to her apartment wasn't exactly a relaxing experience, what with the glares, whispers and blatant insults. No, that wasn't something she wanted to deal with fresh off of a grueling mission.

A nice, calm walk through the woods was perfect. Beyond patrol units, very few people ever came out here, and there was nothing spectacular in terms of wildlife. One could just take in the majestic scenery in peace and quiet. No dangers, no annoyances, no worries.

At least, that's how it usually was. This time, however, Anko was dealing with some troubling thoughts. She'd bumped into Hinata about half an hour ago, just after making her report to the Hokage, and the girl had been a wreck. She was desperate for some kind of support and direction, and had gone to Naruto apparently on instinct. Of course, her problems were out of his range, and the girls were nowhere to be found.

Anko knew she wouldn't fare much better than Naruto on the front of emotional turmoil, but when she heard that Kurenai Yūhi was the cause of it all, anger clouded her judgment. The selfish bitch was at it again, screwing up people's lives without a care in the world.

After what happened at the bar, Anko had taken it upon herself to do some research on Kurenai, with the intent of finding some dirty little secrets to rub in her face. She acted like she was some paradigm of humanity, a model citizen that everyone should look up to. But no one was squeaky clean. No one. Kurenai had humiliated her and drove her self-esteem right into the toilet, without so much as a "sorry" afterward. Anko was determined to return the favor, and found more than enough ammo to do so.

From ex-boyfriends, to mission partners, most everyone who'd spent any significant amount of time with Kurenai had very few good things to say about her. Everything she did was for her own benefit, and she loved to lead people on, letting them think they mattered to her. One man, a Jōnin, said that, as a Chūnin, Kurenai had dated him for the singular purpose of manipulating him into getting her on the list for a high-profile mission. Her teammates for that mission, all Jōnin themselves, said that she was nothing but a glory-hog, taking most of the credit for what were, at best, assists. They hadn't cared much about it at the time, since she had something to prove, whereas they were already part of the upper ranks. But when she immediately dumped the man who got her on the mission, whom they considered a friend, that put her on their collective Shit List.

Kurenai was like one of those prank candies, with the sugary sweet coating that quickly gave way to an incredibly bitter or sour interior. No matter how well things started off, almost everyone who interacted with her was left with a bad taste in their mouth. And though it appeared that she had mellowed out since reaching Jōnin rank, she was still prone to saying and doing things with little to no regard for anyone but herself.(9)

But even with all the skeletons Anko had found in Kurenai's closet, in the end, those bones never saw the light of day. Anko eventually realized that her petty pursuit of revenge was dragging her down to a level she didn't want to be on. The past was the past, and she had a future to look forward to. A future with REAL friends who would never abandon her or drag her name through the mud behind her back.

That said, something inside Anko couldn't let Kurenai get away with what she'd done to Hinata. She couldn't be allowed to just walk away, thinking she'd done nothing wrong...And yet she couldn't confront the woman herself. Anko has spent two years actively avoiding her, afterall. So, she put the idea into Hinata's head, convincing her to gather her team, track Kurenai down and demand answers. At the very least, Hinata would then see the prim and proper Jōnin for who she really was and be able to move on.

But the moment Hinata marched off with fire in her eyes, one word echoed through Anko's mind: Hypocrite. That's all she was, a damned hypocrite. Telling Hinata to hunt her former sensei down, when she herself couldn't work up the guts to say anything to the woman. Since then, Anko had been deliberating over whether she should intercept Hinata and talk her down, or just let things play out however they would.

'Not much of a choice anymore.' Anko thought with a sigh. 'She's probably already given Yūhi a piece of her mind.'

She couldn't help but chuckle, more out of bitterness than humor. Hinata had some kind of luck. Born to a family of hardassed nobles, then saddled with a heartless cunt of a sensei, and now being taught by two emotionally stunted and socially inept, if not outright sociopathic, killers. God, that girl was going to be all kinds of fucked up in the future, if she wasn't already. Perhaps Kurenai had been right to take herself out of Hinata's life, regardless of her reasons...

Before that train of thought could take carry her any further down the path of uncertainty, the wind changed and a familiar scent wafted into her nostrils: Blood. Human blood. It was a strong scent, too; as if the source was only a few yards away. This proved to be the case when a man in a medic uniform stumbled out of the foliage and onto the trail, clutching at the nasty-looking wound on the right side of his abdomen. Strangely, he was making no effort to heal it, and that made Anko keep her distance. Pretending to be a wounded ally was one of the oldest tricks in the ninja playbook.

The man quickly realized he wasn't alone and Anko saw a look of sheer panic when his head shot up and they locked eyes. If he was an imposter, he was one hell of an actor. His eyes darted upward slightly, then the tension drained from his body and his entire form slumped in relief.

"Help...Please, they need help." the pleaded, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper.

"Who needs help?" Anko asked, taking a cautious step forward.

"Up at the safehouse..." he gestured back towards the dense brush he'd just come through. "It was a damn siege...They're after the girl."

"You're not making any sense."

"Just...Just tell the Hokage, he'll know." the medic rocked back and forth unsteadily for a few seconds, before finally toppling over as his eyes rolled back into his head.

Throwing caution to the wind, Anko dashed forward and caught him, then propped him up against a tree.

"Shit, that's a deep wound." she remarked as she got a close look at the injury, which was pouring out blood like a leaky faucet. "When were you attacked?"

"I don't know...Feels like I've been running for hours..."

"Bleeding like this?"

"Blood pills. I'd probably be dead four times over by now without 'em...Unfortunately, I took my last one about two minutes ago."

"You're a medic, aren't you? Can't you heal this, or at least slow the blood flow?"

"Wasted too much chakra fighting them...So fucking stupid!" the medic suddenly hissed and bashed the back of his head into the tree trunk.

"And who is 'them'?"

"The Kurama clan..."

(Meanwhile)

Some three miles away, Kurenai had found out about the clan's betrayal the hard way, and was currently engaged in a battle with one of them. A losing battle, evidenced by her barely standing, while her opponent had little more than a split bottom lip.

"How, oh, how did you ever manage to become a Jōnin, Yūhi?" the man standing across from her taunted.

Jinki Kurama was his name. A tall, broad-shouldered man in his late twenties, with angular features, narrow eyes and brown, buzz-cut hair. He was also a Jōnin, one of the best the Kurama had to offer, and had so far shown that he deserved the rank far more than Kurenai herself. He even wore a standard Jōnin uniform, sans forehead protector. And he wasn't her only problem; there were four more Kuramas loitering around, though they seemed to be content with watching her get dismantled.

"You see, boys, THIS is a prime example of what our clan used to be. A bunch of one-trick ponies." Jinki sneered.

"Why are you doing this?" Kurenai panted. "What good could possibly come of it?"

"...Why?" Jinki's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "YOU, of all people, are asking me why? Because there's nothing for us here! We were at the top of the hill once, and now look at us; completely fucking irrelevant. And you are just as much to blame as any of the stuck-in-the-past Elders who caused us to fall behind in the first place."

"Me? How am I responsible for any of this?!"

"Of course you don't get it. I pegged you from the moment you started training with us all those years ago; all you care about is yourself. Yakumo was our last chance, and she was entrusted to you. I tried to tell them that you would fuck everything up, damn near begged them to let me teach the girl. But they didn't listen. Thought you were a friend of the clan and owed us too much to let us down. But you did. You not only failed Yakumo, but you had her powers sealed away without a second thought." Jinki's visage twisted into a vicious snarl. "You screwed us all over, you worthless bitch! After everything we did for you, everything we taught you, you fucked us!"

Kurenai barely had time to react before Jinki was on top of her, his gleaming tantō scything through the air towards her neck. She more or less fell backwards in her attempt to dodge, but it was still enough to avoid decapitation. However, the loss of footing left her open for the male Jōnin's follow-up kick, which caught her right in the ribs and sent her rolling across the ground. Once she came to a stop on her stomach, Kurenai tried to push herself up, but a boot planted between her shoulder blades sent her right back down.

"You know, this little plan of ours has been in the works for years, Yūhi." Jinki said as he watched the woman squirm underneath his foot. "This was our 'Plan B' even before the Yakumo disaster. So when you sent our last hope down the drain, we were ready to go. It would've happened last year, but the masterminds behind it all were so focused on keeping it secret, most of our own people didn't know what was going on. So when the perfect opportunity rolled around, more than half the clan was away on missions. A regular comedy of errors!" he laughed. "I was so sure that we had blown it, letting a once-in-a-lifetime chance pass us by, and I was mad. But now...Now I see Kami-sama had plans of his own. Not only did we get another chance, but we even got a going-away present!"

"You won't get away with this." Kurenai hissed, able to turn her head just enough to glare at her enemy from the corner of her eye.

Jinki let out a barking laugh. "Did you really just say that? Nevermind how cliché that is; just how do you plan to stop us? Gonna glare me to death? No, we already have gotten away with thi-!" he was taken by surprise when Kurenai suddenly rolled onto her back, throwing him off balance. Unfortunately for her, he wasn't surprised enough, so when she lashed out with a punch aimed at his genitals, he still managed to catch her arm. From there, he pulled her up slightly, placed his right foot on her face and stomped her head into the ground with bone-rattling force. "Oh-hoho, you sneaky little shit!"

Kurenai's vision swam as she struggled to stay conscious. How her head hadn't cracked like an egg on impact, she didn't know, but she could vaguely feel something warm and wet on the back of her head.

"Okay, I can take a hint. No more games." Jinki raised his tantō, intent on taking his opponent's head while she would still be able to see the blade coming down.

A low, droning buzz was the only warning he got before a massive black cloud of insects burst from the underbrush. It may have been his imagination, but he swore the bugs took on the shape of a giant human hand and, quite literally, made a grab for him. Fortunately, he was too quick and managed to jump out of reach. Unfortunately, there was now what looked like a horizontal tornado coming right at him, and he couldn't move out of the way while still in mid-air.

But he could fly through a set of handseals and launch a fireball at the new threat, forcing the "tornado" to change direction instead. However, that didn't buy him any time, as round three began a second later, in the form of a Hyūga girl, if the bulging veins around her eyes were anything to go by. What threw Jinki for a look was the fact that the girl didn't use Hyūga-type moves, instead coming at him with twin daggers drawn and a relentless flurry of swipes and kicks. Damn, she was fast! And she hit a lot harder than her size and apparent age suggested, as Jinki found out when one of her kicks slipped through his guard and connected with his abdomen. The blow caused him to drop his tantō and nearly forced his lunch up from his stomach.

The Jōnin immediately disengaged, hopping back to put some distance between himself and the newcomers. The girl didn't pursue, instead jumping back herself to form up with her group. And what an oddball group it was. A Hyūga, an Aburame and an Inuzuka? This must have been someone's idea of a joke, but these kids certainly weren't laughing. And after that kick, neither was Jinki.

"And who might you brats be?"

"None of your business, asshole." the Inuzuka growled.

"A rude Inuzuka, there's a surprise." Jinki scoffed. "Oh well, you're just more lambs to the slaughter anyhow. But..." he focused his gaze on the Hyūga girl. "Where we're going after we're done here, I'll bet they'd love to add the Byakugan to their arsenal." his smug little smirk was wiped from his face when he saw the girl's eyes briefly turn from pearl white, to jet black, then back again. "I want Yūhi, you boys can have the punks...Boys?" receiving no response, Jinki turned to see all four of his fellow clansmen laid out on the ground. "The fuck?!"

"You really think we'd jump into a fight when your backup was right there?" the Inuzuka smirked. "Just because we're Genin doesn't make us stupid."

"While I didn't like leaving our sensei to get beat up like that, with them being so focused on you and your 'show', it was quite easy to take them all down at once." the Aburame said. "As of now, they've got barely enough chakra left to stay alive. They won't be any help to you."

"Heh, okay, I'll admit I'm impressed with your stealth. But you should've run while you had the chance. Not that it would've done you any good in the end, but at least you would've lived a bit longer." Jinki grinned menacingly. "You think you've got some kind of advantage just because you have me outnumbered?" he then vanished.

"Wha-" Kiba didn't get any further before a knee was planted into his gut, lifting him off his feet and forcing the air from his lungs. Akamaru tried to avenge his partner, but was literally smacked out of the air when he attempted a leaping bite.

Shino didn't fare much better, taking a right cross to the jaw that put him on the floor.

Hinata's not-quite-human reflexes saved her from the initial attack and allowed her to block four others, but she was quickly overwhelmed and ended up taking a powerful kick to the chest.

"Today's lesson, kiddies: Quality Over Quantity. Numbers will only get you so far when your enemy is just plain superior." Jinki taunted as he casually walked over to his discarded blade.

Kiba was the first to recover and saw an opportunity when the man bent over to pick up the weapon. "C'mon, Akamaru." he whispered to the pup, who gave a low bark in response as he shakily got back to his feet.

The two partners dashed towards their target and leapt in unison. However, as they began to spin for their Gatsūga attack, something went terribly wrong. There was an audible popping noise and Kiba shrieked in pain, halting his rotation and flopping to the ground. Akamaru stopped his own rotation and looked back at his downed friend, but couldn't stop his forward momentum.

Jinki, now alerted to the failed sneak attack, sidestepped the flying dog and lashed out with his weapon. The animal somehow managed to twist its body to avoid being cut in two, but the tip of the blade still scored a deep gash in its side.

"AKAMARU!" Kiba wailed as he watched his partner hit the ground and roll like a ragdoll, trailing blood behind him, before coming to rest in a pitiful, unmoving heap.

"Shino!" Hinata called as she formed a single, cross-shaped handseal, resulting in three solid clones poofing into existence at her side.

"On it!" the Aburame nodded in affirmation and sent out nearly every bug he had in a vast cloud of buzzing wings and gnashing mandibles.

The clones charged in, attacking the Jōnin in tandem while the swarm spread out over the area, all but blotting out the sun overhead.

"Morons, what did I just tell you? Quality over quantity!" Jinki made short work of the clones, cutting off the last one's head and watching it erupt into smoke just ten seconds after they were created. But by that time, the kids, the dog and Yūhi were gone, and the insects were dispersing in all directions. It was all just a distraction so they could recover their comrades and escape. He'd been played. "You little shits!" he roared. "You think you can get away?! There's nowhere to run or hide! So go ahead, delay the inevitable and live your last few moments in fear! We will find you!"

(3:35pm)

Team Eight had found a patch of particularly dense brush to rest in, away from searching eyes. They had tried to simply make a run for the village, but two close calls with Kurama hunting parties canned that idea.

"Why? Why, goddammit, why?!" Kiba let out a whimpering sob as he cradled his unconscious dog in his arms, uncaring of the blood soaking through his jacket. This was all his fault. If he hadn't refused proper treatment at the hospital, his back wouldn't have given out. But no, he just had to be Mr. Macho, and look what it got him. He could barely walk, let alone run or fight, and his best friend was slowly dying of blood loss in his arms.

But at least he had a sliver of a chance, if they could find a way out of the mess they'd gotten themselves in. Shino had come up with an ingenious solution to at least slow the blood flow by closing the wound using a species of ant called "Eciton burchelli", commonly known as "Army Ants". The soldier caste had massive, hook-like jaws and a very powerful bite to match. A bite that didn't let up even when they died. Making use of this literal deathgrip, Shino was able to call the ants to him, use their jaws to close the wound and break off their heads to keep them in place, like sutures. In any other situation, Kiba would've labeled it the creepiest thing he'd ever seen. But this time he vowed to never badmouth another bug, of any kind, if Akamaru got out of this alive.(10)

That said, the pup was still in desperate need of real medical attention. Hinata felt she could have done something with her ointments, or at least cleaned out the cut and stitched it up, but she didn't have any supplies on-hand. In fact, none of them did. Kiba and Shino had left theirs at home, and Hinata had exhausted her supplies during training and never thought to restock. All she had were her daggers, and all they had were their "just in case" kunai, which all ninjas carried somewhere on their persons at all times. No Solider pills, no ninja wire, no smoke bombs, no flash bombs, no explosive tags, no shuriken, no backup weapons.

Add to that the fact that only two of them were in fighting condition, their former sensei was still out like a light, and there was no chance of backup since no one even knew where they were...

"God, we're so fucked." leave it to an Inuzuka not to sugarcoat anything.

"Shino-kun, could you, I don't know, send one of your beetles back to your clan?" Hinata asked hopefully.

"I thought about it, but we're too far away. My control over them has a limited range, and my clan compound is well outside of it from here."

"Aaaaand we're back to being fucked."

Hinata gave Kiba a withering look but didn't say anything. She had nothing to prove him wrong, and the last thing anyone wanted to hear was over-optimistic bullshit.

XXXX

Aaaaand scene!

Told you there wouldn't be much action, but I wanted to end on a note that would set the tone for the next chapter, which will be pretty combat-heavy. Another plus, that SHOULD mean a quicker update next time around. More action-focused bits, overall, don't require so much detail and decision-making to stress over. They just "flow" easier for me. As usual, no promises, but I'm expecting to have a much easier time writing the next chapter than I did with this one.

(1) Naruto doesn't like ramen, but everyone else does. Has your mind been blown yet?

(2) Leaf Ranger, that scene was all for you, bud. I know you hated seeing Naruto in the doghouse.

(3) I may have said it before, but I'm saying it again: I don't care about Sakura's canon family. It's WAAAY too late in the game to even think about changing anything in the story, and why would I want to? I know most of you couldn't care less, but this is for those who've read this far, yet still think canon means anything to me.

(4) No disrespect to nurses intended. I've known more than a few of them in my time, and you won't find anyone who appreciates what they do more than me.

(5) It really is.

(6) What? A fic where Sakura's parents DON'T kiss Sasuke's ass?! Seriously, has your mind been blown yet?

(7) Think Hinata's training outfit from the anime, but in dark blue instead of brown.

(8) Ayame's just teasing, folks. She's not even a consideration for the last few spots in the harem.

(9) Yeah, Kurenai's a bit of a bitch in this story. I hate to say it, but she's loosely based on an aunt of mine who seems to lack a filter between her brain and her mouth. She's prone to making offhand remarks that get under your skin and piss you off, and then has the nerve to act like YOU are being an ass when you get mad at her. It's like she can't fathom people having different views and mentalities from hers. For example: Last month she was visiting and I overheard a conversation she was having with a friend over the phone while I was making lunch. Everything's going fine until the friend starts talking about one of her sons. My aunt says "The gay one, right?", and I hear "What?" through the phone. "The youngest son, he's gay", friend hangs up right then and there. Aunt looks at me like she honestly doesn't know what she said wrong.

She also does things without regard for others. Like, she'll come into your house and throw shit in the trash just because she doesn't like it or she thinks it's junk. Or she'll do some cleaning and put all your stuff into a closet just to clear off a couple tables, and not tell you about it. Or she'll go crazy with bleach and Pine Sol, leave the whole house reeking of chemicals and not bother to crack a window or five. And she thinks that shit's normal, and you're weird for getting mad.

That's how I've envisioned Kurenai. Sometimes she has no sense of tact and says hurtful things in a casual, unintentionally condescending way that makes people want to punch her in the face. But in her view, she's just making an observation, or pointing out something that should be obvious, or just telling the truth. And she'll do things in a way that she thinks is best, but never takes other people's feelings into account, just assuming that they'll see it her way and agree with her choice. With my aunt, I think it's a mental issue, but with Kurenai that's just her personality.

(10) Yes, "ant sutures" are a real thing.

As usual, don't be shy about asking questions. Unless you don't have an account. Any "Guest" reviews asking questions WILL BE DELETED IMMEDIATELY. I can't answer your questions if you can't be bothered to make an account here. I understand that there's a 3 day waiting period after an account is activated(at least I think that's still in effect), but if you frequent this site in the first place, there's no reason for you not to have an account already, even if you never plan on writing anything yourself. It's not like you have to pay for it or give out your personal information, or anything like that.

Okay then, I think that about does it for this chapter. Like I said, ask your questions, and don't hesitate to point out errors in the story. And I mean REAL errors, as in spelling, grammar, discrepancies within the story, etc. Not just stuff you don't like and want me to change. I'm not perfect, I miss things, and I'd appreciate your help in rectifying any mistakes.

Hopefully, I'll be seeing you guys again within a reasonable amount of time. No more of that half a year crap.

Jason Out!