As noted, this is a sidestory to On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. While prior knowledge isn't required, this is set in the same world but at a completely different time, you're missing out on a really good story if you don't read it. www dot shadowchronicles dot net

Prologue

Rapid footsteps echoed in the cold, dank tunnels that flowed beneath Saeni. This particular tunnel was close to the surface, and not connected to many of the others by design, though here and there forces unknown had opened gaps in the walls or floors. The tunnel was an old one, built about a hundred years after the city's founding to control the rain which occasionally flooded the streets. Though sewage did find its way in, the occasional hard rains kept the tunnel flushed and smelling only of mold and mildew. Though the winter air above was freezing, the tunnels below ground stayed warm enough to be pleasant by comparison.

Few people came through here, though. While tunnels were a natural haven for the homeless or outcast, Saeni was known to have the occasional shambling nightmare lurking below the streets, leaving at night to feed on the unwary. No city survived without infrastructure, though, and everything important was regularly patrolled by the fiercest guards of the watch, as well as any number of opportunistic bounty hunters.

This tunnel wasn't considered important, and only had an occasional inspector, accompanied, of course, by a squad of heavily armed guards.

Lately, though, someone else had been using the tunnel as a kind of personal road. It happened to travel directly from the well stocked farmer's market in Niue Square, beneath the fourth ward slums, straight east, or nearly so, to the run down but still struggling third ward. A lucky girl had discovered a direct line to cheaper, fresher produce than anything the third ward could boast, even if it was somewhat pallid greenhouse vegetables from the growing co-opts scattered here and there.

This early morning, the young girl had been up well before dawn, running through the tunnels to catch the vegetable hawkers as they were setting up, sometimes even as they arrived in the darkness, most of them having woken up even earlier than she did. All the purchases were set up in advance, and all she had to do was carry the produce.

The girl was young, perhaps old enough to have her majority, maybe younger, wearing coarse brown pants and high boots, with a quilted blue vest buttoned up on top. Despite the chill she only had short, elbow length sleeves, though they were of thick, coarse linen. She carried a big chunk of shattered mage crystal in her hand for light, and an enormous, bulging pack on her back, with a strap over each shoulder. Though it seemed as large as she was, and weighed more, she ran with an easy lope, breath slow and even. Most notable about her was her hair, which, besides being cut unevenly with one extremely short side and the other kind of flopped over, was a cool pink the same shade as cherry blossoms. It was that hair that had prompted her adopted mother to call her Sakura. It fit, somehow.

Sakura wasn't afraid in the tunnels. People made her nervous, sometimes, especially when they picked and laughed at her, calling her dummy, and useless, and big forehead. She laughed with them sometimes, but that always made them mad. Her momma said they were being mean, and Sakura believed her, even if it didn't make sense for them to laugh. Being mean wasn't funny.

The tunnels, though, she liked the tunnels. Her momma said that must have meant she spent a lot of time in them once, but Sakura couldn't remember. That was before, and her little sister said that didn't matter any more. Sakura believed her, too. Her little sister was smart.

Sakura didn't know that she passed right beneath a hungry wisp lurking just under a heavy steel grate in the fourth ward, waiting for someone to blunder by. In darkness they were a pale glimmer of light, half unseen, and they would suck the life out of their prey, leaving a withered husk behind. The hungry, angry little mind should have swooped down on any human in the area, for only true sunlight could keep them at bay, but Sakura ran by unmolested.

The big centipede, six feet long and full of poison, was a fast and agile predator. Though it mainly ate the equally large but completely harmless roly-polys that cleaned up the human waste, it was aggressive enough to be what Sakura's little sister called 'people-nivorous'. It lifted its feelers as she ran by, sensing movement, but nothing it smelled seemed appetizing, and it dropped its head back to the stone as Sakura ran by.

Several other denizens of the tunnels ignored or didn't see Sakura. It wasn't until she passed by the narrow, foul smelling crack just under the vermin infested home of Owl Street's biggest ICE dealer that something noticed her and cared.

The little monster couldn't be considered a true demon, though, like most monsters, its origins were unknown. This one had squeezed its way up through a tiny crack in the ceiling of a partially collapsed sewer tunnel, fleeing the predation of a blubbery wormlike creature nothing human had ever named. It was small, humanoid, about the size of a baby but with long, wiry arms and coiled legs. It had three fingers on each hand and three toes on each foot, and all of them were tipped by long, dirty claws. Its head was most disturbing, with skin shrunken so tight against the bone it seemed like a grinning, fleshless skull with needle teeth. Less than fifteen minutes in the cleaner air of the drainage tunnel and it already saw something it wanted to hurt.

Faster than anything that small had a right to, it bounded out of the crack and down the tunnel after Sakura, digging its toe claws into the stone for a moment before it launched itself at her side with a vicious swipe.

One claw parted cloth and flesh and bone in an instant before the little demon bounced away.

Sakura gasped in pain, her hand instinctively going to her side, feeling the rent in her flesh and the blood that flowed from it. The mage crystal clattered to the floor, becoming brighter for a moment as a fresh crack burst through its structure.

"Ahhh!" she cried, tears of pain springing to her side as she stumbled to a halt. "What?! Who's there?"

Something sniggered in the darkness at her.

"You just wait," she told the darkness vehemently as she quickly, but painfully walked back for the light she'd dropped. "I'll getcha. You try that again." She stooped to pick up the crystal.

The imp picked that moment to do exactly as she'd said, and leapt for her again.

Sakura wasn't as foolish as she let on, though. As quick as the demon was, she was quicker, and two girlish hands as hard as steel caught the creature around the ribs right below its wiry little arms.

It hissed and screeched in surprise, snapping viciously at her with its teeth. Sakura squeezed.

"Rrkkkykyyk!" it screamed as ribs popped like twigs under Sakura's grip, then it was her turn to scream as it dug its grime encrusted claws into her wrists, tearing with all its strength. It kicked its legs like a cat, hooking upwards with its toes and raking her forearms, peeling long bloody gibbets of flesh out.

"AHHHH!" Sakura screamed, not daring to let go and forcing herself to squeeze harder.

Suddenly two of her fingers on her right hand relaxed their grip, and her arm was on fire with agony. The flailing imp had cut the tendons.

Desperately, Sakura spun and slammed it into the tunnel wall, hard enough to crack stone and leave a dark smear. It didn't like that, so she did it again, beating the imp against the rock over and over again, squeezing with all her strength and sobbing with the effort.

Finally, the evil little creature was a lumpy paste in her hands, beaten literally into a pulp. It fell to the ground from tired fingers, there to eventually be torn apart by scavenging tunnel dwellers.

Sakura felt tired for a moment, then panicked as she remembered the first attack. If she tore more clothes, Momma was going to be mad. The wound in her side was gone, healed and forgotten in the heat of battle. Unfortunately, the cloth didn't mend itself, and showed an eight inch gap when she pulled at it. Luckily, when she kept her arm naturally at her side, it stayed mostly closed. Maybe Momma wouldn't notice it until she'd had a chance to get her sis to fix it. Sis was good at that kind of stuff.

She grabbed her light, barely noticing that the claw marks on her arm were gone, and continued running.

The manhole she wanted was open, and marked by splashed paint all around so she wouldn't miss it, not that she would forget something like that. She'd rigged up a sturdy wooden ladder there, since it was easier than trying to jump and climb through the hole. She emerged into a back alley, unobserved except for a feral cat that quickly disappeared from sight. It was the work of a few moments to drop the cover back in place and run out into the main street.

She wasn't far from her mother's restaurant, a quiet place just off the main strip that didn't see much business, it being such a poor neighborhood. Her momma actually did more business reselling the produce Sakura brought for her at a slightly higher price, though she always kept enough for her daughters, and enough for any customers who might happen through. Only Sakura's strength made the new trade work, with over a hundredweight of fresh vegetables, eggs, and chops in her backpack.

The storefront was mostly dark, with a few lights burning inside, mostly in the back, towards the kitchen. Sakura opened the door quietly and slipped inside.

The restaurant was simple, with square wooden tables scattered throughout the room, some pushed against the walls and the rest patterned across the room. The pattern had been Sakura's idea. She was so proud.

A counter ran across the room towards the back, separating the dining area from the partially walled off kitchen, and giving a place to serve coffee and tea to people who didn't feel like having a table all to themselves. A fortyish, matronly sort of woman stood behind the counter, carefully brewing pots of coffee and tea. She had a serious face as she concentrated on her task, but there were as many laugh lines as frown, and even the severe bun her brown hair was tied back in couldn't make her face harsh. Her dress was blue and patterned in flowers, with a starched white apron tied in front. She was talking quietly to another girl as Sakura entered the room.

The girl was young, about twelve, and rail thin. She, too, wore a blue dress, though hers had a slightly different pattern, and a white apron. Her hair was also brown, though she kept it tied back in a ponytail that bobbed as she nodded to whatever the older woman had said.

What really caught Sakura's eye was the striking man sitting at a table close to the bar, sipping a cup of coffee. He had a clean, beardless face with sharp features and intelligent eyes. His hair was black, kept short and combed, and kept far cleaner than the neighborhood average. His clothes, a black frock coat left unbuttoned as he sat, dark pinstriped trousers, and polished dark brown boots that hugged his legs all the way up to the knee, would have marked him as an outsider anywhere in the ward, but even in the roughest of dock clothes he would have been a man apart.

"Mister Malic!" she squealed, running over to the man and giving him an exuberant hug, nearly crushing him in the process as her heavy pack over balanced her when she leaned forward, taking them both to the ground with a splintering crack as the chair burst beneath their weight.

"Sakura!" the woman behind the counter yelled, in shock at the treatment of their dignified guest. "You get off him this instant! What do you think you're doing, charging in here like a wild boar?! Mister Malic comes here this early in the morning to give you another job, and you treat him like this?!"

Blushing furiously, Sakura quickly pushed off the man and practically flew to her feet despite the heavy pack, rubbing her hands together in anxiousness. "Sorry, Momma, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to break your chair. I'm sorry." Tears began to well up in her eyes.

The young girl wiping the counter immediately ran over and wrapped her arms around Sakura's waist, and though her head barely came to Sakura's shoulders, she put herself between her and her irate Momma. "It's okay, Momma, Sis didn't mean it. Please don't be mad at her," she pleaded anxiously.

"Raina, this does not concern you!" she snapped.

Meanwhile, tears started rolling down Sakura's face. She scrubbed at them viciously with her palms, but it didn't stop the tide, and finally she tore the bandanna off her forehead and pressed it into her face, crying softly.

Malic, despite his ignomious position on top of the ruins of his chair, had started laughing quietly soon after his spill, and his chuckles increased in volume as he rose gracefully to his feet. "There, you see Mrs. Kano, she didn't mean to. It's quite okay. I'll even pay for the chair. After all, it was my thoughtlessness that caused it to be broken. We all know how enthusiastic Sakura is when saying hello, I should have been standing. And braced." He gave her a winning smile as he dusted off a few splinters from his dark wool pants.

"Not at all!" she cried, horrified at putting the blame for such a thing on her guest, even indirectly, and at his request. "Sir, I must apologize for the treatment you've received at the hand of my daughter."

"No, no, I insist. Consider it payment for the excellent coffee you served this morning," he replied, reaching inside his frock coat and pulling out his wallet.

"Sir!"

"I," he said, pulling out a wad of bills considerably thicker than what it would take to replace the chair, "insist."

It was a hard thing to swallow, but Dex Malic was a hard man to say no to. She gulped and wanted to protest more at the sheer amount of money, more than she made in a week, but it would be even ruder to make a scene with Mr. Malic. She nodded and expressed her thanks as best she could. "Now Sakura," she said, turning to the pink-haired girl," you git to the kitchen with that- is that blood on your arms?"

All eyes in the room turned to Sakura, who instinctively tried to hide her arms by crossing them. Malic's gaze quickly flicked upwards when he saw that her bandanna was in her hands, rather than on her head.

There, in the center of what the uncharitable had described as an overly wide forehead, was a black sigil etched into the skin. Malic himself had been the first to translate the great word from a dead language, though he'd had to search the entire city to find someone who recognized the sharp, crossing lines as a picture-word of aklo, and even further to find a reference that let him translate it. Even now, he didn't know exactly what it meant, nor why it would be on the forehead of the strange young woman the girl, Raina, had found wandering the slums not even knowing her own name.

According to the book, it said 'void'.

"Did you get into a fight, Sakura?" the older woman asked worriedly, immediately leaving the counter and walking to her adopted daughter. "And put your bandanna back on, we don't want people seeing that mark on your head."

"It was just a little one, Momma," Sakura protested, trying to tie her unruly hair back with the bandanna even as her mother tried to grab her arm and see. "It was just a few scratches. They're already gone."

"Hmph! A few scratches she says. And I suppose this tear in your vest happened on a snag?" she asked, plucking at the cloth on her side as she surveyed the damage.

Sakura shook her head. "It clawed me before I could catch it, but it didn't go deep, Momma! And then it clawed my arms a little before I could kill it, but I'm okay!"

"What was it?" Malic asked, fascinated as always by this mysterious young girl who roamed the tunnels unafraid. She could be hurt, yes, but she healed even the most terrible wound. Poisons didn't affect her at all, and for her, magic just did not exist. The strongest coercions couldn't make her turn her head, the death curse of a powerful mage fizzled when she set it off, and even the life stealing powers of a gant couldn't do so much as tickle.

Sakura shrugged dumbly. "Dunno. Just a l'il gremlin thingy."

Mrs. Kano sighed theatrically. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you, girl. Get those groceries in the kitchen, then get yourself up to your room and change. Mr. Malic has a job for you today."

"Really?" she asked, looking to the man. "That's great! I like doing things for you."

He smiled indulgently. "And I appreciate your help, Sakura. Now listen to your mother. We've got a long job ahead of us."

The Lie of Night

By Nugar

Email the author at with any questions or comments. All replies welcome. Alternatively, visit my livejournal at nugarwrites dot livejournal dot com

This is a side story to Mark MacKinnon's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, one of the story arcs of the Shadow Chronicles, written with permission. The events in this story are not canonical to the events of On a Clear Day, and may be considered an alternate universe to that story. This fanfic uses characters from Naruto, written by Masashi Kishimoto, and Simoun, written by Hashiba Hayase. These and other characters are used without permission.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forver is one of the best written fanfics I've ever seen. If you haven't read it, you're missing out. Visit www dot shadowchronicles dot net and read it.

Chapter one: Opening Your Eyes

"Hey, there's Alti and Floe!" said the blonde haired girl excitedly as she gulped her coffee hurriedly and stood up. "Heeeey!" she called, waving to the other two. "How was the first night's patrol?"

"Heeey!" the redhead of the two called back. "Get me some tea and biscuits and I'll tell you! We've got twenty minutes before Waporif finishes getting it checked out."

"I think I can manage that. What do you want, Alti?"

"Tea is fine for me, too. I don't want to eat anything before I go to bed." She sat heavily at the cafeteria seat and leaned against her hand, not bothering to brush back the brown hair which fell forward to cover her face. She was tired.

"How was the patrol?" asked Neviril, the other girl who'd been sitting with the blonde, waiting patiently. She was cool and beautiful, with long, wavy hair a few shades lighter than true red which fell well past the shoulders of her custom tailored uniform. Despite the early hour she was alert, clean, and well groomed, with not a hair out of place and a bit of tasteful makeup to highlight her cheekbones, as well as pale pink lipstick already a legend among the base crew. Though most flight suits were a rather drab green, the pilots, called sybillae, of the elite Tempest flight group were given substantially better equipment to go with their top of the line fighters. As a result, they were all custom tailored to the measurements of the pilots, made of strong white material with slashes of color, usually green, but in Neviril's case, blue. She was the Sybilla Aurea, the best of the best, and the leader of flight group Tempest.

"Not too bad. We flew a search pattern over the city while I tried to pick out the landmarks from a map. It's going to take a while to learn exactly where everything is so we can respond quickly." Floe sighed. "Man, I was so embarrassed. We got a call from the Watch, some sort of illegal gang activity or robbery or something. They wanted us to shoot this parked truck as a warning to the people inside a building before they raided the place, or at least that's what I got over the radio. But Ptolmkin sounds kind of like Tolmiken over a radio, and I couldn't find Tolmiken on the map, so I decided what I'd really heard was Old Marken, and, well, it took fifteen minutes to get it straightened out. Truck blew up real well, though."

"Was the Watch upset over the delay?" Neviril asked, glancing up as her partner sybilla returned with a tray.

"Thanks, Aeru," Floe said, accepting tea and a plate of biscuits. Alti likewise took hers, but spent a few moments just breathing in its aroma instead of drinking.

"No," Floe replied. "They actually thanked us for being so fast. I guess the usual air support is lacking a bit in response time. I know we can do better, though. Some map studies, a guide, and a lot of touring the city on our time off ought to do it."

Neviril nodded, then turned to the other girl. "Alti?"

Alti nodded. "That's basically it. The winds aren't bad over the city, barely enough to whistle past the wings when stationary, about twenty knots most of the time. There are enough streetlights to get a sense of the grid, but with no air traffic except the sky ships around the civilian port, and little to do besides police response, eleven hours can be an awfully long time. I swear Floe took a nap." She gave her fellow sybilla a dirty look.

"I did not!" Floe exclaimed, full of wounded dignity.

"You were awfully quiet there for a while," Alti replied.

"Well so were you, and you don't see me accusing you of sleeping on the job. I was listening to the Watch bands and reading the map and looking at the city. What were you doing?"

"Flying the simile!"

"Enough," Neviril said quietly.

Both sybillae looked abashed. "Sorry, Aurea. We're both a bit punchy," Alti apologized.

"Get some rest. You've got twenty four off, I suggest you follow some of your own advice and get a look at the city. We want to do the best job we can and keep everyone happy so we can convince the Palace that they need a constant simile force here."

"Yeah, no kidding," Alti agreed. "I for one was tired of getting shot at by crazed Plumbish kamikazes so the good people of Altua can have Day-Glo panties, or whatever the hell it is they do with taocite."

"That's still so weird," Floe replied. "You weren't against the war at first. Toppling a tyrant, never show fear, for the Honor of the Queen and the Pride of Altua and all that."

Alti sighed and nodded. "I still am, I mean, I still think it was a good idea, something that needed to be done. But someone fucked up somewhere, and the Plumbish, they just hate us too much. Everything that gets us one more step to letting the crazies go back to killing each other is a good idea to me."

"Nevertheless, the Crown may decide to prolong our presence in Plumbum, rather than deploy us as air cover," Neviril interjected coolly.

Alti nodded. "I'll do my duty. Though I can't say that about everyone."

Everyone nodded, thinking of a few fellow sybillae who were vocally opposed to the war, and awfully glad of the chance to do something else.

"Well, if they do, I'll be right back out there by your side, Neviril, you know that," Aeru said after a moment's silence. Floe nodded agreement.

Neviril stood up. "Have a good day, sybillae. Sleep well. I changed the schedule, so Claus and Lavie will be on after us, and you'll relieve from them. Yun and Morinas have been sent to Ostera to pick up a new simile, and they should have yours and Claus's fixed in a few days. Waporif had some luck matching parts while you were gone."

"She was up last night, too? Does the woman sleep?" Alti exclaimed.

"Rarely," Floe admitted. "Though maybe I'll have some luck at least getting her to stay in my bed now that Morinas is gone." The head mechanic for the simile was a robust and powerful woman with plenty of her own fans, though not as many as the beautiful Sybilla Aurea. Floe and Morinas had clashed over her affections before, though both knew her true love was the similes themselves.

"Bye, have fun girls," Aeru called as they parted. "But not too much fun, Saeni's a big city."

"This from the country girl," Floe said sticking out her tongue as she walked.

True to form, Waporif had the simile restocked and thoroughly checked out before they arrived on the tarmac. The morning was still young, but the sky was lit with the reflected glow from dozens of lamps lining the military airport, and the thousands more in the city proper to the east. A tall, heavily muscled woman waited patiently for them beside the stubby, cupped side wing of the simile.

"Good morning, Waporif," Neviril said in greeting.

"Morning, Waporif! How'd they treat my baby last night?" Aeru said, considerably more enthusiastically.

There were dark circles under the woman's eyes, though she still stood straight and firm. "She's fine, Aeru. Everything checks out. They used two rounds of 40 mil high explosive and forty-three rounds of 13 mil, and it's all reloaded. Tank is full, too." She gave Neviril a wry smile. "And we vacuumed some crumbs out of the sagitta seat. I think Floe snuck a bag of chips in."

With the eleven hour shifts they were currently flying, they were allowed a few spaced out breaks for bathrooms and a quick meal, but they were not supposed to eat in the cockpits of the simile.

Neviril nodded. "I'll have a word with her."

"Don't want crumbs in your seat, eh?" Aeru said sweetly.

Neviril just looked at her.

"Luck to you, sybillae," Waporif said with a wave as she turned and left.

Aeru gave her a casual wave. "Don't spend all day with Floe, you need sleep!"

"Well, it's our first patrol in a new zone," Aeru mused aloud, looking at the simile, then back at her partner. "I'm half surprised you didn't insist on being the first, period."

"There were things to be done."

"You didn't sleep, did you?"

Neviril brushed back a lock of hair. "Some."

Aeru sighed. "What am I going to do with you? Come here."

They kissed slowly, not embracing. Neither closed their eyes.

"Luck," Aeru said simply.

"Luck," Neviril replied.

Together they climbed the flared edge of the plenum skirt to their respective cockpits, Aeru taking the forward one, the auriga, which was also lowest to the ground. From it she would control the actual flying of the simile, a task one wag had likened to praying, insomuch as the pilots prayed the jumble of half understood arcane technology and mystic energy kept doing roughly what the designers intended.

Neviril had a slightly longer climb, taking a seat in the upper, separate cockpit known as the sagitta. She would control the communications array, navigation, and weapons, using remote machine guns and cannon to aim at targets in all directions. Though she was considered the best auriga ever, she hadn't flown that position in over two years.

The simile itself was a new invention, until recently top secret and only five years old, based on even more secret, ancient technology of unknown origin. Only two intact original helical motors were ever found, a twin stack of metallic tori hung by invisible energies below a chassis that partially concealed them in when in a resting configuration. Though they couldn't get the originals to power up, the team of scientist and alchemists who studied them imperfectly replicated one torus. That lead to the name simile, as the best they could do was something like the original.

Still, the new simile helical motor opened up a new world in propulsion. The torus would, when supplied with energy, slowly revolve, and, when controlled through circuits in the chassis, change its position in space, hovering perfectly still wherever it was put. Acceleration was the same in any direction, and was significantly faster than any other craft in existence. Top speed also remained well above that of any other craft, in short, the simile was air superiority. In a straight dog fight against even numbers, the simile won. Only when faced by vastly superior numbers had a simile ever been lost in a battle, which may have been what prompted the Plumbish fighters to adopt guerilla tactics, sabotage, and suicide squads as a way of fighting the Altuans.

The dull grey fuselage of the craft was an arc, almost a spine, starting a few degrees back from vertical and making a third of a circle before tapering off as a shield for the torus, with the cockpits mounted at the one thirty and twelve thirty positions, giving the sagitta an unobstructed view out the back. Stubby, cupped wings slanted down sharply from the top center of the fuselage, flaring out once they reached the center of the torus to support the weapon pods. At the moment all it carried was two 13 mil machine guns and a 40 mil cannon with variable ammo. The undersurface of the wings rested directly on the ground, and were broad enough to provide a stable landing structure.

The flight torus currently sat on its side, horizontal and unmoving beneath the simile. However, as soon as Aeru powered it up, it rose a few inches into the air and began to spin slowly. Under her direction, the simile rose straight up and the torus changed its orientation so that it rotated vertically, perfectly centered beneath the fuselage and mostly covered by the armored shield on top. Though the simile had no lifting surfaces at all, its rounded shape gave it the best aerodynamics the unconventional design of the helical motor would allow.

"Where first?" Aeru asked over the intercom.

"Come to heading 230 and an altitude of seven hundred meters. We'll start by getting a good look at the palace grounds."

"Sounds good. Always wanted to see the palace."

The simile leapt into the sky.

o/

The pager beeped quietly from inside the pocket of the jacket tossed casually onto the narrow counter of the kitchenette. It was a thick jacket, black with orange trim, and the beeps were muffled by the cloth, but it was only a one room apartment, so even though the pager was nearly as far away as possible, it wasn't very far.

Hinata's eyes popped open in an instant, wild for a moment but quickly calming as she remembered where she was: warm and safe, tucked into a narrow, lightweight futon beneath several layers of heavy quilts and, currently, a muscular blond young man who was only above her for a moment as he climbed over her gently.

He slipped from beneath the covers into the frigid morning air and padded naked across the room to check his pager.

"Naruto? Who is it?" she asked softly, burrowing further into the bed as she sought the warmth he'd left behind.

He fished in his pocket for a moment before pulling out his pager and squinting at the message on its tiny crystal screen. "Damn." He glanced back at the girl peeking out from the covers with regret, yet marveling as always at how her liquid grey eyes took in every detail, even the words on the pager, across the room, in the twilight.

"Immediately? Why?" she asked, sitting up in bed, though she kept the covers wrapped tightly around her.

Naruto shrugged and started gathering clothes from around the room. "I dunno, probably for some sort of time sensitive mission, maybe something for tonight." He slipped on a pair of white shorts with little orange rectangles on them before he continued. "I really am sorry, Hinata. I wanted to carry you out for breakfast this morning, or at least show you the things to like about this neighborhood." He gave her a mischievous leer. "Or at the very least, sent you away with a smile."

She gave him a soft smile, her eyes liquid in the predawn light that filtered through his thin drapes. "It's okay, Naruto. The Hokage called."

"I guess I'll just have to make sure you come back again." Again, he had a naughty expression that left no doubt what he was thinking about.

"Will I see you tonight?"

He shrugged as he pulled on a pair of black pants. "I'm supposed to be there, but I'm not exactly the socialite. The old hag probably wants me for security patrol or something."

"I… would like it if you'd be by my side," Hinata admitted as if it cost her something, glancing away.

"If it's in any way possible, I will," he promised, giving her a thumbs up and a smile.

She smiled back, then watched in silence as he threw on a long sleeve shirt and a thick black jacket trimmed in orange. The jacket had a number of slight bulges, noticeable only to her, where armor or weapons had been built into it.

"Well, I'm off. Hopefully it'll be something short and sweet. I'll get in touch with you later."

He started to leave, and Hinata held her breath for a moment. Then he stopped and, hesitantly, crossed back to the bed and gave her a quick kiss.

"Do your best, Hinata."

Her breath caught in her throat as she watched him leave. Silently, she drew the sheets up to her face and pressed the satiny trim of the quilt against her lips, savoring the kiss that still lingered and the heat which burned her face. Details from the night before soon followed, a heady collage of giggling and playing beneath the heavy black quilt she now lay beneath.

She'd bought that quilt for him. The symbol for faith picked out on it in white reminded her of him.

But she had a long day, and a longer night ahead of her. She rose and dressed quickly, the sharp chill of Naruto's unheated apartment making her gasp. Tight, stretchy exercise shorts with a sports bra for the natural bounty her mother had passed on to her were topped by a thick mesh shirt made all the heavier by the strong wire running through its core. Above that was a casual light blue sweatshirt and jogging pants, with inexpensive running shoes and a grey hooded jacket. She looked like a student on a day off, perhaps visiting family that had scraped hard to send her to one of the advanced studies academies. She only had one thing with her that set her apart from the commoners. In her pocket was a ring, braided platinum and gold, signifying her status as a member of the noble Hyuga family. Though she rarely wore it, she kept it with her.

Hinata slipped from the apartment quietly, locking the door behind her as Naruto had shown her the night before. She joined a rapidly growing throng of people, mostly working class contract workers filing out of the low rent residential district of the sixth ward and heading to the bus routes. With her hands jammed in her pockets, her hood up, and her head tilted down to the ground, no one paid her much mind on the streets, and hopefully no one would notice her eyes. The Hyuga were far from the best known of the noble families of the city, but there were those who did know them and their obvious physical trait, and many of those would wonder what one would be doing mixing with the commoners.

The bus was crowded with people jostling for seats and handholds, squishing their coats and jackets between them until they formed a comfortable, well padded mass, each lost in their thoughts and their neighbor's halitosis. Hinata found herself sandwiched in between the corner of a seat, an older man with heavily scarred hands who coughed occasionally, and an attractive younger woman who disdained handholds in favor of applying her makeup, and consequently fell against Hinata on several occasions when the bus took an unexpected turn. It was harmless enough, though she feared she'd never get the stench of the cheap perfume out of her nose.

She'd have to wash thoroughly before tonight. Kiba would have a sneezing fit if he could smell her now.

The bus was one of many to one of the light industrial complexes that dotted Saeni, but it let out close to an elderly shopping center catering to the kind of pretty young wife with no marketable skills other than her looks, but who has nevertheless managed to land a boring husband with an extremely modest income. Even beauty was no guarantee of success these days.

Predictably, makeup girl got off there. Hinata paralleled her route for a while, before she disappeared into a discount clothing store, pinning a nametag to her shirt as she walked.

The shopping district was quiet, with few people, mostly women, roaming the streets. Though it was clearly no economic mecca, it would probably bring in a steady trickle of customers as the morning wore on. Hinata wished a Benzon! coffee franchise had risked enough to open in the area, she found herself really wanting a tall cup of something steaming and a beignet.

Despite walking rather hunched, with her eyes directed at the ground, she was aware the instant the three young men in black leather looked at her from their conversation in the middle of the alley she was passing. She didn't see the biggest lightly backhand the shoulder of the one to his left, nor the round of nods that followed. She didn't have to. It was all in their eyes.

The drawback to being inconspicuous is that it draws the type of little predator specializing in the inoffensive.

She reached one hand up, as if to scratch her nose, and covertly formed a hand sign, a seal, for a split second. A whispered word of power came at the same instant, and suddenly there was a hardness to Hinata's eyes, strange eyes already so pale a grey as to nearly be white and pupilless. Tiny veins around her eyes bulged from the strain of the power she directed, but now her vision was truly unrestricted.

The toughs followed at a distance as her route took her into a street lined with failed businesses and hollow brick shells of insurance fraud. She had plenty of time to observe the smirks on their faces, full of the confidence of the never tested, and a greedy anticipation that made it clear what their intentions were. Of course, they preyed on the helpless women who worked and shopped in that area. There would be more money in a more well to do area, but also more risk, and they weren't risk takers. No, they would savor the easy fear, the primitive respect they would get in a place like this.

Hinata saw no weapons save a chain belt and a spiked set of metal knuckles. Good, that meant they were brawlers, and would want to get close.

Abruptly, she turned and headed into another alleyway running behind what used to be a restaurant, her pace quickening as it did so.

Her pursuers broke into a surprisingly swift run behind her. They knew the area better, and after a sharp turn the alley would dead end, once serving only as a way for deliveries to be made to the back of the building, and now as a convenient trap.

They rounded the corner at full tilt, intending to catch the girl as she desperately tried to get in the boarded up door at the rear. Instead, only a blank wall and a small mound of trash greeted them, even the old rusty dumpster having long been hauled away for scrap.

Two blocks over, Hinata walked along, her hands in her pockets, eyes averted down. There was another bus stop not too far up ahead, one that would take her downtown.

o/

Old Tarl shuffled painfully down the frontage road, making a soft click with each second step. Though younger than his nickname indicated, the years had not been kind to Tarl, especially since a brush with a field rigged land mind based around a 30mil HE round and a board with a nail in it ruined his chances as a promising young corporal and gave him an opportunity to try out the latest in discount prostheses, which was all the beleaguered crown could afford, along with his tiny pension.

Wrapped in a huge, nasty green greatcoat made his hunched figure hard to pin, but the square bit of metal with rubber cleats that served as his left foot indicated that at least part of that leg was fake. His head was nearly swallowed by a knit cap so greasy it was probably waterproof, and what of his face he allowed to be seen between the cap and his high collar was hidden by a thick ratty beard and mustache. Tarl muttered random obscenities at every step, cursing the cold, the slime, his aching real leg, his wife, and everything else he saw. Only his piercing yellow eyes didn't fit with his image of a slowly dying derelict, but you'd have to get within a few feet and look right at them to notice. The smell discouraged the curious.

Old Tarl got by.

The cobblestone street was empty, and slick as fresh snot with slime and muck. The stones had mostly slipped into the watery mush that passed for ground this side of the levy wall. Once, opportunistic businessmen, pressed sore by the climbing cost of real estate in the city proper, had banded together to create a mildly prosperous canal-front zone of street carts and a few stone buildings set against the levy wall, which could be abandoned during floods and cleaned out afterwards. The seasonal periods of slime and cleaning actually helped keep the place fresh and active.

These days, though, there were easier places to go broke, and the canal-front was left to the mercy of the floods. It was impressive what four feet of floodwater and oozing silt could do to unmaintained roads in a couple of years.

In his right hand, which was mostly covered by the fingerless cloth gloves popular among the less well to do, he leaned heavily on a stout wooden walking stick. His left hand was encased in a thick leather glove, and it gripped the handle of a large plastic bucket. A small glass wine bottle rattled around inside.

There was already someone sitting on the stone base of what was once a light pole, holding a nice sport fishing pole. He was a young man, sharp featured, with black hair pulled back into a short fuzzy ponytail. The rest of him was wrapped in black insulated pants and a coat, with dark brown boots and a green insulated vest. From the casual way he sat and watched the line trailing into the water, he'd been there a while.

Old Tarl ignored him, propping himself up close to the water's edge long enough to fish the bottle out of the bucket, then sitting the bucket upside down for use as a seat. He took a few moments to pull a tin of rancid liver out of one of the cavernous pockets of the greatcoat, unwind a hook and a few turns of fine line off the wide part of the bottle, and bait the hook. Then, painfully, he stood up, gripped the bottle with his bare thumb trapping the coils of line, and whirled the dangling hook over his head in an arc so the butt of the bottle pointed at the water and the coils of line he released slipped smoothly off the end just as the hook headed for the canal. It sailed neatly into the middle of the canal, a throw of maybe fifteen yards, and sank with a plop.

Only then, as he sat back on the bucket with a groan, did he say anything to the other man.

"Any luck this morning?"

The young man silently lifted a thin cable looped around his seat with his foot. In the water, something long and sinuous thrashed.

Merkaver eel, then. Decent eating, if it was hot.

Tarl settled down to wait, winding the line back onto the bottle until it was taut enough he could feel the bumps on the bottom as he dragged the hook slightly.

"I should have brought some tomato grubs," he mused aloud.

"Wrong season for grubs," replied the young man. "Salted bonefish heads work better."

Tarl relaxed slightly, losing a tension he didn't realize he had. "Nah, I though ahead last year. Put four dozen up in my wife's freezer. She bitched for a week."

"Do you have the info?"

Tarl blinked. "Damn, Nara, you need to be more circumspect playing this game. Don't switch gears in the middle of a conversation like that."

Shikamaru Nara glanced irritatedly at the old man. "I am in the process of starting a very troublesome day, and I'd like to get on with it."

Tarl chuckled at the younger man. Something about his tone said he'd rather sit there and fish all day just to avoid his responsibilities. Tarl felt around in one of the inside pockets of his greatcoat and pulled out a wad of stained, tightly folded paper bound with a couple of rubber bands, which he lobbed at the young man.

Shikamaru snatched it from the air and started shucking rubber bands, trapping his pole with his legs. The paper had been folded so many times it was nearly a ball, and it took him a moment to figure out the pattern and spread the crumpled mass on his thigh where he could read it. Wadded up in the very center was a crumpled photograph of an unsmiling, thin little man in a dark business suit getting into a car. Shikamaru plucked this off and stuffed it in a pocket.

"Names, schedules, places, dates, excellent," the young man murmured as he flipped through the sheets quickly.

"Mister Hill there has quite a fondness for Le Papillion's cuisine. He ate there at least twice a week, and never seemed to need a reservation," Tarl offered.

Shikamaru nodded, then began carefully folding the papers away.

"Oh, one more thing. I've got a job I need taken care of."

"Eh? A personal job?"

Tarl nodded. "I heard yesterday evening that Farad Umested wants me dead because of that information I sold on those dock hits his little gang was making. I don't know who tipped him off, but I can find that out later. There's not enough of his little robber gang left now to worry about, but Farad is still running around, supposedly in the Burlwood area. I'd like him killed, please."

"Ah, we have a policy of going through the main office. I'll pass it along with a good word." He shrugged as he began reeling his line in.

Tarl nodded. "Just take it out of my fee."

"Well then, I'm done here. You can keep the eel." He climbed easily to his feet and, resting his rod and reel on his shoulder, began walking away, back down the riverfront road to where a gate in the levy wall awaited.

Old Tarl watched him for a minute, then felt a light tug at his line that quickly went away. When he glanced back down the road, the young man was gone.

o/

The Sarutobi Memorial Clinic was new, less than three years old. The project had been conceived by the current administrator as both a specialized clinic for the most unusual diseases and a public works project, as it had been built on condemned land on what used to be a small park in the middle of the meanest ghetto in Saeni. The crown had given its full blessing to the project and even a substantial grant to insure the project's completion.

More than just a place for the afflicted, the crown knew it was the place to go to have things done. Though not quite a government intelligence service, the clinic served as the unassuming headquarters of the largest, most well organized secret operative organization in Saeni, the Leaf ninja. Mercenaries. Bodyguards. Thieves. Spies. Assassins. Leaf ninja would get the job done, and not always just for a price. Missions were weighed against the greater good of the city, and deep ties were maintained with the crown. Some missions, if deemed just, could be offered to those of reduced means at a steep discount, lest the Leaf become just another tool of oppression against the poor, and others, if truly foul in deed and intent, could not be bought at any price. Most often, however, customer and deed walked the broad, fuzzy realm of grey, and then it was simply a question of difficulty and price.

The Leaf did not give out many discounts, nor did they turn much business away.

Members were highly secretive. Many maintained covers, be they simple or elaborate. Backgrounds typically came as one of two types: either the person was an orphan or equivalent, secretly tested for aptitude as a child then selected, or born to one of the old ninja families and trained from birth. Through secret schools set up around the city and countryside, the Leaf put all their recruits through grueling years of training and testing, looking for loyalty, intelligence, and power, while being taught many techniques both magical and mundane. The best were formed into three man teams of the lowest level ninja, genin, and given a high rank master to oversee their growth.

These genin teams made the backbone of the Leaf work force, being assigned to the widest variety of noncombatant missions. Even with the care and thought put into the assignments, however, a genin had little better than a one in two chance of living to see a promotion.

The world was full of dangers. Though magical aptitude was preferred, even selected for, most powerful magic users were too wild, too fey to be trusted as a ninja. As a result, many ninja displayed only rudimentary talent for the advanced ninja arts, and faired poorly in a straight up fight against even a street brawler with a good natural spellflare.

Ninja were taught secrecy from the beginning. An unknown ninja could not be spotted in a crowd. A hidden ninja would not have to fight fair. A ninja's best asset was stealth.

Most of the time.

Naruto knocked softly on the heavy wooden door.

"Come in."

The office was large, and cluttered. Obscure medical journals lined bookcases, unidentifiable bits of people floated aimlessly in jars of preservative, a bleached skeleton hung despondently in one corner, and papers were piled everywhere. Piles and piles of papers, stacked especially high in one tray on the wide desk marked 'to do'. Naruto did a double take, glancing back at the skeleton. An unlit cigarette dangled incongruously from between its teeth.

"Morning, Granny," Naruto said casually. "The cigarette is new. I didn't know Betty had taken up smoking."

"Good morning, Naruto," said the middle aged woman behind the desk. "Hand it to me, please. It's supposed to be a visual reminder of what cigarettes will do to you. Shizune is after me to quit again." She was a tall woman, with long, blonde hair kept neat but allowed to swing freely. Her business casual jacket was generously cut, but even it strained to keep her ponderous breasts in check. More striking than her cleavage, however, were her eyes, which were cool and penetrating.

Naruto shrugged and took the cigarette from the skeleton's teeth, flicking it like a dart at the desk where it was caught between two fingers. "How's that working for you?" he asked, walking back to the desk.

Tsunade, the fifth Hokage and leader of the Leaf, took a cheap lighter from her desk drawer and lit the cigarette, taking a long drag as she did so. Letting the cigarette dangle from her lips, she shuffled a few papers on her desk and exposed a square porcelain ashtray, four stubbed out butts sticking up from its sand like bent nails.

"Pretty good," Tsunade replied. "So long as I remember to buy a pack and replace that one before Shizune gets back from Saeni general." She leaned forward and took another drag. "Let's talk about why I paged you."

"No kidding. You made a couple of very unhappy people this morning, Granny." He gave her a smirk.

For a moment she paused, looking at him, measuring. Finally, she said, "So you finally did it." She sighed. "I don't know whether to be glad, congratulate you, or strangle you for starting what's certainly going to be a big stink with the Hyuga clan."

The grin on his face told her he was quite aware of the consequences of his actions. How unlike the obnoxious, flippant boy who'd first challenged her, loudly, of course, over a perceived insult. Though, he certainly still had the disdain for the easy path, and the determination to never give up just because the task was hard. And the complete disregard for authority, of course. Why was it that the powerful ones were all such pains in the ass?

"Well, keep it discrete for the time being. We've got some jobs coming in. The client in this one asked especially for you."

"Really? Who is it?"

"Tyria sent a fresh delegation, a new cleanup team to tie up any loose ends the former Lady Umes might have left behind. Actually, it would probably be truer to say that the Sand ninja sent a cleanup team. The new Tyrian ambassador was chosen more for her favor with the Domina than skill."

Naruto nodded. The murder of the previous ambassador had caused a political nightmare, stretching thin the strands of alliance still loosely woven since the abortive war five years ago. Only the fact that the whole thing had been conclusively proven to be a deal gone bad with an industrial concern, and that the parties responsible had been remanded to Tyria's loving care, had kept another full scale war from breaking out. Another ambassador had been chosen with haste, and this time, she had not been one of Tyria's own shadowy ninja.

"I don't know why, but they've sent your old friends." Seeing Naruto's momentary blank look, she sighed. "Gaara, and his brother and sister, Naruto. Gaara asked for you personally."

Naruto brightened. "Hey, this could be fun. When do they get here?"

Tsunade shook her head in wonderment. Only Naruto would think escorting an insomniac possessed psycho, and a Tyrian at that, fun. "They'll be here on an airship just after noon. I'm glad you're looking forward to this, Naruto, but I've got another reason for assigning you to them."

"Huh?"

"Gaara of Tyria," she said simply. "You're the only one who can handle him, Naruto. He likes you, he trusts you, and he respects you. And without massing at least half our forces, you're the only one who has a chance of stopping him if he lets that thing loose here again."

For a moment Naruto's eyes seemed to flicker red, then he blinked and was himself again, smiling and scratching the back of his head. "Don't worry. If he lets shukaku out again, I'll just have to knock some sense into him."

Tsunade nodded. She had no doubt Naruto would do exactly that. "Good. Stick close, keep an eye on them, give what assistance they ask for, but keep me informed. If they decide to kill someone, make sure you run it by me first. We want to keep their visit as contained as possible. They may be your friends, but they are still Tyrians. Be wary."

At that, Naruto could do little but nod.

o/

Light from the leaden sky was pouring in through the clear panes of the window, managing to make the room both cold and depressing, which meant it was another beautiful early spring morning in Saeni.

Of course, beautiful is what you make of it.

The exotic girl with the wildly unkempt hair and a smile in her eyes lifted her head from the lean, muscular chest of the young man beside her. She rubbed one eye lightly and looked across the room at the wide champion's belt draped casually over the back of a straight-backed chair. Even the dreary Saeni light gleamed on its gold emblem. It would go nicely with the other three mounted on the wall.

"Oi, Lee," she murmured, poking her bedmate in the ribs.

Rock Lee groaned and put a hand to his forehead, running his fingers through his bowl cut black hair and rubbing his eyes with the calloused heel of his palm. He was hardly considered attractive in the usual sense, with bushy black eyebrows dominating his eyes, which were a trifle too small for his face to begin with. His nose was slightly lumpy, a relic of the number of times it had been broken, but no scratch marred it this morning.

"Ah, Tenten," were the first remorse laden words out of his mouth. "I fear I have failed you, I have failed Neji, I have failed my fans, I have… I have failed my teacher! Gai-sensei! Oh how I have failed you!" Tears began streaming down his face.

"Lee. Lee." She poked him again rather sharply as he rolled over with a groan, attempting to huddle into his misery.

"I am so unworthy of your touch, Tenten, do not waste your pity on me." He bolted upright, the move so fast it was nearly inhuman, though he immediately clutched at his head and moaned. "My defeat is a sore and bitter one, but still I must begin training once more, from the ground up, and I will return to the arena and prove myself worthy of-"

"Lee!" Grabbing his face from behind with both hands, she firmly forced his eyes open and directed his head at the belt on the back of the chair. "Lee, you won. Again."

He stared at the belt's gold emblem in shock for several long moments, long enough for Tenten to slip naked from the covers and wrap herself around him from behind, her firm breasts pressing against the iron ropes of his muscular back, her hands playing down his chest.

He didn't move when she bit him on the ear.

"Are you awake? Do you remember what happened?"

In a very small voice he asked, "What year is it?"

The bed rustled behind her, the sheet she'd disturbed slipping down to a narrow waist, and a casual hand rubbed along her spine, soothing away tension she didn't know was there. She sighed at the contact as her other bedmate propped himself up on an elbow to stare past them at the belt with pale liquid grey eyes.

She glanced back at the handsome face looking up at her, the pale skin covering well defined, elegant muscles contrasting sharply with the long tangle of black hair he lay on like a sheet, the remnants of the once neat ponytail trailing away at an angle. He only wore one stitch of clothing, a white cotton headband on his forehead, but that was more for his own version of modesty than a fashion statement.

"I told you the complimentary pre-fight champagne celebration was a bad idea," Neji reproached quietly.

She smiled back with an embarrassed chuckle. "But he won so easily! And without a scratch on him!"

"Then why do I feel like I just went toe to toe with the entire Darci regiment?" Lee moaned, his head drooping into his hands.

They looked at each other again.

"But he doesn't remember it," Neji replied patiently.

"And he was so enthusiastic last night," she added.

He just looked at her.

"I thought it was cute," she protested, wiggling her shapely rear. "And at least he's taking it easy this morning, rather than jumping up and starting another crazy training regimen.

Neji stared at her for a moment, then nodded slightly. "Point."

Tenten kissed Lee on the cheek, then slid down for a longer, more involved good morning with her healthy bedmate that left her breathing heavily when she finally sat up. She displayed perfect balance and control as she crawled down the bed as bonelessly graceful as a cat, barely shifting the semi comatose Lee and aware that Neji's eyes were on her. She found a pink silk bikini panty where it had been kicked under the edge of the bed and picked it up with one graceful motion of her leg, twisting and bringing her foot nearly up to her navel before removing the panty from her toes. She slipped it on, and a dresser drawer held a white tank top with a silkscreen of Lee on it giving his cheesiest 'good guy' pose and thumbs up, printed just before his second championship. Suitably attired for a morning with her boys, she turned to the other two, unsurprised to see that even Lee was watching her show, despite his hangover.

For her part she enjoyed the view as well. Neji reclined on the pillows like a god made flesh, or a sculpture in the palest marble. The sheet draped just so over his hip so his modesty was maintained, but the elegant lines between muscles where his legs joined his hips were on display, lines she loved to lick. If Neji was a god, Lee was all human, with features that seemed coarse by comparison, and his hair needed cutting, again. Still, his body practically glowed with vitality, a palpable, almost vibrating energy that told even the most inexperienced eye that he was instantly ready for action at any time, even here, now, sitting on the edge of the bed with his chin in his hands. Obsessive training and conditioning had given him strength in muscles most people never heard of, and when he lavished that same obsessiveness and drive on her… Well, his fan club wished they had it so good.

Best of all, they were there, in her bed, giving her the Look.

It was enough to make a girl shiver.

"Breakfast in bed for the reigning champion this morning, so just stay here, okay?" she said, bending over to look him in the face and giving him a soft caress on the cheek. She glanced at Neji. "Oh, by the way, your ponytail came undone last night." She turned and walked away as he muttered imprecations and grabbed for his ponytail, finding that less than half had remained bound by the scrunchie at the end.

She grabbed a hairbrush off the dresser as she walked out and tossed it unerringly over her shoulder, hearing the soft slap as it was caught.

"Hey, Neji?" she heard faintly. "How enthusiastic was I last night?"

Breakfast for Lee was his favorite, a quart of something blended to a sickly green color and so vile it could only be sold to the kind of masochist that lives to work out, as well as a tall glass of cold tomato juice with celery stalks as a garnish. Unknown to Lee, who avoided all kinds of drugs if possible, Tenten had dumped the powdery contents of a packet of headache cure in his juice. For herself and Neji she'd added a pot of hot breakfast tea, several pieces of fruit, and a couple of bagels with spread.

She found Neji, his hair still in disarray, sitting cross legged on the bed behind Lee, using those wonderful hands of his to massage away Lee's headache. That was the Hyuga gift, to always see where to poke, where to rub. It had been bred into them for hundreds of generations, some said thousands, and it might even be believed that it had been engineered by the ancient Genrous purely to create the ultimate watchdog. Certainly they were a very old clan, and their perfect vision gave them extraordinary prowess in battle, because they could see just where to strike for maximum damage.

They also could see where to touch the body to create other effects.

"The juice first, Lee, drink it slowly," she said, handing the tomato juice over. "You're dehydrated."

"Ah, thank you Tenten," he said gratefully, holding the celery sticks trapped between index and middle finger to keep them out of his nose as he tilted the glass and carefully sipped.

She sat the burnished bronze tray on the night stand and poured tea for herself and Neji, who accepted his with a nod of thanks. He ceased his treatment of Lee as well, letting the other man sip his juice, and accepted an imported yellow guava. Tenten would eat one as well, but she preferred to eat fruit last at breakfast, as kind of a dessert, so she started with a bagel and cheese spread.

After some chewing, and most of the tomato juice, Lee began to feel more like himself. As his headache cleared and he finished his protein shake, he began to get dressed.

"Lee, what are you doing?" Tenten asked.

"I'm getting dressed," he replied seriously. "I may have won last night, but I have a lot of training to do today."

Tenten and Neji exchanged looks.

"Uh, Lee, we've already got plans for today. We've got a mission tonight."

"A mission?"

"The Yang mansion party," Neji supplied. "We were added to the duty list yesterday."

Lee looked confused. "Why? Shino's team and Shikamaru's team will both be there."

"Shino Aburame will be there as entertainment, restricting his movements, leaving only Inuzuka and Akamichi as heavy fighters," Neji explained patiently. "To add a measure of safety, we have been asked to attend tonight. Your recently affirmed fame will add to the chaos of the party. With your reputation as a fighter, it will not be seen as odd if you need to feign insult and challenge someone to a duel to screen our operations."

"Plus, it'll be fun," Tenten added enthusiastically. "How often do we get to party and get paid at the same time? There's no way this mission needs this many people, but you know it never hurts to have backup. The Hokage probably just decided we deserved an easy mission for a change. It's only a D rank."

"So what does that have to do with my training today?" Lee asked.

"Leeee…" Tenten drawled with mock exasperation. "You just won the yearly Pit Brawl Championship! Again! You can't show up at a big party like this without looking your best!"

Lee looked at her in confusion, then over to Neji, who was smirking.

"She means you can't wear your fighting clothes. Or your training gear. Or any of the good clothes she made you buy last year, because they're all out of style. In short," Neji said, giving him a serious look, "we're on a mission today to make you look stylish."

Lee looked horrified.

o/

It wasn't very big, just a local Watch office for the Third ward, but Hinata stopped and looked at it speculatively. It was a pretty good sized building for the area, imposing walls of dark, weatherbeaten stone soaring a dozen stories up, but it was nothing compared to the main Saeni station, which included more departments and dominated a city block.

It was the wrong ward. But, police were police. And there was no reason for the people in that little shopping district to have to put up with thugs like the ones who'd briefly chased her.

Hinata walked up the steps to the big double doors, slipping her braided platinum and gold ring on as she did so. A guard sitting towards one side of the door nodded politely at her, but watched her closely as she walked in, keeping his hand near a submachine gun dangling from his neck by a strap. She was the only person currently looking to enter the building.

The inside opened up into a large foyer, with scuffed green and white checked tile and little benches on each side. Further in it opened up into a large processing room, with desks clustered together over about half of it, separated by a tall thick glass wall with thick gridded supports. One wall on the available side had several people manning bank teller style windows behind thick glass as well. Only a few police were on her side, mostly behind desks, though one smartly uniformed man was apparently checking in a couple of sullen young men in bright, swirling robes to an overweight woman.

Hinata made for the desk beside the door to the officer's side of the room, where a bored looking man in his forties read through a folder.

"Excuse me?" she began politely, then swallowing and remembering to be assertive. "Is there someone in charge around here?" she continued, tapping her ring prominently on the bare wood of the desk.

The officer hadn't looked up at first, but at the tap he glanced at where her hand rested against the edge of his desk, fingers twisted just so, allowing the characteristic marks of her ring to be seen. He swallowed, then glanced up at her. At first, it didn't seem like he wanted to believe it, the indecision was writ plain on his face. She knew she cut less than an imposing figure, and a ring was hardly proof of lineage, though her eyes would be easy proof, if he knew of the Hyuga trait.

She twisted her head slightly and brushed back a bit of hair from her face, using the motion to deliberately catch and hold his gaze, putting every bit of the confidence she possessed into her expression, as well as a little irritation at his delay in answering, allowing her hand to fall to the hem of her jacket. His gaze followed her hand.

Apparently, he didn't recognize her eyes, but besides, the penalty for impersonating a member of a landed family was deliberately harsh, and generally fatal. His eyes changed focus, switching from her ring to the unassuming jacket and back.

"Of course… Lady, uh, let me call him." He picked up a phone and punched a button. "Uh, Chief? I've got a Lady…" He glanced at her questioningly.

"Hyuga," she supplied.

"Lady Hyuga here wanting to speak to you." He paused, waiting for the reply.

Hinata's ears were no better than ordinary human, so she couldn't make out the faint sounds coming from the earpiece, but she watched emotions flicker across the officer's face. Nervousness, a kind of anticipation, then amusement, doubtlessly at the imprecations the chief had muttered against all nobility and her in specific, then finally relieved agreement, nodding even, as doubtlessly she was to be allowed through. The human face was remarkably expressive, if you saw fit to read it.

He pressed a button beneath his desk, and there was an audible click from the door beside it. "His office is in the back right corner, please go ahead, Lady Hyuga."

"Thank you, Officer," she replied with a soft smile.

A few on duty officers stared at her as she walked through, though most were far too busy with computer terminals and the endless stacks of paperwork she saw on each desk. The Chief's office was easy to find according to her directions, though, strictly speaking, it wasn't exactly in the corner, just as near to it as any office could get. An elevator shaft, apparently a retrofit, filled the corner, the ill fitting sheet metal shell of its outside contrasting sharply with the stone walls that surrounded it.

The Chief himself was a surprisingly young, fit man for so venerable a beaurocratic position, but there was still a tiredness, a world weary, haunted look in his eyes. He looked like one who'd risen to the lofty title of Chief the hard way, and would probably be all to happy to return to his pike and machine pistol and leave the soul crushing decisions to someone else now that he knew what real responsibility was. And now, here comes some arrogant little shit whose only grace was being born into nobility to complain to him personally that someone had spit at her shoes or something.

His personal feelings aside, her family could make trouble for him, though, and he'd probably do the sensible thing and at least make a nod to whatever demand she made of him.

Hinata felt sorry for him. But if she let herself go too soft, he'd ignore her. And the women of the shopping center in ward six deserved more than that.

She breezed in coolly, took a seat without his permission, and leaned forward, starting at him intently. This had the effect of making her seem energetic, dynamic, and intense, and gave him an excellent opportunity to see the Hyuga trademark in her eyes.

He took it, naturally, a police chief, even in a poor ward such as this, would have encountered a certain amount of politicking, and would know of the Hyuga and their visible trait. His shoulders seemed to slump slightly, signaling defeat before he'd even began. He'd clearly been hoping she was an imposter.

"Ah, how may I help you today Lady-"

"Hinata Hyuga," she interjected quickly, and moved on. "Actually, I'm here today due to an incident in the sixth ward. Now, I know that that is not your territory. I'm not here to ask you to do anything but relay a message, a request, actually, to your counterpart in that ward, but I'd like him to give it the same due consideration he'd give it if I, or my father, asked him in person."

The chief, Brason by the nameplate on his desk, blinked, surprised by her delivery. "And your request…?"

"Earlier today, I was walking alone through the Arbett shopping center in ward six…"

His expression changed, showing a mixture of disbelief and contempt.

"Contrary to popular belief, we don't all ride around in luxury cars and drink our family's money away. This shopping center seemed nice enough, for the lower class. But as I was leaving, I caught the attention of three low class thugs who decided I would be easy prey, at least as easy as the women of the area they doubtlessly preyed on. I managed to evade them, though they chased me clear out of the ward." She leaned forward, projecting sincerity. "Which brings me to my request. I would like for that shopping center to be patrolled a little more heavily, and those three street trash thugs taken care of. Other women will not have the resources I have." There. That should be vague enough on how she'd managed to evade the would be muggers. The trick was maintaining her air of entitlement while trying to give the impression she enjoyed playing an everyday girl.

Chief Brason nodded slightly, clearly nonplussed. This was probably the weirdest thing that had happened to him all week. "And I suppose you'd also like a few of my finest to be your personal bodyguards while you continue your…" He waved his hands vaguely. "Slumming with the lower classes experiment or whatever."

Controlling her impulse to flinch at his accusation, she slowly raised one eyebrow. "Please, Chief Brason, I prefer to think of it as a personal holiday. And no, I'm quite capable of taking care of myself. I simply ask that you pass along my polite request to see that the women of that shopping center do not have to be afraid of pathetic muggers in an area that should be safe for them." She tapped her ring on the edge of his desk, pointedly. "After all, taking care of the people beneath us is a duty of the noble families." She paused, as if thoughtfully. "Or it is to some."

"Protecting the innocent of the city is a duty some of us take very seriously," he replied tiredly.

"Does that mean you'll relay my request?"

He nodded, giving her a wan smile. "We always listen to the suggestions of civic minded leaders of the city. Including future leaders of the city."

She rose and gave him a deep bow of respect. "Then, Chief Brason, may I give you my most heartfelt thanks. I'm sure the workers and customers of the Arbett shopping center would thank you, as well. Now, I'm quite sure you're a busy man, and I won't be taking up any more of your time." She gave him another little bow, then, excusing herself, slipped from the office.

He was left staring after her in complete bafflement.

Well, that went well, she thought to herself as she quickly slipped out to the processing side of the room. Her threat was completely empty, anyway. There's no way she could have used her family's influence to either punish or reward Chief Brason. Her family didn't work that way.

On the way out the door, though, a flash of pink caught her eye. She turned to see a poster tacked up on a message board. The person in the poster was a pretty young woman, bright green eyes lit up in a smile, with short, ragged hair the same shade as cherry blossoms.

Hinata's heart stopped for one sickening minute.

That was a very familiar face.

Suddenly her pulse pounded in her throat and her face went nearly as white as her eyes in shock.

The haircut was different, but Hinata had been well trained to look past such superficial differences. No effort had been made to disguise the fine boned features of that face. There was no doubt in her mind, that was a picture of her.

Sakura Haruno.

"No…" she gasped, her hands clutching at her jacket. Quickly, she read the words below the picture.

Missing. $1000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Sakura Kano, female. Height 5'2", weight 103lbs. Last seen inside Kano's Family Restaurant, 3rd ward, accompanied by a man called Dex Malic.

Hinata ripped it from the wall and studied it closely. Dates! She needed the date! Was this an old poster, posted by some contact of Sakura's back when she was alive? Or had Sakura somehow managed to survive the battle with Orochimaru?

Hinata shook her head forcefully. Impossible. They'd found parts of her body at the scene. She'd found her severed hand personally.

But… a hand is not a whole body. They'd never truly found her body. Just… evidence.

Carefully folding the posted and stuffing it in her pocket, Hinata hurried from the station and resumed her trek down the sidewalk.

Evidence is not proof. She'd seen others survive, even completely heal, injuries as bad or worse than what evidence had pointed to Sakura receiving, though Sakura had never shown abilities like those. Naruto was a perfect example of being able to heal from nearly anything.

Her heart lurched.

Naruto.

Sakura.

Sakura had been his first love, his one obsession. They'd been teammates, once, with the traitor Sasuke Uchiha. Only since Sakura's death had Hinata finally managed to overcome her shyness and make Naruto aware of her feelings, but she knew he still missed her. Their friendship was older, deeper than anything Hinata had yet achieved.

If Sakura was still alive, Naruto would drop anything, everything to run after her. To run back to her.

"Well well. If it isn't miss I think I'm so gods-damned clever. Fancy running in to you here."

Berating herself for ignoring her surroundings, Hinata whirled to her side, where three men were walking her way from an adjoining side street.

The same three men from earlier that morning, except now they had confident, angry grins.

How did they find her? She was miles from where she'd lost them.

"Byakugan!" she hissed, her hand forming a seal, even as she slid into a fighting stance. Time seemed to slow down as they spread out, clearly intending to surround her, and her vision expanded. She took a moment to really look at them, deeper than she had before.

Ahah.

There, below the skin, below the flesh, apart from it and yet connected, were the paths that the mix of experience, drive, magic, soul, and chi that her teachers had called 'chakra' flowed. Everyone's were different. Only characteristics would be similar, such as the toning and flow of chi which indicated a martial artist, or the soul and magic flows which would indicate a spellcaster of some sort. Hinata could see them all. Experience told her what they meant.

"Weres!" she said softly.

"Wolves, actually," the biggest said conversationally.

"You tracked me by scent." It was not a question.

"You shouldn't have left it behind," he joked. "Now we're gonna take the time we spent looking for you out of your ass."

With that graphic suggestion, he and his companions stopped, then, as reality twisted around them, began to stretch and grow.

A novice, or indeed anyone not prepared for such, might have frozen in horror as the three men began to shift into their deadly hybrid wolfman forms.

Though they didn't know it, Hinata was no novice, had seen it all before, and was hardly unprepared. In fact, she'd been waiting on it. Darting forward in the moves of her family's secret martial arts technique, she used quick, light two fingered strikes of both hands to hit the leader twice, then four, then eight times at specific points on his chest. Despite the deceptively light strikes, he grunted in pain and began to stumble backwards as she slipped to one side and slammed sixteen, then thirty two, then sixty four lightning quick jabs in the space of a few seconds into the second thug's body. That left her back to the final opponent, who was beginning to complete his transformation, and was stepping forward to swing a vicious, partially transformed claw at the back of her neck.

Hinata had no trouble seeing directly behind her.

Twisting her body with a speed and precision the untrained street thugs never had a chance of matching, she shifted styles, slapping open palms to and dragging them across the surface of the smallest werewolf's chest as she ducked his wild swing, dancing back, then stepping forward with a single open palmed strike to his heart that resonated with a shock of power, sending him reeling.

For a moment, everyone but the transformed wolfman was still, and he was falling backwards, bright red froth and dark bits of flesh bubbling from his gaping mouth as he clutched at his chest.

"What, what have you done to me," gasped the leader, staring in horror at his completely human hands. Beside him, the second man she struck had an equally shocked expression on his now ugly face. Caught in partial transformation, and stopped.

"Shifting takes a surge of magic through your body, starting with your center," Hinata said quietly. "I just stopped that surge from going where it needed to go, leaving you stuck as a human." Not permanently, but they didn't need to know that. It took more time the farther into the transformation the were was, too, as the magic raced down the body's pathways, branching, then branching again. Three perfect strikes might prevent an unsuspecting were in human form from shifting, but it would take the closure of nearly all of them to arrest a nearly complete transformation. A simple, physical touch wouldn't do it, either. Each one of her strikes had been a projection of her chakra from the ends of her fingers, a control learned only by those who could actually see the shape it formed. Even then the touch had to be perfectly on target, aiming at the secret pressure points of the body, which were invisible to the human eye. Therefore, it was a technique unique to the Hyuga clan, a powerful secret technique passed down for countless generations.

"You bitch! I'll kill you for this!" he snarled, charging with a haymaker punch.

His partially transformed friend also attacked, baring elongated canines as he did so. "I will tear out your heart and eat it, little girl!"

The punch was ducked easily, and she added an open palm strike to the back of his shoulder and to his vulnerable side as she slipped by him, causing a remarkably wolf like howl of pain to tear from his human throat.

His companion was a different story, since he'd not overextended himself like the leader, but still had a significant reach advantage over Hinata. As she moved to let him charge by, he stopped far too near her, reaching for her arm. She jumped backwards, barely keeping him from grabbing her feet, then, as soon as she landed, jumped again, over him, landing just behind the leader, who was clutching at his arm. Sixteen more two fingered strikes struck him in the injured side, then another deceptively soft open palm strike took him in the floating ribs, doubling him up with pain.

The Jyuken, or Gentle Fist style relied entirely on the Hyuga ability to see within their opponent and the control they had over their own spirit and chi. By projecting the ephemeral chakra into the body of their enemy with the soft, quick touches of the fighting style, not only could the chakra pathways be struck, the very organs could be, as well. No training, no ability, and no magical shield had ever been developed that armored the organs and made them harder to hurt.

Then, as the partially transformed one rushed her from behind, it was an easier matter to side step him this time, as rage had fueled his speed, and made it harder for him to change direction. A nearly contemptuous slap to the side of his head as he passed put the light out in his eyes, and he crashed to the ground in a heap, unconscious from the trauma she had projected into his brain.

However, being able to directly hurt the internal organs of the opponent, such as when she shredded the lungs and burst the heart of the fully transformed wolfman, doesn't mean that they can't heal the damage.

"That hurt," came the growl as the tawny hybrid shakily regained his feet, wiping blood from his jaws with the back of one huge, furred hand. An unholy light gleamed in his yellow eyes. "I'll hurt you more." Even as she watched, the pulse of his heart grew stronger, more efficient, and the lungs aired up again, changing from shredded sacks to strong bellows as the rents she had projected into them sealed up.

The unconscious one was starting to stir slightly, though the leader still held his side and moaned. When you fought a crowd, you did it one at a time, but you had to do it quickly.

Shifting her stance once again, she visualized the pattern drilled into her through years of hard training. She could see the wolfman clearly, see every loop, path, and pressure point of the hidden circulatory system that, among other things, transported the life energy that made the werewolves' astonishing regenerative abilities possible. Everything and its relation to her in space was fixed in an instant.

Then she was moving in a flicker too fast to follow, and two, four, and more two fingered strikes hit all over the werewolf, shutting off the mystic life streams in his body, pinching nerves, numbing muscles, blocking blood flow. The werewolf twisted and tried to dodge, to escape the torrent of blows, but Hinata was fast and merciless, following him as he writhed. Finally, a total of a three hundred and sixty one strikes hit, and the wolfman staggered three more steps and collapsed. His entire life network was closed, cut off.

For any but the strongest opponent, that kind of shock was fatal. Even as she watched, breathing heavily from the extraordinary exertion, his heart quivered in ventricular fillibration, and finally grew still. In effect, the werewolf died of a heart attack.

Clenching her fists in anger, she turned to the other two. The leader was on one knee, trying to rise, but the effort made him hiss in pain as he stretched his abdomen. Before her last blow to his side, she had also blocked some of his healing, though she'd only had time to do it to a small area.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" she whispered at he looked up at her, his face a rictus of pain, fear, and rage. "I should know. It's been done to me enough."

"Damn you, bitch," he wheezed. "You'll pay for this."

Tears welled up in Hinata's eyes, though her vision remained as perfect as ever. "Damn me? Damn you! If you'd just left me alone, your friend would still be alive. I didn't want to fight you. I don't want to kill you." She wiped at her eyes with the back of one hand, then took a deep breath to compose herself. "But now, you've put me against my duty. I'm sorry. I didn't want to have to do this. But I can't let you go now. You're a danger to innocent people everywhere… and you've seen too many of my abilities."

The last thing that occurred to him as she darted forwards with those light, mincing steps was the regret in those unnatural eyes.