Konoha no Senkou Arashi - Flash Tempest of Konoha

Two months. I had the time, but I stopped typing for a while as I let my wrists heal from my carpal tunnel. I spent so much time at the computer and never realized it could cause damage. They're good now, I can apply pressure.

So this is a public service announcement: If there is anyone out there as dumb as me, TAKE CARE OF YOUR WRISTS. Stretch them. I'm probably stretching mine as you're reading this. Don't type so much or keep your hand on the mouse for hours at a time.

Moving along.

Thanks to the new search features, I'm now aware that under the Naruko tag, this story is the second most reviewed, and has the most favs and alerts (follows)!

I just want to thank you all for the support. Gives me a nice feeling and a bit of an ago boost, while also humbling. Not sure if I've mentioned this, but my goal is to create the best Fem!Naruto on the site. I didn't know it until Psalm pointed out to me that I was writing a story I wanted to read. I'm happy that others are enjoying it.

Hi no Tsuno - Horn of Fire

Saizensen - front, first line, spearhead

Ita Shima - Man-eater Island

Sakura stepped into her sandals, hands on the straps of her pack. She turned back to her parents. "I'm going to meet my team."

Her father's arm wrapped around her mother's shoulders. Soft hands wrung creases into the blue apron that bore witness to Sakura's childhood. A childhood that shrank further into the distance every time she put on her hitai-ate.

"Be careful, Sakura-chan."

She appreciated their concern, but hated when they fretted. Sakura didn't want her parents to worry every time she set foot outside of the house. She had already been on two C-rank missions outside of the village.

Of course, this time would be different. She'd be leaving for more than a few days, and, unbeknownst to her parents, the mission could be dangerous. Her father didn't say anything, but his brow creased as if he could tell.

She reassured them with a bright smile. "I'm always careful, Mom. Kurenai-sensei wouldn't have it any other way."

Her mother put forth a smile of her own. "What would you like for dinner when you get back?"

"Hm." Sakura tapped her chin in mock-thought. "How about umeboshi and anko with lots of syrup?"

A chuckle broke her father's frown. "Anything that won't rot your teeth catch your fancy?"

She gave a helpless shrug. "Nothing coming to mind. Bye Mom, bye Dad. I'll see you soon."

Sakura stepped out her family home, closing the door behind her. She sighed upon being freed of the silent pressure her parents emitted, their instincts to not let her go.

She headed toward her team's usual meeting spot. But today wouldn't be a usual day. She had a mission. With Sasuke-kun.

Sakura straightened her back

Well, her team was assigned a joint mission with Sasuke-kun's team.

Her Academy mindset had popped up that morning to suggest that she wear a bit of makeup to catch Sasuke-kun's eye. Perhaps some nail polish or lipstick. But she pushed the idyllic fantasies of a schoolgirl out of her head. Kurenai-sensei would ream her for it. Although the woman herself did wear a fair amount of eyeshadow and lipstick...

Sasuke-kun would be there. But she had a mission, and so packed and dressed accordingly for that alone. Boy, had her priorities changed.

Or maybe it wasn't so much her goals that had changed as much as how she went about achieving them.

Sakura fingered the ends of her hair. For years she primped and groomed fluffy pink locks to perfection, combing through them hundreds of times each morning. A smooth pool of pink hair once reached to the middle of her back, but now her locks barely dropped below her chin.

She had to admit, having short hair was really a time saver. It required much less maintenance. As she walked, Sakura's mind drifted back to the event that caused her to do something that would have been unthinkable only four months ago...

Sakura's legs carried her after the rest of Team Eight. If her mind wasn't clouded with despair, she wouldn't have traveled downwind of Kiba's kennel scent. But she couldn't be bothered to give it much thought.

Sasuke-kun wouldn't even look at her to say goodbye. She had been certain, so sanguine that her destiny and right to life was to be with Sasuke-kun. But she wasn't even selected for his team. Two other girls had been given the privilege. Hinata, she could understand. But Naruto? The same girl who stole Sasuke-kun's first kiss?

It wasn't fair.

Their sensei lead them to a quiet training area and primly sat herself on a log. Kiba plopped down in front of her, and Shino lowered himself to the ground as if preparing for meditation. Sakura smoothed her dress and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees.

Kurenai eyed them for a moment and said, "I'm your jonin sensei, Yuuhi Kurenai. I know you're all likely acquainted with each other at least in passing, but... what say you humor me and we all introduce ourselves? We'll each tell the group something we would like to achieve. And as teammates, we should help each other with those goals whenever possible. I'll go first.

"By the time I retire, I'd like to have helped prove that a woman can be just as good a ninja as a man. I'm a recently promoted jonin, so this is my first team, but I'd like to see each of you wearing vests someday."

"That sounds good me!" Kiba said. "Although I don't think they make one in Akamaru's size, Sensei..."

Kurenai raised a brow. "I'm certain you can make a request if you get promoted. Why don't you go next, Kiba?"

Kiba shrugged. With Shino being so passive, it was obvious he'd be the alpha male on the team. "I'm Inuzuka Kiba." He gave a wolfish grin. "It's alright if you haven't heard of me. Everyone will know my name soon enough. This is my partner, Akamaru," he said, giving the puppy in his jacket a pat on the head.

Akamaru yipped.

"I like training with Akamaru and taking him on walks through the countryside." Kiba snickered under his hood. "There's hardly a tree in all the Land of Fire he hasn't marked on yet."

Sakura scowled in disgust and lowered her chin to her knees.

Kurenai's red lips stretched into a sardonic smile. "I'll keep that in mind when we're traveling. Next," she said, looking at the more quiet of the two boys.

He was as still and silent as a statue before reaching up to adjust his sunglasses. "Aburame Shino. My desire is to serve Konoha as best I am able."

Kiba stared until he was certain nothing else would be added."That's it?" He snorted and shook his head. "You're never gonna stand out with an attitude like that, Shino. You'll always blend into the background."

"Perhaps that is where I will be most effective."

"It's an admirable goal," Kurenai said. "All shinobi strive to do the same, even if it's under the guise of our personal reasons. Every lesson you've learned and will learn is for the good of the village." She looked at her kunoichi student.

Sakura tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'm Haruno Sakura. I want, uh," Sakura blushed and looked away. "Well, the thing I want is..."

Kiba barked a laugh. "Guess she'll always have Sasuke on the brain. I can save us some time and say she obsessively stalks the guy. I don't think helping her goal would even be legal, Sensei."

Sakura threw the boy a mortified look.

"Don't interrupt," Kurenai said patiently. "You were saying, Sakura?"

She glared at Kiba almost defiantly. "I want to be a chunin," the girl muttered before returning her chin to her knees.

Kurenai nodded and stood; the genin followed suit. "As a team, we'll have to work as a cohesive unit if we want to complete missions successfully. Meaning we will each need to become intimately familiar with the skills and abilities of our teammates. We'll each take turns giving a demonstration of a skill we possess." Kurenai formed a short sequence of hand-seals. "I specialize in genjutsu."

Kurenai focused her chakra on her students to submit them to a low level genjutsu. In addition to demonstrating a portion of her ability, it served to test each genin's ability to break the hold of an illusion.

Kurenai smiled as Sakura practically shrugged off the genjutsu. As she suspected, the girl had potential. She felt Shino break free a moment later. He adjusted his glasses and turned his head in Sakura's direction, before giving the same attention to Kiba.

Kiba remained in a daze, and even Akamaru's jumping out of his jacket and barking wasn't snapping him out of it.

"Well done, you two," Kurenai said, the back of her hand on her hip. "But it seems Kiba isn't able to free himself. How should we help him?"

Sakura glanced at Shino before hesitantly raising her hand. "We have to disrupt his chakra flow for him."

"Correct. Would you show us how this is done, Sakura?"

Sakura gulped and walked over to the glassy eyed Kiba. She found it eerie how Shino's head followed her movements the way the eyes of a painting would. His neck seemed to twist like an owl's.

She put her hands the tora seal before tapping Kiba's arm lightly enough that she was sure his contagious smell wouldn't latch on to her.

Feral eyes blinked as if waking up from a deep sleep. Akamaru released a series of barks. Kiba's hand slapped on his forehead and dragged down his face.

Kurenai hummed thoughtfully. "It seems you require training in genjutsu."

Kiba's face twisted in a scowl. "It's not like that would have worked on me in a fight. I would have avoided it."

The jonin gave him a direct look. "An enemy won't be considerate enough to inform you that you are under a genjutsu. They tend to be rude in that fashion."

Sakura giggled.

"There is another method you can use to break a genjutsu." Kurenai overlooked them. "Does anyone know what it is?"

Sakura opened her mouth, but Shino beat her to it. "A suitably painful sensation, that is not the product of the genjutsu itself, will disrupt the experience intercept function of a genjutsu."

Kurenai nodded. "Correct, Shino. Most genjutsu are conscious mind versus conscious mind, where I, the genjutsu user, create a false reality for your conscious mind, or try to raise or lower the activity in the brain.

"Our unconscious mind handles breathing, gland cycling, processing millions of signals from all the sensory receptors throughout the body, balance, and many other automatic systems. As far as thinking power goes, it's far superior to our conscious mind. Since genjutsu is performed mostly with the conscious mind, the genjutsu user does not have the multitasking to fool the enemy's unconscious mind. Almost everyone who tries is easily thwarted, as the victim gets a sense of things not being right - the unconscious mind identified incongruities in the input. The effect is incomplete at best, and usually entirely ineffective.

"Everyone's unconscious mind feeds their conscious mind only a tiny amount of the information it deals with - that's why you forget about your breathing or the sensation of the socks hugging your legs. We can fake that small stream of information, so a genjutsu user intercepts the majority of information between the unconscious mind and the conscious mind and substitutes it with the one they desire. This is the experience intercept function.

"Pain, however, travels along special paths in the brain. These paths are hard to block, and are essentially the unconscious mind screaming at the conscious mind. That screaming will be heard over most genjutsu and disrupt the false feed of information."

Kiba frowned with a pained expression. "What?"

Shino looked at him for a moment and sighed. "Essentially," he said, translating to Kiba, "if you hurt enough," straining to limit his vocabulary sufficiently, "the genjutsu will break. It will need to be... really painful."

"Yes, although some ninja tend to be a bit dramatic in how they go about this," Kurenai said, giving her head a shake. "Sometimes they give themselves a debilitating injury, like breaking a finger. Don't do that. Biting your lip is a far better. You'll bleed for a moment, but you'll still be able to form hand-seals easily."

Akamaru yipped and clamped his tiny jaws onto Kiba's leg.

"Ow! Akamaru, you only do it if I'm under a genjutsu!"

Kurenai laughed softly. "I believe that may be a sufficient sensation. Now, who's next?"

Eager to show what he was really made of, Kiba jumped forward. He had to save some face after failing with the genjutsu. "Let's go all out, Akamaru! Shikyaku no Jutsu!" (Four Legs Technique!). Kiba became even more feral in appearance, his nails and canines growing, becoming sharper.

He then reached into his pouch and tossed his partner a soldier pill. The ninken chomped down on it. Akamaru lived up to his name as red colored his fur. He jumped on Kiba's back as the latter formed a seal. "Jujin Bunshin!" (Beast Human Clone!). Akamaru became a perfect likeness of Kiba.

"Gatsuga!" (Fang Passing Fang!). Boy and dog each became destructive, whirling masses of teeth and claws, tearing trees apart and splitting rocks in a coordinated effort.

Right up until they collided into each other. Sakura winced at the impact.

Kiba and Akamaru dropped like stones, no longer transformed into mirror images.

Kiba groaned and sat up, rubbing his skull. He looked as close as he ever did to bashful. "Ah, well, Akamaru is still getting the hang of that technique, so..."

Akamaru growled and shook his head, his floppy ears swaying.

The feral boy rounded on him. "It was so your fault! You zigged when you were supposed to zag!"

Akamaru let out two strong barks.

"Oh yeah, bring it!"

Akamaru barked again before jumping onto Kiba's head. They engaged in a wrestling match. It was Kiba's burst of laughter that let the others know it was in good fun.

Kurenai noted Kiba's enthusiasm; while it could begin leading his more hesitant and cautious teammates in the right direction, it could easily get them in over their heads.

She roughly cleared her throat with a frown. The tussle paused. Kiba released Akamaru's ears, and the dog stopped biting his arm.

"Thank-you, Kiba, that will suffice. Shino?"

Shino removed one hand from the pocket of his jacket. He stretched his fingers out. A black dot moved from his sleeve to his fingertip, followed by another, then dozens more. A low buzzing sound floated through the air.

Sakura squinted at his hand as innumerable blotches covered it. Her eyes flew wide as she recognized what was happening. She shrieked and backed away from him.

She pointed at him shakily. "Shino, you... bugs are crawling out of your skin!"

"I'm quite aware," Shino said in perfect monotone. "This is my clan's ability, the Kikaichu no Jutsu," (Parasitic Destruction Insect Technique). The bugs flew off of Shino's arm in a compact swarm. "The kikaichu can consume a target's chakra. It can leave them completely drained and unable to sustain their own life, should I desire. This same ability allows us to communicate with other, more simple minded insects as well."

Sakura shuddered at seeing the undulating glob of flying insects. "Please stop doing that. I think I'm gonna be sick..."

"You do not approve," Shino stated, unsurprised. People were usually nauseated by his abilities. Girls especially so. He'd long since learned to keep to himself.

Sakura shook her head, rubbing at her bear arms. "It's gross!"

Kurenai frowned at the girl. Sentiments like that weren't going to help bring Shino out of his shell. Or rather, his cocoon. Though it would be hypocritical to blame Sakura too severely. She'd had a similar reaction when first witnessing an Aburame at work.

"Some ninja techniques created and practiced here in Konoha are considered grotesque by other villages," Kurenai said. "Konoha has similar views on certain techniques in other villages. It is the effectiveness of a technique that matters, not what others think of it."

Shino scrutinized her for a long moment. Then nodded. The insects receded into his body.

Kurenai returned the nod. She knew that kind of acceptance was a change of pace for a young Aburame.

Kiba walked over, waving his bitten hand at the other boy. "Hey, you said you can control other insects?"

"That is incorrect. I am only able to communicate with them."

"Well, yeah. Think you can you check Akamaru for flees every once in a while? We'd save a ton on shampoo."

Shino turned his head and would have looked him the eyes if not for his dark lenses. "That would interfere with the natural cycle. It is in the nature of the host to try and rid themselves of parasites, just as it is the nature of parasites to siphon life. This process strengthens one or the other. To interfere would weaken both the parasite and the host to no avail, stifling progress."

"...Dude, yes, or no." Kiba shook his head. "I don't think I even caught every third word of that."

Shino furrowed his brow. "I am curious. Why did you ask only about Akamaru? Do you do not require similar aid?"

"Uh... Huh?"

Shino turned to observe nothing once again. "Never mind."

Was it his imagination, or did Shino duck his head further into his collar. "Hey, you're laughing at me, aren't you!"


"You saying I stink?" Kiba growled.

"He doesn't need to say it Kiba," Sakura said, rolling her eyes at his immaturity.

"Yeah, well let's see what you can do, Pinky!"

"Don't call me that, Dog-breath!"

"It is your turn, Sakura," the jonin said.

Sakura chewed her lip at being put on the spot. Her stomach had just started to settle from seeing Shino's display. Special skill? She wasn't like them. If she tried the henge, the boys would laugh at her. Well, Shino probably wouldn't, but Kiba definitely would.

"What's the hold up?" Kiba asked with a smug grin.

Green eyes glared death at the dog-boy before turning helplessly to the teacher. "Um, Sensei, I don't really have any special skills." The words felt like ash on her tongue.

"It doesn't need to be a clan ability. What's your strongest point?"

She blushed when Kurenai turned an appraising stare at her. "Well, I did have the highest academic scores."

"Of the class?" Kurenai asked.

"Um, in Academy history, I think."

Kiba whistled. "You're one massive egghead."

"Don't talk about my forehead!"

"I didn't say forehead," Kiba snickered.

Kurenai smiled. She had known that already, having examined her genins' files. But it would do the girl some good to say her achievements out loud, rather then shelving them in her head and dismissing them as unimportant. "So if we were assigned to recover a team in hostile territory, say, in northeastern Rai no Kuni, and I asked you to help pick an extraction point?"

Kiba scratched through his hood. "How the hell would anyone know that?"

"Kiba, that language may not be tolerable in certain social circles we'll be traveling in," Kurenai said, unruffled. She couldn't be too surprised. She was acquainted with Inuzuka Tsume and her rather... rough demeanor. The woman had enough testosterone to raise three sons. Naturally it would wash off on her child.

A sketched map flashed through Sakura's mind. A black and white section of it filled with color, drawing her attention. Her brain and mouth carried on without her. "I'd say... the abandoned silver mines through the northern mountains would make a good escape route."

"A viable option," Kurenai said. "One that not many could volunteer without extensive study of geography. So then, retaining knowledge is your greatest strength."

Sakura nodded with a bit more confidence.

"Alright then. I feel that is enough for today. Go home, get some rest. Enjoy your last day of freedom, as it were. Tomorrow you belong to Konoha," she said in a heavy tone. "We'll meet here from now on, eight sharp everyday. Do not be late."

"Geez, thanks for the gloom and doom, Sensei. Come on, Akamaru, let's go see what's for dinner!" Kiba bounded away.

"Farewell," Shino said before departing with a steady stride.

The remaining genin was prepared to leave until Kurenai called out to her.

"Sakura, would stay behind a moment? I'd like to speak with you about something."

Sakura watched the fading backs of her teammates. "Um, alright, Sensei."

"Let's have a seat," Kurenai said, nodding at the log.

Nervousness fluttered in Sakura's stomach as they sat. She had sometimes been singled out for praise because of her high marks on written assignments, but this didn't feel the same.

"What did you want to talk about, Sensei?"

Kurenai said, "I wanted to ask you, what do you think of your teammates?"

The girl blinked cautiously. "What do you mean, Sensei?"

"What do you think of being teamed up with Kiba and Shino?"

Sakura willed away the frown of distaste wriggling beneath her skin. "They're okay."

The girl needed prompting. "You can speak freely; I won't reprimand you."

She looked up at the woman. Sakura believed her. Maybe it would be safe to tell the truth, to say what was really on her mind for once.

Her fist balled up on its own. "Kiba's rude, loud, and smells, and Shino's weird and creepy. I don't know why I had to get stuck with them," she muttered sourly.

Kurenai inwardly sighed, but kept her face impassive. "I see. Then do you have two others in mind that you would rather be have as teammates?"

Sakura's eyes lit up. Was she getting the chance to be reassigned? Maybe she could sweet-talk her way into an exchange with Team Seven, where Sasuke-kun was. Naruto would do much better on this team of freaks.

"I..." Sakura gulped down her hesitancy. "Team Seven seems like it would be a good place for me."

"Oh? That's Kakashi's squad. Why there?"

"Well, it has Sasuke-kun... and Hinata," she added quickly. "They're the best of the genin."

Kurenai nodded. "They are quite skilled; it's natural to want the advantage of being on the same team. And what about Naruto? You didn't mention her."

Sakura scowled. "Naruto doesn't deserve to be on a team that good." Not on Sasuke-kun's team! "All she ever did was sleep in class and play pranks. I don't even know how she graduated!"

"By the skin of her teeth, if I remember the grades correctly. In any event, the question is hypothetical. I don't have the authority to switch teams around."

Sakura deflated.

"Are there any other students you graduated with that you believe would make good teammates?"

Sakura opened her mouth, then closed it. She had thought of Ino but they weren't even friends anymore. She looked away. If it wasn't with Sasuke-kun it didn't matter. "Not in particular. Anyone else would have been fine."

Kurenai could see the resentment born from a small measure of entitlement being denied, and decided to nip it in the bud. Sakura had the potential, certainly. But her current mindset would hinder her progress.

"Would you prefer that I sent you back to the academy, Sakura?" Kurenai asked, arms crossed, face still unreadable. "Perhaps next year you could be assigned a team more to your liking. You could even be the top kunoichi yourself."

Sakura's eyes went wide. "No, Sensei, please don't send me back! I've already learned everything the Academy teaches."

Kurenai began drumming her fingers on her arm. "I think there are a few things that you could stand to brush up on. Such as your priorities, for instance."

Sakura stared up at the woman, fearfully wondering if she had said too much. "What do you mean, Kurenai-sensei?"

"The fact that you have to ask is itself indicative of flawed judgement. Sakura, I'm going to ask you something." Red eyes bore into the girl. "I want you to answer honestly."

"A-alright, Sensei."

"Don't think. Just say the first thing that comes to your mind."

Sakura bit her lip and nodded.

"Alright then. Why do you want to be a ninja?"

The answer slipped from her mouth. "Sasuke-kun." She knew that was the wrong thing to say when she saw Kurenai frown.

"What about Sasuke?" Kurenai asked, her tone not conveying anger, disapproval or anticipation. "It's certainly understandable to be inspired by someone to become a shinobi. You're from a civilian family, so it would make sense for you especially."

"I..." She glanced around. Her face reddened. "I want to be near Sasuke-kun," she whispered to the breeze.

"I understand. However, that can't be why you entered into the Academy to begin with, can it? Isn't that where you first met Sasuke?" Kurenai remembered the Uchiha were a reclusive bunch, living behind high walls and rarely allowing others in. The only place a normal girl like Sakura could have seen a young Uchiha...

Sakura paused, too dazed to answer. She hadn't given it any thought in years. Why had she enrolled? It wasn't a family tradition. In fact, she was the first Haruno to become a ninja. Sakura vaguely remembered begging and pleading with her parents to let her go, so they hadn't pushed her into it.

So why..?

She remembered. Looking at the back of a small head of short blonde hair. She did it because Ino was going to the Academy. Ino, her friend, that had given her the red ribbon to help distract from her prominent forehead. In a desire not to be left behind, Sakura reached out, and tagged along.

Sakura finally had an answer. "My best friend was going to the Academy, so I decided to go to with her."

"Best friend?" Kurenai asked with an arched brow. "You didn't mention her as a preferred teammate. Did she not receive a hitai-ate?"

"She did, but... we're not friends anymore. She and I both like Sasuke-kun, so..."

Kurenai almost rolled her eyes. Good lord, that was dumb. What was wrong with girls these days? Back when war loomed on the surface of every morning, you couldn't afford to lose friends over something so petty.

Kurenai folded her hands. "Thank-you for sharing, Sakura. I have one last question for you."

Sakura winced. She didn't think this one would be any more pleasant than the last.

"What have you gained in your pursuit of Sasuke's affections?"

The girl bolted upright. "W-what?"

"You've sacrificed potential friendships, training time, and would even jump at the chance to be reassigned from your current team. When you give something up for a goal, you usually accomplish it or make some progress toward accomplishing it. So what have you gained in return?"

Words didn't form in her brain. Instead she witnessed a series of images in her mind, a slide show of the past few years. One moment Ino's face was young and smiling at her, the face of her best friend in the world. It was older and distrustful the next, the face of her rival.

Staring at Sasuke-kun as he approached, a handsome face chiseled by gods. Then staring at the shrinking fan symbol as he passed by, not so much as glancing at her as she greeted him and asked him out.

But if Ino hadn't interfered! She and the others made Sasuke-kun so uncomfortable, because he's shy. He just didn't want to deal with the other girls hounding him, so he had to be like that. That was why he didn't look at her. That was why he didn't talk to her. That was why he didn't listen to her.

Because he was shy.

One look at her sensei and she knew none of that answered her question. What was her goal?

She wanted Sasuke-kun to look at her, talk to her, listen to her, adore her, give a damn about her! But did she have that?

No. Sakura realized all too well she did not.

Sasuke-kun didn't even acknowledge her existence. In the end, after years of pouring her heart out, when she waved goodbye for what could have been the last time, Sasuke-kun wouldn't even look at her.

And Ino remained at the distance Sakura had put between them.

Nothing. She didn't have Sasuke-kun's attention. She didn't have Ino's friendship.

She'd gained nothing for her loses.

Tears pricked her eyes. She wiped them away.

"You are not going to be on the same team as Sasuke," Kurenai said, trying to be gentle but firm. "It isn't going to happen. And even if you were, it wouldn't make a difference. The boy still wouldn't spare you a second glance."

The fragile reins of control snapped as Sakura launched to her feet. "That's not true! I-if I just had some time alone with him! Then..."

"Then what?" Kurenai asked flatly. "He'd see you as the jewel you are and realize how wrong he was to ignore you? He'll profess undying love for you? Sakura... that is a schoolgirl's fantasy. And you aren't a schoolgirl anymore."

Sakura flinched as Kurenai's words dug into her stomach and twisted. She had nothing to say.

"Sasuke doesn't have the least bit of interest in you. He doesn't think you are worth his time. If you want to change his mind, then become strong enough to challenge his assertion."

A sliver of hope surged in her chest. "Strong enough?"

"He dismisses you as a weak, silly girl. I don't say this to hurt you, Sakura, but it's easy to see why. You squander your efforts and potential with frivolity in a profession of life and death."

"But I study real hard!"

Kurenai acknowledged her effort with a nod. "Which is admirable. But if you add up all the time you've spent on Sasuke, how much training could you have done instead?"

Sakura wouldn't be able to do more than a rough estimate, but the number was probably high. She hung her head.

"Focus your attention on your training. I guarantee the stronger you are, the more likely you are to grab Sasuke's attention."

"Wait," Sakura said, rubbing her forehead. "So... you aren't saying that I should give up?"

"I only need to be certain it doesn't interfere with your ability to reach your maximum potential and work within the team effectively."

Sakura treaded lightly as she formed a question. "But, Kurenai-sensei, I thought you were a, um, career woman."

Kurenai blinked, showing her purple eyeshadow. "Excuse me?"

"I mean, you're a jonin, and I don't think I've seen a lot of kunoichi make it that far..."

Sad but true. The higher up the ladder she climbed, the fewer of her fellow kunoichi she seemed equal to. "I suppose you could call me that, then."

"But you don't have a problem with me trying to, uh..." Sakura blushed.

Understanding dawned on Kurenai as she took her students civilian upbringing into account. Sakura's mother was probably a housewife and the father was the breadwinner. How archaic. But if that was how she wanted to live...

Kurenai shrugged. "I never said you have to chose one or the other. Devoting yourself to a profession doesn't necessitate being single."

"So..." Sakura formed a small smile. "Does that mean you have a boyfriend, Kurenai-sensei?"

A barely perceptible twitch jolted through Kurenai's face. She always refrained from discussing her personal life, but she was the one who brokered the subject. Only because it was relevant to the conversation, but still...

Sighing, Kurenai said, "There is a guy I'm interested in, yes. It's mutual." She winced when the girl squealed.

Sakura clasped her hands. "So how did you get his attention?"

She gave it a moment's thought. "I think I always had it. He asked me out. I agreed, under the condition that we fight, to prove that we are on equal grounds."

A horrified look crossed Sakura. "So you like this guy... and you want to beat him up?"

"I don't have to win, just put up a good fight." She paused, then said, "Maybe give him a good bruise or two."

Sakura frowned in thought. "He must be a ninja. And he must be a jonin as well..."

The girl was proving herself to posses quite the deductive skills. Unfortunately that could compromise Kurenai's ability to hide the object of her interest.

"Anyway, Sakura." Kurenai put a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder. "I want you to stay on the team. Given how easily you freed yourself earlier, you seem to be a genjutsu type, so there is a lot I could teach you. But you have to be ready and willing to learn. This isn't going to be glamorous. You will sweat, you will bleed. You may even cry.

"But if you put in the proper effort, you will be rewarded for your sacrifices. You'll have a feeling of self-respect, and that isn't something anyone can hand you.

"Think hard if being a ninja is what you truly want in life. Kiba, Shino and I are your team. And we may hold each others lives in our hands someday. I won't risk their well being on someone who isn't dedicated to themselves. I hope to see you tomorrow."

Kurenai left her there at the training ground. Sakura remained a while more, staring listlessly at the ground. Eventually she headed home, mind in overdrive. Her life had been simple when she woke up that morning, but now she questioned all of the decisions she had made over the years.

When she walked through the door, she begged off any questions her parents may have had, saying that she was tired. It wasn't a lie. Sakura felt exhausted despite not enduring any demanding training.

She stumbled into the bathroom. She stood in front the mirror for hours, wondering who it was staring back at her. Why did she wear the hitai-ate that marked her as a kunoichi of Konoha?

Sakura laughed mirthlessly. Even the way she wore her hitai-ate now she learned from Ino. And the pink hair covering her shoulders had been grown for Sasuke's liking.

Two of the most important people in her life, and she had neither.

I've been stupid.

I'll apologize to Ino. But I can't do it until I accomplish what I set out to do, until I've given some validation to my decision. I at least have to surpass her, because I don't intend to live in her shadow. And I'm not giving up on Sasuke-kun. He'll see me for who I am. And I'll be someone worth seeing.

She wanted a fresh start.

A pair a scissors found its way into her hand. At first it was a few snips. Before she knew it, locks that had reached her middle back were now below her neck. Countless strands of pink hair draped the sink and counter.

Sakura arrived bright and early, ready to learn anything Kurenai-sensei would teach her. And ready to try to get along with her teammates. Even smelly Kiba.

Even though she arrived ten minutes early, Shino was already there. Come to think of it, she couldn't remember a time she walked into the classroom and he wasn't already seated. Always by himself, never partaking in just-before-class chatter.

It appeared to Sakura that he was studying a cocoon hanging from a branch.

Shino had always been categorized as creepy in her mind. But she could talk to him. They shared a class for years. He was made of flesh and blood just like she was. Except with a lot bugs. Creeping, crawling, flying...

Sakura gave her head a shake and said, "Good morning, Shino."

He didn't turn his head, but he did answer, "Hello."

She bit her lip. To make up for yesterday, she would have to dip a toe into the waters of his world. "What are you doing?"

"Observing the emergence of this moth."

Sakura didn't know how he could tell it wasn't a butterfly, but she wasn't about to question his bailiwick on insects. She watched with Shino for a few minutes. The process was a slow one that dragged the seconds by an inch at a time. How long had Shino been watching this?

A suggestion occurred to her, one that would alleviate her boredom, get the moth out, and allow Shino to watch. "Why don't you help it out by cutting through the cocoon?"

Shino adjusted his glasses. "It would be less cruel to kill it quickly."

Sakura's eyes widened. "What?"

"The moth inside is biting its way through the cocoon. This struggle forces fluids from the body into the wings, allowing them to expand and strengthen for flight. Without this struggle, the moth's wings will shrivel, and it will never be able to fly." His head turned to look at her. "To lighten its struggle is to sentence it to a slow and painful death."

"Oh." Somehow, she got the feeling he wasn't just talking about the moth... "Um, Shino?"

"Yes?" He was staring at the cocoon once again.

"I'm sorry about what I said. About your... bugs. Kikaichu, right? That's their name?"

"That is their collective name, yes." He fell silent, probably thinking. Shino asked, "You do not believe they are 'gross'?"

"Well..." She wasn't a good liar, and something about the sunglasses told her Shino would be able to tell even if she was. "Honestly, yeah, I do," Sakura admitted. "But I still shouldn't have said it. Sorry."

She waited with baited breath as Shino gave no sign of hearing her.

"Your apology is acknowledged," Shino said with a nod. "You... surprise me. I did not think you had the capacity to accept the differences of others."

Okay, maybe she deserved that. But that didn't stop her face from souring slightly. She swallowed down the words, and they exploded in her head like they always did. I'm trying to be nice here, bug boy!

"Maybe I didn't," Sakura muttered. "But we're teammates now, so... let's try to get along."

"That would benefit unit cohesion," he said with another nod.

He said nothing further, but the silence of the morning didn't unnerve Sakura; it lacked the dread it wold have had a day or two beforehand. Instead, a bubble of relief popped in her chest. With the sun still rising, warming her back, she waited for her life with Team Eight to begin in earnest.

She had taken her sensei's words to heart. It had been a lot of hard and painful work. The jonin didn't let up when it came to training, pushing Sakura to help her catch up to her clan-born teammates. Her hands had bled and she collapsed from near chakra exhaustion on more than one occasion.

But how many of her former classmates could boast knowing how to stitch a cut with chakra, or trap someone in an illusion?

Sakura wouldn't need makeup or pretty red nail polish. She would impress Sasuke-kun with her skills.

The rest of her team was waiting for her when she arrived. She wasn't late, but a part of her dismayed at seeing Kiba there before her. She'd accepted never beating Shino to the training ground, but Kiba was usually panting when he arrived.

Akamaru bounded over to her. She reached down and scratched behind his ear.

"Right on time," Kurenai said.

Sakura gave a sheepish smile. That meant she was almost late. "I would have been here sooner but my mom insisted I have breakfast with my family."

"Good. You're going to need the energy today; there's a lot of ground to cover." Kurenai began walking. "Let's get to the gate to meet Kakashi's team."

The genin followed.

Sakura watched her sensei move, feeling admiration.

Kurenai-sensei was everything she wanted to be. Strong, respectable, confident. Just the stride of her steps told Sakura she knew where she was going, and that she should follow. She saw in the jonin all qualities that had made Ino her role model, and then some. Some of the things she said hurt to hear, but she was always better off for it. It was like having a really cool aunt, or a significantly older sister.

The two previous times that they had left the village on missions, Kurenai had them meet directly at the gate. But this time they had been instructed to gather at their designated training ground first. Sakura understood why. They would arrive as a team, rather than trickling in one at a time. Present a unified front bonded by four months of training together.

Kurenai-sensei had said they were being let in on this mission as a favor for her. Maybe they had something prove to those originally selected for the task?

Sakura wasn't sure exactly what role they played, but Sasuke-kun's team had been involved in events that lead to the current mission. She hoped he didn't think they were butting into unfinished business.

Of course Kiba claimed that any mission Sasuke-kun was qualified for, he could complete easily. And he wanted to make a production of being at the head of the pack,. He was always aiming to top Sasuke-kun, for all the good it did him. It was probably why he wasn't just a hair's breadth from being late today.

She didn't really get why Kiba did some of the things he did. It had her eyeing a book about dog training, maybe that would give her some insight. But usually she simply disregarded him as kind of an idiot.

Sakura tried to keep herself cool, relaxed, and professional like her sensei. But her heart skipped a few beats when she finally got her fix of Sasuke-kun's face after months without seeing it. If anything he'd only gotten more handsome, leaning against the gate with his arms crossed.

As her team neared, Sakura tried to think of a proper greeting. She wasn't going to be slobbering over him like she had in the Academy. She'd keep it casual, friendly, and brief, showing that she had her head on straight and knew the mission was important.

She rolled the perfect words on her tongue. She could do this with tact and grace that carried her sensei's every movement.

"Oi, you guys!" Kiba called, waving over.

Sakura cringed, her momentum crashing and burning. Idiot.

Eyes in four and-a-half sets turned to their group, among them the smokey coal Sakura fixated on for years.

With Sasuke-kun accounted for, she scanned and did a quick headcount. She saw Hinata, who looked as prim and proper as usual. She held a conversation with another girl who had a white mask clipped to her waist. And she was disgustingly pretty. It was a childish habit, but she couldn't help instantly categorizing the new girl as a potential rival for Sasuke-kun's attention.

Haku smiled pleasantly. "I must admit, I'm quite grateful to you, Hinata-san, giving us this opportunity to return to Kiri." His eyes glazed over with memories. "It's been a long time since I've been to the place of my birth."

Hinata shook her head. "Please, your thanks are owed to Hokage-sama's decision to extend a hand. My motives were hardly born from altruism. This helps Konoha as much as it does Kiri."

"It may," Haku agreed. "That doesn't change the fact that you set these wheels into motion. Zabuza-san was close to giving up his dream of dethroning Yagura, but you've made it possible."

He was intent on thanking her, so Hinata accepted it with a small smile."You sat in on the council's meeting, correct, Haku-san? I would have liked to attend myself." A snapshot appeared in her head, Naruto in the Hokage's robes at the head of the table, and herself as one of the leaders of the village. Perhaps Sasuke would be in the background somewhere.

Haku brushed his hair back. "Yes, I was there. I felt remarkably out of place, standing in a room full of shinobi who could easily kill me." He smiled pleasantly. "I'm not used to the feeling. It was quite humbling. By the way... There was a man at the meeting with eyes like yours. Is he part of the same clan?"

"The head of the clan, actually. That would be my father, Hyuuga Hiashi."

"I... had the strangest feeling he was staring at me an awful lot."

Hinata adjusted her hitai-ate, which felt a bit tight around her neck. "Oh, I'm sure that was just curiosity, Haku-san."

"And," Haku continued, "after the meeting, he invited me over to your estate for dinner, once the mission was completed."

"Did he now?" Hinata asked, her mouth a bit dry. She licked her lips. "I happily extend the same invitation. It would be a pleasure to share a meal with you, Haku-san."

Haku nodded. "Then I look forward to it. Let's hope we all survive," he said with the same pleasant smile.

Sakura turned her eyes to Kurenai-sensei, who exchanged a greeting with a man who must have been Kakashi. His hitai-ate was slanted over his eye. Another man, with a bandaged face and an enormous sword on his back, stood beside them, speaking in a gruff tone.

Zabuza scoffed. "More brats, Kakashi? They're probably not like your little monsters, are they?"

"It's about experience. You know, gong out to see the world. It's good for them."

"Tch, this ain't some field trip..." He trailed off and glanced at Kurenai up and down. "Well, at least this mission will have some eye candy."

Kurenai set her lips in a thin line and sent a pulse of killing intent at Zabuza to let him know that she was not that type of kunoichi.

"Feisty! You'll fit in well with us rebels. I'm gonna enjoy this trip."

She refrained from sighing. Knowing him he probably has a fetish for that sort of thing. Kurenai began thinking of measures to dispatch the man, should the need arise.

That left Sasuke-kun's attention undivided. The moment was too good to pass up. After a steadying breath, Sakura approached him.

His head turned and he looked right at her. An easy light entered his eyes and a slight smirk touched his lips. Her legs turned to jelly and her stomach quivered. It felt like in that moment only the two of them existed.

Confidence and jubilance swelled inside her, Sakura's determined steps brought her closer to Sasuke-kun. His look never faltered or strayed from her. Only five steps away...

"Hey, sorry I'm late!" a loud call pierced the moment of bliss.

Sakura's feet became led and her smile withered as a girl in orange streaked past her, blonde twin-tails flapping in the wind, a pinwheel spinning.

And Sasuke-kun's eyes moved to follow her. "Nice of you to show up." The words, they could have been insulting, but they lacked disdain. They were almost... playful?

Naruto laced her hands behind her head and laughed nervously. "All this training's really messed up my sleep. I think I was out for, like, ten hours this time."

Sakura stared at her newest rival's back in a mute stupor. The one she had to defeat in order to win a date with her beloved. Uzumaki Naruto. The blonde continued chatting with Sasuke-kun as though it were so natural for her. Exactly where Sakura wanted to be.

He hadn't been looking at her; Sasuke-kun hadn't even seen her. That alone was an old sting Sakura had thought would be behind her. But it was worse than before. His eyes hadn't been focused on his shinobi skills. His eyes had been on a girl. On Naruto. That almost smile was for her.

How... could the mere presence of that she-beast make Sasuke-kun happier than she'd ever seen him?

Sakura's eyes tightened and her mouth turned sour. Something unpleasant wormed around in the pit of her stomach. It began to smoulder. Burning jealousy, worse than the envy she'd felt for Ino. Ino had never been any closer to Sasuke-kun than Sakura had. But Naruto...

Naruto, after greeting her best friend and Haku, took in the whole of the group, spotting her former classmates. "Kiba, Shino! Man, haven't seen you guys in a while."

"It has been some time," Shino agreed, his monotone intact.

Kiba grinned and overlooked Team Seven. "And we've gotten way stronger. Don't think we'll just be on the sidelines in this mission. We're gonna put you guys to shame!"

Sasuke glanced at the hooded boy before smirking. "Just don't slow us down."

Us, Sakura thought, surprised. He said us. But Sasuke-kun has never been very good at working with groups. It was always his worst subject in the Academy. And now he says it so casually...

"Still think you're the best, eh, Sasuke?"

"This isn't a competition," Hinata cut in, an edge on her words. "This is a diplomatic undertaking. Save your testosterone for the Exams."

"Quite correct," Kurenai said. It was among the first things she had told Kiba when debriefing her team. She looked at him with a faint air of disapproval, and the boy scratched his head and looked down the road, his head cooling.

Naruto turned to look at the pretty jonin, stars in her eyes. "I'm so happy to be on a mission with Kurenai-sensei!" the girl exclaimed, hands clasping. "Finally, a jonin with her head on straight. It must be 'cause you're a kunoichi, 'cause all the guys are nuts!"

Kakashi spoke up in a hurt tone. "Now that isn't fair, Naruto. Kurenai is a recent jonin. There's still plenty of time to develop some quirks of her own," he said, sounding almost hopeful.

"Don't count on it, Kakashi," Kurenai muttered.

Naruto hummed thoughtfully and tapped her chin. "You're not secretly, like, really bloodthirsty, are you?"

"No, Naruto," Kurenai said, humoring the girl

"A sadist?"

"No again."

"Split personality?"

Kurenai sighed. "Negative."

Sakura grit her teeth, simply annoyed by the blonde's voice. "Stop asking Kurenai-sensei all these asinine questions, Naruto!"

"All clear!" Naruto said, shooting two thumbs up at Hinata. "Oh, yeah, hey, Sakura."

Kakashi walked to the head of the group. "Right. Since everyone's here... We'll be taking the route southeast to the Hi no Tsuno, the closest point on the continent to Mizu no Kuni's islands. Our transportation will be waiting for us at Saizensen harbor. I'd like to make it there in no more than four days. If we push ourselves, we can definitely make it in three."

Zabuza snorted. "You mean if the kids can keep up."

"Hm, yeah, they do get tired pretty easily," Naruto muttered, eyes closed. She didn't see the other genin throwing her dirty looks.

"Let's head out." Kakashi took the lead, jumping into the trees to his right. His genin followed right behind him, followed by Zabuza and Haku. Team Eight brought up the rear.

Sakura knew her legs would start to burn much sooner than any of the others. She had the lowest stamina. But she was determined not to be a burden, especially in front of Sasuke-kun, and when Kurenai-sensei's reputation could be damaged by it. She stared straight ahead, keeping herself focused. And she focused on her goal.

Emerald eyes burned a hole into Naruto's jumpsuit. Sakura had always been good at studying, so she would study Naruto during this mission. Oh, she would do her duty first and foremost, just as her sensei expected. But she would find Naruto's weak points, formulate a strategy, and when the time came, Sakura would take her down.

They trekked through the countryside, running on the roads wherever there were large tracks of land without trees. Kakashi's determination to make it showed through the pace he set. The group took a break every two hours or so, much to Sakura's relief. She discreetly ran a medical jutsu over her legs on the third stop, pretending to use the restroom. She healed some of the strain and refreshed the muscles. The next leg of the trip came much easier, so, in private she repeated the treatment at each stop.

When the sun had retreated from the sky, they set up camp at the top of a steep hill. Sakura performed one more treatment, choosing a different excuse to go off alone. When she came back Kurenai gave her a knowing grin as if to tell her it was a good choice. Sakura felt a swell at the compliment, despite her fatigue.

Chores were divided and carried out among the genin.

Sasuke had no qualms with his chore of gathering wood and building the fire. It was hardly work at all as far as he was concerned. He sat down by the boiling pot of stew that would serve as dinner for the group.

Zabuza embedded his zanbato into a tree behind him; it would be difficult for someone without his strength to remove it. He stood for a moment, watching the kids buzz around. Growing restless with nothing to do, he snapped a branch from a tree and sat down with a small knife to indulge in his old hobby of whittling. Haku would be observing the perimeter of the campsite; he'd trained the boy to be a damn good lookout for those pesky Hunter-nin.

Sakura stirred with the ladle as Hinata added in more spices. Knowing her crush was behind her, she kept herself focused on the reddish brown stew. She felt too mortified to even look at him. All the confidence she had built up had been knocked out of her.

"You seem rather out of sorts, Sakura," Hinata noted with distant casualness, dropping the crushed pepper into the pot.

The girl started at her name, disrupting the smooth waves in the brew. "I-I'm just a little tired from traveling."

"I think it tired most of us out. Although Kiba did seem to know his way around," Hinata said, remembering how the Inuzuka pointed out a shortcut through a dense section of forest.

"Yeah, he's always taking Akamaru out on really long walks," Sakura said absently. She hoped she hadn't stepped in any of the areas that Akamaru had 'marked'.

A realization hit Sakura, causing her breath to hitch. Here she was idly chatting with Naruto's best friend. The girl must be a treasure trove of knowledge about Naruto's skill. Maybe Hinata could help with her reconnaissance. But she'd have to be sly bout it. "Naruto didn't seem all that tired," Sakura said as inconspicuously and not jealous as she could.

Hinata almost smiled in amusement. Sakura was fishing for information from her? How cute. It wouldn't be nearly as fun to just give her what she wanted. "It's nothing more than brisk walk for Naruto-kun."

Sakura pouted and continued stirring.

Zabuza glanced at the Uchiha, continuing his carving. "By the way, kid, I been meaning to ask, what's with that toothpick? Trying to emulate ol' uncle Zabuza?"

"Please," Sasuke scoffed. "It just suits my style."

"Kinda puny, ain't it? Looks more like a butter knife..."

"Tch, whatever. I just don't have anything to compensate for."

Zabuza chuckled. "Watch it, brat. Kakashi's not quick enough to save you from that distance."

Kurenai stood watching over the campsite with crossed arms. She glanced at the ninja in charge of what could be the most important diplomatic mission in decades. "I can't believe you just make the students do all the work."

Kakashi shrugged, not taking his eye of the map he was studying. "We elite jonin shouldn't do the grunt work, Kurenai. We've paid our dues. That's what our minions are for."

She laughed quietly, doubting very much Kakashi even remembered grunt work. He'd been an elite since before losing his baby teeth. "The fact that you refer to students that way is disturbing."

"How about... underlings?"

Kurenai rolled her red eyes.

"So how do you like being a jonin?" Kakashi asked. "Everything you hoped it would be?"

"The pay raise is nice, but I don't see much of a difference otherwise, except for all the meetings and..."

Kurenai heard Kiba shout triumphantly at getting the boys' tent set up. The feral boy preferred sleeping under the stars, so setting up a tent was a good experience for him, which is why she assigned him the task. And after three or four times of it collapsing, Kiba had gotten it. Shino had already set up the other tent.

They had decided on the sleeping arrangements based on gender rather than teams, to keep pesky adolescent hormones from reaching a boiling point. Kurenai would bunk with the kunoichi, and Kakashi with the boys. The duo from Kiri would have their own tent.

She smiled softly. "Honestly, I love having a team to train and teach. Watching them grow as ninja, passing on knowledge that could save their lives. I've never felt anything like it." She quirked a brow at Kakashi. "I don't know how you passed it up so many times."

"Well, I was never really suited to be a teacher."

She decided to ask something that all the other jonin had been dying to know. "So what made you take this team?"

After several moments of quiet, Kurenai was certain Kakashi would deflect the question and say some nonsense that held no answer. To her surprise, he sighed.

"I guess you could say... I saw something in them that helped me remember something I shouldn't have forgotten."

Kurenai hummed thoughtfully, not sure if that was much of an answer. But she supposed it was more than she knew before. "So what are you looking at there?"

"Our destination. We'll be arriving here, at Ita Shima, one of the southern islands."

"Sounds safe..."

"Zabuza informed me that it's infested with a large number of ravenous sharks that can jump fifty feet into the air and snatch people right off boats."

"I assume there's a reason you chose to land there?"

"Several, actually," Kakashi said with a dull glaze to his eye. "For one, it's the second least guarded area of the nation, making it easier to infiltrate and maneuver around. The true blind spot Kiri's islands have is the eastern border, since all of its enemies lie to the west. But traveling that far would take too much time, and it's far from ideal for meeting our contacts. Which leads to my second reason.

"The rebels have been pushed back pretty far, and are currently inhabiting the southwest portion of the main island. Traveling from Ita Shima will allow us to meet sooner and complete this mission quickly, and reduce the probability of encountering ninja loyal to Yagura."

"But how does that solve the flying shark problem?"

"Our transportation is a new type of vessel. It's made of steel, so they won't be able to pierce the hull. It'll probably hold."


"When I say 'new', 'experimental' might be applied as well."

Kurenai pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering if they'd meet a watery grave before the mission could begin.

A Naruto clone for ever for every person in their group walked into the campsite, having fetched fresh water for all the canteens. The clones handed out containers to each person. They were marked with the names of each owner so they wouldn't get mixed up.

Sakura numbly accepted her canteen with a slackened jaw. Her eyes bounced from one Naruto to another, gradually narrowing as her count went up. She can use shadow clones? Then at the hospital, that was a clone the entire time, not a Shunshin? But... surely she can't make more...

"She can make considerably more than that."

The pinkette's head whipped around to Hinata. "What?"

She gave Sakura a frank look before glancing at her male teammate, who sharpened his short sword. "You're planning to challenge Naruto-kun. You're trying to discover her weaknesses."

Sakura's opened mouth became a vacancy/vacant for/of words. "I'm not..."

"Your face is an open book. It's hopeless to lie to me." Hinata stared into the boiling liquid. "It's a wise tactic that I can respect. Just keep in mind that we're on the same team." Hinata shook her head, bemused. "I knew Kiba would need a reminder, but I didn't anticipate you would be the same..."

Sakura's face flushed angrily. "Who do you tink you are, my sensei? I know this is a mission."

"Perhaps I've overstepped my bounds," Hinata said, voice light. "But remember who this mission affects: our team, our unborn children, they're children. The success of this mission can ensure Konoha's safety long after we are dust. And whether Kiri lives or dies may rest on our shoulders. The balance of the ninja world is tipping one way or the other. Keep that in perspective next to wanting to hang onto a boy's arm."

The soft-spoken but scathing tirade locked Sakura's tongue in her throat.

A clone handing her water whispered something into Hinata's ears. The Hyuuga nodded, then tasted the stew. She sighed in satisfaction. "It's finished. If you'll excuse me, there's something that requires my attention." She walked into the woods in a straight line, as though her destination was certain and predetermined.

Sakura watched her go. She'd had enough of being spoken to like a child.

Green eyes blinked. What exactly could she need to do out here? She looked around. She didn't see Naruto around anywhere, clone or otherwise. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. Just what are they up to?

The question burned in her mind as everyone lined up to have their bowls filled for dinner. Even though it gave her a small thrill to fill Sasuke-kun's bowl with a meal she helped prepare, she couldn't shake the nagging feeling the other two kunoichi were doing something behind her back. She served up the food as quickly as she could, her mind made up.

Once everyone was occupied with their food, and feeling her strength return from having her fill, Sakura discreetly slipped away to follow Hinata. Or at least she thought she had been discreet.

"Where're you going?" Kiba slurred through a mouthful.

Sakura ignored her instinct to lay a dropkick on him, but keep her response tight. "None of your business."

Kiba blinked, then nodded. "Oh, bathroom. Again. Got it. Well, Naruto and Hinata are gone too. Girls always go to the bathroom in packs, huh?"

"I'm going to neuter you," Sakura hissed, face flaming with anger. She stormed off.

"Kurenai-sensei, you going too?"



"Stop talking."

Sakura shoved aside thoughts of painful things she could and would do to Kiba. She kept her footsteps light so as not to alert either Hinata or Naruto. As she continued brushing aside branches and searching for the inseparable duo, doubt began nagging her. What if they really were just using the bathroom? What if the clone had just asked Hinata to bring toilet paper or something? She'd look like a weirdo.

Her ear caught a faint sound, a voice in a high pitch. A rustling of leaves and grass followed, coming from the same direction. Sakura got closer to the source of the noise and listened harder. Laughter. She used her precise control to channel a bit of chakra into her ears.

"Hinata! That tickles!"

"Keep your voice down," Hinata whispered, sounding out of breath, "or someone will hear. And stop moving!"

Sakura ducked behind a tree, pressing her back against it. They were close enough she could hear the grass bend under them. What was going on? What she'd just heard was...

"I can't help it!" Naruto said, giggling.

"Hold your leg still. Your pants are still in the way."

Sakura covered her mouth to muffle a gasp as her mind began piecing together a lascivious puzzle. The secret midnight rendevous far from camp. Not wanting to get caught. Inseparable best friends.

A scene to match the audio played in her head. Oh my gosh! Th-those rumors were true! They really are lesbians! The heiress to the Hyuuga clan is a lesbian. What a scandal!

I can't believe this. And... Hinata chose Naruto too! Actually that kinda pisses me off... Sakura shook her head. Wait, what about Sasuke-kun? This is behind his back too. Should I tell him? What if he already knows? Team Seven is like some kind of twisted, bisexual love triangle!

And I have to share a tent with them!? Sakura wrapped her arms around herself, feeling decidedly unsafe. I'll have to sleep with a kunai in my hand and one eye open.

She noticed that it had gotten quiet. If she turned around right now, would they be standing behind her? Oh God, would they kill her and hide the body to cover up their affair? Sakura dared a look.

The image was not quite what she was expecting.

Hinata had Naruto's leg pinned down with her body, apparently tickling the blonde's bare foot with glowing fingertips. Naruto's pant leg was rolled up to her thighs. Pinkish dots covered the surface of her legs. Sakura recognized them from her anatomy lessons as the tenketsu.

Naruto was on her stomach, beating the ground with one hand and biting the knuckles of the other. Tears streamed down her face, but the large smile she wore indicated they were from bottled laughter.

Well... they weren't having a lesbian affair... She blushed. Unless this was foreplay?

But Sakura still didn't know what they were up to. Was it some sort of Juken massage?

Hinata released Naruto and stood up, brushing herself off. "It's done. All but a few are closed, at the sole of your foot. You certainly made that more difficult than need be."

"Hinata-chan," Naruto whined as she turned over and sat up, "I told you I couldn't help it! You know I'm ticklish!"

"Yes, yes. Now try to channel chakra through the tenketsu. This will be as difficult as the last one, but once we're finished here, it will be over."

Naruto nodded, concentrating on moving the sluggish flow of chakra in her leg. The farther from the hands it was, the more difficult it was to channel chakra through a body part, making the feet almost an alien part of her body. Like the pancreas.

They had started this training with the arms, first the right, then the left. Then the torso, then the head. Now all that was left was the legs.

She screwed her face up and straightened her leg out, coaxing the simmering chakra until it became a fire and grew into an inferno. The chakra crashed and roiled inside of her leg. Clenching her teeth, she funneled the raging storm of energy through the small port of her heel.

It felt like she stepped on a bed of hot nails as the chakra tore free. A blue light erupted from her foot, illuminating the clearing for a moment. It burned her at first. Then it became warm in a soothing way that let her know she was alive. The flare lessened until it became a steady outpour of chakra.

Hinata smiled as her friend neared the last hurdle. "Excellent, Naruto-kun."

Naruto sighed and wiggled her toes. "You know you sound kinda like some shady villain when you say it like that. Alright, let's do the next one."

Watching another round of giggling and kicking ensue, Sakura realized that she had stumbled upon advanced training of some kind. It was exactly what she'd been hoping to see. Except she had no idea what it was for. But for Naruto to push the chakra out of her tenketsu... her control had to be really good. Even jonin could only focus on one at a time, and couldn't regulate the output.

I should get back soon, she thought, angling for a better look.

"Naruto-kun, that's all of them," Hinata said, deactivating her Byakugan as Naruto rolled down her pant leg. She knelt, worn out from extended use of her eyes.

"You ok?" Naruto asked, slipping on her sandal.

"I'll be fine." She smiled tiredly. "That's all three-hundred-sixty-one. Have you been practicing with the ones we unlocked before?"

Naruto nodded. "Mostly with my clones. I can push them out anywhere."

"Please, show me."

Naruto nodded again before dropping into a fighting stance, chakra swelling in her stomach. Clenching her right hand into a fist, power flooded through her arm, and swirled to her hand as she threw a punch. Blue flashed from her knuckles. She stepped forward and her left palm flew out, chakra flowing from her fingertips into the air. She spun and threw a high back kick with her right leg, unleashing a crescent streak of chakra.

Sakura gulped as she watched Naruto dance in the darkness, will-o-wisps surrounding her limbs. She couldn't help imagining what every one of those attacks could do to her. It was a wonder Ino had only suffered a mild concussion.

Landing after an aerial kick, Naruto rooted herself on the ground and crossed her arms, inhaling deeply. She sent chakra surging through every part of her body. She released her breath with a shout, and night became eerie day in the small clearing.

Hinata went tumbling end over end from the force of the eruption. After a few involuntary rolls, she snapped her limbs down and glued her hands and feet to the ground with chakra. Creaking branches swayed, brushing against each other, as though applauding or screaming.

Naruto stood at the maelstrom's center, her twin-tails flapping wildly. Hinata looked at her best friend, drowning in her own power. A whispered word touched the heiress' lips, drowned out by the wind. "Beautiful."

The wind died down. Moonlight reigned over once again, pouring in as Naruto's chakra abated.

Panting, Naruto lowered her arms. She took a deep breath before collapsing on her rear. "Whew. How's that, Hinata-chan? Still kinda hurts to do more than one part at a time..."

Hinata stood and walked over as she smoothed out her savaged hair. "Better than I dared hope. Your left leg is a bit slow, but that can only be expected as we just finished with it. That only leaves one step left." She knelt down "Have you managed to channel wind chakra?"

Naruto's good mood faded a bit as she frowned. "Only in my right hand." She held up a slightly shaky pointer finger, flowing chakra through it. The deep blue chakra became more and more translucent until it couldn't be seen. She pointed her finger close to the ground. The grass swayed and bent, pressed by a force invisible to the naked eye.

"I've done all I can, Naruto-kun. I can't use elemental chakra myself, so I don't know how else to help." Hinata poked her fingers together. "Perhaps we should visit Ebisu-sensei..."

"Don't you worry, Hinata-chan," Naruto assured with a large grin. "I'll take it from here. Now that I've got the tenketsu thing down, I can train by myself anytime. I think I'll leave behind a couple hundred clones after we set out tomorrow. Anyway," Naruto said, lacing her hands behind her head, "let's head back for dinner, Hinata-chan. I hope the food is still warm. I'm starving!"

Sakura stood alone in the night as they left. Her nails scrapped and chipped against the bark as her fist clenched, digging into her palm. The pain was dulled by the shock of what she had witnessed, and the realization even her powers of denial couldn't thwart.

She's stronger than I am.

I have to train harder.

Sakura wanted to throw herself into it right away, fine tune her genjutsu, learn more medical ninjutsu. She couldn't waste a single second, because Naruto would pull further away. But she didn't have the stamina to do that just before a mission, let alone during one.

But she had the advanced medical texts her senpai had assigned her, resting in her pack. Reading, she could do without tiring. Because knowledge was her greatest asset.

She casually entered the campsite, ignoring any jibes from Kiba. She ate before dressing down and climbing into her sleeping bag, curling up with Tissue Repair II: Common Muscle, Tendon, and Facial Regrowth Complications and Solutions; the lamp in the tent giving her plenty of reading light. As she read, she was careful not to jostle the unseen kunai in her sleeping bag.

The group arrived in Saizensen in the dead of night on the third day of travel. They slithered over the rooftops, bypassing everything and everyone until they arrived the harbor.

Zabuza inhaled the scent of seawater as the waves crashed against the dock. "Ah, brings back memories, eh, Haku?"

Haku laughed mirthlessly. "Yes. I recall fleeing from Hunter-nin and being smuggled aboard a fish boat."

"Yep. Didn't get the smell off for a week. Back in the good ol' days."

Naruto eyed the many tall and wide ships anchored in the harbor. "So which one of these is ours? Oh, I hope it's the one with the dragon's head on it!" Naruto said, pointing.

"I'm afraid we won't be taking any of them, Naruto-kun. These are all ships. We will be taking a boat. I reserved the port third from the left," Hinata said.

Naruto squinted and counted the ports, but the space seemed empty to her. "Doesn't look like there's anything there."

Hinata smiled. "That's the point, Naruto-kun."

The ninja walked down to the docks, passing one grand ship after another. No sailors were ; they had passed by the noise of a bars on there way, so most of the sailors were probably off drinking or trying to find prostitutes.

They came upon the designated space. A man with peppered hair and a brown overcoat leaned against a wooden beam, alternating between smoking a cigar and checking his watch.

He glanced at the group of armed mercenaries and took an extra long drag. "Whatcha want?" the man asked, blowing smoke through his crooked teeth.

Kakashi handed the man a sheet of paper that Sasuke had forged.

He nabbed it and read through. He looked at all of the shinobi, focusing on their hitai-ate. "More of you 'an we were expecting."

Kakashi shrugged. "We can double up."

The man snorted. "At least you ninja make good time. Get in. We've been docked for days, and Captain's orders are we're pushin' off ASAP. Name's Tako, First Mate." Tako turned and walked to the end of the pier. The ninja followed.

The vessel rested like a whale, the top half clearly visible, but more lurking beneath the surface, veiled by water and darkness. The entrance stuck from the water like a steel chimney, the top open like the lid of canned food.

Tako climbed the ladder installed on the side. He looked at the stationary ground and said, "Well come on, it don't bite. Just watch your heads." He disappeared into the belly of the beast.

Kiba stared at the foreign thing, and decided to use some gentlemanly chivalry. "Uh, ladies first?"

"Don't mind if I do," Naruto said. She fearlessly jumped and flipped, landing on the mouth of the chute. "Tada! Hm?"

As it turned out, gripping wet steel with chakra was a little different than trees or water. Naruto blinked as her footing slipped. Her surprised shriek called to the others as she fell through.

Naruto became the first ninja to board a submarine.

The thought behind this chapter was 'What happens when Sakura is on a different team than Sasuke, and gets the role model she needs?'.

Because she can't and won't stay the same. As much as people love to write her as a pink haired screaming banshee no matter what, Sakura would change under those circumstances. Being assigned to the same team as Sasuke fed her delusions that they were meant to be. Without being distracted by the presence of her obsession, Sakura has the opportunity to grow, rather than staying in the same mindset she had in the Academy, fawning over him everyday. I've also read fics where Sakura drops out of the program if she isn't on his team. It's believable. But it could be prevented by a proactive teacher...

And Kakashi was overall a terrible teacher for his students, but Sakura gained absolutely nothing under him that she couldn't have learned from any sensei. Kurenai is the perfect sensei for Sakura. Not just because they are both genjutsu types (something Sakura never had the opportunity to capitalize on; Kakashi's definition of teaching her genjutsu is using it on her during the bell test).

I believe Kurenai would call Sakura on her immature bullshit the way Kakashi never did, since she seems the no-nonsense type. According to the databooks (same places stats come from) Kurenai at first wants to fight Asuma. That says a lot about her outlook and personality, possibly more than anything we see from her in the manga. We're much more free to interpret this character, and that is mine.

To be blunt, I fucking hate Sakura. But I'm not going to waste time bashing her. Or any other character. My hatred for Sasuke is downright unhealthy, I freely admit. So I put them in circumstances under which they can justifiably change into what I believe are better characters.

My thanks to Psalm for helping me hammer out another chapter.

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