Ryoko froze as she spoke to Lee and shivered noticeably, turning about to look behind her toward where Naruto and Sasuke were both lying with towels on their foreheads.

The heaviness of the chi flowing out of him had grown...more so and she could feel it creeping out of Sasuke to fill the air around him, pushing outward.

Behind her Neji also turned his look away from the anomalous girl and his own teammate and their unnecessary challenge. He felt the pressure of an intense chakra and frowned, casually activating his byakugan again to look over towards the source.

Dark and cluttered chakra whirled about the young Uchiha's form. Lee and Ten-Ten, noticing the attention of the other two, turned to look toward Sasuke and though they could not see the chakra itself, they could see the spreading of what looked to be a strange sort of bruise over Sasuke's body over the left side.

For his part, Sasuke sat up and looked about, immediately noting a lack of apparent hostilities as everyone was focused on him and were apparently drinking tea from some of Ryoko's cups.

"Where's Sakura?" he asked sharply.

"Ano..." Ryoko said, a bit confused. "Haruna-san is not on any teams, Uchiha-san."

"I know that, but she was here," he said.

"Was she that pink-haired beauty?" Lee asked then.

"That was her," Sasuke said.

"I found her defending you not more than an hour or two past," Lee said. "But she left once your attackers saw fit to leave. I don't know where she went after that."

"This isn't the time for someone to be wandering alone," Tenten said. "Especially not someone who doesn't have a genin team to support her. How'd she even get past the proctors?"

"These attackers," Sasuke asked. "Where they of the Otokagure?"

"I believe so, yes," Lee said.

"Then I'm going after them," he said firmly, and started to move to look for tracks.

"Ano..." Ryoko said. "Sh...shouldn't we wait for Uzumaki-san?"

Sasuke hesitated, remembering Naruto coming back and bravely, or stupidly, attacking that freak Orochimaru the night before.

"Fine, but we're going after them as soon as possible," Sasuke said coldly, the strange bruises slowly receding as it looked like he wasn't going to get to expend that power immediately.

"There is no need," Lee declared. "They left behind their scroll and Ryoko-chan and I have determined a contest to see which team shall acquire the scroll."

"What?" Sasuke asked, before turning toward Neji and nodding toward Lee. "You've got one of those too?"

Neji grumbled and nodded.

"Continue the Test."

The words cut into Sakura Haruna's back were as clear as could be even beyond their direct meaning.

One of the medical shinobi turned about and walked out of the room to address the Hokage where he stood beside Anko. Another special jonin had taken her place proctoring the remainder of the second exam for now as the Hokage asked for her presence.

"We took this out of her via stomach pump," the medic said, showing a partially digested snake. "That's the source of the infection."

"Is this the end of it?" the Hokage asked.

"She is showing an erratic rate of mutation," the shinobi said. "The eyes and facial marks are probably only the first signs. We can hold it off, but truly stabilizing it is beyond us. The bulk of the infectious material has been removed, so it will be slow, but all we've done is delay the end result."

"And that is?" the Hokage asked.

"Most likely?" the medic said, looking toward Sakura. "Insanity, pain and death."

The Hokage nodded.

"That bastard was always looking for the perfect genesplice," Anko muttered bitterly.

Sarutobi remained quiet as to his own thoughts on the matter and turned to look at Inoichi Yamanaka as the man came out of the room. The blonde jonin looked toward the medical ninja and Anko, remaining silent as he did so.

"I'll be heading back to the se..." Anko started to say, getting the Yamanaka's hint.

"Stay here, Anko," Hokage said. "You, go to the jonin lounge, look for a blind woman and her servant and tell them that the Hokage requests their presence."

"Yes, Sandaime Hokage," the man said quickly as he hurried out.

That done, the Hokage turned toward Inoichi.

"Anko is going to be taking charge of this girl for the foreseeable future," he said. "She needs to know what you found. In that matter, I suspect that Inoichi is going to be revealing something he considers a clan secret, Anko, give that due consideration. I imagine this has something to do with her two spirits?"

Inoichi simply stared openly at the Hokage and wondered just how the old man had learned about that. He hadn't even known that the Haruna girl had two spirits until his daughter had told him.

"Two...what?" Anko asked.

The Hokage glanced toward Inoichi and gestured for him to explain.

"It's an occasional phenomena," he said. "Twins are conceived, but one does not survive to birth. If it is early enough, the living twin absorbs the dead one. This sometimes includes a second spirit."

"The ghost of her unborn twin sister is possessing her?" Anko asked.

"Not quite," the Hokage said. "They typically do not recognize each other as separate entities, for all intents and purposes they are the same, and as they grow older, they become more and more unified. I'm guessing this has upset the normal routine?"

Grimacing again at the man's knowledge.

"They still recognize each others' thoughts as their own," Inoichi said. "But they're not even closely agreeing any longer. The result is confusion and dissonance that's making everything else worse. Fortunately, while it's bad, it would have been worse with anybody else."

"Why's that?" Anko asked.

"Because then the snake would have had a complete hold over whoever was infected," the blonde said. "Not my daughter or even I would have been able to separate them, much less seal them away."

"What was done to her?" Anko demanded, narrowing her eyes.

"Orochimaru didn't do this over the course of a couple of hours," he said. "He's been in her head several times over at least three days. There are several genjutsu blocks throughout her mind, most to keep her from going for help it seems or from figuring out that she was even being manipulated."

"She's our extra," Anko said. "He slipped her in as a distraction, and now we're focused on controlling and helping her so we can't interrupt him. What about her behavior afterwords? Genjutsu?"

"No, her aggression has been enhanced and her memories are feeding her muscle memory," the mind reader said. "Something of a poor man's Sharingan, I guess. Not much use without the ability to see chakra, but it lets her perform taijutsu to a much higher degree than she used to have."

"So the killing was her choice?" the Hokage asked.

"Yes and no," Inoichi said. "Her second spirit has been more affected than the primary, and it probably feels like it made the decision, but as long as the snake had a hold, the instincts had free run of the body."

"Can the snake be removed?" the Hokage asked.

"Lessened, weakened, tamed," Inoichi said. "Removed, no. But if the medical shinobi can control the physical mutation, my clan can help her with the mental problems."

"Who's in control right now?" the Hokage asked, looking out toward the sedated ninja.

"The aggressive personality," Inoichi said, glancing the same way. "Sakura herself is too shell-shocked to take charge."

Anko didn't need the man to say anything more to know that he didn't consider that healthy either.

"Is there a difference as to who's in control?" Anko asked.

"The second spirit isn't a full person, just an echo of the dead twin as imprinted by the living one," he said. "It's a caricature, not a fully functioning identity. Extended control by it is dangerous. It's not equipped to do more than spur the primary on some things. Control like this is an emergency measure."

The Hokage nodded.

"Do what you can for her," he said, dismissing the man.

Anko waited until he was gone.

"I'm in charge of her?" she repeated.

"As of the moment I said it," he explained. "No one here knows better what it is to go through what she has. I'll speak to her parents with you."

"Thanks for that, sir," she noted.

Kashou took up at some distance and pulled himself into a shady patch nestled between the closely grown trunks of two of the great trees, one of which was great and healthy while the other had died the expense of the successful tree.

It was a place steeped in the flow of yin within the plethora of yang that filled the great and lively forest. Pushing himself back into that niche served to conceal him in the energies that were counter to the wild and savage abandon of the plants and animals throughout the forest.

He sat down and entered a stance, letting the flow of chi through him with each breath, adjusting himself to breathe in time with the trickle of yin he had immersed himself in.

And then he let his soul ride out on the currents, holding tight to the chi that flowed into and out of his body.

Swiftly, he let his mind be pulled along the currents of chi drawing closer to what he was seeking, switching from one thread to another and remembering always the path back to his own body.

He came to a tree killed by unhealthy poisonous chi, radiating out from an impact of immense physical force and the touch of some sort of fire.

From there it was easy to be drawn toward the one who had done this.

And what he found confirmed the rumors.

In most people, either the Yin or the Yang were dominant naturally. Someone with training to could flush one sort of chi for another, but it would merely alter which was dominant for the moment. Only masters with years of study reached such a level that they could hold usable levels of both yin and yang at the same time.

Masters that had done long study and a handful of particularly lucky bloodlines. Though even they needed training to make any use out of that natural trend.

"Well, well," he said as he let himself drift back towards his body. "Someone will be interested in this. It seems there's an extra Saotome walking about."

Kiba paced back and forth in the waiting room, eyes moving toward the three Sand Siblings occasionally that had come in after they had. Akamaru had been really nervous since the Sand, especially the center kid, had arrived. For his own part, he could smell blood thick and heavy about the young brown-haired kid with the black circles around his eyes.

That wasn't something that concerned him too much. His team had already set one potentially lethal trap taking advantage of the local terrain, and he as yet had no idea whether the team they'd tripped up had survived the encounter or not. Death was a part of this test and a part of being ninja.

But Akamaru was nervous around the kid, and that was strange.

Hinata was similarly worried from her position, pushing her finger tips together and looking down at her feet. A lot of people wouldn't see anything different from her normal attitude, but it was apparent to Kiba and even Shino that the girl was worrying more than the usual amount.

Unfortunately, once they'd checked in, they hadn't been allowed to check back out again, and potential spill the beans on such things as what was in the scrolls and the like.

It had been almost a full day since they had turned in their scrolls, and so far the only other team to arrive was the Sand team.

"Oi, what a pain," a familiar voice called out from elsewhere in the tower.

Steps approached from down the hallway drawing attention from the others waiting there. Hinata, Kiba and Shino, through their various senses, allies and the like knew who was coming already, though they each betrayed a trace of surprise as Ino came into the waiting room, looking somewhat less victorious than she would normally have been at this point.

"How did you wimps get here so fast?" Kiba practically demanded.

"We found some scrolls," Ino said dryly, very much out of character.

"You found 'some' scrolls?" Kiba repeated.

"Hai," Choji said. "Sakura was..."

Ino made a swift, harsh noise and turned to glare at her comrade, crossing her arms. Choji stopped talking with a look of embarrassment.

"Uh, sorry Ino," he said.

"Sakura?" Hinata said, lifting her head in surprise.

"Nevermind," Shikamaru said. "It's too much of a pain to explain it."

"Hey, where was your gate?" Kiba asked.

Ino shrugging at that pointed vaguely in the direction that they had come from.

"Then you were over around where Team 7 was?" Kiba asked.

Hinata perked up at that.

"Oh, did you see Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked quickly.

"Hmm? Wasn't he beaten up when we saw him?" Choji asked.

Hinata stepped up to her feet and started looking toward the door.

"Relax, he's fine," Shikamaru said. "Your cousin's team is watching out for them last we saw and that Saotome girl was up. I'd imagine they're not too far behind us if they haven't had too much trouble."

Ino walked over toward Choji and started leaning into his face snapping at him in something of a shrewish manner.

"What are you thinking?" she snapped. "Are you not a ninja? Don't you know how to keep a secret? Are you going to just blurt things out in front of everybody?"

"But they asked and..." Choji protested.

"Idiot!" Ino snapped bitterly. "You don't just blurt out news like that. What if they're worried about them or something? I mean, I know it's Naruto, but Sasuke's there too, and you're going to make her think he's hurt!"

"But, wasn't he?" Choji asked before Ino smacked him on the head.

"Idiot, keep your mouth closed!" she snapped.

Shikamaru looked toward Ino and shook his head before turning back toward Hinata and the oddly relieved Kiba.

"Anyway, I guess we just hang out here until the five days is done," Shikamaru said moving to a bench and lying down on it. "So, I'm going to nap for the next few days and maybe watch the TV in cafeteria."

"You're a lazy one aren't you?" the blonde leaf woman noted harshly.

Shikamaru shrugged and eyed the woman with the hard expression on her face as she looked at him in a trace of disapproval.

"Hmph, she's a hard woman," he thought without saying anything. "What a pain."

Kiba walked over toward Ino as the mind-swapper smacked choji over the skull with her fist one last time.

"Ryoko and Naruto are fine?" he asked.

"The scaredy cat?" Ino asked.

"Don't you call her that," Kiba snarled.

"Why not it's what she is," the Yamanaka continued. "If you'd seen what I'd seen..."

"Shut up," he snapped. "You don't know anything. You said you saw them?"

"Yeah, they're going to be fine like Shikamaru said," Ino said, shrugging. "She's just lucky she has someone like Sasuke on her team."

That was said with a fair amount of rancor that was more like what Kiba expected of the girl. Ignoring it for now, he glanced back toward Hinata and gave her an encouraging thumbs up as he walked back toward the benches.

"All of you be quiet," the brown-haired boy in the middle said.

Instantly the two older Sand shinobi turned to grimace at him darkly.

"Who are you to tell us to be quiet!" Ino snapped harshly. "If you're going to be quiet, you might as well not exist."

Shikamaru's eyes popped open and he twisted to sitting up straight to stare at Ino.

Gaara frowned and looked up to meet Ino's eyes, narrowing his own. Normally, Ino would have felt the blood lust instantly and backed down. As it was, however, she'd already been steeped in first Ryoko's Kishu and faced the monstrosity of what had been done to Sakura, recalling their time as friends and given her an intense anger of her own that she needed to work out.

"Is that so?" Gaara asked smoothly. "If you're quiet, you might as well not exist? Are you saying you'd prefer not to exist than to be quiet?"

"What about it brat?" Ino snapped. "Do you think I'm just going to push over because someone tells me too? Am I just a piece of terrain then? I'm going to say what I feel and people can take it or not."

Gaara stood up and turned slowly to face her.

"Maybe I should show you how I know that I exist," he said vaguely.

"Hold on!" the blonde Suna shinobi said. "There's no fighting here. Remember what we're here for Gaara, we can't mess that up. So just...calm down, a favor to your sister."

"Listen to your sister, raccoon-face," Ino growled. "Because there's no way right now I'm letting any selfish brat push me around!"

"Excuse us," Shikamaru said as he and Choji grabbed Ino and started pulling her away...with some difficulty.

Gaara narrowed his eyes as she was pulled away and watched her progress.

"Blondie there is some idiot," Temari said, shaking her head.

Kankuro turned to look at her and took in his sister's blonde hair before shaking his head and grimacing.

"I have to deal with this for three or four more days," he wondered.

Out in the forest, Naruto was waking up slowly as he glanced around taking in the presence of the second team and Sasuke standing and exchanging glares with Hinata's cousin.

"Oi, what happened to that freak?" he asked.

It was some time later after the situation had been mostly explained to Naruto that both teams were still sitting around to give them time to recover.

Not that it was Neji and Tenten's choice.

"Let us just take the scroll and be done with it," Neji said imperiously. "You are holding right now as it is."

"But a challenge has been made," Lee protested. "It wouldn't be right to simply turn it down."

"Lee," Tenten said irritably. "Her body is shredded, as much as she acts like she's fine, she's not able to fulfill a challenge right now."

"Then perhaps we should give them the scroll so that they might leave the testing field earlier and have time to rest for the next step," Lee said.

"Oh no!" Ryoko said. "I couldn't possibly accept that! I wou..."

"You said 'couldn't'," Naruto commented, cutting her off.

"Ano?" Ryoko said, distracted before her eyes widened. "Oh! Could not! Could not! I could not possibly accept that!"

Tenten and Neji stared at her in something like disbelief.

"The point is moot," Neji said quietly. "We have enemies approaching."

"What?" Naruto asked. "Does everybody know we're here?"

"Ano...h..hai," Ryoko noted, pointing to the fire where she was brewing tea. "Su...sumimasen. Father says n..not to brew tea on the fire, but to po..pour the hot water onto the leaves after so that the smell does not travel too fair and attract trouble."

The other five people present blinked and looked down at the fire and the strong, herbal odor coming off of it.

"And why aren't you doing that?" Neji asked.

"Ano.." Ryoko said, blinking. "Th...this is easier than looking fo..for someone."

"Are you insane?" Sasuke asked harshly. "Nevermind...I don't want to know."

"It worked didn't it?" Naruto asked. "They're coming?"

"But we're not controlling who we fight this way," Neji said bitterly. "Or how many."

"Su...sumimasen," Ryoko said, not yet understanding why people were upset. "I...su...suppose I was too greedy?"

"Greedy?" Tenten asked, blinking as she readied for a fight.

"Nevermind, for this shall be a glorious chance to show our true worth!" Lee declared.

At least one person understood the subtleties of a Saotome with a "plan".

"What amateurs," one of several shinobi said as he and his team approached the clearing that they had finally tracked the wafting scent of brewing tea to its source. "They must have been brewing tea off and on for the last day or more."

"We're not the only ones that have come looking," one of his partners said.

"And don't forget what we saw on the way here," another noted. "Torino's team was slaughtered and left for dead where they fell not a mile away from here."

"If that was them," the first asked. "Don't you think they'd have left by now?"

"The Konoha brats," a Suna shinobi said from the tree cover at another angle. "Two full teams."

"Looks like one is helping recover from injuries," another noted. "You're not scared of a bunch of twelve and thirteen year old kids from a soft place like the Leaf?"

"Konoha is one of the great villages," a third noted warningly. "But I have to say what I've seen so far doesn't impress."

"We have two teams here," a fourth Suna noted, indicating their own members. "Numbers are even, experience and skill are not, the more experienced and skilled shinobi should prevail. Clearly that is not such brats as these."

"And the other two teams on hand?" someone asked. "The Amegakure and the Takigakure?"

"If they get in the way, they will fall," the fourth added in.

"Juni's team was slaughtered to a man," a Takigakure shinobi noted. "Not more than a day's walk away from here."

"And this our chance to avenge them," a second noted.

"How do we know that Konoha killed them?" the third asked.

"We don't, but now we have more reason than ever to succeed here," the first noted. "We just have to watch for the appropriate opportunity to strike and fade away."

Kashou sat on a perch in a tree and watched what was happening, idly he looked across toward where he'd sent the Musk warriors and then back toward the scene below. Let the animals chase their tails a few times, he didn't particularly want them to interfere in his observations just yet.

He'd been hired to confirm what the Musk claimed, nothing more.

It wasn't like he was foolish enough to try to grab power for himself.

If he did that, then he might actually have to pay for something out of his own funds.

Kabuto watched quietly, it was only the third day of the test, not yet time to interfere and guide Sasuke by the hand. However, the situation at hand was more than a little volatile.

The tension was building below him and at any moment it could erupt into an explosion of chaotic violence.

"Four teams," Neji said quietly. "Two Sand, one Valley and one Rain."

"H..hai," Ryoko said standing up and bowing several times.

Neji frowned as he noted that the girl's body was in much better condition after only the half day of arguing and light work they'd had since seeing her.

"Different villages," Sasuke said. "They'll hold off for now."

Neji nodded solemnly.

"What, why?" Naruto asked. "Why don't they come in?"

"Because the team that moves first will take the initial strike," Neji said. "And be weaker to face the next team. They'll wait to see who loses their patience first."

"If we make a move to leave, however," Sasuke said, "they'll move rather than risk being in the situation we're now in."

"Surrounded," Tenten said grimly. "Monkey in the middle."

"Ano..." Ryoko said as she finished putting everything away. "I..is that bad then?"

"If we know where they are," Naruto said. "Why not just take them and get it over with.

"Idiot, the first team that opens its back gets hit from two or three sides," Neji snapped, "Didn't we just explain that?"

"You just said there were four teams," Naruto said. "But there are six plus of us. That means each of us could take one team."

"Are we actually talking about each of us taking a group on our own?" Tenten asked. "Can we do that?"

"If they're as weak as they look," Neji said. "Are you fine to fight, Uchiha?"

"I'll feel as good as I ever have," Sasuke said firmly with a vicious smile.

He had to admit to being eager to test the feeling he had.

"Takigakure is in the trees behind Naruto," Neji said. "Amegakure is behind me. Sunagakure is between Tenten and Lee. They're the largest concentration so..."

"Rock-san and I shall at..attend to it," Ryoko said.

"Hai, that way we can be sure of each other's score," Lee declared.

"I'll support them," Tenten said to Neji, cutting off his commentary before it could begin.

"Then I'll take Takigakure," Neji said. "And Naruto perhaps should help your overly eager friend."

"Heh, don't worry about where I'll be," Naruto noted with a smirk.

"Then let's get on with this," Sasuke noted.

"KAGE BUNSHIN NO JUTSU!" Naruto shouted, raising a cloud of smoke all about the Konoha shinobi which surprised all of the watching teams.

"A smoke bomb and jutsu bluff won't fool us!" the Takigakure team declared as she darted for the smoke. "Get them before they escape!"

They were interrupted soon after leaving their hiding spot by a figure in grey clothes stepping out of nowhere.

"You're in the range of divination," Neji said calmly.

"Scatter!" the apparent leader shouted, rolling backwards as Neji started to move.

His teammates were slow to respond, screaming as Neji's jyuuken tore into them, but he gritted his teeth and pulled out a pair of kunai for a retaliation.

"Uh uh!" Naruto called out loudly, dropping down on the leader from above and slamming him into the nearest tree.

As Neji looked up from the two he'd eliminated and over toward Naruto, he frowned slightly at the the thought that the blonde had thought he'd need assistance.

"Those fools are trying to run," an Amegakure shinobi said with sneer. "Let's give them the chase they obviously expect."

Darting forward, one of them called out.

"Run down the cowards like the weak of the herd," another snapped eagerly.

"Who's a coward," a cool calm voice asked.

Sasuke stepped forward and slammed a fist into the face of the center shinobi before twisting about with his foot and slamming into the next. Quietly he triggered his sharingan, not to watch his opponent's chakra, but to track the flow of something else.

Chi was hard to track, even with the sharingan, and from watching the blind woman, it seemed obvious that he wasn't getting the same picture she was, but he had enough practice now to at least partially note the way the chi was flowing already through and immediately close to him.

It wasn't truly chi channeling yet, merely following its path. It was something a good taijutsu-ka already did without realizing it. It was a further experimentation and observation, however.

The third blow struck into the last of the Amegakure solidly, and Sasuke watched the rippling of energy through the man's body as the physical impact and chi both insisted on traveling through the body in specific ways and the body resisted.

Sasuke smirked a bit in victory. This was something he couldn't watch in observing that woman. And now that he could recognize the faint trace of chi his sharingan allowed him to see, it was something he could remember for later and analyze.

Sasuke was looking up toward the first shinobi that he had struck, seeing the man standing up determinedly much to Sasuke's amusement.

Which was when a driving pain twisted outward from his neck throughout his whole body. It pulled a surprised cry out of him, driving him down toward the ground as he clutched at his neck.

"Heh, looks like you should have spent a little longer recovering," the Amegakure noted. "Or at least shouldn't have attacked alone."

"Who says he's alone?" a loud voice declared as an orange blur kicked the last shinobi's feet out from under him, followed by slamming into his face.

Sasuke grimaced, trying to catch his breath as Naruto, or one of his clones, finished off the last Amegakure ninja. He reached up to grab his neck and took a deep breath. Was it the chi or the sharingan that had triggered that, he wondered.

Ryoko and Lee appeared almost simultaneously in the midst of the six sand genin.

Tenten watched from a distance as Ryoko rose one leg in a curious hooking fashion to avoid a sweeping strike and then coming down again atop the sweeping leg inside the attacker's guard and slamming an elegant and graceful strike into the man's kidney and following up to pull the leg she'd hooked over far out of place.

At the same time Lee slashed out one roundhouse. His foot slammed into the jaw of the first of his targets even as he twisted in mid-air to avoid the slashing strike of a kunai from a second and slamming his knee into the second opponent's head.

Almost simultaneously, cries went up from each of the fighters.

"Ichi! Ni!"

From her position, Tenten tossed out her weapons, nailing the supporting numbers into tree bark while the two taijutsu specialists enjoyed free-reign in close fights.

One of the Sunagakure listened as the counting ranged higher and higher as he and his fellows were being literally mowed down. And it became apparent watching the reactions of the two, that he and the other Suna were being placed as the pieces of a game...a competition between the Konoha taijutsu specialist and the girl who wore no headband.

When the counts first reached double digits, he took a deep breath and turned to run, only to find himself facing a pair of identical orange-clad ninja that proceeded to knock him unconscious.

"Naruto!" "Uzumaki-san!"

"What, what?" Naruto asked, confused as he stood over the last ninja.

"You just incapacitated the tie-breaker," Tenten informed him with a tolerant shrug and a shake of the head.

"Ano..." Ryoko said nervously. "How do we decide who won now?"

"A draw," Lee said. "Most unfortunate. We shall have to attempt a new challenge at a later time."

Naruto gawked for a moment before rolling his eyes.

Ino woke up from her sleep and stretched, walking out of the waiting area to head on towards the lounge and cafeteria. She glanced over toward the others and the chunin that was standing watch over the arrived candidates.

That annoying brown-haired brat was still awake apparently. She felt a chill as the boy turned to stare at her and wondered if getting in his face earlier had been a wise move.

Whatever, it was too late to change that.

Someone had come into her village and...and...mutilated the mind of... someone she knew. This had stopped being a game two days ago. It was time to get serious about being Shinobi and protecting the village.

She'd always grown up hearing about her father's stories, but it had never hit her just how dangerous the world was until now.

The blonde walked up to the vending machine, currently rigged not to need money, and pushed a button. Reaching down to pick up the can that came out, she felt the irritating feeling of something scratching along the side of her skin.

She batted at it and found herself surrounded by motes of sand.

"What the..."

"Shall we talk about existing," a voice said behind her.

Ino froze and turned slowly around to look into the dull eyes of the creepy sand genin she'd shouted at earlier. She felt like running away, now alone in front of those eyes, but she'd just promised herself to grow up and stop treating this thing as a sort of hobby she'd inherited from her father.

"You're not going to scare me into shutting up," she snapped, thrusting out her chin.

"Because then you won't exist, right?" Gaara asked, sand swirling around him. "Suppose I fill your mouth with sand, perhaps then you won't exist or be noisy. And if I end your existence, then I'll definitely know I exist."

Ino flinched back against the machine and looked over the scratchless body of the genin, well aware that meant that he could probably drive her into a smear in the pavement given how skilled she was right now.

"Then you better do it now," Ino said. "Before I get strong enough to reach into your head and wipe your mind off the face of the map! Because I might be a loud-mouthed self-centered bitch, but from now on, my self is centered on making sure bastards like you have to find some other way to exist than to torture people."

Gaara snarled and reached out toward Ino, his eyes narrowing dangerously as sand reached up around the blonde leaf genin, pulling her against the vending machine behind her.

Ino gasped as she was pulled back harshly and the sand started scratch into her skin. But she held her mouth closed tightly in pride.

"Do it if you're going to do it!" Ino snapped, closing her eyes.

Gaara's eyes narrowed again and he pulled his hand back in consideration.

"Gaara!" a voice declared in a commanding tone. "Control yourself!"

Ino opened her eyes cautiously and looked to see a Sunagakure jonin standing in the doorway.

"I suppose you still exist then," Gaara said as he walked away and the sand pulled away from Ino.

She waited for the pair of Suna shinobi to leave before she let herself stumble to her knees and took a deep, steadying breath.

"Okay, Ino..." she said. "What did you just do?"