Words-168455, Chapters-21, Reviews-754, Hits-436685, C2s-130, Favs-1373, Alerts-1403


AN: Sorry, I really had intended to update much sooner than this, but between the holidays and work I just couldn't seem to find the time to get anything set up. Please note, this chapter was put together on computer, my phone, and paper, then combined later on, then left untouched for months before I finally got back to working on it again. As it still hasn't been proofread yet, so there may be places where it doesn't flow properly, though I tried to catch them all. If you find one, please let me know.

Anyway, don't forget to check out my other stories and challenges. Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed. I should have responded to everyone, but if I missed you, I apologize. All reviews/criticism is welcomed. So, without further ado, I give you chapter 20 of Naruto: Shadows of the Mind.


'THOUGHTS'

LINEBREAKS=CHANGE OF SCENE/POV


Chapter Twenty

Kurenai hummed contentedly as she chopped some vegetables to go with supper, listening in with half an ear to Naruto's mumbling and grumbling in the other room. He'd been that way since she got home, scribbling on a small scroll and mumbling to himself, before scratching out whatever he had written previously, then moving further down the scroll and starting over.

"The matrix needs…large enough…indefinitely... easily noticed…but the containment can't…overpower the buffers…"

Shaking her head at her son's mumblings, Kurenai knew she'd never be able to piece together what he was up to with such vague mutterings. 'I probably wouldn't understand even if I heard every word.' She admitted ruefully as she dumped the vegetables into the pot of stew on the stove. Kurenai would be the first to admit that her proficiency with Fuuinjutsu was rather limited compared to people like Genma, or Kakashi. Even Naruto far surpassed her when it came to that.

Oh, Kurenai could recognize and even create the most common of seals, like storage seals and exploding tags, but that was more about being able to copy them. She couldn't actually understand how they worked, let alone try to explain it to someone else.

Taking a sip of the stew, she nodded thoughtfully to herself before adding a few spices and stirring it some more. Nodding to herself, she scooped up two bowls and set them on the table before calling out, "Naru-chan, dinner is ready."

Kurenai shook her head in exasperation when Naruto tensed up and practically threw himself onto his scroll to keep anyone from seeing his work. As if he honestly thought she was about to swoop in and steal it from him if he didn't bodily defend it from her. That was something she wished he hadn't picked up. Naruto was almost ridiculously selfish and secretive about any of his less known seals. Kurenai had been concerned about it at first, enough so that she asked Genma –as the only male role model in Naruto's life, not to mention his teacher in Fuuinjutsu- about it. Ironically enough, watching the two argue over trading seals with each other –most of Naruto's new seals being recreated or adapted versions of the seals the Sandaime had placed around his apartment- while simultaneously accusing each other of trying to cheat the other and throwing insults, was enough to convince her that Naruto's attitude was common among seal users.

"Naru-chan, I'm not going to try to steal whatever you're working on." Kurenai sighed in annoyance. "You know I couldn't even if I wanted to. Now get in here before your food gets cold."

Flinching slightly at her scolding tone, Naruto quickly rolled up his scroll and sheepishly made his way to the table.

Smiling, Kurenai sat across from him and –after subtly checking Naruto for any paranoia regarding his food, happily noting there was none- dug into her own meal with a pleased smile. It never failed to put her at ease to see that Naruto trusted her, ever since the first day he ate a meal she'd prepared for him without his direct supervision.

"So, are you excited about your first C rank?" Kurenai asked curiously between bites. After all, a Genin's first C rank mission was a milestone in every shinobi career.

"Eh, not really." Naruto grumbled as he took a sip of water.

"Oh?" Kurenai asked in surprise. "Why's that?"

Most Genin were ecstatic about their first C rank missions, and while Naruto hadn't complained about his D ranks as much as she had expected, she had noticed how tense and restless he had been getting lately.

Naruto just shrugged as he finished off his first bowl and stood up to get seconds. "All we're doing is babysitting an old drunk on his way home. I don't even see why he even needs us in the first place."

Kurenai watched bemusedly as the blond returned to his seat. It was always... interesting to see how Anko was rubbing off on Naruto. Not always tolerable, but amusing nonetheless. And the way Naruto said "babysitting" reeked of Anko's…questionable…influence. "I see. Well, we don't always like the missions we get. But I'm sure you'll see something interesting on your first trip out of the village. In fact, why don't you get out your gear after supper and I'll check to make sure you have everything you need."

"Come on, Kurenai." Naruto drawled in exasperation. "I don't need to be babied."

"Is that so?" she asked in a faux airy tone. "Well, I thought I might be able to give you some advice on Genjutsu before you leave as well, but since you don't need to be babied, I guess I won't bother."

She barely suppressed her giggles at the way Naruto perked up excitedly, before trying to cover it up with nonchalance. "Well, I suppose you can check on my things if it makes you feel better." Naruto sighed as if he was being unbelievably accommodating.

"Thank you for letting me put my mind at ease." Kurenai responded with a smile as she watched Naruto hurriedly chow down his food, before moving quickly to retrieve his various tool and weapons pouches.

Shaking her head ruefully, Kurenai calmly finished her own meal and gathered the dishes, placing them in the sink before following after.

When she walked into the room, she was surprised as always when she saw Naruto's extensive amount of equipment. Kunai, shuriken, senbon, makibishi, ninja wire, two windmill shuriken- which Kurenai was relatively sure Naruto didn't have the last time she'd checked- and the knife that Asuma had given him were spread out on the floor. Kurenai smiled happily at that. She was glad that the two most important men in her life were no longer fighting as often as they had early on in her relationship with Asuma. 'Now if only Naruto would stop letting Anko drag him into her "pranks" on Asuma.' She thought wistfully as she ran a critical eye over the weapons, checking their sharpness and balance.

Satisfied at the condition of the weapons, Kurenai turned her attention to his other pouches. His waist pack was filled with an impressive and varied amount of medical supplies. 'Blood pills, chakra pills, painkillers, bandages, some wider use antidotes, surgical scissors, needle and thread…I know Medic nin who don't carry this much…stuff.' Kurenai thought ruefully. With some effort, she even kept herself from worrying too much about how Naruto got a hold of it all. Though she couldn't help but wonder if that made her a bad mother or not. After all, several of Naruto's medical supplies weren't available for just anyone. Particularly the painkillers, blood pills, and chakra pills, which one could only get through being issued either by the select groups that controlled them, such as the hospital or the quartermasters.

And Kurenai knew full well that Naruto didn't count any medic-nin among his friends, and he lacked both the rank and the authority to request them from the proper channels. Which heavily implied that he had…acquired them himself somehow, much to Kurenai's discomfort. 'Whoever said ignorance is bliss obviously never had children.' Kurenai thought ruefully as she helped Naruto pack everything away again, taking note and approving of the way Naruto made sure everything had its place among his pouches and holsters and was easily accessible.

When they finished, Naruto tried and failed to act nonchalant as he asked, "So, are you finally going to teach me the Magen: Jubaku Satsu? You keep saying you'll teach me eventually."

Kurenai smiled fondly, always pleased that her son had the same fascination and love of Genjutsu as she did –even if he'd already had that interest before they'd met. "And I will teach it to you, when you're ready to learn it. For now though, you'll have to settle for the Mizu Kouzui no Jutsu."

Naruto pouted in a way that Kurenai found utterly adorable –even if he would deny pouting in the first place- as he let out a groan of disappointment. "You always say that…" he muttered before frowning as he struggled to translate the Old Tongue. "The…Water Flood Technique? That doesn't exactly sound like a Genjutsu."

"Neither does Konohagakure no Jutsu." Kurenai quipped with a smile before explaining. "The Mizu Kouzui no Jutsu is a C rank Genjutsu, which makes a large bubble of solid water appear around the target's head, making them feel like it's impossible to breathe without drowning. Needless to say, the sensation of drowning is a terrifying one, and may cause them to panic as they try to remove the water from their face, to no avail."

"And even if they don't panic, they can only hold their breath for so long before passing out anyway, especially in a battle." Naruto completed for her, the same look of intense focus on his face as whenever he was studying something that interested him. Kurenai smiled fondly as he tilted his head to the side in thought. "Do you need to be around a body of water to make it work?"

"No, you can use it even in the harshest of deserts and it will simply appear as if the water is being pulled from the air." Kurenai answered with a tinge of pride at Naruto's intuitiveness. "That being said, this jutsu is far more effective if you happen to be around a body of water, where the water appears to jump up around the targets face instead of just appearing out of the surrounding air."

Naruto's eyes lit up in excitement as he said, "Which makes it seem like an actual Ninjutsu rather than a Genjutsu, keeping them from just dispelling it."

"Exactly, and since you're going to Nami no Kuni, I thought this would be an appropriate present for your first C rank mission." Kurenai replied happily, ignoring Naruto's muttering about how he'd still have preferred the Jubaku Satsu as she brought her hands together. "Now, watch carefully while I go through the hand seals…"

Kurenai watched with a critical eye as Naruto carefully went through each individual hand seal one at a time, stopping him several times to correct even the slightest of imperfections in his seal work as he slowly increased the speed of his transitions. After all, Genjutsu was a demanding art, one that required precision and a great deal of chakra control. And considering how easy it was to unintentionally cause severe damage to the mind with even the slightest of mistakes, Genjutsu was not an art that tolerated sloppiness.

Finally determining him ready after watching him practice for over an hour –even blurring through the hand seals perfectly nearly a dozen times in a row- Kurenai stood from the couch and retrieved her hitae-ate and placed herself in front of him. "Remember, if you see me drop my hitae-ate-" she began as she held it out in front of him only for Naruto to automatically complete her sentence for her.

"Stop what I'm doing immediately and dispel whatever I've already done." Naruto said seriously as he clenched his teeth, his distress at the idea of using her as a test subject as obvious as ever.

Smiling, Kurenai gave him an encouraging nod as he stood before her and braced herself for the oncoming illusion while simultaneously forcing her usual level of resistance against Genjutsu down to a level Naruto would be able to overcome without too much difficulty. Once she was sure he could use the Genjutsu, then she could allow him to try to overcome her resistance.

Taking a steadying breath, Naruto raced through the hand seals once again, this time completing the technique and launching it at her. Kurenai couldn't resist grinning proudly as water seemed to condense out of the air to wrap around her head, her lungs instinctively seizing up to prevent the escape of air as she felt the water on her skin. He'd even remembered other details, like making her hair feel like it was not only soaking wet, but also as if it were floating weightlessly around her head.

Dispelling the Genjutsu, Kurenai beamed at Naruto as he let out a relieved sigh, though she knew her son was more likely thankful that he hadn't accidentally harmed her rather than that he'd succeeded in using the technique. Kurenai didn't mind, as she found Naruto's protective streak rather endearing, and knew it was based on his attachment to her rather than any slight to her skills. Naruto was actually quite adamant that Kurenai was among the strongest shinobi in Konoha, and while she knew better, Kurenai took it as the sign of complete faith in her that it was.

"Good job, Naru-chan!" Kurenai congratulated as she kept her hands from instinctively fixing her unharmed hair. Producing the scroll that the technique was written on, Kurenai handed it to him. "Study this in your free time to help improve your control of the technique, and when you come home, you can try to use it against me when I'm actively resisting."

Naruto winced at her mentioning of further testing against her, but nodded nonetheless as he unrolled the scroll to glance over it.

Kurenai waited patiently for him to finish reading it, wondering if he'd have questions for her to clarify, or ideas to make the technique his own as he had done with her Hana Yakuotoshi. She was far from disappointed when Naruto looked up from the scroll to ask, "Would it be possible to make it seem like saltwater when I'm near the ocean? You now, so their eyes feel like they're burning as well?"

"It won't destabilize the technique if that's what you mean. Though you'll have to figure out how to do it yourself, since I've never considered it." Kurenai answered truthfully as she stepped forward to embrace him. In all honestly Kurenai had never thought of trying that before, and if Naruto could figure it out, she'd have to ask him to share it with her. After all, if there was one thing she loved about teaching Naruto Genjutsu -besides how quickly he caught on and the insightful questions he rarely failed to have- it was the way he thought up interesting and downright ingenious ways to improve or otherwise alter the Genjutsu he learned.

That was actually the main difference between them, despite both being considered natural prodigies in the art by many. Whereas Kurenai would learn the Genjutsu Konoha already possessed as well as creating her own from scratch, Naruto would learn the Genjutsu he could get his hands on, and then think up ways to improve them or tailor them so that there were variations that could be used in numerous situations.

And Kurenai honestly wasn't sure if she could possibly be prouder of her Naru-chan.

As Kurenai wrapped her son up in a tight hug, she was startled to find herself all but overwhelmed by a wave of emotions. She suddenly found herself full of worry and trepidation at the thought of Naruto leaving the village for an extended amount of time, without her around to look after him.

Burying her face in Naruto's collar bone, Kurenai was amazed to find herself with watery eyes and shuddering breath. 'What's wrong with me?' she wondered as Naruto extracted himself from her arms to look down at her worryingly. 'When did my little Naru-chan get so big?' Kurenai thought nostalgically-he'd shot up in height these last few months, already three or four inches taller than her and showing no signs of stopping. Trying to blink away her tears she reached up to run her fingers through his spiky hair. It was a sign of how worried Naruto was about her that he allowed her to do so without his usual fuss.

It occurred to Kurenai –as her eyes darted all over Naruto's form like it was the last she'd ever see him- that she was acting exactly like her own mother had when she was getting ready to leave the village on her own first C rank. Kurenai remembered being annoyed and chastising her mother for being so "overdramatic" and to stop treating her like a child. Even worse, her team had stumbled across the scene, mortifying her for weeks! So the irony wasn't lost on Kurenai that she was absolutely terrified now that it was her turn to let her baby head off into the unknown.

'I guess I know how mom felt now.' Kurenai thought wryly.


Deep within the deserted Uchiha compound, a solitary light illuminated a single room within the otherwise darkened district. In his room, Sasuke was carefully doctoring a set of kunai, examining each one with a discerning eye and judging them with a standard that perfectionists could call critical. This was a common practice of his, ever since Naruto had somehow spotted a fracture the size of a hair on one of his blades during a spar at the academy. That shouldn't have been possible, but the scarred boy had done just that-no doubt thanks to those strange slit eyes of his-right before hitting the kunai with that strange blade of his in precisely the way necessary to break Sasuke's kunai in half! Naturally, it never occurred to Sasuke that Naruto might have pulled the whole thing off completely by accident. Since then, Sasuke had periodically gone over his kunai for even the slightest imperfection. After all, if Naruto could pull off something like that, then surely Itachi could as well.

Any weapon that had even the slightest chance of failing was removed from his stack of kunai, and added to his trap supplies. Stifling a yawn, he picked up the last one and examined it carefully before replacing the handle entirely. Then he began dragging the dulled edges of the blade along a sharpening stone, honing them to razors. After all this, he picked up a cloth and polished his fingerprints off the shiny metal. He paused when the polishing showed him a tiny fracture in the blade and sighed, putting it on the 'trap' pile.

Observing the tiny pile of kunai that he had deemed to be worthy of use in throwing and hand to hand combat, he yawned once more, musing that he'd need to buy some more. Again. He'd reduced his supply down to a measly eighteen kunai this time. 'It's a good thing I'm so good with traps.' Sasuke snorted to himself. 'Otherwise I'd never be able to justify the sheer cost and waste I spend on kunai alone.' Granted, as the sole heir to the entire Uchiha clan-which included all of their financial assets- he was absolutely loaded, but that was no excuse for frivolous spending.

Carefully repacking his kunai pouch, Sasuke glanced over at his backpack, rechecking his mental list to make sure he had everything packed. Tomorrow was the start of the next big hurdle in his quest for justice, and he would allow nothing to go wrong. If he was lucky, maybe they'd run into some bandits while escorting Tazuna, and Kakashi would allow Naruto and him to deal with them so he could test his progress.

It might be somewhat cold to consider ending the lives of men as a form of training, but Sasuke knew it was important that he condition himself to such acts. For the sake of his own survival, among other things. 'Heh, I just hope Naruto doesn't try to hog all the fighting.' Sasuke thought with a smirk.

His odd form of "competition" with Naruto-if it could still be called that-had been a sort of driving force since the two had first met. And although Sasuke's motivations had changed, he still considered Naruto to have been a key part of his training and improvement since he'd taken on his self-imposed quest for justice.

The academy may have given him the basic foundation he needed, and he had all the motivation necessary thanks to Itachi, but it was Naruto who pushed Sasuke to new heights. All of his other classmates presented little challenge to Sasuke, and none of them could ever get close to him anymore. But Naruto on the other hand, had been above him since the moment they first met, and no matter how much Sasuke trained, he couldn't beat Naruto. And that was ok.

The fact of the matter was, Naruto was the only person Sasuke knew who trained himself as hard and as single-mindedly as he himself did. And Sasuke learned so much from fighting the older boy, to the point that he considered Naruto to be a better teacher than the Academy instructors-who always held back against the students. In fact, Sasuke would rate himself and Naruto to already be low Chuunin level if not higher, and now that Kakashi-sensei was finally training them seriously, their respective skills would only increase.

As he finally lay down on his bed, Sasuke was grateful that when he closed his eyes this time, he didn't find himself witnessing the Massacre once again. It happened far more often than he'd like to admit, but Sasuke tried not to worry over it too much. After all, you don' just forget something like that, no matter how much time had passed. No, it was always there, hovering just out of sight and waiting for Sasuke to relax just a little too much, so he could feel the sting of betrayal and the pain of his loss all over again.

Sighing, Sasuke dearly hoped that once Itachi had been brought to justice and the ghosts of his clan finally laid to rest, then he himself could finally stop all of the planning and scheming he'd done over the years. It was exhausting to say the least, and distracted him from his more immediate concerns far too often.

As he finally slipped away into a light sleep, Sasuke's final thoughts were of how much easier finding Itachi could be if he had control of the Anbu and Oinin. 'Maybe I should become the next Hogake? After all, if a couple of Senju could do it, how hard could it be?'


'Hmm, this dress is nice...but this one accents my figure better.' Pleased with her choice Sakura carefully packed the dress in her ruck sack so as to avoid wrinkling it. "Oh, this is so exciting!" Sakura suddenly squealed to herself.

Soon, she'd be on a romantic trip with Sasuke, off to see new and exciting lands, just the two of them. Every morning, she'd wake Sasuke with a handmade breakfast, and he'd praise her cooking, before giving her one of his charming smiles. Then they'd spend the day leisurely walking through the forests, just talking about their lives and dreams, and then, once they reached Nami no Kuni they'd sit together on a romantic beach and watch a beautiful sunset. After all, with a name like the "Land of Waves", there were bound to be some good beaches, right?

Then, once they got home, Sasuke would finally confess his feelings for her, and she could introduce him to her parents, and then they could start dating, and…!

Giggling girlishly, Sakura finished packing with a wistful sigh, before frowning distastefully. 'If only we didn't have to take Kakashi-sensei, Tazuna-san, and him with us.' Sakura had to admit, with those three coming along, the odds of her and Sasuke having any alone time was almost nonexistent.

And considering how little progress she was making towards winning Sasuke's love here in the village –and getting on the same team as him was supposed to make things easier- Sakura had some serious doubts about this mission making any difference. And considering how much Sakura believed in the power of love, that was saying something!

Sighing again, Sakura checked over her bag one last time to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything, and then dropped down to the floor to begin her evening exercises. She wasn't any fonder of the various exercises she'd come up with to get the most out of each workout, but she wasn't blind either.

Sakura knew full well from the recent training Kakashi-sensei had given Team Seven that she wasn't anywhere near Sasuke and Naruto's level. And while Sakura did find the idea of Sasuke coming to her rescue romantic, she found the idea of being a burden on him far less attractive. The fact that Sakura seriously doubted Naruto would ever come to her rescue –not to mention the less than generous opinion he had of her, and made sure she knew it- made Sakura leery of being the weak link to Team Seven.

Huffing and puffing as she reached the end of her routine, Sakura half-heartedly wished that Sasuke would hurry up and marry her so she could retire and not have to worry about things like this anymore. Such thoughts might be shallow, but Sakura really wasn't looking forward to the sheer amount of work she had ahead of her if she wanted to catch up to her teammates. Even just these simple exercises for strengthening the basic muscle groups and improving her endurance were draining.

As she pulled herself up with a groan, Sakura headed off for a nice long soak before bed, not for the first time wishing she'd worked a little harder in the Academy. "Hindsight is such a bitch…" she grumbled to herself irritably.


Scanning the area around the gate with an almost absentminded focus, Naruto calmly sipped at a cup of red bean soup that he'd swiped from Anko earlier. Of course, Anko being Anko, he didn't escape without several accusations of being "nervous" as a result of leaving the house so early for the mission. That she had also made mention of the bath incident around Kurenai had been unbearably mortifying as well. The lecture about getting into baths with older, naked women and how he was supposedly much too young for anything even remotely like laying hands on older naked women –his protests that he was just trying to get a better look at her seal falling on deaf ears- was even worse, particularly with Anko grinning at him from behind Kurenai's back.

Naruto still couldn't decide which was worse about that morning, Anko thinking he was nervous, or Kurenai thinking he was excited. Of course, it's not like he could tell the two women the real reason he had decided to come early.

Well, knowing her as well as he did, Anko would probably approve. Hell, she'd probably insist on coming along to help him out, or even to critique his performance. Of course, it was also possible she'd want to just ruin his efforts just for laughs. Anko could be hard to predict at the best of times.

Kurenai on the other hand, was always such stickler about what she called "polite behavior". Particularly among "teammates", and if she had any idea what Naruto intended, she'd either scold him and give another one of her annoying lectures, or even worse, insist on seeing him off. And that would be beyond embarrassing.

Downing the last of his soup, Naruto's eyes suddenly darted up to one of the streets that led into the square before the great gates of Konoha. More specifically, the head of pink hair that was all but skipping towards him. Well, he wouldn't go so far as to say towards him, since he rather doubted Sakura had the kind of awareness of her surroundings or attention to detail necessary to spot him.

Glancing around for any potential witnesses or meddlers, Naruto absentmindedly tucked his empty cup into his small backpack and carefully made his way to intercept the younger girl. He briefly thought about using his Konohagakure no Jutsu for the added shock value –something that always worked well on that mangy mutt- but decided he didn't really need the extra theatrics to deal with this little girl.

Moving swiftly through the shadows Naruto took a position on the edge of a dark, isolated alley, waiting patiently for his target to get close enough. Taking one last glance around, Naruto moved quickly, snatching Sakura off the streets and into the alley before she could do more than squeak.

Mentally shaking his head at the girl's actions, Naruto pushed her against the alley wall and took a step back to give her a chance to recognize him. Staring down at the girl, Naruto watched as the shock and fear faded away to be replaced by angry disdain.

"Oh, it's you." Sakura growled lowly. "What do you think you're doing? Are you trying to make me late?"

Shrugging off Sakura's rather weak killer intent, Naruto stepped back towards her, fixing her with a stern look. "I think we need to make sure we understand each other before leaving for the mission. And I decided we can be more…honest… with one another, without the others around."

Sakura frowned and glanced around, seeming to take notice of her surroundings for the first time. "There's nothing to understand!" Sakura said haughtily. "Especially with someone like you."

Naruto scowled as she tried to slide away from him before slamming his fists into the walls on either side of her, blocking her attempts to leave. Next he stepped as close to her as he could without actually touching her, putting his height to good use to loom over the girl and forcing her to look almost straight up in order to stare him in the face. "I didn't ask for your opinion on the matter." Naruto said coldly as the younger girl tried to shrink back from him. "This isn't up for debate. I'm going to talk, and you're going to listen, understand?"

Sakura winced at the brief burst of killer intent Naruto sent at her, before nodding hesitantly.

"I don't know why Kakashi puts up with your childish stupidity, but this mission is at least semi-serious." Naruto continued lowly. "So it had better stop here. Once we're beyond that gate, our only backup will be each other. Neither Sasuke nor I can afford to baby you, and I'm not going to become a name on a monument because of you. I will leave you lying in a ditch if I have to, in order to come back alive with a completed mission." Naruto paused to allow his threat to sink in before continuing. "It's time for you to grow the fuck up, and face reality. Do you understand what I'm getting at?"

Sakura stared up at him with wide, fearful eyes before whimpering out a faint, "Ye-yes."

Studying her intently, Naruto decided that that was probably all he'd be able to get away with right now, so he nodded and stepped away, heading back towards the street.


Sakura shuddered slightly at the cold blue eyes that glared down at her without pity, silently promising pain or worse to any failure on her part. When she had first realized it was Naruto who had pulled her into the alleyway, she had been annoyed and angry. Especially when he had started to lecture her and imply that she wasn't a good ninja. Of course, that all changed when she realized that she was all alone with Naruto in a dark, out of sight alley. An angry and intimidating Naruto.

After that, it was all she could do to keep from trembling as those icy eyes bored into hers. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the older boy nodded and stepped away, allowing Sakura to release a breath she didn't even know she was holding until that moment.

She nervously watched him walk away, a part of her terrified that the older boy would suddenly change his mind and decide to make good on his threat.

Then the moment passed and her righteous indignation pride welled up inside of her. 'Who does he think he is?! We're the top kunoichi of our year! Chaa!'

"Hey, Naruto!" Now growling angrily herself, Sakura stalked towards the older boy who had turned to face her with a slightly curious look on his face. "Let's get one thing straight, Mr. Scarface!" Sakura spat the boy's hated nickname as she jabbed her finger angrily into his chest. "I don't care what you think, but I'm not some kind of helpless child!"

Sakura was pleased at the look of surprise evident on the older boy's face at her actions and felt a swell of pride at being able to draw such an obvious reaction from the normally reserved Uzumaki. Now more confident, Sakura pressed on. "Shut up, I'm still talking!" she cut off Naruto before he could say anything. "And another thing, where do you get off saying I'm a liability when I had higher grades than even you? You might be the Rookie of the Year, but I'm the Top Kunoichi. So you better not forget it again, or I'll kick your ass!"

Nodding decisively, Sakura stepped around the older boy and proudly walked away, her head held high. 'That'll show him! Chaa!'


Naruto stared after the retreating girl in startled bemusement. A part of him wanted to chase the girl down and shake some of the arrogance out of her, but he held himself back with some effort.

He was honestly surprised at the girl's outburst, as she normally kept up a polite-if somewhat uncomfortable- facade around him. In fact, Naruto felt a slight satisfaction that Sakura had finally shown some backbone and spirit. 'Now if only she had some actual skill to back it up...' Sighing in annoyance, Naruto quickly stilled his expression and returned to the gate, where a smug Sakura promptly turned her nose up at him with a huff.

Before Naruto could try to remind her of just who she was dealing with, he was hit by the powerful scent of sake. Turning around, Naruto saw Sasuke calmly walking towards them, with an obviously hung-over Tazuna being herded by Kakashi behind him.

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged nods, before wincing in tandem when Sakura suddenly cried out an exuberant greeting of "Good morning, Sasuke-kun!"

"Loud mouth brat." Tazuna growled as he held his head in pain. Naruto actually felt sympathetic for the old geezer for a moment, his own ears still ringing slightly.

"Well, it looks like we're all here." Kakashi cheerfully stated from behind his book. "Did you all pack appropriately?" Somehow seeing their nods without looking up from his book, Kakashi continued. "Well, if Tazuna-san is ready, how about we head out?"

Once again, without even looking, Kakashi took in Tazuna's grunted acceptance, before closing his book with a thud that seemed to cut through the air and bring a sense of seriousness to the group. "Let's go." Kakashi ordered, suddenly seeming every inch of the legendary Jounin he was supposed to be as he strode purposefully out the gate, Team Seven and Tazuna following behind.

Naruto was shocked at the feeling of awe and respect he suddenly felt for his usually irritating sensei. Who would have thought that the lazy, porn addicted Kakashi-sensei was actually capable of such a force of presence? Of course, no sooner did Naruto think that then Kakashi stuck his hands in his pockets, adopted a slouch that would have had Yoshino seething, and abandoned the graceful walk of a predator for the lazy shuffle of a slacker.

Glancing over at his teammates, Naruto wasn't surprised to find their expressions of irritated annoyance mirrored his own as they sighed as one at the antics of their Jounin-sensei.


It didn't take long for the novelty of being outside the village to wear off on Team Seven, and the three quickly turned their attention elsewhere in their own manner. Sakura chose to walk near Kakashi and Tazuna, peppering the two with curious questions about Nami no Kuni and ninja, drawing a lecture from Kakashi about the Five Great Shinobi Nations and their respective Kage.

Sasuke chose to take a position on the right of the group, far enough away to avoid getting caught in any traps or attacks, but close enough to come to their aid or to protect their client as needed. There, he scanned the road and the surrounding forest with a casual suspicion, belying the kunai he held firmly in his pocket.

Naruto himself chose to walk a ways ahead of the group, unwilling to trust the important job of point man to either Sasuke or Sakura, while Kakashi calmly refused the job. Cautiously scanning the road and surrounding undergrowth, Naruto paused at random moments to glance behind him and to take discreet sniffs of the air before pressing on. Of course, it didn't help that he was downwind of the rest of the group, so whatever he might have picked up by scent was blocked out by the combined smell of old blood, metal, dogs, oil, shampoo, sake, and nature in general.

Luckily for him, his sense of smell wasn't his only tool. Just as a puddle in the road came into view, Naruto's sixth sense started screaming, causing him to tense in place inadvertently, tipping off not only Sasuke, but likely their watchers as well. Cursing his instinctive reaction, Naruto leaped forward, feeling more than seeing Sasuke following close behind. He quickly sent a trio of pre-prepared explosive tagged kunai into three random directions hoping to flush out whoever was watching them. One of which happened to land by the puddle in the middle of the road.

Moments before the tags could go off, Sakura and Tazuna's shocked cries were cut short as two men in breathing masks and horned hitae-ate seemingly rose up out of the puddle before dodging to the sides to avoid the explosion. Naruto blinked at the sight of some kind of chain stretching between the two men, but he shook it off when one of the men didn't quite escape the blast radius. The energy of the blast forcefully pushed the man with the single horn and ratty poncho off his feet, nearly dragging the second man into the blast were it not for the sudden clang as the chain disconnected from the first man's gauntlet, allowing the man with two horns to stumble to a halt.

Drawing a kunai in each hand, Naruto hurled himself at the still recovering "two horns" determined to end the fight quickly. Closing the gap between them, Naruto swiped at the Kiri nin's chest with his right hand kunai. When the man predictably parried with the clawed gauntlet on his left arm, Naruto used the distraction of their two arms to step in with his left hand kunai, looking to gut the man before he could recover.

The Kiri nin avoided the strike by hopping back a few steps, before making a strange wind up motion with his clawed arm.

Not wanting to give the man any time to do…whatever the hell it was he was trying to do, Naruto dashed forward, hoping to keep the pressure up and try to finish this before the other Kiri nin could join in. Then the man damn near took Naruto's head off when he completed the motion of his arm and flicked the chain still attached to his gauntlet at Naruto.

Naruto dropped to his knees just in time avoid the chain –which looked more like a bunch of shuriken welded together now that Naruto got a closer look- as it soared over his head. As he slid across the ground, Naruto threw himself into a forward roll, throwing one kunai at the Kiri nin to buy himself some time, drawing a brace of shuriken to replace it.

The Kiri nin recovered faster than Naruto thought possible, already swinging that chain of his down at Naruto by the time he'd gotten back to his feet. This time Naruto was able to side step it, throwing his shuriken before darting in once again.


It took all of Kakashi's considerable control to keep his usual lackadaisical expression in place, when all he really wanted to do was sigh in frustration.

When he'd spotted the obvious ambush, –'A puddle in the road in this weather? It hasn't rained in weeks, could they be more obvious?'- Kakashi knew that there were any number of possible objectives for the hidden ninja. Granted, they were probably after Team Seven's client, but Kakashi had been a shinobi for far too long to discard the other, slightly more paranoid possibilities out of hand. The two assassins could have been after the bounty on his head, or they could have been targeting the "last" Uchiha. Or maybe the truth behind Naruto's identity had somehow leaked out and they were targeting the Yondaime's Legacy. It was even possible that they were scouts for an invasion force targeting Konoha.

'Well, they probably are just targeting Tazuna…' Kakashi had mused to himself as he came up with a plan to test both his theory, and his Genin in one go. After all, the assassins would most likely target him first, if for no other reason than to remove the biggest threat. So he'd just use a quick Kawarimi, see how his team reacted under pressure, and find out who the assassins were after at the same time. Besides, he could always step in if things looked bad for his cute little Genin.

Unfortunately, Naruto seemed to have discovered the attackers' presence as well, and made the very amateurish mistake of noticeably tensing up. Then, the blonde Uzumaki completely ruined his plan by attacking first, with explosive tags no less. Though he was curious as to why Naruto only threw one of the three kunai at the puddle. Surely the blond knew that's where the assassins were?

Kakashi wasn't sure if he should be disappointed or pleased that the two assassins –who revealed themselves thanks to Naruto's attack, allowing Kakashi to identify them as the Oni Kyodai of Kirigakure- managed to escape Naruto's attack more or less unscathed. On the one hand, it would let him observe his students a little longer, and may even give Kakashi a clue as to their target. On the other hand, the Demon Brothers possessed years of experience and were well known for their vicious attitude of fighting to the death, as well as their exceptional teamwork tactics. Naruto and Sasuke on the other hand, while talented, weren't exactly team players themselves.

Although, it didn't escape Kakashi's notice how quickly and easily Sasuke picked up on Naruto's body language, and how smoothly and effortlessly the two worked together to separate and engage their foes.

In fact, Kakashi was quite pleased with how the two were handling the fight thus far. Naruto was currently facing off against the brother with two horns, who was managing to keep the blonde at bay by using his chain like a whip, forcing Naruto to keep his distance. Kakashi watched carefully as Naruto dodged the chain while simultaneously trying to pin down his attacker with shuriken and kunai, almost forcing the Kiri Chuunin into stepping on some makibishi Naruto discreetly spread across the ground. Unfortunately, the Demon Brother wasn't too bad at dodging either, keeping the two in a bit of a stalemate. 'I really should consider teaching him some medium or long range Ninjutsu.' Kakashi thought idly while glancing over at Sasuke's fight.

Sasuke was doing much better, obviously surprising the poncho wearing brother with his quick reflexes and getting in multiple shots to the man's face and chest before he adapted, the two quickly falling into a routine of attack and counter attack.

He was more disappointed in Sakura, who was all but frozen as she stared wide-eyed at the fight. Although she had acted properly by moving to protect their client, standing between Tazuna and the battle with a kunai held in a reverse grip, she was so… awestruck -or perhaps shocked- by the sudden battle that she likely wouldn't be able to respond properly if attacked. It happened with some frequency among rookie Genin, but it was still disappointing.

Turning his attention back to the fight, Kakashi winced as Naruto willingly allowed the shuriken chain to wrap around his forearm, tearing into his jacket and possibly the flesh beneath it. Then Naruto gave a feral grin as he pulled hard on the chain, dragging the Demon Brother towards him even as he pulled out that chakra blade of his. Kakashi had to admit, it was a semi-decent –if reckless- strategy, except for one key point that Naruto seemed to have missed. Namely, that the Demon Brother could release the chain from his gauntlet as well, which he did so before Naruto had even halved the distance between them.

"I suppose this has gone on long enough." Kakashi murmured to himself as he decided to step in. The look of surprise on Naruto's face when he suddenly appeared behind the brother and knocked him out was pretty amusing to Kakashi. Though to his credit, Naruto recovered quickly enough to whip around and sling the chain around the poncho wearing brother's neck, before giving it a hard yank, pulling the man to the ground and ending that portion of the fight.

"Well, that went well." Kakashi spoke cheerfully into the silence that followed the abrupt end of the fight.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura suddenly exclaimed angrily. "Why didn't you stop them sooner? What if they hurt Sasuke-kun?"

Kakashi just smiled nonchalantly behind his mask, fully prepared to offer a mildly scathing reply, only to be distracted by a slightly more pressing issue.

"This guy's dead." Sasuke pointed out stoically as he and Naruto searched the Demon Brother not currently being held under Kakashi's arm.

"Well, yeah," Tazuna stuttered slightly as he eyed the ninja nervously. "The blond kid killed him with the chain thing."

"Except the blades didn't puncture or even cut any major arteries or veins. We would have seen an arterial spray of some kind if that were the case." Kakashi pointed out calmly before tugging his captive's arm up so he could examine the blades of the gauntlet. "They probably use the same poison on the chain as their gauntlets."

Curious about the sudden silence, Kakashi looked up from his inspection to see the others staring at Naruto's left arm.

"Oh… Naruto, are you alright?" Kakashi asked Naruto with his usual nonchalance. After all, judging by how quickly the Demon Brother had died, the poison was probably a fast acting one, meaning Naruto should have already been feeling its effects if he'd been hit. And even if he had been hit, Kakashi knew that it would be best to keep Naruto as calm as possible to avoid accelerating the poison's spread. Despite that, Kakashi was fully prepared to grab the teen and dash back to Konoha if necessary, leaving their client to his –in Kakashi's opinion much deserved- fate.

"I'm fine." Naruto answered after a quick inspection of his arm. "It looks like my coat and the way the chain wrapped kept it from cutting my skin."

"Oh, good." Kakashi nodded with well hidden relief. "Well now that that's out of the way…Sakura, you can't really afford to freeze up like that. You put not only yourself, but the entire team and mission in danger." Sakura blanched shamefully at his words, suitably rebuked for once rather than complaining.

"And Naruto, you shouldn't have attacked so recklessly like that. It's entirely possible that they weren't after us at all." Kakashi continued with what to him were the most annoying mistakes his Genin had made. "What would have happened if one of your teammates, or our client was seriously injured or killed, only for the Demon Brothers to not have been targeting us? Just because it turned out alright this time, doesn't mean you should jump into a fight without considering all of the possible consequences, intended or otherwise."

Unlike Sakura, Naruto seemed relatively unconcerned by Kakashi's criticism. "Sensei, is Kiri our ally?" Naruto asked calmly. When he shook his head, Naruto continued. "Then there's nothing wrong with taking out their shinobi when given the chance, right? Even if they weren't after us, what's wrong with cutting away at the competition? We can even take them back to Konoha and get some of Kiri's secrets from them. It's not like Kiri will ever know, or be able to complain without admitting that they sent ninja into our country without our permission."

Kakashi sighed, silently acknowledging the truth of his student's words –at least, the truth that Naruto believed, since there was no way Naruto could have known that the two men were missing-nin- but nonetheless concerned that a rookie Genin would have such a...relatively militant attitude. Particularly his nonchalant outlook towards killing, or interacting with other Shinobi Villages in general.


Naruto kept an eye on the surrounding forest with Sasuke while Kakashi tied the surviving Kiri Nin to a tree, after thoroughly searching and disarming him. Despite Kakashi's words, Naruto had no doubt the Demon Brothers were after them. As far as he was concerned, the only question was; were they after Tazuna, or were they after him? Was Kakashi really upset that Naruto had attacked "recklessly"? Or was he upset that the Old Man's attempt to kill him failed? Not even Kurenai could call him paranoid for suspecting that the pair of assassins -from a country that has no relations with Konoha whatsoever- who just happened to be waiting in his path the first time he left the village was anything other than some kind of assassination attempt.

"How did you see through our technique?" the surviving brother –who Kakashi identified as Meizu- growled angrily at Kakashi even as he glared in Naruto's general direction.

Naruto perked up at the question, as even he only figured out they were there thanks to his "sixth sense". And even then, he'd only known that someone was watching him. That he figured out where the Demon Brothers were hiding was literally just a lucky guess on Naruto's part. So how did Kakashi know…unless he already knew they'd be there…?

"Simple," Kakashi explained with a cheerfully condescending tone. "There isn't going to be a puddle on a sunny day like today. Especially when it hasn't rained in over a week."

That…actually made sense now that Naruto thought about it. 'Wow…' Naruto thought with something close to awed respect. 'Kakashi is really good…the kind of situational awareness necessary to instantly pick up on that…damn, maybe he really is an elite Jounin.'

Well, either that or the man was even more paranoid than Naruto. One of the two.

"So why didn't you stop them right away?" Tazuna demanded angrily. "I'm paying you ninja good money to make sure I'm safe!"

"Because I needed to see who they were after. Now I know." Kakashi explained before giving the old man a hard glare. "You mind explaining why two missing-nin want you dead, Tazuna?"

Naruto gave a start at that, before glancing at the surviving man's forehead. Just like he'd thought, there was no scratch through the hitae-ate. It was common knowledge that all missing-nin draw the symbolic scar through their village mark. So what was Kakashi talking about?

"I don't know what you're talking about." Tazuna stammered, sweating bullets. "Why would they be after me? I'm just a bridge builder!"

"Well, at first I thought it possible that they may be after me." Kakashi conceded absentmindedly, "After all, I do have a rather large bounty on my head. But these two are far too weak to have seriously contemplated coming after me. They couldn't even beat two of my Genin, yet they never tried to break off from the battle or claim that they had no quarrel with us. That means their target was definitely someone in our group."

Naruto watched with interest as Tazuna looked around for help. Not that he found any. Sasuke was giving him a suspicious eye, Sakura looked like a kicked puppy, and Naruto himself tried to maintain a neutral look as he met the old drunk's eyes. Judging by the man's flinch, Naruto figured he'd failed.

With a heavy sigh, Tazuna conceded defeat. "Alright, I admit it. Although I'm just a bridge builder from Nami no Kuni, the bridge I'm building is super important to my village." Tazuna gave them a focused, almost desperate look as he explained. "Nami no Kuni used to be a peaceful collection of islands that made its living from the sea. Basically, we're a collection of fishermen, sailors, merchants, and traders. I guess that's how we drew the attention of Gato..."

"Gato? Of Gato Shipping?" Kakashi asked suddenly, an undeniable look of interest in his eye. Naruto glanced at his teammates and saw the same look of confusion at the mention of this "Gato".

"That's what he said when he first came to us, offering to sell our stuff for us to a larger group of people than the few companies we had selling our supplies. Even offered us a better percentage of profits than the competition, undercutting them by a huge margin." Tazuna sighed before looking piteously down at the ground. "That was before he started buying out the competition, first by legal means. Then he started shipping in thugs and mercenaries and took over the other shipping companies by less legal means. Once he'd monopolized the shipping industry, he began importing illegal products, like drugs and the like. Before we knew it, he'd taken control of the entire shipping industry, and most of the islands."

"This sounds like something far more complicated than a simple C rank escort mission." Kakashi pointed out angrily. "Do you understand just how much danger you put my team in by lying to us?"

"I know, and I'm sorry but there was nothing else I could do." Tazuna pleaded desperately. "Everyone contributed what little money they had and it still wasn't enough! Please understand, even our Daimyo is poor!"

Naruto frowned at the man's story, several things not making sense to him. How does a Daimyo become poor? Or get pushed around by a merchant of all people?

"Besides, I don't want you to kill Gato. I'm not even sure killing him is possible." Tazuna shook his head. "He has too many people around him all the time. No, what I need are people who can guard me and my bridge as we finish the work on it. With it open, Gato won't be able to stop us from shipping our products once again, and then we can finally bring in the Daimyo's people to get rid of the bastard."

"You lied on your mission application for services that we are unprepared for." Kakashi spat harshly, making Tazuna wince and actually surprising Naruto at the heat in Kakashi's words. It was the first time he'd seen such an emotion from the Jounin. "You not only lied to our Hokage, but to us as well, putting all our lives in danger. What do you think would have happened if my team had walked into Nami no Kuni without any knowledge of the true situation? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't cancel this mission right now."

"Please, wait!" Tazuna cried as he bowed before Kakashi desperately. "Please, we need your help! If you leave me now, Gato will surely have me killed, and my bridge destroyed. The fate of my people and our nation depends on you! Please!"

Naruto snorted, fully prepared to turn on his heel and march straight back to Konoha. So imagine his surprise when Kakashi instead said, "Hmm, tell you what, why don't we see what my team thinks? If they think they can handle it, we'll continue."

Naruto was beyond shocked at Kakashi's words. The man admitted that Tazuna had lied to them, and that they had no obligation to continue the mission. So why were they still talking about this?

"I think we should continue." Sasuke suddenly spoke up, gaining everyone's attention. "Naruto and I took on those two Chuunin easily, and you didn't really need to get involved. Besides, who's to say this Gato will have any more ninja working for him?"

"Sasuke-kun is right!" Sakura chipped in eagerly. "Besides, we have to do what we can to help the people of Nami no Kuni! It's the right thing to do!"

"Not to mention, it'll make us, and Konoha look weak if we just run away from a merchant of all things." Sasuke continued as if Sakura hadn't even spoken.

"Don't be so naïve!" Naruto spat at Sakura. Sasuke he could understand-even if he didn't agree- but Sakura was in her fantasy land again. "We can't just take the old drunk's word for it! Especially when he's already lied to not only us, but to the Old Man as well. For all we know, this "Gato" could actually be the Daimyo of Nami and Tazuna could be a rebel. Unless you really think the Nami Daimyo would just sit by and watch as his country was stolen from him?" That actually caught the others attention, even as Tazuna tried to deny it. Not that Naruto let him. "If we help him, we might end up supporting a rebellion against the rightful ruler of a foreign nation. How do you think that would make Konoha look?"

"You don't understand!" Tazuna shouted angrily. "Nami no Kuni is a peaceful nation! We're not like Hi no Kuni! We don't have any kind of military force or shinobi village. All we have are the Daimyo's Guards, and they can't do anything against Gato's mercenaries or any ninjas he's hired!"

There was silence at the man's implication, though no one commented on it before Naruto continued in a calmer tone. "Can't or won't? The "Daimyo's Guard" are mostly Samurai, yes? Hard to believe that such elite warriors are so helpless against a "merchant and his mercenaries". Naruto paused meaningfully before continuing. "Even if Tazuna is telling the truth, we're just inexperienced Genin." He paused there to stare pointedly at Sakura before continuing. "We have zero reliable intelligence on the situation in Nami no Kuni, or what Gato's intentions are. What if Kiri is behind this? After all, neither of these guys have slashed hitae-ate."

"Ah, well that's actually because of the nature of how and why they fled Kirigakure." Kakashi pointed out with the same scholarly air he used when explaining why Nami lacked a shinobi village. "The Demon Brothers were a part of a failed coup d'état against the Yondaime Mizukage several years ago. They and their leader –one of the Seven Swordsmen- were forced to flee Kirigakure afterwards, but they likely haven't given up, and as such don't consider themselves to be missing-nin. But Kirigakure considers them to be missing-nin, so Konoha considers them missing-nin as well, and as such, free game as far as killing or capturing goes if you come across them."

"Why would you want to capture criminals from other ninja villages?" Tazuna asked with a confused look. One which was mirrored by Sakura as they both stared at Kakashi awaiting an answer.

Kakashi blinked before looking at Tazuna. "That's classified." He then turned back to the rest of Team Seven. "I'll tell you when you're older."

"So, since the vote seems to be two to one, it looks like we'll need to do some negotiating, Tazuna-san. In return for our continued service –which will only involve our original mission parameters of protecting you- you will pay Konoha for an A rank mission, on top of what you've already paid. If we run into any ninja stronger than the Demon Brothers, you will pay Konoha the equivalent of an S rank mission. This is non-negotiable. Do we have a deal?"

"Hold on!" Tazuna protested. "Why are you charging me for so much more? You said that the Demon Brothers only made this mission a B rank!"

Kakashi nodded sagely. "True, but you also lied to us, and that kind of thing can't be tolerated, or go unpunished. It would set a rather bad precedent. So you'll pay us quite a bit extra. Take it or leave it."

To no one's surprise, Tazuna agreed, though if looks could kill, Tazuna would have made a brief attempt to murder Kakashi only to run screaming in terror as three quarters of Team Seven chased him with bloody hatchets.

"Cheer up, Tazuna-san." Kakashi said with one of his creepier eye smiles. "In most other Hidden Villages, you'd be made to select an immediate family member for execution. We're only charging you a ridiculous amount of money."

Whatever dwindling defiance Tazuna had left quickly faded after that.


Translations:

Hana Yakuotoshi=First word is flower, second is Escape from Evil or exorcism. (That flower petal escape thing she does in the anime, I made the name up.)

Mizu Kouzui no Jutsu=Water Flood Technique

Magen: Jubaku Satsu=Demonic Illusion: Tree Binding Death

Konohagakure no Jutsu=Hidden in the Tree Leaves Technique. Or to Naruto, Hiding in the Tree Leaves Technique. The irony of this still kills me.

Oni Kyodai=Demon Brothers

Did I miss any?


AN:

And that is chapter twenty. Sorry it took so long. Not too happy with the scenes from Sasuke and Sakura's pov. I keep meaning to go into them more in depth, but it never seems to happen to the degree that I want. Might go back and work on those scenes some more once my beta gets back to me. Still considering changing the name of this story to something...else. So far, the only idea that I've liked has been Naruto: Shadows of the Mind, but I'm not sure. What I am sure about is that with every review I get asking what Naruto is a Specialist in, I feel like I should just change it to something...else. So, if you have any suggestions, I'm all ears.

Also, if anyone cares, I've had a few things pointed out to me in the first few chapters that were either inconsistent, or came across vastly different than I had intended. And since I've got the next 60,000 some words already sent out for betaing, I'm taking this opportunity to do some revising in between trying to get the next chapters of Reckoning and even Vaccum out. Anyway, let me know what you think. Remember, all reviews, criticisms, etc. are welcome.

Peace, Vaan.