A/N: This is the fastest I've put out a chapter in years and it's 100% due to Pencil-Missing's incredible fan art of Loyalty! Apparently she is going to make it into an actual comic, so I encourage everyone who enjoys this fiction to give her some kudos over on Deviant Art. Seriously, without that kind of motivation I would never have done 8,000 words in two days.

Give it a look: pencil-missing/art/Loyalty-Chapter-1-Page-1-753142844

Loyalty 30

The Office of Immigration, Customs, and Passes was not the most well-funded of departments within the Konoha bureaucracy. As the name implied, it issued gate passes to traveling merchants and processed the final leg of immigration paperwork. The squat little single-story building was pushed right up against the village gate with a large window pointed right out at the traffic - a holdover from a much slower, less urban time when the workers inside were also responsible for watching the gate themselves.

In the past that meant specialty ninja, chunin at the least with a jounin lead, manning the post. Today it was not quite as prestigious.

Sakura, her green folder tucked under her arm, thought she'd walked into the wrong building at first. Civilians chatted with each other around a rickety old table that seemed to serve as a snack bar of sorts, while the only other furniture were two rows of cubicles that took up the center of the room. The ones in Sakura's direct line of sight seemed occupied, at least judging by the little personal flairs and nick-knacks filling them, but she could see old boxes peaking over the dividers on the others.

"Oh, our first lost child of the day!"

One of the civilians had caught sight of her. She was an older, motherly sort of woman with thick makeup and generous heft that made her costume jewelry jingle as she walked over toward Sakura.

She was only a little taller than Sakura, but she still bent down like it was a habit. "And aren't you just the most adorable little thing in that vest. I didn't know the vendors had started selling souvenirs yet. It's about the cutest little outfit I've seen. My niece is going to want one."

Sakura stepped back, away from the woman's pawing hands, instead filling them with the green folder instead of her vest. "Haruno Sakura, reporting for special duty."

The woman looked down at the folder like it was a joke. "Duty? But you're-"

"A chunin." Sakura winced at the tone and the way the civilian leaned back away from her; she took a breath and tried again, this time with a smile. "A chunin and very happy to be working here for the exam. It's nice to meet you."

Now the other civilians were staring. A thin man in a loose-fitting suit walked over to them and plucked the folder out of the woman's loose grip. He flipped it open. "Haruno Sakura, Otogakure chunin. Special duty with Pass and Registration for the Exam. It says you're going to be with us for a few weeks as one of our spot checkers."

Sakura bobbed her head. "Yes, Sir. Are you the office manager, Shachiku-san?"

"That's right. I'm Shachiku Nori, Konoha Director for Pass and Identification. This is Nakamura Yui. You will be a part of her team. Specifically, we'll have you take care of the ninja registrations."

Yui got to her feet. "Isn't that too much for a little girl? She isn't any older than my niece, Nori! Some of the foreign ninja can be..."

"Yui-san," Sakura interjected, kindly, "I am a foreign ninja."

The woman looked ready to argue more, but Shachiku stepped in before she could. He pressed his hand against Sakura's shoulder and moved her along, past the snack table and the other civilians toward the cubicles. "She comes highly recommended, Yui. I wouldn't worry too much about her."

Out of ear shot from the others, Sakura's smile slipped. "Don't say things like that. You aren't supposed to know anything about me," she said. "Shikaku filled you in, didn't he?"

The hand on her back started shivering. "He did." Shachiku pulled a handkerchief out of suit and dabbed away the beads of sweat rolling down his neck. "Oh, how he did. I'm supposed to leave you to your businesses. Don't ask questions, don't interact unless it's necessary. On pain of unemployment."

On pain in general, Sakura thought, but she didn't think pointing that out would help the man's acting. "Good. Where are my files?"

"Here. The back cubicle. I had it cleared out this morning." It was a dirty little thing and Sakura could see the dusty outlines of all the boxes and old files that had been recently cluttering it. What she really needed, though, were already there - a stack of red personnel files almost half as tall as she was.

"These are all the foreign team files?"

Shachiku quickly nodded. "All fourteen of them. All the Amegakure teams pulled their applications weeks ago and one of the Kusagakure teams didn't show up We don't know where they are."

Sakura clicked her tongue. Out of those teams, only two would be her real mission. The others would be busywork she would have to balance. Doable, but not ideal.

She grabbed the first one off the top. Kusagakure team. The next one was Sunagakure, as was the one after that and the next. Suna made up most of the stack with thirty total participants. She had to dig deep into the stack to find the one Suna team she actually wanted.

"I'll start with Suna Team One and the Otogakure team," she said without elaborating why. It wasn't Shachiku's job to know, after all. "Do I sign the files out or anything?"

"You put down where you're going on the whiteboard." Sakura nodded and crossed the room to the whiteboard. She added her name to the list of workers and marked herself as being "out on site visit". It made her feel depressingly white collar.

"She's already going out?" Yui asked. The other civilians clustered closer to each other, arms crossed and whispering. They were quick enough to catch on to what was really happening, or had been in the office in years past when Konoha would need to pull something similar to this. One small woman reached out and touched Yui on the shoulder, but the big woman shrugged her off.

Shachiku wiped down his forehead and stammering something about special procedure and extra scrutiny this year, but Sakura was already closing the door behind her as the argument started to balloon. She didn't need the headache at the moment.

Not when her real job was about to start.

Sakura bounded from the street to the rooftop of a nearby building. In the distance, across the village, Sakura could see little specks of people commuting back and forth like jack jumper ants. It was easily the most crowded she'd ever seen Konoha's rooftop highway. The Hokage had pushed the security posturing up several levels after the Nara compound attack which meant random searches and patrols for every ninja not currently on a mission.

For a double agent like Sakura, that made her job all the more difficult. Thankfully, Shikaku had revealed the night before that her administration task for the exam wasn't an oversight or an insult. It gave her legitimate means to come and go around the other foreign ninja...not that she was looking forward to dealing with all those civilians for the next month. Civilians, in Sakura's experience, were nothing but grouchy, superstitious headaches that got in the way of ninja business.

Never mind that I'm trying to save all their lives, Sakura thought. Never mind that if I screw this up I'm dead. Or if Shikaku can't figure out who is operating in the village we're all dead. No, gotta get those forms filled out correctly and in triplicate.

Well, up on the rooftops Sakura didn't have to deal with them. Here she was only limited by how fast she could jump from building to building. Which, after a full night's sleep and professional healing from Konoha's finest, turned out to be pretty quick. Her muscles and joints swelled with chakra and she was moving as fluidly as any of the other ninja that shared the rooftops with her from time to time.

She made to the district selected for housing all the foreign ninja during the exam in good time without even breaking a sweat. Here, more than the rest of the village, there were some modern buildings that reminded Sakura a little of River Capital. None nearly so grand as that city's glittering glass spires, but seeing concrete hotels and shops with more than three or four stories to them brought a little smile to her lips.

The Oto team was on the far side of the district, but Sakura wanted to deal with them last. The Suna team, the one around which her entire mission revolved, had booked a room inside the hotel she'd come to rest on.

You are going to save the village tomorrow.

"No pressure, Shikaku," Sakura muttered as she pulled open the roof access. Inside, the hotel was just as modern as its construction. There were rows of doors on the top floor, which were the best and biggest rooms. The file in her hand said they would be in room 314, which one of two corner rooms. It had huge windows and was right beside the stairwell - typical ninja considerations.

She stopped just short of knocking on the door. You are going to save the village jingled around in her head like loose kunai in her weapons pouch. She couldn't get it quite out of her head and her breathing was starting to hitch on her.

She told herself not to think about it and knock on the door. She'd almost worked up enough courage to do it when it opened in her face.

Sabaku no Gaara. Demon of Sunagakure. Kazekage's son. Future Destroyer of Konoha.


He stared at her for a long moment, blank and unreadable. His bloodshot eyes were probably the most unnerving Sakura had ever seen since Orochimaru's stilted ones, but she took a deep breath and puffed herself up a bit.

"Where's Baki?" she asked.

Gaara apparently didn't find that question worthy of a response because he simply turned and walked back into the room. Sakura followed him into the room at a distance. The large bay windows were closed tight and the blinds drawn, but Sakura knew that professional ninja had taken more precaution than just a superficial deterrent to surveillance.

She was careful where she stepped in general because she had no idea what the Suna-nin might have done to the room in the days they'd had with it. Gaara moved without a care and leaned up against the far wall. He didn't so much as look in Sakura's direction again, or make any kind of small talk. It seemed like he was absorbed in his own little world.

Sounds from the other room gradually caught Sakura's attention. A tall, muscular girl stumbled out one of the bedrooms, yawning. "I thought I heard someone in here," she said. "Is Baki back yet?"

"Not yet," Sakura answered after a stretch of silence from Gaara. "It's nice to meet you, Sabaku no Temari."

"You're pretty well-informed. I guess you're the Otogakure spy Baki told us about?"

Sakura glanced at the bay window and Temari's eyes followed. "Don't worry. There's no one overhearing this conversation. Nothing gets past Gaara."

"All the same, I'd rather wait on Baki-san."

Temari shrugged. She flopped down onto the sofa and started brushing out her hair. Feeling awkward, Sakura sat down on one of the kitchen stools.

The red folder with their information tugged at Sakura's attention. "I suppose I can give these to you now. These are your official passes for the exam," she said, pulling out both Gaara and Temari's passes. "Keep them on you at all times, either pinned to your clothes or around your neck. If you are challenged by any Konoha personnel, you must present them."

Temari caught the pass Sakura tossed at her. She flipped it this way and that and made a face at her picture on the front. "Such a good little lap dog for the Leafs. They've really got you on a short leash, huh? Baki was shocked you were still out and around. They must really think they have Oto over a barrel."

"Something like that," Sakura said. "I can move around more or less inside the village, but my activities are heavily restricted."

Temari bared her teeth in a tight grin. "What a coincidence that you have a job like this one that lets you talk to plenty of foreign ninja and have an excuse to move around." It didn't take a scientist to recognize the tint of distrustful sarcasm.

"I'm glad you're practicing your caution, but there's nothing you've said that others much higher than you haven't already considered."

Sakura's head whirled around. Standing in the doorway was Baki in all his half-faced, dower glory. Behind him was an ANBU ROOT operative. He had the standard ANBU cloak and mask, but his strawberry blond hair was a stark splash of color.

Baki looked around the room. "Temari, go wake Kankuro up," he said, as the ROOT stepped around him. Sakura tried to meet the man's eyes, but his mask shaded whatever his opinion of her might have been. Sakura would have to trust their coordination on the fly, which was never how Sakura liked to operate. She hoped he was good at thinking on his feet.

"Your girl is right to distrust Orochimaru's creature," he said, surprising Sakura. He sounded fairly young. "If we had a choice we would have destroyed them months ago."

A real flush of heat raced down Sakura's spine. "Danzo is willing to kill thousands of his own people to become Hokage and you're calling me a creature?" she snarled. "How many people have you ROOT already killed? You expect that Suna can trust that Danzo won't throw them away when he's done?"

Somehow the ROOT's blank mask made her feel more ignorant for pointing out the obvious better than any human look could. "We are allies until Danzo-sama decides otherwise," he delivered with a flatness that only added to the tension.

"Wonderful. We know exactly which daggers we can expect in which backs after the current Konoha is destroyed," Baki cut in as Temari and a boy, Kankuro, finally rejoined them. "Now, if we're finished posturing we can begin our meeting. First, Gaara, is everything still clear on the surveillance end?"

The quiet boy nodded once. "There are two ANBU teams that are patrolling in a circuit. They pass this building every fifteen minutes without stopping. The two following Haruno Sakura have stayed still since she entered the building."

Here the ROOT broke in. "They are one of our paired teams. Their reports will state that Haruno Sakura left the passes at the front desk and stopped at the hotel restaurant to eat for the next hour. There is already an operative there in henge."

Baki nodded. "Good. I'm going to expect for ROOT to run this kind of interference every time we need to have a meeting now."

"That was already planned for," the ROOT agreed.

Sakura tried not to flinch when Baki's eye turned on her. It had only been a few weeks since she'd last seen him, but his stare had no warmth of recognition in it. He hadn't been lying about the knives coming out after the invasion, she realized. He would kill her without a second thought.

"And now you're going to explain Orochimaru's assets here in the village," he said. "And the plan of attack he wants to use. I'll coordinate with the Kazekage for our end if it's acceptable to me."

Sakura reached into her pouch and pulled out the scroll Shikaku had given her the night before. "It's all outlined in here. The troops we have hidden around the village, operatives close to the Hokage, and a list of our double agents." All a complete fabrication from Danzo, Orochimaru, the Hokage, and Shikaku designed to put the Suna forces in the worst possible spots when they invaded.

Baki took the scroll and slipped it into his own pouch without looking. "Excellent. The initial plan still hasn't changed on our end." He was speaking to Sakura and the ANBU, but a look at his three genin had them drawing closer to him as well. "We've already taken out the observation posts along our border with River and our invasion plans are proceeding at pace. We'll take targets of opportunity as they come before the actual invasion."

Inoichi, Sakura thought. She clenched her teeth so hard her jaw hurt. Baki was responsible for that. Suna was responsible. It was almost impossible to nod along with the ROOT. She decided then and there Baki would die in the invasion. Jounin or not, she'd find some way to do it. She swore it.

The ROOT had nodded, but he held up his hand as well. "ROOT will continue to provide targets, but you will limit the amount of damage you do to the actual village. The Nara nearly lost all of their historical medical data. This is unacceptable to us."

Baki's eye narrowed. "We will take targets of opportunity when they present themselves," he said, cryptic.

Across the room, Kankuro raised his hand. Temari was standing near him and they shared a twin look of both worry and feeling too far out of their depth. "Question. What are we supposed to do in all this? I mean, we didn't even know we were doing this...invasion thing until a week ago. Are we really trained for something like this?"

A flicker of actual emotion passed on Baki's half-face. Sakura didn't miss it and she doubted that the ROOT had either. "You're going to watch after Gaara when he uses it during the action. You stick to him and get him out if something goes wrong. Those are the Kazekage's orders."

He turned back to Sakura and the ROOT - more toward the ROOT, who was already drawing in breath for a question. "Suna will be the one to light this fire. That hasn't changed, and it won't. Just be prepared."

Sakura could almost feel the frustration the ROOT was feeling, because it was burning in her stomach as well. Suna hadn't set a firm date for the invasion yet and wasn't cluing either of them in on when it would actually start. It was naked distrust.

"And it goes without saying that if you decide that the risk is too high, Sunagakure will pull out entirely," the ROOT said. "Does Konoha activating its reserve force change your plans? Danzo-sama was unable to stop the Hokage from doing it after your attack on the Nara. We hope you have planned for that eventuality."

It was as close to a rebuke as the man was probably able to say in his position. Baki's eye narrowed at him, but he jerked his head. "It was a possibility we were prepared for," he said, clipped.

That extra bit of tension proved to be the breaking point for the meeting. Baki stepped back to his team and the ROOT simply turned around and moved for the door. "We will schedule another meeting as needed. Stay in contact."

Sakura wanted to ask him to stay. ROOT or not, now she was the only agent in the room. Baki ignored her in favor of leafing through the folder she had on his team, but the three genin were staring.

It made Sakura profoundly uncomfortable. The two older siblings looked strong, but Gaara was some kind of human super weapon according to the information Orochimaru had passed along. They didn't know what he could do, but apparently he was strong enough that Suna pinned much of their success on him.

Which meant if he died during the invasion Suna would be that much more weakened. She met his eyes. You will die, she thought. Baki. You. Anyone that gets in my way. You're all dead.

The staring match was broken by Baki flipping the folder closed. "Your village has quite a lot of information on us. I wonder how they got it."

"Because Konoha is good at what it does," Sakura said. The meeting was over; she was only risking discovery if she lingered. "We'll have weekly check-ins. If there's something you need to relay to Orochimaru about the plan, you go through me. I'll have an answer at the next meeting. If you need me before then, talk to ROOT. Understand?"

"Of course, Haruno-san. And you know where we are if you need anything from us." Sakura didn't bother responding to that. She cracked open the door and checked down the hall before stepping out.

"Good luck to you," Baki called out behind her and Sakura accepted it with a fake smile over her shoulder.

And bad luck to you.

Sakura walked down the three flights of stairs with her nose pretending to be in the files she was carrying so that no one passing would get a good look at her face. The restaurant at the ground floor was in the weird place between breakfast and lunch, so patrons were few and far between. Sakura caught a splash of pink hair disappear around a corner on the other side of the room, so Sakura casually walked through the rows of chairs and booths, toward the far exit. She stepped out into the sunlight without her and her ANBU double ever being seen together.

Out in the street traffic, Sakura looked at the remaining folder. The Oto-nin. Sakura hadn't been given any specific orders regarding them; it seemed like Orochimaru honestly wanted them to be part of the exam, which was almost as suspect than him having an ulterior motive. From their files Sakura knew she was looking for two boys and a girl, around her age, and dressed in gray utility uniforms.

Sakura didn't have to actually speak to them, but she found herself wanting to. Because they were actually from Otogakure. It was a glaring blank spot in Sakura's mind, the shadowy village she was now an out-and-out resident of. They were going to fill her in on it. Not for the mission or the invasion, but because Sakura wanted to know. She figured that Otogakure owed her a few hours with her...fellow villagers? Teammates? Something in between, maybe.

Their application listed a little hotel tucked away off the main street. Sakura caught looks the moment she walked into the lobby, mostly directed at her headband. It looked like Oto was already making a name for itself in Konoha.

The concierge was not as stealthy as he thought he was with his staring, so Sakura made her way over to him and thumbed at her headband. "Looking for my team. They didn't tell me what room number we're in or get me a key. Can you help me out?"

A few minutes later and Sakura was standing in front of a second floor room, key in hand. She knocked, but there was no answer so she used the key.

The room was small and nondescript. There was a common area and two bedrooms; one with a single suitcase and the other with two. "Maybe the girl took the spare single? Their file doesn't list a jounin-sensei," Sakura murmured. She didn't risk going through the bags because of potential traps and, she supposed, it would be pretty rude to do that to her fellow Oto-nin. She did help herself to a soft drink from their fridge and a bag of peanuts while she waited for them.

And then the adjoining bathroom's toilet flushed.

Sakura sucked in a breath. Like an idiot, she hadn't checked the bathroom, but she could very clearly hear someone moving around in it. The sound of the sink running filled the little hotel room and Sakura tried to look as nonchalant as possible, lounged on their small love seat.

She realized that this would be the first time she would meet an actual working ninja from Otogakure. The actual number of Oto-nin Sakura had met in her life could be counted on two hands and none of them were what she would call an "average" ninja. She found herself wanting to make a good - no, a great - first impression. If she could do that after sneaking into their hotel room and helping herself to their snacks.

The door opened and a young girl stepped out. Sakura was relieved to see someone close to her age. It had to be Tsuchi Kin, the team's female genin.

She didn't immediately spot Sakura, dark as the room was. Sakura watched from her shadowed seat as the girl shook out her long hair on her way to the kitchen. She did spot the open soda can, though. She stared at it for a beat long enough that Sakura felt compelled to clear her throat.

Kin had apparently been using her time in the kitchen wisely because she had a set of steak knives ready to fly when Sakura presented a target. Five of them skewered the cushion Sakura had been sitting on a moment earlier while a sixth embedded itself in the wall a few inches from Sakura's head. Another anticipated Sakura's dodge and would have caught her center mass if Sakura hadn't pulled a kunai in time to deflect it.

"Wait!" Sakura shouted, but Kin had already vaulted over the counter top and was locked into a bull-rush. Sakura worked with what little room she had to maneuver and managed to trip Kin on her pass, which sent the girl stumbling into the wall. "I said wait!" Sakura tried again as she ducked under the wild swipe of a butcher knife. Kin stabbed and jabbed, pushing Sakura into the smaller bedroom.

It was smart, Sakura thought in a detached way. A smaller area to dodge would give Kin more chances to connect with the heavy cleaver. IF her opponent wasn't used to close-in life and death situations, that is.

Sakura was no stranger to the concept. She dropped her kunai and grabbed Kin by the wrist on one of heavy swings. Kin gasped as Sakura twisted hard enough to make her wrist creak and the knife clattered to the carpet. She tried to kick out, but Sakura was close enough that she could wind her leg around Kin's and topple the taller girl over. From there it was an easy pin.

"I told you to wait!" Sakura grunted as she twisted the girl's arm behind her back.

"Fuck you!" Kin spat. It would have been more threatening if the girl didn't have the cutest, highest-pitched voice Sakura had ever heard on a girl her own age.

Sakura slipped off her Oto headband with her free hand and sat it down on the floor in front of the girl so she could get a good look. "We're from the same village," Sakura informed the still-squirming genin. Some of the fight went out of Kin when she saw it.

"...Haruno Sakura?" Kin asked. Sakura let out a sigh and let the girl up. Thankfully it seemed like the fight really was out of the girl now, because she didn't take the opportunity to go for the cleaver. Instead she just stared at Sakura's hair, frowning. "You must be. What idiot would willingly dye their hair pink?"

"Insults are better than attempted murder I guess," Sakura groused. "Truce? Can we sit down and talk?"

Kin looked like she wanted to turn Sakura down flat, but she was rubbing the wrist Sakura had pinned back. Sakura imagined the girl doing some calculations in her head about her chances of actually winning a fight. Kin nodded, eventually; seemed like the math hadn't added up.

Sakura let Kin lead the way and even didn't stop the girl from plucking the steak knives out the sofa so she could sit down. "So," Kin spat, arms crossed, "start talking. What do you want?"

"Where's the rest of your team?"


Sakura clamped down hard on the annoyance bubbling up. If I smack her, she won't want to talk, Sakura considered. But it would make me feel good. Really good, probably. That wouldn't be very diplomatic, though. Or friendly.

"Come on, there's no reason to be difficult. We're allies, right? Comrades? Can I at least get a name? You know mine."

"Are you an idiot?" Kin asked. "I don't know you. I'm not going to give you any information about my team."

Sakura picked up one of the red folders she'd brought with her and pulled out the three village passes. "I already know a lot, Kin. Here's your pass." She tossed it at the angry girl. "Pin it to your shirt and don't lose it. Konoha is taking security seriously right now."

Kin looked like she really wanted to argue as she grudgingly pinned the pass to her sleeve. "I don't care what this weak little village wants," she spat.

"We're getting off to a great start," Sakura said, swallowing something more biting. Of all the receptions she had imagined getting, having a fight in a dirty old hotel room hadn't even been on the radar. Kin didn't respond to the little joke either, which wasn't a great sign. Sakura was pretty confident in her ability to put people at ease and smooth things over, but if she couldn't get anything more than a few syllables out of the other girl.

So, Sakura tried a different track. "I outrank you, you know. I could just order you to tell me everything I wanted. You know who I am and you know what this vest means. I don't think you have any complaints about my ability as a chunin, either." When Kin's frown soured, Sakura couldn't fight back a smile. I can see why Kakashi-sensei pulls rank so much. It's pretty fun! "So, genin, want to give me a situation report?"

"Want to go sit on a kunai? I'm not telling you anything, so you might as well leave and pretend we're strangers," Kin replied through her clenched teeth. She was gripping the handle of one of the steak knives she'd kept so hard her knuckles were even whiter than her pale skin, but she still didn't attack.

Sakura focused her chakra for a moment. She was hampered a bit by the wooden walls of the building, but there was some kind of concrete mix coating the outside that conducted her chakra well enough. What she felt out there made her smile.

"Well," Sakura said, raising her voice, "if you won't talk to me, maybe those two outside the window will?"

Kin startled, but before she could do anything Sakura was already on her again. She gasped out as Sakura's elbow thumped her solar plexus like it was a drum. As she collapsed into the couch, the window burst open and a skinny boy flipped into the room. Sakura was already leaping toward him and she caught him mid-swing before he could put up a guard. Her feet hit the floor first and she pivoted him midair into a slam that rattled the entire room.

Kin and Zaku. Sakura snapped her head around the room, looking for the last one. Dosu. He'd disappeared from outside the window when Zaku had rushed in. There was a chance he'd run, but it would have made more sense for him to come in with the other boy.

She felt air move behind her head and only just managed to turn her face in time to take the punch on the cheek rather than on the back of the neck. The blow spun her around away from Zaku and the follow-up sent her flying over the sofa.

Sakura rolled with the impact and managed to get her feet back under her, although every bone in her body wanted to stay down. She felt around her mouth with her tongue and spat out a tooth. Baby tooth, luckily, but now there was a nice gap on the side of her mouth.

Kinuta Dosu. He helped Zaku up and Kin stumbled over to them. Zaku snarled and threw off Dosu's grip. He ran forward again and Sakura had to give ground to his punches. He had reach on her, was probably a bit stronger, and her head was still ringing from Dosu's punch. Sakura grunted twice with hits to her shoulder where she blocked at the wrong angle, but now she was in the kitchen, between the bar and the appliances. Zaku's wild swings were working about as well as Kin's had and Sakura ducked under a punch that went so wide it clipped the edge of the refrigerator.

"You're wide open, Zaku!" Dosu shouted, but it was too late. Sakura locked her arm from the heel of her palm to her elbow and shot up like a spring, catching the stunned boy right on his chin. He fell to the floor in a clatter of plates and cups as he bounced off the sink.

Sakura rolled her shoulder a few times and stepped out from behind the bar. Kin took a few steps back, her chest rising up and down as she was still trying to get her breath back. Dosu cocked his head at her, considering.

"You're pretty good," he decided. And then he sprinted across the small distance, swinging his arm at Sakura like a club. It hit like one too when Sakura blocked it with her forearm. His loose sleeves flapped against the side of her face like an annoying whip, which also blocked sight of his kick. It landed squarely on Sakura's thigh and made her fold to a kneel, which put her eye-level with a left hook. Sakura ducked to the side and split low enough to go under another low kick, which she turned into a sweep on the slick wood floor.

Dosu stumbled back and Sakura had to consciously stop herself from making seals. Instead she jumped up and chased him with a leaping kick to his side which he couldn't block.

Just a little chakra to my leg! Sakura let out an excited little grunt when she felt Dosu's feet leave the ground. She twisted, pouring in a little more chakra, and he sailed straight out the open window, sleeves flapping behind him like streamers on a kite.

Sakura gingerly landed on her feet. The apartment quiet except for Zaku's groaning. Kin had her breathing under control and Sakura angled herself toward her, grinning. "Round two?" she asked, eagerly raising her fists.

The window frame groaned as Dosu pulled himself back through it. "No, I think that's enough," he said. "You're definitely a chunin."

She tried not to sound disappointed. "If you all had attacked me at once, you would have won," Sakura noted.

"If any of us had used our jutsu we would have won!" Kin snapped. "We don't have to listen to her, Dosu! You can take her right now. I'll cover you."

The boy shook his head. "She wasn't using jutsu either. Maybe I could have beaten her, maybe not. Either way we would have drawn too much attention." He jerked his head toward Zaku, who was only just starting to crawl back to the living room. "And Zaku would have taken out the entire room. Go help him up."

Sakura stepped back as Kin dragged a semi-lucid Zaku over to the poor, battered sofa. He was muttering and slurring curses, but his eyes were completely unfocused. He wouldn't be lucid for another few minutes.

"You should be careful with him from now on," Dosu warned. "I haven't known him for long, but he seems like the type to hold a grudge. Orochimaru-sama's orders might not be enough to hold him back."

"And what orders are those? I haven't heard anything about you three. I only came to see you to get some answers myself."

Dosu's head cocked to the side. "Really? Then maybe we can help each other? We have a mission, to fight a certain man during the exam. To see how strong he is. We were told you could help us, but I don't mind answering a few questions for you."

Sakura was weary, but it sounded like a decent deal. She could always just lie to them later if she didn't want to answer."Alright. But I get my questions first."


"Great! First question is how long have you all lived in Otogakure? What's the village like?"

Kin snorted. "What kind of stupid question is that?" she asked. "No one 'lives' in Otogakure. We're always on the move."

"That's not entirely true. The laboratories have housing," Dosu added. "I've stayed at the north lab for a whole year now."

"Wow, that's a long time. I've moved six times in the last two months."

Laboratories? "Are you telling me there's not a village? Didn't the Land of Rice give Orochimaru a place to build one?"

"Yes, but you know Orochimaru. He doesn't stay at one place for too long. He has enemies everywhere and so many different experiments going on. Keeping everything in one place would just be asking everyone to attack him."

A nod from Kin confirmed Dosu's words. "You spies have it easy, getting to live in one place until your mission is up. You get to play ninja with a bunch of weaklings while the rest of us don't even get enough time to breath."

Sakura ignored the jibe about Konoha. Her mind was racing, trying to change the vague mental picture of Otogakure she'd formed from all her research over the last year. The Land of Rice was a small, somewhat poor country, but Sakura had assumed Oto would at least be a modest little village like Kusagakure or Amegakure.

But laboratories? "Is Orochimaru some kind of scientist?"

The question made Dosu and Kin glance at each other for a few beats. "Wait, wait. Who are you?" Kin asked, face drawn up in incredulity. "Because you sound like a complete idiot right now. Where did you come from?"

"I...Kabuto recruited me here, in Konoha. I've never left this village."

Kin spat on carpet. "Kabuto. I hated him. He was the worst doctor to have at the labs because he would always take more samples than he needed. I've got so many damn scars from that guy." She gestured at Sakura's arms. "But it looks like I don't need to tell you about that. I'm glad Orochimaru-sama said he was dead."

Sakura rubbed at her scars. Dosu was covered with bandages and she wondered what was under them; he hadn't said anything when Kin had been talking about Kabuto. "I'm glad he's dead too," she whispered.

"Wish I could have seen it. I bet he cried like a baby." Sakura doubted it, but she let Kin think what she wanted. "Whatever. We answered a few of your questions, so now you've got to answer ours. That's the deal."

Dosu reached into his coat and pulled out three pictures. One was a girl, about Sakura's age, with bright red hair and a Kusagakure headband. Sakura didn't recognize her at all. But the second and third pictures...

"What do you want with Sasuke and Naruto?" she demanded.

The boy looked down at the pictures. "Sasuke and Naruto? Those are their names? You know them personally?"

"You didn't answer me."

"I'm not under any obligation to."

Sakura clenched her teeth and marched up to the taller boy. "If you touch even one hair on their heads, I'll make all three of you disappear. Do you understand me? All of you."

Dosu didn't back down. His only visible eye stared at her with a calculation that reminded Sakura too much of Kakashi. The boy was smart and he knew what he was capable of and Sakura didn't scare him, no matter what the outcome of their little play fight had been.

"Well," he said, "we're not going to kill them. Our orders are just to observe and get some information."

Sakura tried to gauge if he was lying, but the bandages predictably didn't help with reading his expressions. His posture was loose and hunched, with no tension, which put Sakura more on edge than if Dosu were squared up and ready for a fight. "Observe the girl," she snarled, pushing down her worry with anger. "She's at the hotel down the street, with the rest of her team. Leave the two boys out of whatever it is Orochimaru wants you to do."

Gears were turning behind Dosu's eye, possibly working out either a line of attack to put Sakura down or come up with a convincing lie. I can kill them now. Sakura's instinct whispered to her. His arm has something hard around it, but I can get to his neck from right here. Kin is easy and Zaku is already down. I just have to kill Dosu. Her hand twitched; it wanted to reach for a kunai. Or a jutsu. Or even just to make a fist to beat the mummy to death.

Kin shifted on the sofa. "We don't have to take your shi-" "I agree."

The hotel was still as Kin gaped at her teammate, but he wasn't watching her. "Your terms - I agree to them. For now. We'll focus on the girl until we get additional orders from Orochimaru-sama." He stepped back, casual, and sank back into the nearby recliner. "You said her team is at the hotel on the corner, right? The big one with the balcony rooms?"

He's lying, he's lying, he's lying, he's lying! "That's right. I don't know her name, but I know where they're staying. I'm working at the Pass and ID office; I can get you more information tomorrow and deliver it to the front desk." Kill him! Rush him and kill him before he kills you!

Sakura clamped down hard on her tongue. Her furious breathing sounded like a wind tunnel between her ears and her muscles were tense as bowstrings. Her body wanted to fight. It was keyed already. All she had to do was loose the arrow.

A broken re-breather ghosted over Dosu's bandages for a moment, before flickering away and becoming the grinning face of a teenage girl with pale eyes and choppy short hair.

"Are you alright?" Kurotsuchi taunted as Sakura stumbled backwards. She bumped up against the kitchen isle and knocked over the soda she'd opened earlier. The cold splash against her bare leg snapped her focus back. Dosu was back on his feet, but lingering by the chair.

She furiously wiped at her eyes. "I'm fine. Remember our deal," she muttered as she marched to the door.

That had gone south too fast. Not fast enough! Now they know Sasuke is a weakness! They'll hunt you, they'll lay traps! Needles and exploding bodies and teeth in the water!

"I'm in Konoha," Sakura growled, catching the attention of just about everyone in the lobby. She let out a puff of air and nearly ran out of the hotel. Now ROOT knows you've been meeting with the Oto-nin, her little inner voice whispered. You went right out the front door.

There was a park at the far end of the street and Sakura made her way to it. It was a sad little thing with only a small grove of trees and a few benches, but it pushed the smell of burning flesh out her nose.

She ignored the benches and flopped down on the grass, glad that it felt so much better under her fingers than sand did.

Someone thumped down on the grass beside her.

"You look like shit," Ino said.

Sakura stared at her. Ino stared back, eyebrow slightly cocked. "Nothing to say to that? I just said you look like shit, Forehead."

"Are you real?"

Ino poked her square in the forehead hard enough to make her fall over to one side. "Did that feel real? Are you on drugs or something? Should I be taking you to the hospital?"

Sakura swatted the blond's hand away. "The only way you're going back to a hospital with me is when we get your plastic surgery, Pig," but Sakura was smiling. She's real. "I thought you weren't talking to me anymore?"

"Well, maybe I wasn't in the best place a few days ago," Ino mused, grandly. "Dad woke up, did you know?" Sakura shook her head. "Well, he did. Doesn't really remember anything about getting attacked, but he'll be fine. Just a broken leg and a few bad ribs. Your mom is acting like he's a cancer patient or something and I had to get out of there."

"Mom has a habit of hovering when she loves someone," Sakura murmured. She looked out the corner of her eye at Ino to see how she'd taken that.

The blond drew her legs up to her chest. "Yeah, well, she's not my new mom yet." She caught Sakura staring and glared. "And you're not my sister yet either. I'm still mad at you, but it looks like someone already beat the crap out of you, so I won't add anything new. For right now."

Sakura reached up and rubbed her cheek. It was tender to the touch and was probably already blooming a fantastic bruise. "They hit harder than you do anyway."

Ino scoffed, but her heart wasn't in it. She looked worried. "We need to talk about that thing from earlier," she whispered instead.

"If you're talking about that ANBU at your dad's house, I told you not to worry about it. There are three ANBU trailing me right now."

"Can they hear us?" Ino whispered. She was making an effort to look casual, which made Sakura tense. The park was noisy, though, especially near where they were sitting. There was a fountain a few paces behind them filling the air with the noise of splashing water.

"Probably not," Sakura admitted. "But this isn't something you should be getting invol-"

"I'm spying on you." Ino stared straight at her. "I've been spying on you since you stayed with me and my dad. I was supposed to find out what your kekkei genkai is. That ANBU put me up to it."

"Traps and teeth," Sakura whispered as Ino began telling her story. The grass under her fingers suddenly felt much more like sand than it had when she'd first sat down.