Yes, I am alive. No, I did not forget this existed the way I did after chapter three back in 09. An d yes, I am dedicated to making you feel things. I think you deserve it, as a sort of thanks for actually reading this and keeping up with it and helping me with your comments and such. So, uh, yeah.

Now, let us not forget to give a little praise to the lovely wlkwos, who edits and makes this readable and encourages me to extend fight scenes. Because I can't spell anything with double consonants and I still write in wordpad.


He'd only made it out of Water Country a week ago, but Utakata already wished he was back at home, if only for the cool sea breeze. Being on the mainland was like constantly walking around in a giant furnace, whether the day was cloudy or not, and he hadn't even crossed into either Fire Country or Wind Country, which were supposed to be the hottest. How could anyone stand to live in a place where the summer lasted for just over half of the year and the cooler months were still obnoxiously warm? It was almost enough to make him go crawling back to Mist... Almost.

Nothing could convince him to willingly go back under the thumb of the masked freak controlling his cousin. Yagura was both the jinchuuriki of the three-tails and the leader of the Hidden Mist; the latter was purely through conquest. Sharingan or not, it should be impossible for the masked man to keep him under such an elaborate genjutsu at all, and certainly not for the near two years that he had so far.

He still didn't know if it was his cousin or the masked man that had set the Kill-On-Sight orders for his warrant, and he supposed that it didn't matter anymore either. If it had been his cousin Yagura, then he was truly unwanted now, because without that family tie Mist had no use for any part of him but the demon he carried. And if it had been the masked man pulling his cousin's strings, then surely there was no hope of Yagura ever recovering. If he could still fight the genjutsu at all, the other jinchuuriki would never have allowed his own village to put a fifty million ryo bounty on his cousin's head.

Either way, returning was no longer an option for him. And by now, all Utakata wanted was to truly disappear, preferably to somewhere that would actually allow him some form of downtime. It was for this reason that he had gone through the tiresome effort of fully disguising himself as a noble and hiring an escort team from another nation. With a paid escort, he would be able to enter another country without being stopped by one of the various squadrons appearing everywhere as the silent war between the countries continued to escalate. If he was lucky, the chuunin team wouldn't have any skilled sensors, and his strength would go unquestioned. But even if they did wonder about his abilities, he wasn't paying them to ask questions; he was paying to be escorted to another place. No village could afford to turn down missions right now, in any case. The funds were too important.

At present, Utakata was sitting in the lobby of an inn on the western side of Shimarikase Province, and he couldn't wait to leave. Somewhere behind him there was a team of elite hunter-nin, probably containing the closest equivalent Mist had to a sealing expert, and it was only a matter of time before they discovered his location. He had no desire to do battle with them, or even let them catch his trail. The single night he was spending at this inn with the escort team was already far too much time wasted.

Not that the team knew that.

It seemed as if he had been assigned a good team; he based this on the way they had smelled of blood when they appeared, even if it was freshly washed. The jounin was laid back, but his eyes were constantly roaming and there was a set to his shoulders that told Utakata that he was paying attention to everything around him. He had taken a post sitting atop the wardrobe in the large hotel room and remained with his back to the corner. By appearances his mind was drifting in the wind, but Utakata knew better than that.

The chuunin of the team were atypical in that the formation was two females and one male, but all three appeared competent. The boy blended in well despite his hair coloring and had the looks of a long-range fighter, based on his various equipment packs. He also seemed to be the team medic if his discrete care of both the girls' minor wounds was a good judging point. At present, he was sitting in the window sill and appeared to be napping just as his mentor was.

The taller of the two girls was lanky and moved like she was stalking something, constantly. Her hands seemed to constantly linger near her weapons pouch and something about her gave he impression that she was easily excitable and always ready to move. It was a good trait, in some ways. She, along with the other girl on the team, was currently assigned to the patrol shift outside of the room and possibly the inn as well.

Something about the smaller girl and the last of the chuunin in the squad made him feel a strange kinship to her. None of the chuunin had introduced themselves with a surname, but he suspected that this girl was one of Konoha's well-known Aburame clan. Her chakra created an orbit for the hundreds of thousands of tinier ones inside of her. Although her eyes were hidden by sunglasses and her face remained in the same expression every time that he could see it, Utakata suspected that she could feel something strange from him as well. It was the sort of thing he would have liked to investigate if he weren't on the run or from a nation that wasn't necessarily an ally of Konoha, depending on which side of the civil war one supported.

The girl that felt almost like she held a demon as well was on the roof and moving closer, so far as he could tell. He suspected that the other girl was coming closer as well, but sensing had never been his strong suit when it had nothing to do with his prisoner. Either way it seemed that the boy and his jounin instructor would be going on their guard shift soon, as they were stirring themselves.

With a mental sigh, Utakata tried to get comfortable where he was sitting and perhaps catch some rest. All his thinking was useless anyways. In a few hours they would be gone.

Miserable, exhausted, and blind just about summed up Daisuke's status at the moment. He had made it into Shimarikase Province at roughly the same time that the painful burning of his eyes from running through the unexpectedly acidic swamp gases had finally culminated in black spots appearing and overtaking his already blurred vision. While everywhere that could possibly hurt on his body did so with gusto, the burn in his eyes was on a whole new level of 'excruciating.'

Being blind and crippled by pain wasn't an enjoyable experience, especially when he was attempting to find his child. Within ten minutes of arriving in the mostly-sleeping city, he had found himself stranded in an alleyway trying not to scratch at his eyes and damage them further, although mostly he failed at it. For once, he was very grateful at the pain tolerance training he had received as a Root operative, because he probably would have collapsed a long time ago in other circumstances. It was amazing enough that he could even breathe right now, however harshly.

It was hard to think that only hours ago, however many that may have been, he was basking in his wife's presence and enjoying a hot cup of tea. Daisuke was positive that this entire ridiculous situation was some new form of karma after his many sins.

Of course, since he was blind and doing a bad job of recovering, he had no way of knowing that his situation was about to go through yet another massive change. This change came in the form of Jinya, freshly assigned to his patrol shift, hunting down the strange sounds in the alleyway to the left of the inn where the client was staying and then completely freaking out.

After cautiously rounding the corner into the alleyway, it took nearly forty seconds for Jinya to react to what he was looking at. He then proceeded to press his back into the nearest wall and cover his eyes, cursing to himself. "Fucking shit, not now, this is not the fucking time to have these hallucinations!" he hissed to himself. He peeked out from behind his hands only long enough to see that his dead father was still sitting slumped on the floor. "Shit! Shit, shit, shit..."

Jinya? Daisuke questioned himself cautiously. He wasn't very good at determining chakra signatures, but even the tiny bit he did feel was familiar. Besides that, he recognized the voice. It hadn't occurred to him that he would run into his son here; although he knew that Jinya's mission was at this location, he was mostly hoping to just intercept his daughter and flag down the rapid response team, although to what purpose, he wasn't quite sure. He hadn't thought far enough ahead to wonder what would happen to Sakura and her little blonde friend after they were finally stopped.

But maybe this was a solution. Jinya was smart and capable. He could catch Sakura, and hopefully, he could also keep her from the worst of her possible fates. Of course, there would also be the issue of Daisuke actually being alive to deal with... He would have to stall on that somehow.

"Son?" he rasped out.

Jinya nearly had a heart attack. Oh god my hallucination talks! "No," he groaned, clapping his hands over his ears. "I don't need this right now! You're not real!"

Well, Daisuke hadn't been expecting that. "I am talking to you, aren't I?" He wished that he could see; it would be a real help at this moment. Of course, if he could see, then he wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.

"Yes, I know! Now stop! You're dead so go, I don't know, be dead or something!" The white haired boy was having a bit of trouble breathing at this point. Oh god I'm going to be taken to the deprogrammers. No, I have to take myself to the deprogrammers. Oh god what if they take Sakura too because of me? Go away go away go away!

He had never known his son as one to panic but, after taking care of Nadeshiko for so many years, he thought he could handle it. There was no point in addressing that he wasn't dead, because Jinya wouldn't even try and believe until he calmed down. Instead, he would give his son something more important to focus on. "You don't have time to panic, Jinya," he spoke as calmly and clearly as he could. It was hard to do with the burning in his eyes and a throat as dry as sandpaper. "Sakura is in trouble right now. If you don't find her..."

Jinya was torn on how to react. Do I dare open my eyes and find out what the illusion is talking about? But why would he trust an illusion? But why would my illusion talk to me about Sakura being in danger? What if this wasn't an illusion and Sakura really was in danger? But otou-san is DEAD. Oh god what if he was being visited by the dead now? What if all those dead fishes and squirrels Sakura has been practicing on come back to haunt me? What if he didn't listen to his dead father and ended up being haunted by Sakura herself?! Oh god Sakura might die if I don't listen to the dead illusion!

He uncovered his face again and did an admirable job of not flinching at his father's unfocused, filmy gaze. Oh god I'm talking to a dead person! "Where is she?" he croaked out with the barest hint of panic behind his voice, feeling all sorts of chills up and down his spine. Please let this be a nightmare, please let this be a nightmare, please let this be a be a nightmare! Embarrassing himself by waking up from a nightmare in front of his client and Genma-sensei had to be better than this.

Daisuke was completely oblivious, mostly because he was blind. "She is trying to find youuuu..." Suddenly, he felt extremely dizzy. Was this what happened when someone tried to talk after running until their body wanted to collapse?

Jinya cringed at the way his father's ghost, or his hallucination, or whatever it was suddenly began leaning to the side, sliding down the wall and generally adding to the creepiness of the entire encounter. Should he help it up? Oh god I don't want touch it what if it feels real?!He decide to go with the 'ignore' option. "Okay but what am I supposed to do though?"

The words met his ears, but they were garbled and twisted as Daisuke's blood suddenly began pounding in his ears. This can't be good. "You need to save her when she comes, Jinya... Or else..." He meant to say, 'or else the response team will get to her first,' but he was becoming steadily more light headed and all his thoughts seemed to be slipping away from him. Why did he feel like he was forgetting something...?

After a minute or so of silence, the thing that looked like his father went completely limp and then started to spasm. Jinya cringed again, feeling as if thousands of spiders were crawling all over his body. Oh god ew! Since it obviously wasn't saying anything else, he backed away carefully and hoped that he had no reason to come near this alleyway again. And if he did have to come back, hopefully the... The thing would be gone.

As soon as it was out of his direct line of sight he completely booked it, just in case it decided to spring up and attack him or something. Making his way to the roof of the inn, he let the pre-dawn light warm him and wash away some of his shivers. What was he even supposed to do now? Search for Sakura, since the dead thing was so adamant on her being here somehow? No, Jin, the mission is more important than being crazy! Especially if Suzumushi's strange insistence that their client was actually rather strong happened to be true.


He really didn't have good feelings about anything at the moment. Mission over crazy, mission over crazy! With this mantra as his rock, Jinya began clenching and unclenching his fists as slowly as he could manage through his shivers. Deep breaths, Jin. He exhaled harshly and did his best to regain his normal mission calm. I can do this. I can just pretend it didn't happen... And if Sakura does somehow appear, well, fuck, I'll figure out what to do then.

Or at least that was what he would keep telling himself. At this point he'd let himself think anything to try and regain some kind of control over reality.

"Oi, Mei. There's two sets of tracks. Do you wanna stay on the tail or should we just try and intercept? Either way they'll probably make contact before we do."

As Zabuza rose from where he had been crouched down, Mei briefly spared a moment to question how in the world he could find tracks at all in the ridiculous swamps they were trampling through. It was hard enough just seeing three feet ahead of them. Quickly, however, she discarded her wandering thoughts and responded to his question with one of her own: "Which leads to us making contact soonest? Conflict is unavoidable. Our objective is simply to keep them from extracting the demon and killing a potentially powerful ally."

"Interception it is." Zabuza grunted, then turned to his left, where Haku and Chojuro had taken standing positions atop some gnarled tree roots. "Kid, make a mirror as close to the city as you can and tell me what you see."

Haku nodded and formed a single hand-seal, causing the greenish-brown water to pull itself out of the mud at his feet. After a moment, all the impurities seemed to slough off the water, which then formed itself into a clear sheet of ice in front of his masked face. It was blank to anyone else looking, but he could see the early dawn light spilling over a road that would lead into Shimarikase Province quite a distance further along it.

He so far had an uncanny ability to pinpoint the team of hunter-nin they were pursuing, possibly because of the long work he had put into imitating them lately. It was almost easy for Haku to spot the many discolored spots hidden among the dark marsh grounds surrounding the road. They appeared to be doing exactly what his master had been attempting earlier; tracking Utakata.

"They have not yet located his trail, but they have narrowed down the choices it seems. I would estimate less than an hour before they begin scouring the city in search of Utakata-san. If we move directly to the city instead of following their exact trail we may be able to make it there only shortly after they do. At that point, it is only a matter of finding him first... However, it is unlikely we would manage to, with the considerable numbers that Yagura has employed to retrieve Utakata-san's prisoner."

"Ah..." Chojuro, although he had barely raised his voice, immediately gained the attention of the others. Blushing, he looked down and spoke, "Perhaps it would be a better idea not to enter the province." He nervously nudged his glasses up, knowing that Mei was looking at him, even if he couldn't see her. "With Utakata-san already inside, along with whatever people he needed to meet that made him stop, and the hunter-nin obviously intending to enter as well, it will probably be very hard to move around stealthily. Since there is only one viable path leading in and out of the city, perhaps we could prepare an ambush?" His ears had turned pinker and pinker as he talked, and by the end of his final sentence, his voice was nearly a whisper.

Seeing that his friend had reached his limit for being able to talk in front of Mei, Haku resumed speaking. "I think it is a sound plan, Zabuza-sama. Once we have gotten closer to the entrance I would be able to set up mirrors to monitor the few other exit points, on the off-chance that Utakata-san chooses another exit route. It should also save us effort, as it is unlikely that the hunter-nin will wish to engage him within city limits, considering that they are after a trained jinchuuriki."

Zabuza went over the plan briefly in his mind, and decided it was pretty sound. He shrugged and looked back to his right. "Mei?"

The redheaded woman closed her eyes in thought for a short while before nodding firmly to herself. "Yes," she finally replied, opening her eyes again. "We'll go with this plan. Good thinking, Chojuro-kun. Now..." She glanced around at her companions and saw no reason to delay. "Let's move out."

The Haruno family lived in a modest two floor home. It was painted a very light shade of blue and topped with the garish red shingles that almost all of Konoha's buildings ended up with after one shinobi too many raced across the roof. The Uchiha matriarch wasn't quite sure how, but the colors managed to complement each other, and the light green paint lining each of the windows that she could see didn't stand out at all. It was the kind of building that would never be permitted in the regal Uchiha district, and yet...

"This is a home where extraordinary children are raised," Mikoto murmured to herself, standing just far enough from the doorway that she could take in the entire building front. The colorful place before her had produced Jinya, her oldest son's only close friend, or maybe just his only friend at all, as well as Sakura, a little girl that was probably destined to overtake the Sannin in greatness. What is a day inside this place like...?

Perhaps she would find out.

Mikoto raised her left hand and signaled to the two ANBU stationed on nearby buildings that they could consider themselves released. Even as they disappeared, her hand smoothly continued towards the door, and she politely knocked three times. Then she stepped back, knowing that she couldn't expect an answer anytime soon; after all, Haruno Nadeshiko would only just be rousing herself from the sleep technique the ANBU had been holding her under.

After a few short minutes, footsteps could be heard making their way to the door. She could tell that the woman on the other side was rushing, trying hard not to keep her waiting any longer, both by the tempo of the steps and by the slight scuffing sounds that she knew probably accounted for objects being encountered. It felt nice to be treated like a normal, wanted visitor.

At last, the steps stopped and the door was unlocked. The action lasted for eight seconds at most, but each clicking sound the mechanism made seemed to echo over and over in her head for minutes. It was the anticipation, she supposed. But finally, the door actually opened. Mikoto had just enough time to wonder, in an absent manner, why she had never actually met the mother of the Haruno children before she came face to face with with Nadeshiko for the first time.

Her heart stopped beating for a moment.

For a moment, and only a moment, she didn't see those green-not-gray irises or the unfamiliar curls in the shockingly red hair that she knew. She didn't notice the catlike shape of those eyes or the too-thin lips or the overwhelming similarity to the face of the young girl she thought of almost as a daughter. For a moment, and only a moment... She saw Kushina.

But with her first blink, it was gone, and her heart was breaking once more for a friend she would never see again. She didn't let it show though. Instead, she smiled and held a hand out to shake, her onyx eyes as welcoming as she could make them when some old wound inside of her was ripping itself open for the umpteenth time. "It's nice to finally meet you, Haruno-san."

Nadeshiko smiled back, and it was gentle and confused and nothing like Kushina's sunny grin. That was the last image she needed to ground herself in her world again. "Ah, hello? I'm very sorry for my slow response. And I'm afraid I don't know your name...?" She reached out her hand.

The redhead trailed off, but that had less to do with her words and more to do with Mikoto placing her under a genjutsu in the few seconds it took for their hands to actually make contact. It was nothing major; she just needed the other woman to be comfortable with her... And to forget that she was supposed to be taking care of two children at that moment.

Mikoto's order from the Hokage had been unusually clear-cut for an ANBU assignment: she was to keep Haruno Nadeshiko occupied and under watch until further notice. In this case, 'occupied' meant ignorant of missing children, oblivious to disappeared husbands falling under suspicion, and unable to leave the house and meet any informant that could pull her into whatever strange plot there was revolving around her daughter and the child's disappearance with the local demon container at her side.

She smiled. "My name is Uchiha Mikoto. It's very nice to finally meet you, Haruno-san."

Hiding behind a pole across the street from the Haruno home, Hinata felt herself sinking into a familiar bubble of anxiety. It seemed that every time she had something important to say to someone, she got sidetracked or denied somehow. Sakura lived inside the house she was watching; Sakura, who knew more than anyone else in their class, who trusted her to help Naruto even after she had made the whole mess in the first place, and who could think up great plans right off the top of her head...

...Sakura, the one she desperately wanted to see. Hinata had apologies caught in her throat, for missing Sakura's birthday party and for not coming to see how she and Ino had fared with Tayuya earlier, and of course, for hurting Naruto, which she would never be able to stop apologizing for. But more important than the apologies were the confusing words she had listened in on only a little while ago.

One of her clan's elders thought that her father wasn't taking advantage of 'the Uchiha situation' properly, and especially not their connection to 'the container', a name that she had come to realize they were using for Naruto. She didn't understand a lot of the exact discussion, but she had come away with the understanding that her father was opposing their plans too strongly and the elder thought it might be in their best interests to dispatch him. While the others had protested the rashness of the decision, and eventually turned to discussing other options, the mere thought was too much for her to bear.

Hinata had given up entirely on making her father proud, and she thought that maybe, she might even hate him a little. But mostly she loved him, all faults aside, and she knew that her baby sister saw him as the sun in her world. She didn't want her father to die and she didn't want the elders to do whatever they came up with to take him out of the picture. Sakura had never really answered why she shouldn't go straight to the Hokage about what she had done on her father's orders, but she had been calmed because despite the odds, the other girl and Naruto had figured out how to fix it. This time, however... This time was something different.

She had wanted to speak to Sakura today, to maybe find some reason why this would be a bad idea, but those plans had been dashed as soon as she saw the Uchiha matriarch walk into the house. Hinata wasn't allowed to talk to any Uchiha clan members that she met (certainly not their leading lady), and it would be hard to hide that she had followed one into a house, especially whenever her guards realized that she had sneaked out of the clan compound again and came searching. She was going to be in enough trouble already.

For a moment, Hinata thought about going up to the door and knocking anyways. But she wasn't that brave. She didn't know how much more she could do before her father finally snapped, so she wouldn't push her luck. Although it was a much scarier prospect than knocking on the door across from her, she thought that it was time to try and see the Hokage, or somebody at least. Who knew when she would next have the chance? It might be never, if that elder got his way...

Sakura felt like she was drowning in an electric current. Her throat was dry, her breath was short, and her limbs burned; yet despite her exhaustion, she was jittery. It was stronger than nervousness and deeper than any fear that she'd held before. Every nerve was telling her to move, to go somewhere, do something, do anything other than remain as idle as she was.

Part of her brain agreed with the anxiety, but most of it had decided to listen to Naruto.

"Just stay here, okay? Catch your breath and heal yourself. He didn't leave yet, so he's definitely somewhere around here, and I'm going to find him. I won't let you lose your brother again, I promise!" And just like that, he was gone. That was almost twenty minutes ago. Naruto trusted that she would stay where she was and that, more importantly, she would trust him to find the sibling she held so close to her heart.

She did trust him. Sakura trusted Naruto with her life, even this eight-year-old incarnation of him. Did he even remember that he was angry at her? Or had he simply put all the blame to the side as soon as he saw that she needed whatever help she could get? For all that he was immature and sometimes a bit of a brat, this child Naruto seemed like a better person than she had been. For certain, she hadn't learned to put her friendships first until far too late in the game.

So we'll sit here and think this through instead of rushing off and fucking everything up. It was a hard decision, but maybe it was for the best that she forced herself to step back from her single-minded determination to find Jinya. She needed the time to calm her heart and she needed to soothe her muscles so she would be ready for whatever lay ahead.

And what did lay ahead? Sakura had absolutely no clue. When she had panicked, the only thing on her mind had been to move move move. With even a minute's delay to calm herself, to think about the situation, she and Naruto could have left Konoha in far less obtrusive manner than they had. They could've avoided being chased and certainly they could have grabbed a water bottle or two to sip on before making their mad dash out of her home. Some rations would've helped a lot.

It was almost morning now. Had her mother discovered that they were gone? Had somebody pulled her aside to be questioned after recognizing the distinctive pink and blonde hair colors of the children running away? If they had, did they believe anything she said? Or was she being locked up in T&I at that very moment, to await the tender mercies of whoever the department's ruthless leader was for this decade?

Had her father really been standing there? Or was it her flashback, super-imposing itself on reality during her panic? She had no way to know. She wasn't even sure that she wanted to know. She thought she remembered the sensation of that chakra, but...

This is too much.Closing her eyes, Sakura tilted her head back against the brick wall she sat against and finally pushed up her goggles, to press her sweat-soaked hair out of her face once more. The nearing-dawn was brighter with red tint to her glasses, and instead of reassuring her, the light only made her more nervous. What horrible situation was going transpire in the daylight instead of the dark? How would they keep from making a huge scene? Would she even care once she was in the thick of it?

Would she even survive once she was in the thick of it...? There were a lot of tricks up her sleeves, however short those sleeves were now, but even as a twenty-two-year-old that hadn't always helped her. She was so out of practice.

This isn't constructive thinking. Her inner-self seemed just as subdued as she was, and only a little less anxious.

I'm breathing better, aren't I? And now that her mind was trying to focus on Jinya again, where was Naruto?

He'll get here soon enough. How about you stop wasting chakra on your thighs and give your calves some attention too?

Sakura glanced down. Oh, yeah. She hadn't even noticed that she had paused over one spot in soothing her muscles. As she looked, however, she did realize how low her chakra reserves were getting. Luckily, that was something she had a found a crude but effective solution for. Naruto wouldn't be happy about it though. Oh well.

"There is something wrong."

Jinya hadn't spoken the words out loud, but Tatsuki startled anyways when she caught sight of him walking with one hand holding the sign for that and his other hand literally resting inside his kunai pouch. His shoulders were tense and his face was set in a frown, the kind that she could only recognize because she had been his teammate for so long.

The black-haired girl fell back slightly, so that both she and Jinya brought up the rear of their group, which had only set out to travel a mere ten minutes ago. "Same thing wrong from earlier?" She signed back, keeping her eyes ahead.

Out of her peripheral vision, she caught him shaking his head. Then he very briefly brought his left hand away from his kunai pouch to make the symbol that they'd designated for Suzumushi's name. After that, he once again signed that 'something was wrong.'

Tatsuki looked ahead to their third teammate, who had taken point along with their teacher. She had to admit that Suzu had been acting strangely since they met their client, but it wasn't in any way that made her think the girl was being coerced. In fact it was almost impossible to coerce an Aburame because one would have to catch every individual insect in their colony with the technique as well in order to keep the insects from reporting the discrepancies to their host.

Honestly, she suspected that their stoic teammate had a crush or something. The client was cute. Maybe she had seen him save a beetle or something. That would probably attract someone like Suzu. However, if Jinya thought something was wrong, there probably was something off with the situation. That was the question, though: what was it?

"Think the client is a trap?" She questioned with one hand. Simultaneously, she brought the clunky goggles that each of their team had equipped themselves with down onto her face as they got closer to the swamps they'd have to cross on their way back towards Fire Country.

"Don't know." According to Suzu's insects, although the client was 'strong' in some ambiguous form, he wasn't a hostile influence. Normally, that would be enough to clear him, because the team had gotten used to relying on Suzumushi for all their general intelligence about a situation. So Jinya couldn't say why he was unsettled this time, and that was without taking into account the shivers he still got thinking of the ghost zombie thing of his father that he had encountered earlier that morning. If he had actually encountered such a thing. He was hoping it was just a temporary onset of insanity (which was a lot better than a permanent onset of insanity.)

"Tell sensei?"

That would have been Jinya's next step if they hadn't been set upon by a unit of hunter-nin in the thirty seconds immediately after Tatsuki signed the words. There was no warning, not from any of their senses nor from Suzu's usually reliable destruction bugs.

Still, they reacted quickly: Jinya shot off three kunai before he had even fully registered what was happening, and immediately moved to cover their tense-looking client. Genma had moved faster than his students and engaged two of their six attackers, who all dressed in the thick-layered brown robes and blank masks of Mist hunter-nin. Suzu's insects rose up around them in a familiar cloud of tiny black shapes and beset one opponent, while the host herself had drawn a pair of wakizashi from somewhere beneath her large jacket and fought to keep up with the harsh blows of one shinobi. Tatsuki, meanwhile, had disappeared from sight. But that was normal.

Behind him, Jinya could practically taste how hard their client was restraining himself from moving into the fray. Although he was crouching to make himself a smaller target, his chakra was rising from the placid level that it had remained at for the entire time that team Shiranui was in his presence. Jin could feel it warping and fighting to lash out even as he raised a wall of earth in front of them to deflect a weakened water technique that went veering off course from his teacher.

The wall held up only long enough to keep the two behind it dry. As it crumbled to dust, he could hear one of the assailants releasing a loud grunt as Tatsuki shot out of the ground in front of him, stabbed a kunai into his gut, and sunk into the ground again before he could ever retaliate. That was his teammate's favorite battle technique. It was a bit amusing, since earth was the opposite of her elemental affinity.

A piercing whistle sounded from his right side, and without thinking about it, the white-haired boy dropped as close to the ground as he could, clumsily bringing his tense client down with him. He earned a chakra burn on the skin of his left arm for his troubles, but it was far better than the alternative. All across the cramped battlefield, his teammates had dropped to the ground at the same time as him, and it wasn't a second too soon; like dominos falling, an alternating series of exploding tags and smoke bombs went off blinding and injuring their unprepared opponents.

"Regroup!" Genma-sensei's voice came from the far left, so as the smoke cleared, Jinya hauled the client up and in the opposite direction of their decoy.

It was Utakata that blocked the sword that almost removed his head in complete silence. Jin had forgotten that shinobi from water country were trained to fight in low or nonexistent visibility. Jin was grateful for the save, even if it did come from the suspicious client that had acted like any other lower noble up until five minutes ago.

He didn't understand why the man hadn't just run at the first chance, but he wasn't going to complain. Mist shinobi were no friends of Konoha nin, not unless they were rebels in disguise. He doubted such was the case this time though. The rebels had no hunters, not when every last one of them had a bounty themselves.

"If you want us to try and flee, now is the time to say it," Jin felt obligated to say as the smoke cleared. He could feel Suzumushi pressing close against his back and Tatsuki off to his side. Running away seemed like the best option, with a team of chuunin and one jounin against six probably B-Class or higher opponents, but this sort of thing was up to the client.

"Flee where?" Utakata spoke up for the first time since their introduction several hours ago. Although the man drew no weapons from his wide sleeves, he did settle into a low fighting stance. "There are only more of them hiding in the woodworks."

I'm not getting paid enough for this, Jinya thought. He had heard about mission fraud, of course, but this was his first time dealing with it. He wasn't amused.

Tatsuki shifted, and just as the smoke cleared fully, another series of explosions went off and bought them just a little bit more time before everyone had to delve into the fray again. "Genma-sensei, orders?"

"Tatsuki, fall back and use wires, play long range support. Jinya, take up ninjutsu post. Suzumushi, double up and front line with me. And you..."

"I will fight in front," Utakata interrupted smoothly, ignoring the distrustful look that he received. If he had anything to say about it, this wouldn't be his last stand. And if he were to fight near any of them, why not the Aburame girl?

"Then we move now."

There was no response or confirmation; with that statement, everyone got to their positions and prepared to meet the enemy. It didn't take much movement to have the Mist shinobi come out of hiding from the surroundings.

Jin released a mud wave and counted as he did so; there were two opponents downed, yet the number of shinobi remained at six. The reinforcements had to be waiting in the wings still, and that made him pay even closer attention to his surroundings. He knew all about sneak attacks.

He wondered who their client really was and what he'd done to earn a force so dedicated to hunting him down and eradicating him. But it was probable that he didn't really want to know.

Doesn't matter now. Just keep him alive so you can get paid for this.

Konoha made no efforts to hide the support it gave to the rebels of Hidden Mist. Simple weaponry, food, and medicine were exported roughly twice a month to the shores of Water Country. However, that was currently the furthest extent of their support; neither their shinobi nor what passed for their diplomats had come into contact with each other outside of greeting the envoys that came to request assistance in Konoha.

That was why Jinya would probably face questioning from his teammates almost as harsh as their client would for immediately teaming up with the rebel Mist shinobi that had dropped into the battle between Team Shiranui and the half-clone, all-elite waves of hunter-nin that had been going on for what felt like forever by then. Of course, that was without taking into consideration the lava techniques that he was using all of a sudden.

Jinya had been very serious when, upon first learning how to use the Karibi bloodline, he had promised his grandmother to never reveal it unless he had no other choice. At that moment, he stood up to his knees in thick swamp earth with his jounin sensei unconscious and his teammates being pushed to their absolute limits in a fight against what seemed like an endless enemy; he thought that counted as 'no other choice', especially since his older cousin Mei had appeared.

He wished that his cousin's little team had appeared a few minutes earlier. It was still easy to recall the terror he'd felt when the air had cleared to show a fresh squadron of hunter-nin had switched out with the survivors of the first wave. It felt like the beginning of something even worse than the situation had been before, because it seemed that every attack he failed to connect only emphasized how winded and ready to just stop he was compared to his opponents.

His fear for himself had only compounded the worry that he felt for his teammates. It was hard to tell the yells and grunts apart on this battlefield, and there was no way for him to know if the bodies that fell around him were actually Tatsuki or his team leader instead of an enemy. He didn't trust the client at all either, and especially not fighting so close to Suzu. While it was undeniable that their time would likely have been decimated by now if it weren't for how frighteningly fast and brutal a fighter the lithe man was, it was also clear that without him around, they would never have been in such a situation in the first place.

Words couldn't truly describe the stress he went through when Tatsuki had screamed out Genma's name. She sounded terrified, and that was foreign. It was worse to find his path towards her blocked by another enemy. He couldn't duck around the man and seeing past him was impossible when he had to remain so focused on just staying alive. All that went through his head was a disjointed prayer and growing desperation for that seemingly infinite minute.

But that was when his cousin had appeared and brought something that looked like salvation along with her. Even with Genma down, the fight was looking brighter now. Jinya thought that maybe, with her help, they could all get out alive.

Karibi attack and defense formations, even with only two people, were more effective than any taijutsu or ninjutsu that he could use on his own. As an added bonus, neither he nor Mei needed to speak what they were about to do aloud; just looking at the other's stance and what jutsu they were about to use gave an instruction on how to respond. He was never gladder that he had gone to that reunion years ago and had the forms drilled into his muscle memory.

To his left, Mei dropped into the beginnings of beginnings of a low, sweeping kick. Jinya's body copied her before his mind caught up. The kick never completed; instead, the two of them ran through a fast series of hand seals before slamming their hands into the mud up to their wrists. He held his hands there, forcing the earth up in a twisting, looming tower, but Mei removed her hands from the ground and completed another set of seals, forcing another burst of chakra into the construction.

The pillar of earth abruptly turned red hot and formed the features of a dragon before crashing down onto a group of nin that had been herded together by a hail of sharp ice.

Jinya almost felt sorry for them, but he had no time for that. Whenever Mei moved, he aped her, and she had just flipped backwards. The movement brought him closer to Tatsuki, who was covering their downed sensei along with the young boy that had been creating ice in random places all over the battlefield for the last two minutes. He felt lucky to have teammates who trusted him; even though they were confused, Suzu and Tatsuki had taken his trust in the new shinobi onto themselves. It made things a lot easier.

All the killing and the questions were going to come back to bite him later...

A new voice rang out over the fray. "Oi, why wasn't I invited to this party?"

Before Jin could figure out who the words had come from, a giant wave of water came crashing down on all of them.

Sakura could bite really, really hard. Naruto knew this because her teeth were drawing blood where they were locked onto his hand and it was taking all of his willpower and physical strength to keep holding her in place instead of just letting her go.

His friend struggled at his front, clawing his arms and always seeming to somehow bite harder than she had before, but she was the one that had told him not to let her rush in as soon as they found Jinya's team. The ten or fifteen minutes that had passed since the shinobi ahead of them started battling felt like a lot longer when he had spent it dragging Sakura away from them and trying to keep her from getting killed.

Naruto had never known that Sakura could even act this way, and it only got worse when the huge shark-looking man appeared and drowned the battlefield in a giant wave of water. If the fight had been closer to the city, buildings might have been damaged from the force of it. As it was, though, the few trees that had been standing went down hard and the field got a lot bigger. He and Sakura were lucky that the tree they stood behind was just barely out of range. They still got soaked though.

Sakura stopped biting his hand long enough to stare in horror at the field and scream, "Naruto no let me go!" But her voice was muffled because even though she had released him, he was still holding a hand over her mouth. He pulled both of them to the muddy ground anyways, just in case somebody heard her over the ruckus and decided to look.

"Sakura-chan he's fine," Naruto hissed back in far quieter tones, feeling frustrated at how irrational she was being. "Look, right over there, see?"

He was pointing at the highly conspicuous dome made of ice resting in the low water left by the shark-man's attack. As they both looked, Sakura remaining still purely from her own anxiety, slabs of ice seemed to flake off like sections of a scab, until the people inside were revealed. He could recognize Tatsuki, unconscious where she rested in the lap of an unknown black haired boy, and Suzumushi was wavering under the deadweight of their sensei.

Sakura was focused on the woman she recognized as her cousin Mei, who held Jinya up by the back of his collar even as he steadied himself in a standing position. Her analytical mind spotted the strange but familiar faces of Momochi Zabuza and the Mizukage's future left-hand, Chojuro, at different parts of the battlefield; she even recognized the one making the acidic, high-pressure bubbles at the far end of the field to be Utakata, who had housed the six-tails. Unfortunately, her analytical mind also hadn't been given very much attention since the first time Jinya had nearly been beheaded by a sword.

Naruto had long since recognized that she was useless when she got into a real panic, but he had to keep trying to get through to her, because he had no idea what he was doing. "Look, Sakura-chan, we only have to stay close enough that you can go save him if something happens, so can you please stop trying to run in? Just think, if you go in there he might end up getting hit anyways because he would try to protect you first! You don't want that to happen, right?"

Sakura slowly wilted in his grasp, then shook her head in suddenly subdued manner. She released her teeth from around his hand as she did so, and for some reason, the wound seemed to burn more in the air than it had under her teeth. Belatedly, Naruto took notice of her hands, and realized that she'd been scratching herself just as much as she had scratched at him.

She was scary when she panicked.

Is this a permanent calm or should I just shut up again? her inner self asked. The older version of her appeared kneeling next to Naruto, and nothing about her expression was amused. What happened to those deep breaths?

"...What?" Sakura questioned quietly. She didn't actually remember the last half hour or so that well. One moment she'd been reminding herself to breathe, and in the next, Naruto had been telling her that he found Jinya in the middle of a big battle. And then she had... What had she done, actually? Her mouth tasted like blood.

Oh shit.

"You told me that we were going to have to do that thing because you were tired and then you ran off and then I caught you and then you bit me," Naruto replied sullenly. He didn't have anything to wash his hand off with, so he was stuck watching the wound heal slowly and burn as it did so.

I blacked out? Sakura wondered, blinking. Then she had an epiphany. ...Oh. "We still have to do that," she responded absently.

I could swear the black outs didn't start for at least another year last time around.

Naruto felt confused. It was one thing for Sakura to completely calm down from a panic, but her complete personality flip was making him uncomfortable. It was as if she hadn't just calmed down, but also put on some kind of blinder, because now she was ignoring the fighting that had resumed ahead of them. "Are you okay?" he asked, being blunt with his concern.

"I'm fine, Naruto." Sakura pushed herself up and onto her knees, completely ignoring the mud that now coated her entire front. She grasped Naruto's bloody hand in hers and called up medical chakra to make the wound knit itself closed faster.

I wasn't anywhere near this stressed out last time around.

Meanwhile, the blonde was feeling increasingly more nervous about his friend's mood. He didn't pull his hand away while she healed it, but at that moment, it wouldn't surprise him if Sakura suddenly drew a pair of kunai on him either. Especially since she had said that she was 'fine.' That word had a completely different meaning whenever she used it to talk about herself.

All of a sudden, Naruto's whole body jerked, and he barely managed to silence a hiss of pain. When he looked at his hand, the wound was mostly closed, but the chakra surrounding Sakura's hand had turned from the green associated with healing to a very dark shade of blue. It burned him, but he had it on good authority that Sakura was hurting more from contact with it; after all, it was his naturally produced chakra that she was filtering and siphoning into herself.

This was only the third time that they had done this since Sakura accidentally discovered the technique while playing around with something Tsunade had taught the more advanced students in the Jr. Medic Corps, but it hadn't gotten any easier to deal with. Somehow, she had figured out a way to boost her own reserves when they were low by taking chakra from him. It was painful and it left both of them feeling 'echoes' of the other person for hours afterwards, but Sakura was determined to improve the technique with time.

Until then it would just have to hurt, especially since Naruto wasn't that good at saying 'no' to her.

"Do you see the shark man that just decimated all those hunter-nin in three sweeps of his sword?" Sakura asked through gritted teeth. "That man is Hoshigaki Kisame. He is an ex-Swordsman of the Mist, has the chakra stores of a tailed beast, and his sword is a chakra-draining cheese grater that turns into a giant shark. I never battled him... But I know I can't beat him. And my brother can't beat him. The man with the bandages on his face? He can't beat him. The woman with the red hair? In time she might be able to hold him off... But right now, she can't beat him. Nobody here can beat him, Naruto. And I... I can't stand the thought of my brother being killed by him."

When Sakura stopped pulling his chakra into herself, he was unable to keep from cringing, and neither was she. The echoes were happening already. When she looked to the side it felt like a phantom of his head moved, and he could tell that this was going to be even less pleasant than usual if they started fighting.

As she stood, Naruto looked up at her and wondered if they were just going to completely ignore her random episode of craziness where she bit him and acted all insane. Is this what Kabuto meant when he said that girls get that PMS thing and go crazy? ...How do I turn it off?

"We're going to get closer to the battle now, Naruto. If you have to do anything at all, the only thing I want you to do is watch my back. And when I say go... I mean go. Got it?" Suddenly, she was completely back to the Sakura that he had followed across Fire Country.

He thought he could listen to this Sakura, at least. "Got it, Sakura-chan."

So, yeah, this is a thing that happened. Also I have given up on estimating when I will update. It doesn't work. Questions? Comments? Let me have 'em.

(This is the chapter that will push me over 1,000 reviews! I sense it!)

/Nothing Below This Line Is Relevant To The Story/

So, I periodically go through all my reviews or the C2s this is in, and today, I decided to actually look at the stupidly long follower list. And you know what? I FOLLOW SOME OF YOU! Haha it's so cool, I suddenly feel special because there are writers I admire from bunches of fandoms like HP or FF7 or Supernatural following this. Even the Inuyasha and Naruto fandoms too, can't forget them, despite their connections to my dark middle school days. So yeah, you're cool people.

Also, I'm finally gonna give in and ask for this... Raise a hand if you're Homestuck! Hehe. But don't forget to comment on the actual contents of Second Bloom if you are and decide to tell me in a review instead of a PM.

Anyways, yeah, have a great day or night or whatever.