I sit here finishing this chapter on the afternoon of 2013's last day and my only thought is that dayum, military training and buying Pokemon X and Y were the highlights of my whole year. Much else was being buried in schoolwork, self-disappointment and then procrastinating on Tumblr to avoid both.

I hope 2014 will have better life events in store for me. Adulthood is on the rise, but I hope to hang on to my fics as long as possible, they're significantly more interesting than my accounting and econ work, or hunting for a major I actually feel passion for. Note to all high schoolers, college is hard and finding a career that you like is even harder.

In the meantime, although writing time is scarcer, at least I still have seemingly never-ending inspiration for this fic *cries*

Behold, a gym battle! And a further mention of the Akatsuki by a seeeecret informant, as they are creeping closer…and closer.

8:39 AM, Tuesday, August 6th. Saraku gym.

When they'd signed up for a gym battle last Wednesday, Naruto had made sure everybody understood he was going first.

Now he was regretting it. Not completely. But a lot.

It was a strange feeling, and a really different mindset from what he was used to walking around with and having. They'd been on their Pokemon journey for over two months, and this was the first time Naruto had stepped into a battle (one that wasn't against criminals) and started having thoughts about being seriously in over his head.

The Saraku gym was a notoriously busy one; though the stands at the left and right side of any gym battlefield could hold a couple hundred spectators, and usually had maybe a dozen at any given time, Saraku always had around fifty. More than any class he'd ever been in. More than any battle he'd ever been in. And there was no teacher to validate his effort in front of those fifty people. Each one of them knew Rock Lee was a powerful gym assistant, and that his Pokemon could and would beat yours and you into the ground. They stared. Observed. Cheered and jeered. And according to what they said, Lee hadn't lost a battle for close to a month. Naruto felt his stomach start to churn.

"Please step inside the white chalk square drawn in front of you!"

That was Lee's partner, the other gym assistant, a native Johtor (that's what you said, right? Johto with an extra 'r'?) with dark, dark skin who was also pretty tough, and had to be thirty-five at least. But he had signed up to fight Lee and not that guy, and so he would. Naruto walked forward onto the very edge of the battling field, into the challenger's square. He pinched his lips together so maybe no one would see him gulping down a tangible ball of fear while he reached for a Pokeball. He wanted Firefang's, right? Or Zorro's? Before this, he'd had a plan on who to send out first. Plan…was…forgotten. Oops.

He held a random ball in his hand and had no idea whose it was. Lee plucked one from his belt also, in a swift, smooth movement that looked like he could have learned it in military training. He was smiling and had great posture, control, discipline, strength and…endless amounts of military qualities. He basically was—had been trained by someone who was—a grinning, flamboyant drill sergeant. Naruto had self-confidence and could do pushups. He felt this difference like a chill.

But like hell he would, could, let that thought take over him. He stood up straight, and breathed in and out just fine, too. Lee was powerful and admirable but that was no reason to think about himself so badly. He'd done some fucking awesome things recently, too, and deserved some honor, and suddenly he felt more determined and even a little angry because hell if this guy with iron eyebrows would show him up after all he'd done! The other gym assistant told them that this would be a two-Pokemon battle, and the challenger could switch whenever he wanted.

"I wish you the utmost luck in our battle, Naruto!"

'Yeah, and may the odds be ever in my favor.' Wow. Creepy. Totally didn't need that.

"No wishes here, Lee. Just me and just you!"

"Indeed. It's been a long week, hasn't it? I finally get to see your strength after a whole year. Let us get to it."

Naruto wished he had a hat to turn backwards. "Hell yeah. Let's GO!"

Every muscle and drop of blood focused into his arm, and the Pokeball exploded forth from his hand. High up in the air, the ball split at its seam and the unformed cloud of energy moved through its conversion to matter, and shot gracelessly to the ground. It shaped a squat, quadruped figure with exceedingly big ears, and when the glow was gone, Zorro was there. On foot in front of the other, prepared to defend or charge. A great Pokemon to start with, actually, his frowning mofo who believed in no-nonsense fighting.

Lee hadn't even tossed his Pokeball yet (Naruto started to get angry and call him a fucker under his breath but calmed down. That was the nervousness talking). He only regarded Naruto's Nidorino with some admiration. Cool. Okay. "A Nidorino. I suppose that is a Pokemon you'd like, Naruto. Well, you already know mine. Combusken, stand ready for another fight." He heaved his own Pokeball just as far as Naruto had, and the whiteness that the ball held made the neat and already battle-stance-ing Combusken. One leg slightly up and the arms crossed at the feathery wrist. "And now we begin!"

Before Lee could say another freaking syllable, Naruto was on it. "Poison sting, boy!"

Zorro knew, and Naruto knew, that those needles would need to be shot far. Zorro spat them forth with an extra special pressure, and they would hit that bird in a second. But his trainer was on the case, too, and with one quick phrase, "Sand! Up!" Combusken reacted by crying out and summoning a blotch of sand from the gym floor and blocking the needles with that strange turn of a Sand Attack.

They were caught in it, and fell meaninglessly to the ground with it. Naruto remembered Lee doing that trick a few times as he'd watched the guy battle this week (and he even remembered Lee saying to the loser that he learned the trick on an eighth grade field trip which Naruto had been on too in eighth grade, but he didn't remember seeing any sand wall trick on that field trip so what the hell and…now he was just pissed off). And who knew how much more the thing would block if he just tried to keep shooting it.

"Go forward, Zorro. Show him your horn." Zorro walked. Slow and ready.

Lee's eyebrows twitched a little. He wasn't so sure how to block this one. Ha! About time. Naruto still felt his toes squeezing together inside his shoes. The plan was coming together in his head in bits and pieces, but—here—"Now Toxic Spikes. All over the floor, as far as you can get 'em!" Zorro promptly made an ugly grunting sound and belched up a multitude of tiny, purple spikes from his poison bladder, which rolled and bumped in every direction.

Combusken definitely did not like the look of them. And he'd been standing there what seemed like an awful long time. And…that was another trick Combusken did a lot. Crap.

"Tackle him, now! Don't let him finish that Bulk Up!" Zorro growled, too, a crazy-awesome sound that grew and grew and then ended with a bark like an Arcanine king. Combusken tensed and balked, and then cartwheeled out of the way. Didn't land on any spikes of course.

Lee made a face that was not as unhappy as Naruto wanted it to be. "We'll manage just fine, Combusken. Prepare your fire! A line of Embers, above the enemy!" Combusken ran right for Zorro and maybe that's when it got serious.

The fire-type wasn't aiming for Zorro himself, he jumped up into the air and over him, and as he moved he spat a series of fireballs down at the Nidorino, and none missed. Zorro started in surprise and screamed at the hungry fire. He thrashed and fanned his ears to kill the flames and by then, Combusken had landed and Zorro was already burned. And it wasn't done. With another command of Lee's that Naruto didn't hear, Combusken dodged through the sea of spikes on the floor—"move your horn up! Get Horn Attack ready!"— kicked Zorro on his side twice, and then jumped away—"Poison Sting again!"—Zorro skidded back but didn't fall, and was either too hurt to perform the attack or had not heard, and Naruto felt like he wasn't hearing things right either, Zorro wasn't supposed to cry in pain like that—

Ever-ready, Combusken stood ready and now with one arm held out like he meant to shoot a gun. But Zorro would do that for him. He would. He will. That thought glowed, and it had to come out, so he shouted: "You WILL, Zorro!" His Pokemon turned his head just a little to look at his yelling trainer, and while pain was coming from his mouth and his shaking front legs, there was none in his eyes. Naruto felt connected to him.

Yes. Yes, that was Zorro as he really was. And now it was time to reveal a little secret, his own cool trick. "Stay there, boy, and use Hone Claws." There was totally a smirk on the poison-type's purple lips as he drew his little claws along the floor again and again.

From partway up the stands on his left he heard: "When the hell did you buy a TM?!" in a screamy girl voice that was probably Ino or a stranger that sounded like her.

That second of thought cost him. Combusken was running up to Zorro again already, refusing to let him concentrate his strength any more. The phrase "slash, with the" came from Lee's mouth and Naruto didn't even want to know what it was. He didn't care. No matter what, he knew the next part. "Get ready to go up on your hind legs, Zorro." Zorro was ready.

"Horn Drill!"

His two enemies both heard his command, naturally, and it put a stop to Combusken. Lee was even telling him to clear away. But Combusken couldn't stop quickly enough with the spikes all over the ground, and Zorro was crunching through them carelessly as he ran to meet the enemy. He jumped and Combusken's head stretched back in a really funny way, but it was too, too serious to laugh now. Zorro's horn hadn't even touched the fire bird's shoulder yet when the violet bone began to spin. The avian shriek of surprise and fright made Naruto smirk.

VVVVHHhrhrRRRRRR went Zorro's horn, spinning and whirling on its twisting cartilage, and tearing cartilage in Combusken. Lee yelled at him to "fear not! Push it—" but Naruto barely heard and Combusken kicked away from Zorro straightaway without waiting for the full command.

He backflipped and landed with his feet perfectly between poison spikes, and maybe even touching one, and panted while holding the bleeding hole near its armpit. Zorro's front feet hit the ground at the end of that long heartbeat and he snorted. For the first time in long, long minutes Naruto was aware of the other spectators in the stands, gasping and cheering for him, hyperaware that the blood dripping off his unblinking Nidorino's horn meant a victorious strike.

"Uzumakiii! Gooo!" one of them shouted. Naruto actually grinned and waved.

"Show 'im, Nidorino!" another called out delightedly, but Zorro did not react. Ha! He was just a Sasuke Jr., wasn't he?

It would have been great to revel in that glory a while longer, but there was no time. Lee wouldn't let his Combusken stand wounded and defenseless for long, he was too good for that. Any second now, he could recover his strength. Naruto took a breath, trying to beat him to it, and called out: "Now! Fury attack!"

Zorro's pupils dilated to feline slits. His jaws parted and he roared, and charged forward.

The fire-type's eyes widened and he stood up tall. Waiting. Naruto finally took a moment to look at Lee for the first time since the fight started, and found that just then, he looked a little bit…startled. And it was growing. Even in elementary school, Lee had never been able to mask his emotions for long.

Nor did he allow them to bar his determination. Lee clenched his fists, and—Naruto gaped—struck some kind of kung fu pose. "Combusken! Heat wave!"

'Heat wave? A TM?' Naruto wondered. 'Or right from the egg? Some other way?' He didn't dare think about it more. Combusken's heels clacked together and he crossed his heavy, feathered wrists. There was a small fireball glowing in front of its mouth, right below his bowed head. "Keep going, Zorro, go, go!" Combusken exhaled a huge breath and the fireball grew like an insane disease, covering its whole body. A bird on fire. The crowd cried out.

"Ri-noooooohh!" screeched the world's bravest Nidorino, and ran into the fire.

Lee's fire-type grabbed the oncoming opponent by the shoulder in one of his hands, and by the purple, deadly horn in the other. Zorro saw the foolishness of trying to use either part of his body in the attack now, and instead kicked downward with his small hind legs. He kicked twice in Combusken's abdomen, expelling a breathy "K-khen!" from the bipedal bird, but Zorro screamed as he kicked. He was aflame now.

"Double-kick!" Naruto yelled. He didn't know what else to do and was practically shaking now. But Zorro took the command and intensified his kick. Combusken spat out its pain and held on to the offender.

The fire grew taller and consumed more of the sandy ground. The gym assistant shouted a command that the challenger could not hear over that roaring flame, but he saw it instead. The arms and branches of fire convulsed briefly till they were eaten up by the growing center of it, expanding ever outward. The second gym assistant fled to the other side of the field for safety, and Zorro twisted and turned his head as he gasped out his pain.

"Now a Double-kick of your own!" came from behind the flames, and the bird rushed to obey. He slammed Zorro downward onto his knee. Even the farthest spectator could have heard the iron-hard impact.

'Zorro. Zorro, please be okay!'

Combusken followed through. The impact shot the poison-type attacker up just past his opponent's head. Combusken's leg came from somewhere, somehow, stretching like an acrobat, and slammed down. The Nidorino struck the ground and did not bounce back up. Fire still danced on their skins, and ate away one of Zorro's ear ridges.


All spectators saw his wide eyes droop, and drop securely shut when he at last lost consciousness. When the aftershock of Combusken's Heat wave died away and left only hot, smoky air, Combusken dropped him.

"The winner of the first round is Combusken!" the second gym assistant said. "Well fought! Well met!"

"Well fought," said half a dozen of the spectators, and on the far, far left, someone's phone flashed to capture a picture.

Again Naruto looked at Lee and saw him smiling and standing tall. "That was a fantastic fight, Naruto! You and your Nidorino really picked up in the end. He's a true fighter." He paused for a smile, that absolutely genuine Rock Lee smile. "I'm really proud of you! And of Zorro, too. Here, let me lend you a Burn heal potion."

He flipped a tiny orange bottle out of his khaki pants pocket, and jogged over. Combusken stepped away, and Naruto ran to both of them. He felt…hot, even from this far away from the Heat wave attack, but calmer. The fight was over. And Zorro had done fantastically. He crouched down in front of his precious beast, all covered in bruises and burns and his whole left side darkened by it. His trainer laid a hand on him and nearly drew it back. The skin was hot. Lee opened his little container and dribbled a greenish liquid over the worst of the burns.

'Am I supposed to pay him back for that?' Naruto thought faintly, and asked Lee if that was the case.

His former classmate was giving him a funny look. Naruto didn't understand why. "Of course not, Naruto. I'm just trying to lend a hand, is all. Return your Pokemon to his ball once that's all soaked in. He needs a trip to a Pokemon Center afterwards, I think! But we've still got another battle to fight, remember? It's two-on-two!"

"Oh yeah," Naruto said to himself. He had forgotten. Shit. Shit.

Rock Lee stood up, solidifying that reminder. They were only half done. Naruto's strength felt significantly more than half gone.

12:49 PM. Thursday, August 7th. Shutterfly Street, Saraku City.

"It's the most reputable clinic I could find on our budget. There are better ones around here, but they're much more expensive, meant for people who can afford to live here. We can't afford a three hundred dollar walk-in visit."

"Not yet."

He walked in the sliding doors without looking at her, with the Pokeball in his left palm. 'He really loves her,' she thought, and it was a pleasant surprise to not just mutter it or think it, but actually realize it: he had been poor at expressing it as far as she'd ever seen, but it was complete truth. Sasuke Uchiha loved his Pokemon.

She followed him into the clinic, only a step behind, and with a stride, now a step ahead. They were entering an independent Pokemon clinic, her girlhood desire for an adult job and pedestal, her own floating dream. She found the sector of the reception desk that they needed before Sasuke got there. It felt important to her to move easily, knowledgeably through these motions, and it also felt important to not let him do the talking. Not now.

The woman behind the desk had one hand on a Pokemon egg, lying on a soft incubator pad. Her eyes and curling movements of her hand spoke at a great sense of care and maternity, she decided. "I'm here looking for Dr. Tura. This is my first walk-in here, and I need to see him for an eye examination of a Quilava as soon as possible, today. Do you have some available times?"

The woman's eyes flickered behind her, where Sasuke had to be standing uncomfortably close and holding his ball notably tight. Yes, she saw. Sakura knew she saw. "Yes, he's just returned from a lunch. There's one man ahead of you, I expect maybe a…twenty-minute wait. May I have your name, there on that sheet?"

"Yes, of course," she replied, and grabbed a pen from the jar using thumb and forefinger.

While she adjusted her grip on it was Sasuke's window to look over her arm and see, and make no comment while she wrote "Sasuke U., with Quilava, female" on the paper. It was probably because he was watching that her words were especially neat and typewriter-smooth. She much preferred them that way. The very second she finished, Sasuke was already moving to the other side of the room to the long line of waiting chairs. He chose a spot a healthy three seats away from the nearest man with a rumbling Nosepass on the chair next to him, and smoothed his fingertips along the Pokeball's side as he stared at the table of colorful magazines.

"You picked a good time to arrive," he said, though there was little…care in it. At all.

"I was depending on irritable city customers not wanting to wait while their doctor ate lunch." Sakura replied, and could have gone on, actually wanted to, but bit her tongue on the subject. She had put in some good work to find an affordable and reputable Pokemon clinic, but Sasuke's own hard, wordless urgency on the matter had matched her effort step for step. So she started off with something else: "Do you want to explain this to him yourself, then?"

"I need to explain how I found her." He said. Still staring ahead. "Conditions of her birth as I suspect them. Living off the streets in Kiri from birth till me."

"Well, what do you think those are?" she hedged, and got a sidelong glance from his hard, black eyes in return. "I mean the specifics of her birth. I know you suspect she was born on the streets. But is there anything else? Any other theories?"

"Nothing but the original. And do you still agree?" He stared longer.

It was unfortunate. A mystery. Its implications left ugly shadows on Night's otherwise loving and innocent attachment to Sasuke. "I think I do. I'll still back you on it. And I promise to pay half the charge, too."

He scoffed and twirled the ball. "You'll pay a third."

"It was my idea to come here and deal with the expense of it, so I'll pay my fair share!" she said indignantly, and crossed her legs. "Try and stop me."

"I'll knock the cash out of your hand, then. She's mine, and I'll take the responsibility—"

Him knocking anything out of her hands, like he had no fucking idea of her upper body strength, suddenly, that was just irritating. "Why don't you try taking something from my hands, see how well your entire arm functions afterward—" That was only half of her thought. She was but halfway through the tirade about how ridiculous it was that he knew her for years but didn't know she was physically strong, enjoying blurting the hard truth to his face and watching it make this weird little smile on his face, when one of two doors in the far back of the room opened. A stark white labcoat was now apparent against flowery, nature-like wallpaper. It was the workclothes of a man whose brunette hair was turning to salt-and-pepper from roots to ponytail's end. Sakura had the idea that if her little artistic Flaaffy was around, she would have loved to see this man and coo at his hair.

The doctor shoved a black clipboard under one arm. "If Mr. Satoshi T. still hasn't arrived…?" and there was no response from anyone else in the waiting area. "Then, please, 'Sasuke U.'? I can see your earlier than expected." They both rose without a word and he welcomed them into a connecting room. Only once the door was closed did Sasuke tab the front button on the ball, and release his Quilava. She sat on the floor, her head raised higher than her haunches, to listen, for her eyes were closed and unseeing as always. Her forehead fire-pores glowed faintly red.

"Nice healthy glow she has on her pores, you know. So, what sort of eye problem has she got, trainers?"

"Probably a unique one, sir. At least to us. We had thought a psychological…" Sakura said, and then literally bit her lip. It had not been her intention to stick her nose into things first but of course, here she was. Sasuke gave her a tight-lipped look that shut her up further.

Without missing a beat, Konoha's lone Uchiha picked up and took off. "My Quilava's not even half a year old." He stepped around her, and Night's head followed his moves. "She evolved a week or two back, and has never opened her eyes once. I want your professional opinion as to why."

The straightforwardness did not seem to bother the doctor. "Really. How was her sight as a Cyndaquil?"

"Typical. Bad."

Dr. Tura leaned down and touched Night's head softly. He told her "excuse me, dear," in a soothing voice, and poked his fingers at her eyelids. Night thrashed, and waddled in a circle to stand by Sasuke's opposite leg. The doctor stood up and some befuddlement showed on his face now. "That's a strong refusal…" He paused, and then ignored Sasuke completely in favor of her instead. "Why do you think it's psychological, though? I've seen Quilava before whose eyes simply did not adjust in evolution, they're sort of 'stuck' squinting like a Cyndaquil, you see, and there's a procedure we can—"

The sheer amount of time they'd put into this made Sakura unwilling to have a doctor tell her that her problems were probably typical and simple. "She doesn't have forced-shut eyelids, Dr. Tura, look at her, they're hardly pinched! That's how they look all the time, in daylight, indoors, everywhere. A change in the light has little to no difference on how tight her eyes are." The man nodded absently to her, looking faintly impressed, and she faintly appreciated it. "I think she keeps them shut simply because she wants to. There was an easy opportunity when she evolved, but she didn't take it and still never has. It's been days and days now, and she still chooses to bump into things and gets around by smell and hearing."

And here was Sasuke's perfect spot to plant his own idea. What he had thought on for a long, long night at the daycare. "I think she was abused in her infancy." He admitted. Sakura was solid next to him, and the doctor gave no sign of condescending skepticism, which he was thankful for. "I found her in Kiri in late June, running madly down the street and then hiding behind a trash bin. After that, she took to following me, still moving fast and hiding at all times. I didn't think much of it before. She was a street-rat Pokemon. But now I wonder if she escaped someone or something threatening, and the idea of it frightens her still."

The man's face seemed so close to his own doubts now. So close to telling them they were foolish young trainers and the Quilava surely had a bad sensitivity to light and their worries were groundless. But Dr. Tura sat on his thoughts a bit longer, and his face was changing as he thought. The calm awareness of his education gave way to curiosity that made Sakura's skin crawl, and she fought to not say anything about it. The doctor ignored her reactions and added, "You said…Kiri was where you found her?"

Why did that matter? Kiri didn't have any landmarks or structures that would hurt someone with a sensitivity to light. Sasuke said something to him, some quick syllable that she missed thanks to her thoughts. Next, the doctor said, "What street in Kiri? And when?"

"Wh—" She looked at Sasuke for his reaction, but he wouldn't leave the doctor's gaze.

"It was…actually the first of July, now that I think of it," Sasuke admitted, quietly. "And it was just after noon when I noticed her. The street was called Ruro."

The man's eyes were gliding between each of them, and his mouth remained parted, but his expression wasn't changing. The gaze was beginning to unnerve Sakura. His eyes were getting wider by small increments, she noticed. He was becoming…more and more alarmed. "Sir," she asked, coolly, "Why does the time and part of town matter?"

Her question was straightforward and she was hoping the answer would spill out of him. But Dr. Tura was more controlled than that, unfortunately. He only questioned, "Do you two…not read the news, then? On your phones, on TV, anything?"

'I should have checked the News app more. I knew it.' Mom had told her so many times; trainers were prone to dipping in and out of knowing the business of the world, often trudging about in the woods, backtrails or high, wild plains without reliable television or wifi as they did.

She opted for a noncommittal, "no, not much", but Sasuke was the one who said that very phrase first. Taking charge.

The doctor nodded at him, just a little. "Well. Not uncommon, I guess; I don't expect every trainer to stop and read the newspaper every day." He admitted. "Then you missed the report from that day, about the boutique on Alamar Road. Pretty near Ruro. Someone's fire-type got out of hand, I think. People saw a lot of Pokemon fleeing the building, mostly fire-types." He paused. "It was…big news for a day or so, or my brother said."

"What's alarming about a fire-type in a burning building?" Sasuke asked, and Sakura inwardly begged the answer, too.

"Not the Pokemon types, really, but…the burns." Dr. Tura said. "Or, what I've read of them. I don't actually know myself. But I've read an account of the incident maybe three weeks ago, in Quarterly Staravius. It's a medical journal, usually has to be special-ordered—"

"I know it. I read it at home." She told him, and remembered the issues, thick for a magazine and printed with a red Staravia in a top corner, and this day had no time to reminisce on it. "Go on."

He seemed surprised, bordering on disbelieving—jerk for thinking a teenage couldn't or wouldn't touch an educational article—but did go on. "The, uh…the fleeing Pokemon were witnessed by someone in town who writes for the journal. A Heatmor and a Litleo ran by him, and he believed the burns on them weren't from a particularly fierce fire, but rather some type of acid. The wounds were quite dry, and deep, but with no blackening around the edges. Not much flesh exposed, but what was there was…not superficial. The article wasn't all about that, but that's just a snippet of what he thought he saw, and it did stick with me: the idea that supposedly, acid-burned Pokemon leaped out of a burning building that hadn't had any customers' Pokemon standing inside minutes before. And no basement they could have climbed out of. At least, the owners said they had no basement."

Her mouth parted and would hardly move. Consequently, her next words sounded stuttering, foolish. She curled her fingers and turned half-red from embarrassment: "B-But Night i-isn't burned, anywhere! What does that have t-t-to do with anything?"

"It might have to do with you because the time and place fits, and an infant Pokemon's desperation to avoid trauma fits, and if there's damage to her eye, it wouldn't surprise me that she would avoid using them altogether." Dr. Tura said, and he reached for a notepad from his pocket. "I think she came fleeing out of that building with those other burned Pokemon that day in Kiri. I can't tell you anything else. This man might, though. If you head out right now, I can call him and have him meet you—"

Sakura held up her head. "Wh, what? We're not done here! That can't be all you know about that incident!"

He held the note up to her. "Yes, it is all I know. Sorry. But I don't want your poor Pokemon to suffer for whatever was going on there, so you can talk to this fellow instead. I can guarantee he'll know something else about why that place burnt up. He knows, well, a lot of things. I'm sure he can tell you something if you do want to know more."

"Of course I do." Sasuke said, and took the paper, though he didn't look at it. "Is this some informant of yours?"

"Arceus, no! Haha!" was the buoyant response, and his entirely jolly laugh irked Sakura. "Informant! Well, not for me! He's just a friend of my practice. Whenever he comes in, I get all kinds of news from across Shinobi, Kalos, even Kanto sometimes. I don't know where he gets his news, but I've always found later on that he was right."

It sounded suspiciously like an informant in Sakura's opinion, either that or an extremely dedicated journalist. Either one was like to have information about such a intrigue-laced story. She thanked him politely, adding to her gratitude, "If my own Pokemon ever need medicine prescriptions or a treatment, I'll stop by here instead of a Center. In fact, I know of a place I could go and give out some good word-of-mouth advertisement for you."

"That's quite all right, miss, I have business enough. No need, no need. Now, I can call Jinya immediately and have him meet you before the day's done if you want. Will that do?"

"That will do." Sasuke said. He shook the man's hand before returning Night to her ball, and gesturing for Sakura to follow him out. Dr. Tura closed the office door after them. Quickly.

They left the building, and since Sasuke was choosing not to speak, she set to looking for road signs, to find the place listed under the name "H. Jinya" on the paper they had been given. Shutterfly Street was at least a mile away from Ru-jinx Lane. Better walk than take a Pokemon carriage and waste money that could be spent on another bag of Pokemon food for Brisby's daycare. Thirty dollars at the least.

"Sakura," Sasuke said. She looked and saw Sasuke was looking forward, but had his head inclined slightly towards her. A piece of his hair fell across his forehead, and Sakura couldn't help but watch it flow. "Let one of your Pokemon out. I don't trust whoever this man is. And the idea that he could meet us almost instantly is too convenient."

"I can let out Cassio. His ears and eyes are sharp." She suggested, to which her friend nodded. "Why don't we buy coffee or something on the way? When we sit down, we can look a little more like tourists. Or less like people who are waiting to meet a stranger."

He laughed. "I like that. Fine. There's a Laverre Espresso vendor." He started to turn right, and she had to stop to avoid his bumping into her, or softly pushing her in that direction. That could have been the intention, but that could also have been her own boy-fantasies. Given five seconds, she could name ten romance novels whose innocent introductions had contained exactly that.

And that idea made her laugh nervously. "Maybe I'll buy some sunglasses, too, I can blend in a bit more!" It was not a good coverup. He just stared at her more. Fuck.

"Hollywood movie tactic. Please. Come on, let's move."

He led the way. Sakura reached for her Sentret's ball, and followed him as he crossed the street, eyes glancing furtively behind them both.

Crowds, Pokemon, carriage servicers, children scurrying. Nothing.

"Sakura! Come on!"

She ran to catch up to him, and bought tourist-trap coffee with him, and walked with him in her sight and a glaring Sentret on her shoulder. She noted that Cassio almost always kept his tail over the back of her neck. Though it was highly unlikely this "H. Jinya" would be shooting poison darts at them in crowded streets, she appreciated his preparedness, even his suspicion. He pretended to stare at and sniff the hundreds of passing people when they finally sat down at a bench by the noted address on Ru-jinx Lane. They were a stone's throw away from a café, but its tables looked very closely packed, and she and Sasuke agreed it would not be a good place to talk to anyone with any amount of privacy.

They waited. Sasuke waited with impatience, and with a pensive anger in his stare she had seen a thousand times throughout her life, though it was more intense more. He looked visibly angry, and none of her requests for him to cool down would actually make him cool down for more than one to two minutes. She, at the very least, sipped her coffee and people-watched, and made an attempt to not look like she was here for a covert meeting. 'Long legs on that man. That woman's bag is bulging on the left side. Purrloin on that trash can. Gardobor with construction workers. A battle.'

Just after she noticed the battle was when she noticed Jinya. Two trainers slightly older than them were pitting a Mr. Mime and a Linoone against each other, and the man made a massive, jogging circle around the open battle area to avoid them. He grinned as he did so, pointing at the glowing Linoone. 'Thin legs, half-buttoned waistcoat, tie not pinned.' Sakura thought, and only then did the man make an obvious beeline for them. And only then did Sasuke notice.

She saw that small, slow flow forward of his body, like a Seviper gathering its length before a lunge, but he did not charge or attack. He waited for Jinya to approach and approach he did, gaily and with the merriment of either a happy drunk or a trainer who just won a gym battle.

"Hi! You're Touya's kids, with a Quilava problem? A miss Sakura, and Sasuke?"

"Yes, that's us," she said instantly. Sasuke's jaw had just opened and she'd beaten him to the opportunity of speaking. There was no way she was going to let her friend's aggressive manner scare this man or make him clam up. If not this man, they could only go after the author of the article in Kiri, at least two hundred miles away. "And this is my Sentret, Cassio, please pardon him if he hisses, I'm having trouble instilling manners in him."

"Oh, no problem, kiddo! I had a Gastly when I was your age who was three times as nasty." He made a humorously ill face, and curled his fingers. "And well, now he's a nasty Gengar! Anyway, let's find a table, maybe a park or something! I do have some things to tell you guys. Or at least you, he said you were the talker, and your friend here is concerned but not vocal." Jinya's scraped finger was pointing right at her.

Well his perception had been spot-on. "You should say whatever it is you need to say to both of us." She told him, making sure to keep Sasuke in the picture and keep an aggressive outburst from rising out of him. "And you can say it right here if you like. We're not exchanging espionage information, it was a news headline in a major city."

"Like many news headlines, it scraped the tip of the iceberg only." Jinya said, and stuck his hands carelessly and harshly into the waistcoat's delicate pockets. "And I can tell you more touching information than the pack of summer school kids walking behind me would need to hear. A park, or a back alley, and then we can be a spy operation."

"You can pick the park, then. Find us an unassuming table or shaded spot." Sasuke told the man, and he did sound collected. Jinya was now being subjected to a trademark glare of the young Uchiha's, and though he didn't flinch like some folks back home did, Jinya didn't say anything snappily or quickly.

He took one hand out of his pocket and pointed behind them. "Directly behind you. A walkway to one of the battle parks downhill. Pretty empty for now. How's that?"

It was fine, Sasuke told him, but Sakura was frantically looking for contrary body language on her companion and found none and suspected it meant he was hiding a thousand reactions. He wanted to pin this man to a wall and demand the information. Or so she was almost positive. The scrawny man shot her a smiling look she could not categorize, and then positioned himself so that he walked on the far right, with Sasuke in between them and herself on the far left. The walkway slowly moved downhill, past a hundred more loud passersby and a glowing snack stand sitting alone by a "Keep Off the Grass" sign. With much of the crowd attracted there, they were left alone to stand under a trimmed orchid tree. The shade suddenly reminded her that yes, it was quite hot today, and she and Sasuke were both in shorts and this man who probably did not just come from an important office meeting was wearing a disheveled business suit.

"Okay, we're nice and cool now. Ask me your questions, kiddies." He found a tiny Pokeball from that same pocket he'd shoved his hand in before, a pocket which Sakura had thought empty, and the ball popped open to reveal a floating, staring Mismagius. "Don't mind Watson. He likes to chat as well. Go on, then."

"How much did Dr. Tura tell you about Night?" Sasuke asked, and coolly.

"That's the Quilava? He told me its eyes won't open, and gentle prodding from him and you gets the same refusal. And that he thinks it came from Boutique Chagrin in Kiri and was in the same acid experiment the other ones were."

"Acid experiment?" she burst out helplessly. "Why would you think that was an experiment?"

"If Dr. Tura thought an experiment was happening, he left that part out of his theories." Sasuke put in. His voice was still cool.

At this, Jinya put his hands in his pockets again, smiled again, and his Mismagius did the same. "Nahh, Touya doesn't think that. He doesn't know shit about it, a'ight? He's always been a weak-kneed pansy of a guy, stays out of important shit as much as possible and I shudder to think how he ever did his interning at Pokemon Centers. You can cut him out of the picture now, and same goes for the guy who wrote the original article. Shut up, and listen to me."

He leaned a little closer, and still managed to look casual. "The building blew up thanks to an explosion in the basement that papers and investigators would tell you was never there, because its entryway was sealed minutes after the accident. That's the best they could do to cover their asses after their test subjects got out and showed their burned, smoky faces to anyone who could catch 'em. Your Quilava is a science experiment without a doubt, and probably done by a crime ring called the Akatsuki who like to dabble in some mad scientist shit now and again, which you probably know anyway since you met them at least once, in Uronbo, and they know your names, what you look like, and your families and probably more and I can bet you money they've at least been to your school. People like—"

"Stop talking." Spat Sasuke, and the reaction was so sudden, the exact jump of a Seviper she'd thought would soon come, that Jinya's happy grin cracked. "What proof do you have for any of that? Show me photographs or a voice recording. Sources. You sound like a fucking novelist pitching plotlines at me. Maybe I wasted my time with you."

For a split second, Jinya's face didn't so much as flinch. Sakura took the opportunity to play Sasuke's game, maybe prod the man a little more. She inclined her head in a more impressionably feminine, pleading way and exclaimed, "Sasuke, if I wasted your day talking to a total crackpot, you should blame me! I'm the one who took his name from Dr. Tura."

"I do have proof, if you'll listen to me." The stranger said, narrowing his eyes a noticeable increment. He was offended, it seemed to the pinkette. "I'm a listener, is all. You talk to businessmen and the guys who run the local tournaments, you learn things. This time I know some things just thanks to a drunk guy off the street. It was just a couple days ago." His glare intensified, and bored into the dark-eyed youth opposite him, who was not fazed. "A hilarious drunken guy who talked about how he once almost had his Scyther kill a kid named Naruto."

Sakura's legs had been slightly shaking, and they froze solid with the rest of her at hearing this admission. That was a story Naruto had told to the police only. That was secret, and terrifying.

"It was pure luck he happened to be there and that I happened to come in just to buy a water bottle, and he latched on to me and decided he wanted to tell stories to a stranger. About your friend, Naruto, about Uronbo, about talking to guys running the little Kiri attachment. I have no doubt that had he clung to a policeman or anybody with a big mouth that day, there would be more news headlines about them these days, and maybe he would be behind bars. As it is, I chose not to tell. Not sure if it's safe. You know?"

He was right to think that, in her opinion. Sasuke held his head high as usual and asked, "What did that man look like? And where were you?"

"He was older that you, younger than me. His hair was white like an old man and slicked back. I smelled that gel more than the alcohol." Jinya put his hand on his chin. "We were at Lampshade. An off-the-road place, couple miles away from Saraku."

'A couple miles away?' Sakura thought, furrowing her brow, and pondering its location in relation to the road they had used to come into the city. 'They were that close to us? Again?!'

"And the man himself didn't say a name, but he mentioned friends' names. He talked about a 'big guy' named Kakuzu, and Tachi, and—"

Sasuke butted in with "We know them," and then stared, expecting Jinya to pick up again, it seemed. He did. "Well. They know you, too. If you believe anything I'm telling you, believe that." His friendly grin was gone, and the pitying expression that took its place seemed even more genuine. "I'm glad we were lucky enough to have this talk, because for safety's sake you need to be aware that the Akatsuki know you. I really hope you have some strong Pokemon, just for protection. Maybe you'll need it. I would expect them to fuck up your innocent Pokemon journey at least once more."

"We've filed a police report about what happened at Uronbo. Their appearance in that town is public knowledge already." Sasuke told him. "They must already know we made the report as well. Do you think they would be vengeful about us exposing their deeds like that?"

"You're asking if I know how the Akatsuki think, and I don't." their informant admitted, holding up his hands. The Mismagius, Watson, at last broke his stone-still vigil and floated behind his trainer's back. "I know just as much as any person with television or internet access does. I don't regularly talk with criminals in shady restaurants, all right?" The happy-go-lucky attitude from minutes before was entirely gone. "I gotta go soon. And we probably won't talk again. Anything else you want?"

His reaction was a harsh exhale of almost-laughter from the Uchiha. "No. Thanks for making us aware. And confirming what I thought of my Quilava."

"Yeah, 'm sorry she got hurt by them, kid. She's not the first or last Pokemon to be someone's sick toy." Jinya muttered, and his mouth stretched to one side, awkwardly, like a friend at a loss for words of sympathy. "She's only ever gonna open her eyes when she feels comfortable and safe around you. Even then, I have no idea if she'll be able to see, period."

Sakura winced, as she had been thinking exactly that the entire day, and even the doctor had said deliberately avoided stating that possibility. "Thank you for everything, Mr. Jinya. We have to tell our friends all of this, too. But we won't mention your name, if you don't like. I'll keep your name out of it. You and Dr. Tura's, too."

"That'd be great." He said, and then looked up at them. "You guys be safe. I mean it. Get a few more Pokemon. Evolve the ones you have, if you can….wish you the best." He reached behind him and grabbed the flowing skin of his ghost-type.


Jinya disappeared.

Orchid petals fell down from the branches over their head, and then the noise of the park rushed into their ears again. The snack stand was shouting out order numbers to waiting customers, and half a dozen battles were roaring through progression within walking distance of the two of them. The city noise wrapped around them and only their tiny bubble of space remained silent. And that forced, constricting silence was unbearable.

"We have to get back to the Daycare and tell the others." she decided. For the first time in what felt like hours, she felt Cassio on her shoulder. He had not so much as twitched. "Oh, Cassio, I completely forgot you. Hey, darling, what do you think of that man? Did he sound like he was telling the truth to you?"

Cassio's eyes were watchful always, suspicious of most everyone, or so it had always seemed to Sakura. He set his both his paws knuckle-to-knuckle on her shoulder and grunted affirmatively at her.

"I trust Cassio, too." Sasuke said from beside her. Only then did she really feel the harsh silence around them release, and breathe openly. She met his eyes, and what looked back at her was a picture of anger. "Do you think they'll come after us? A bunch of teenagers who saw them on accident? Am I expected to halt my journey and hide from them forever? I won't."

"I don't…" She started, and sought answers. They were nowhere.

"They burned my Quilava's eyes. She could be blind. I'm not going to hide from those rotten bitches." He was hissing by the last phrase. "They won't ruin anything else of mine. It—"

"Then train your Pokemon!" she barked. Sasuke stopped his unconscious, aggressive forward lean and she filled that gap herself. "Whatever you were doing to train for earning your third gym badge, double that effort! Maybe they'll come after us and maybe not, but we should be as prepared as humanely possible for if they do! Get yourself a fourth Pokemon. I might be able to evolve Romeo soon, or maybe even Elizabeth."

The exhaled laughter made an appearance again. "It's all the more reason to defeat Lee in battle. I would be more confident in my Pokemon's abilities against their Pokemon if I could maneuver around Lee's Combusken and beat it into the ground."

The thought was a little inspiring. A little helpful. "That's a good way to think of it." she agreed with a brief nod. "They're not going to ruin anything of ours, or yours, Sasuke. Nothing. We'll kick them back if they do come."

'If they do come.'

THIS CHAPTER GOES OUT TO RARA94! She's been a great help and heaps of fun to talk to on Tumblr; without her I would not have gotten the chapter out for probably weeks more! She's heading out for boot camp very soon, the same as I did about this time last year. Everybody give it up for military! HOOYAH!

Whooooooo this chapter was a long time in the making…Pathway is the story that I ALWAYS feel a little inspiration for, and still, it was a real bitch to fix this one up. I had some serious indecision on how to expose the information about the Akatsuki, and chose to create this string of "I know a guy who knows a guy" which would conveniently give the Konoha 5 some unsettling truth on the Akatsuki. Note for all readers, "I know a guy who knows a guy" IS how a lot of people rise through the ranks or get important intel in real life as well. Unfortunately.

(Also I wonder if everything past Naruto's gym battle counts as "boring" but hell man, Akatsuki information isn't just going to drop out of the sky and be taken in within the span of like 3 paragraphs. These guys are real, and monstrous, and secret, and learning their secrets takes time. The K5's journey WILL go on, and they will have fun and go through regular trainer challenges/adventures as they always did, but now they are aware they could be ambushed at any time c: )

Even if you did find all the intel-gathering boring, it did serve a second purpose: showing that Sasuke and Sakura work well together when given the opportunity. They can each take charge, and when one is shaken or unsure, the other immediately covers. This could or could not be material for a future pairing. Could be 'cause I've always liked SasuSaku, could not be because I change my preferred pairings about once a week.


Side note 1: I am using my Pokemon X game to "recreate" Pathway Sakura! She currently has one badge, and Romeo, Cassio and Beatrice are all with her! c: I might use my second Y game to do the same thing with Pathway Ino or Sasuke (I already did Hinata on my SoulSilver) and Naruto is still up in the air.

Side note 2: Maybe you will notice and maybe not , but I'm going to slowly go through each Pathway chapter and clean it up a little and add some more character-defining moments; there's not as much character development going on as I would have liked, because I tend to think of Pathway one or two chapters at a time. I do have the endgame mostly planned, but the "pathway" to the end is blurry, lol.

Side note 3: You can always guess what Pokemon you think the trainers will get, or even if they will evolve! :D Sakura only has one more slot left and I do have that Pokemon planned, and I have the rest of Sasuke's perfectly planned as well. Naruto's Pokemon are the ones I change around the most, actually.

Side note 4: Least relevant of all: I recently PM'd an author whose Poke/Naru crossover I really like, to tell them their writing in general is really not the greatest and offered to be their beta to fix this problem because I like them and want to help them out. If the person responds positively, I may be becoming someone's beta. Just so you know.

Side note 5: I was going to post bios this chapter but I don't feel like it. Maybe I will add them in when I have the time, you can always check back later.