Disclaimer: Naruto and all canon characters referenced here don't belong to me, but Tsumo, Ringo, Yurin and any other OCs that show up here do, unless otherwise disclaimed.

Last Edited: Oct 15, 2012

Where the Heart Is

Chapter 5: Quandries and Qualifiers

And I'm wracking my brain for a new improved way

To let you know you're more to me than what I know how to say…

-"Must Have Done Something Right" by Reliant K

"…so then Misa-tan finally tried to go for Kimi-chan's throat, but Daisuke held her back which was her plan, since, y'know, it's Misato, but then Kucchin called her out on it and he let go and casually backed off. So then Misa-tan decided to be dramatic and went off to go 'find water' and stalked off in a huff. Then she saw that Grass…person and things kind of went to shit. Like, eaten-by-a-gigantic-snake levels of shit. So yeah, then that…person…came after Migukkun and Daisuke, and here things get a little murky because I didn't get Misa-tan's memories until she started getting digested. But yeah that…person came after them, and Giku-hime cut that fuuu…uumbling jerk right across the face. And then sh—h—it sort of…ripped the rest off?

"And then there was another face underneath, which was freaky as hell. And then the sick pervert tried to bite Mikkun, like some kind of cheap vampire! So then she dispelled, and it started monologuing at Daisuke before he dispelled. And it was kind of bragging about being named Orochimaru, which I still think is a stupid sissy name—don't give me that look, bastard, it so totally is!—and there was some stuff about how there would be 'other opportunities' and stuff. Like I said, it's all sort of muddled together." Naruto finally took a deep breath and dropped his arms from where they had been raised and used to illustrate his narrative, before looking around and giving a short nod to their audience. "And that's the story of how we almost got killed by a Legendary Sashimi."

"Sannin," Sakura corrected, not lifting her face from where it was buried in her hands. "Legendary Sannin, Naruto, He's a monster shinobi, not a piece of fish."

"Why did you even come to the Academy most days?" Sasuke wondered. "Did you just sort of ignore everything that wasn't physically beaten into you?"

"Shut up," Naruto suggested.

Kakashi coughed. "We're still reporting to the Hokage, children."

Sakura finally lifted her head to give him a sad, sad look. "He's heard us report to him after missions before, Kakashi-sensei. I'm fairly certain Hokage-sama no longer holds any illusions concerning the state of our hypothetical dignity and maturity."

Sarutobi Hiruzen, The Professor, Third Hokage of Konohagakure and trainer of the aforementioned 'monster shinobi' rubbed his temples, feeling the full weight of his age bear down upon him. "This is…quite worrisome," he said at length.

"I'm more worried about why we were targeted." Sakura ran a hand through her hair, pulled free of its signature style for once. The elder shinobi in the room very carefully did not react as she began to pace. "I mean, does he have a vendetta against Kakashi-sensei? Is he out to harvest Sasuke's new Sharingan, like that whole Kumo-Hyuuga fiasco a decade ago? Did Naruto hit him with a paint-bomb before he defected? Did my stupid brother make a move on him in a bar somewhere? Why us?"

Naruto started slightly, eyes widening guiltily as something occurred to him. His teammates rounded on him, eyes focusing in like lasers.

"You know something," Sakura said slowly.

"You know something important," Sasuke accused. "Spill."

Naruto squirmed, glanced at their teacher and the Hokage (who stared back at him with bland, unhelpful expressions that signified that this was his choice and his alone) and promptly cracked like an egg. "I kind of. Might. Have a demon sealed in me. Sort of." He looked at them imploringly. "It wasn't my fault, I swear to God."

There was a long moment of silence. Then Sasuke cursed, low and vicious, dug a hand around in one of his pockets, and slapped a sheaf of bills into Sakura's outstretched palm. Her beaming, gentle countenance didn't so much as falter as she began thumbing through the cash, ignoring Sasuke's dark glower and Naruto's bewilderment.

Soon enough, though, the pieces of his little mental puzzle slid together. "Sakura-chan, you bet on whether or not I was a jinchuuriki?"

"Of course not!" Sakura shot him a wounded look, and even Sasuke seemed a bit put off that he might think so. "You know how every time we go over sealing, Kakashi-sensei goes on forever and ever about how a scroll with a kunai inside it isn't the same as having a kunai in your hand, like we're completely brain-dead or something? We bet on who it was that secretly had something sealed in them. Sasuke thought that it might have been a gentle way of hinting that his brother did something else to him That Night. I guessed it was you, since if anybody tried to get a brush on my skin when I was little Tsumo would have literally torn them limb from limb."

"…I thought those lessons were about not wasting time in a fight." Naruto admitted sheepishly.

"Naruto!" Sakura placed a hand over her heart and staggered back, eyes earnest and wide. "A true shinobi must always be able to see through deception and look underneath the underneath! Have you learned nothing?"

"This is why she's my favorite," Kakashi confided to the Hokage, gesturing at them.

"We can hear you." Sasuke told him.

"And yet Sakura-chan is the only one who listens," Kakashi shook his head tragically.

"So…" Naruto glanced between his teammates a touch warily as something bright and hopeful began to spark in his eyes. "You guys are…okay with, um…" He struggled for words. "This? You don't…hate me or anything?"

"Idiot," scoffed Sasuke, throwing him a dirty look. "You know what it takes to make me hate somebody, and you doing that would be pretty much self-defeating."

"Yeah," Sakura nodded, reaching over to squeeze Naruto's hand with a gentle smile. "I mean, I kind of want to go and punch the stupid out of the rest of the village even more than I did alrea—waitaminute." Her head snapped around, and she stared at Sasuke, who had begun studying the near wall with an almost religious intensity. "Uchiha Sasuke, did you…did you just imply that you cared about us?"

"What?" Naruto quickly reviewed their teammate's answer, mouthing a few syllables here and there unconsciously. Then his face split into a bright, cheery grin. "I think he did, Sakura-chan! He…" His smile seemed to grow and soften all at once. "He basically called us family."

"Shut up," Sasuke suggested to the wall, but there was a rather telling shade of red creeping up from the high collar of his shirt.

"You liiiiiiike us…" Sakura cooed, draping herself over his stiff shoulders.

Naruto slung an arm around each of them, joining in on the impromptu hug. "You looooooove us…"

"Go to hell," snarled Sasuke, even as his arms twitched up in the very barest of reciprocations.

The Hokage silently rose, smiling gently despite the rather fearsome and upsetting news he had just received about one of his former students. He tapped the brim of his hat in recognition to Kakashi, who was grinning beneath his mask, and the astounding job he had done building up those children. Then he made a handseal and sunk through the floor, his smile vanishing with the heartwarming scene.

The prodigal son had returned, and that meant there was major work to be done.

"Ahh," Naruto bounced back on one of the cots they had been assigned and folded his arms behind his head. "So much better than roughing it. Hey, d'you think those guys we beat the crap out of are okay?"

Sasuke shrugged, more concerned with shucking off his shirt and beginning to repair all of the minute tears peppered over the cloth. "We strung them up high and close to the tower, so if they got killed or eaten before they woke up it wasn't our fault. We made every helpful gesture we could for them."

"Don't tell Zabuza-san that we did that next time you guys are over," cautioned Sakura, who had shed her legwarmers and weights in order to massage her aching calve muscles. "He'll start complaining about how our ethics make us prissy de-clawed babies and how the village is ruining our potential. Again."

"Our potential to be what?" Naruto wanted to know. "Berserker classmate-killers? Because I think we just established that it wasn't a good idea to do that sort of thing like twenty minutes ago."

"You do not kill to verify your existence?" asked Gaara from the corner.

"HOLY SHIT." Naruto yelped, tumbling off the bed with an abortive jerk towards his weapons pouch. "When did you get here?!"

Sasuke calmly stuck the side of his left index finger into his mouth, nursing the small, bloodless wound he had given himself when he had stabbed his finger in surprise. Sakura swung her legs down and sat up fully, offering her relative a welcoming smile. "Oh, hey, you made it through okay! Awesome."

"You do not kill to verify your existence?" Gaara repeated, ignoring Naruto's question entirely.

Sakura blinked. "Well, no. That's kind of an extreme method, you know? And, uh…" Her eyes very carefully did not slide towards her seemingly serene teammate, who had returned to his stitching. "We kind of have a rule against mass-murder in this team."

"What other methods are there?"

"Um, not killing everybody?" Naruto suggested, and was ignored once again.

"Well…" Sakura thought for a minute about what she wanted to say, then tapped the white insignia on her chest. "There's always this one, you know? There's a saying; you can pick your friends, and your enemies, but your family is something that is fated. And that's kind of a really old clan ideal, though you probably don't know about it. We're scattered, nowadays. But it goes something like this: 'As the seasons flow and meld into one another, so too do we.' Which pretty much means that there are traces of me in you, traces of you in Ringo, traces of Ringo in Temari-san, traces of Kankuro-san in Yurin and so on." She paused, tracing over the circle and shrugging. "Basically, as long as any of us exist, pieces of the others will as well."

Gaara blinked, shoulders tightening dangerously for a moment, before doing something strange. His eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment and his fingers drifted over to brush almost tenderly across the gourd upon his back. And then the moment was gone, and the bland, impersonal malevolence was back, if minutely muted. "I will consider this view-point," he told her gravely, before something else caught his attention. "…why is Uchiha Sasuke poking holes in his shirt?"

"I'm mending the damage," explained Sasuke without looking up from his work. He held up the needle and braced the thread against his thumb, so that it was visible. "What, have you never seen a man sew before?"

The redhead tilted his head to the side inquisitively, echoing his much younger, distant relative. "No. How do you do it?"

"…Sakura, your legwarmers get torn like every two days, toss one over." Sasuke ordered, apparently feeling either generous or worn down after the gratuitous amounts of familial discussion over the last half hour, setting his shirt to the side and shifting over on his bed. Sakura hid a smile and complied as Gaara drifted over to hover by his side in a manner that would be described as hesitant on anybody else. At Sasuke's impatient gesture he sat, the movement a little awkward until he unclipped his gourd and set it on the floor.

Sasuke popped open his portable kit, no larger than the span of his hand, and began explaining what everything was and how to use them. Sakura looked at Naruto, who rubbed his stomach with a piteous look, before nodding and standing up, followed quickly by her blond teammate. "We're going to go get some food; we'll bring you back something, okay?"

Sasuke grunted his good-bye, unwinding a length of white thread so that he could show the Sand-nin a basic stitch. Gaara didn't respond, opting instead to focus the entirety of his attention on her teammate's motions and brusque words.

"Your family is weird, Sakura-chan." Naruto told her when they had reached the stairs.

"My family is amazing," Sakura retorted, before bumping shoulders with him and smiling faintly. "All of it."

Naruto scratched his cheek and turned his head, but there was no mistaking the blood rushing to his ears or the way the muscles in his cheeks shifted. "Quit bragging so much," he told her, giving up on playing cool to bump her back. "Mine's just as awesome."

"Believe it," Sakura told him, ruffling a hand through his hair fondly.

Naruto believed it. Just barely, and with the niggling concern that he was going to wake up at any moment to a harsh, lonely reality, but he believed it.

They travelled the rest of the way in a warm, companionable silence, and soon reached the cantina area. They were surprised to find that the only occupants of the room, positioned in opposite corners, were people that they already knew.

"Sakura-chan," greeted Temari with a small smile, Kankuro waving lazily from beside her.

"N-Naruto-kun," Hinata squeaked from between her teammates.

"Damn, you guys made it here fast!" Naruto blinked in surprise while Sakura let out a relieved sigh. It was not missed by any of the room's occupants.

"What, worried your freakish monster forest would get us?" Kankuro asked, unsure as to whether he should laugh or be offended. "Sorry to disappoint you, but we cut through it like paper. The examiners told us we totally obliterated the last record."

"No, it's…well, in the forest…" Sakura hesitated, unsure as to how much she was permitted to say about the matter.

"There's a Legendary Somen hunting around out there," Naruto announced easily. Sakura rubbed a hand over her face.

There was a beat of silence as everybody tried to translate. It was Temari who got it first, and she went stock-still. "Please," she requested politely, paling under her slight tan. "Please, tell me that he really does mean that there is a noodle monster on the loose, and not…not a…"

"A Legendary Sannin?" Kiba lost a good majority of his normal bluster. "If you guys are this worked up about it then…shit. You mean that snake bastard." He growled, low in his throat, Akamaru following suit even as he cowered in his human partner's hood. "Mom's gonna be howling for blood when she finds out. That guy kidnapped and experimented on some clansmen back before he slithered out of town."

"You should not attempt anything rash," cautioned Shino tonelessly, though his chopsticks were creaking slightly in his grip and there was a faint buzzing noise from his end of the room. "Why? You would be severely outclassed, and either killed or worse. Allowing the Hokage and ANBU to handle the situation has a much higher chance of success."

"I'm not going to do something stupid!" Kiba barked. "I do have some common sense, you know?"

"Why do you two know that?" Temari asked suddenly, tilting her head back to eye the two members of Team Seven, who had begun grabbing food and loading up their plates. They looked at each other, looked down at the food, and then Sakura shook her head after calculating just how long it would take to rehash the story and answer any other questions.

Naruto laughed, hoisting up four heavily-laden plates. "Um, it's really an awesome, long, long story, and we'll totally tell you all about later, but the important things are that we aren't dead, we're hungry as hell, and Sasuke's teaching your scary little brother how to stitch alone in our room, so we're just going to go back up before our bastard forgets his manners and starts bitching at him about his knots or something. Bye!"

Sakura lifted up her own plates, choked back a laugh, and followed her teammate back out as the other five genin simply stared.

The next few days were passed idly, though it wasn't until the last two days of the exam that the rest of the teams who had managed to get the scrolls they needed trickled in. Mercifully, Naruto was not called forth again to rehash his second-hand encounter with the powerful missing-nin, though there was a two-hour stretch where somebody had dropped the ball so horribly that Ibiki wound up alone in a room with Team Seven.

All four later emerged, each looking varying levels of smug and amused. Nobody had quite managed to work up the nerve to ask about what was discussed.

The only things that really interrupted the trio's easy-going recovery were Gaara's long, daily (and sometimes nightly) visits and demands for more complex lessons, and the knowledge that they had to stay inside without training or picking fights with the other teams. It was maddening—not because Team Seven was especially belligerent, but because Kakashi took an undue amount of pleasure in taking long walks outside the tower and regaling them about how beautiful it was outside, and how, by pure chance, he had found the nicest little clearing, with sturdy trees and even ground. How unfortunate it was, he bemoaned, that they wouldn't be able to rough it up.

Sakura, despite her desire to be out and about, and despite her desire to patch things up with Team Nine or at least talk about what had happened, stayed in the room most of the time, and urged the boys to do so as well. Orochimaru was still on the loose, after all, and since they still weren't sure whether he was after Naruto or Sasuke, neither boy was left alone when they could help it.

Sakura didn't get her legwarmers back until about twenty minutes before the assembly for the start of the Third Exam. She studied them carefully, taking in the surprisingly intricate black embroidery at the ends. "When did you have time to do this?" Sakura wondered, tugging them on over her weights. "Sasuke started teaching you like four days ago. Did you just not sleep or something?"

"I never do," Gaara informed her, before disappearing in a swirl of sand to rejoin his siblings.

"…he's so weird," Naruto complained for the umpteenth time as Team Seven made their way down to the arena. "'I never do,' geeze, what the hell? Sakura-chan, you're cousin has some sortof a condition, you know that right?"

"You have a 'condition'," Sakura shot back immaturely just before they fell in line, managing to snag the last word before their leader began addressing the chuunin-hopefuls who had made it this far. He sulked and tried to pinch her, but she twisted her arms slightly and dug her thumbnail into the fleshy webbing between his thumb and forefinger instead. He bit his lip hard to hold back his yelp of pain.

Sasuke's face could have been carved of stone despite (or perhaps because of) the subtle war of petty revenge breaking out behind him. His teammates were mindful not to do anything to interrupt the Hokage, so he merely stared back at the disapproving glances a few proctors shot their way until the older ninja eventually dropped their gazes and tried not to shrink back from that stern, austere gaze of cold disapproval they remembered from the Uchiha police-officers of their childhood.

The speech finished with only one resignation from the exam, and a truce was declared between the two vastly more emotive members of Team Seven as they made their way up to the viewing platform. 'I won,' Sakura mouthed to Sasuke while Naruto draped himself over the railing, staring hungrily at the board as it flicked through names.

His eagerness was for naught, however, and a cry of displeasure split the air as the first match was declared.

Uchiha Sasuke vs. Inuzuka Kiba

Sakura shivered slightly at the downright evil little smile—smile!—on Sasuke's face. "I'm going to enjoy this," he declared pleasantly, strolling towards the stairs.

Kiba followed suit, chilled and bewildered by the vindictive glee his old classmate was radiating. "What did I do?" he asked Sakura as he passed her. "The first exam was the first time I've seen you guys since we graduated, and he's been holed up in your room since you got to the Tower!"

"Now, this is just a thought," Sakura mused, leaning back against the rail. "So don't take it as the only possible reason, but it might have something to do with you leering at him when we first came in to the testing room." Her fingers drummed lightly against the metal support to a jaunty, silent tune.

"But I didn't leer at him, I was looking at y—" Kiba froze, halfway down the stairs, and the color abruptly drained out of his face. "I-I was looking at…" He slowly looked back up at Sakura, then down at Sasuke, who was still smiling. "A-At…" Kiba swallowed and trudged the rest of the way down to his doom.

The proctor started the match and Sakura stretched, her back to the brutal carnage she knew was soon to follow, and met the flabbergasted stares directed at her.

"Wait, so…" Ino furrowed her brows, waving her hands in front of her. "So…During the first part, Sasuke was you?"

"Yep." Sakura nodded. "It's easier to pretend to be somebody else than pretend you aren't quite yourself."

"So you were pretending to be N-Naruto-kun then?" Hinata piped up, glancing back and wincing at the rather loud beating her teammate was receiving down below.

"What?" Sakura frowned. "No, don't be silly. I was pretending to be a clone of Naruto pretending to be Sasuke, just like Sasuke was pretending to be a clone of Naruto pretending to be me."

"Of course," Shikamaru deadpanned. "How silly of us. I take it Naruto was pretending to be a clone pretending to be himself, too?"

Sakura snorted. "That would just be stupid, Shikamaru." She rolled her eyes. "He was pretending to be Daisuke, obviously."

"Duh," Naruto chimed in, folding his arms behind his head. "It was the only way Sakura-chan would let me make such an awesome entrance!"

"He was…wait, then who were 'Kimigiku' and 'Misato'?" Shikamaru asked, eyes narrowing as he tried to peer down whatever twisted mental alleyway had outlined such a plan. "Bribed Academy students?"

"Shikamaru," Sakura gave him a patient, pitying look. "All the Academy kids were told they have the day off today. It hasn't been that long since we graduated and you, of all people, should know that there's no bribe big enough to get them to spend their free day at school. The girls were actually clones." She paused. "This time."

"What the hell was my old man thinking, letting you near children?" Asuma demanded, rounding on Kakashi, who was chuckling.

"As much as I would love to take credit for that, and believe me, I really, really would…" Kakashi shook his head fondly. "That plan is entirely Sakura's. She's the best little tactician I could have hoped for."

"…you guys must have had this planned out for a long time," Shikamaru sounded grudgingly impressed. "There was even that eye-catching 'mistake' in the henge that Ino and Kiba weren't able to keep from clearly mentioning."

"Excuse me?" The words were hissed out in two different voices, each liberally coated in a soul-sucking level of ice. Sasuke was back at the top of the stairs now, and Kiba and Akamaru were being carried off in stretchers. Kurenai was looking worried now, and it was all Kakashi could do not to gloat. Yet.

Sasuke stalked forward, glaring Shikamaru down. "My henge is perfect, Nara."

Shikamaru made as if to look at Sakura's torso pointedly, but luckily for him his brain caught up with the plan and killed it dead before it could be fully implemented. He coughed and rubbed at the back of his neck. "But there was a mistake…?"

Sasuke snorted softly and whirled around, tugging Sakura in front of him. She rolled her eyes, but went along with his intrinsic need to prove his excellence. He smoothed one hand up her back, making her straighten her spine, while the other tugged her shoulders back. "She slouches. I don't."

"Not all of us have steel rods where our spinal cords are meant to be, Sasuke," she huffed, slipping back into that casual, now noticeable slouch.

"Your aunt is a priestess," he shot back accusingly, as the next match was declared. Kankuro reluctantly made his way down the stairs to face one of the leaf-nin dressed in purple.

Sabaku no Kankuro vs. Tsurugi Misumi

"I will straighten my spine for the one who created me, the one who takes my soul, and the one who signs my paychecks," Sakura told him. "Anybody else can—oh, that does not look comfortable." She turned back around to stare, fascinated, at the putty-like body wrapped around her cousin. "Do you think if he stays that way for a long time, he'll get stuck?"

"I dunno, Sakura-chan," Naruto said skeptically, once more hanging over the railing. "That sounds a little too close to that old wives' tale about making funny faces."

"All stories come from somewhere, Naruto," Sakura told him sagely.

"Are you three always like this?" Ino demanded, looking at Team Seven strangely.

The trio blinked as one, before turning to share a look. "Like what?" They chorused, identical expressions of vague, innocent confusion on their faces.

Kakashi chuckled, edging away from the accusing stares of his colleagues. "What can I say? They took to team bonding exercises quite naturally."

There was a cracking noise from down below as 'Kankuro' unhinged his jaw and chomped down on the rubbery arm around 'his' neck with glistening, needle-like teeth. Sakura let out a low whistle when, not thirty seconds later, his unfortunate opponent collapsed. "Oooh, Suna really does have the best poisons."

Naruto shrugged, unconcerned. "I don't care, Sakura-chan, their puppets are still creepy as hell. We're not going there for a training trip." From the tone of his voice it was apparent that this was not the first debate they had gotten into on the subject.

"Fuuton users are really common there, compared to here…" Sakura wheedled.

"Hellishly hot weather," Sasuke put forth.

"Entirely new styles of basic, useful skills!"

"…we'll talk about this later," Kakashi said, closing the discussion. "Though personally I haven't seen snow in a while."

"Tsumo says that snow is a silent killer, bitter and harsh as a woman scorned and only admirable to foolish romantics watching from a distance." Sakura reported, turning to watch the medics hustle the defeated shinobi away.

"Harada is from the Land of Iron; he grew up in a barren tundra, so his opinion doesn't count."

Naruto's brow furrowed in confusion. "But…wouldn't that make his opinion count mo—"

"Oh look," Kakashi cut him off blithely. "Your little friends are going to fight now. You should watch them."

His team turned to look at the board and promptly choked.

Yamanaka Ino vs. Aburame Shino

"Oh," Sakura breathed, as a manic smile spread across Naruto's face and a glint of Schadenfreude sparked in Sasuke's eyes. "Oh no."

"Please, tell me there is a security feed in this building," Naruto begged, managing to squeeze a few more teeth into his grin. "Tell me that this will be preserved for prosperity, or at least until I can find a copy and claim it as my own."

"Do you think she'll actually be stupid enough to swap bodies?" Sasuke asked, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the railing. "It might be our only chance ever to see Aburame shriek and flail like a prissy girl. She might even knock his glasses off."

Naruto took a look at the pale and shaky blonde down below, but sadly shook his head. "Nah. She made that vow back when we were nine, remember? That she'd die before she wore a body with bugs squirming around in it. But either way, this is going to be hilarious."


"You're horrible people," Sakura accused, though she herself was a little eager for the match to be called.

"No, Sakura-chan," Naruto corrected her, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "We're horrible people. Now shh, the show is starting."

The sickly proctor started the match.

Immediately, a large buzzing black cloud of insects rose from Shino's coat and swarmed after Ino. The kunoichi, apparently forgetting her training in the midst of sheer terror, turned tail and ran. The bugs followed in her wake, and she began screaming as they inched closer and closer. The vicious, amusing scene stretched out for several minutes, much to Asuma and Shikamaru's chagrin, before Shino finally stepped in and pinned her down.

It was difficult to tell, since he was soft-spoken and his mouth was covered, but Shino apparently had to ask multiple times if she would yield before Ino regained enough rationality to do so. He immediately backed off and recalled his insects.

The blonde took one look at him, shuddered, and scrambled back up to the safety of her team. Naruto had his face pressed hard against Sakura's shoulder as she passed behind Team Seven, desperately muting his cackles until he could control them without earning himself a punch in the face.

"Okay Chuckles," Sakura shoved him off roughly. "It's time to pretend that you're a serious, respectable shinobi now. You're up."

Akado Yoroi vs. Uzumaki Naruto

Naruto let out an excited hoot and vaulted straight over the railing, beating the rubberman's teammate there easily. He jiggled from foot to foot, obviously eager to begin. Quickly enough, the match was called.

"It's good you have so much energy," the older ninja told him pleasantly as they both dropped into taijutsu stances. A moment later they blurred forth, and Naruto found himself in a firm hold. "I could use a boost!"

"…uh, what?" Naruto struggled this way and that.

"You can feel it, can't you?" his opponent taunted. "The chakra slowly draining out of you and into me. Soon enough you won't have any left, and this match will be mine!"

There was an awkward pause.

"I can't watch this," Sakura muttered, closing her head and dropping her head to rest on her folded arms. "I think I'll take a nap. Wake me up when Naruto quits playing around or that guy fries his chakra coils."

"Wake up," Sasuke nudged her not thirty seconds later, once Naruto had slipped free of the hold and kicked his opponent solidly in the temple.

"I can't even get a nap out of it?" Sakura complained, raising her head. "That was the worst match ever. Literally nothing of worth was accomplished."

"I made it to the next round!" Naruto cheered, racing back up to them.

"That's nice," Sakura rested her cheek on her palm, watching the board scramble names again. "Knew you had it in you. Oh look, Gaara's up. Go Gaara! You can do it!" Sakura cheered as Naruto sulked.

Dosu Kinuta vs. Sabaku no Gaara

Gaara turned and looked at her for a moment, before nodding shortly and turning back to his mummy-like opponent.

The fight was brutally short; literally so. At the first sign of an attack, Gaara twitched his fingers and Dosu's hands were quickly encased in sand. One clenched fist later saw the match quickly declared to be Gaara's win and Dosu being rushed to the medical wing to cauterize the mangled stumps of his arms in an effort to save him before he bled out.

"Serves him right," Sasuke frowned distastefully. "Their backwater hick-town should have waited a few more years before trying to send shinobi to fight us." Rolling their eyes, each teammate promptly slapped his shoulder.

"You are such a snob," Sakura informed him.

"The snootiest of snobs," Naruto agreed.

"Tell me I'm wrong," Sasuke dared them.

"Children," Kakashi scolded. "Not in public." The other teams were staring at them, some aghast and some thoughtful.

"Sorry, sensei," they droned, before turning back to the board once again. "Oh," said Sakura. "This'll be quick."

Sabaku no Temari vs. Zaku Abumi

It was pathetically quick.

Despite the implants that the Sound-nin, Zaku, wasted no time in bragging about, it was clear that when it came to mastery over air currents he was severely outclassed. A grand total of forty-six seconds later saw him slumped against a cracked wall, beaten, bleeding and broken.

Temari swung her fan shut and strutted back up to the opposite platform.

"Would've been better off if he had just stuck to tending rice paddies."


"Tell me I'm wrong."

"Oh shit," murmured Sakura, looking up at the board as the next match-up was announced and a victorious cry rang out. Her mouth twisted into a piteous frown. "Poor Choji."

Rock Lee vs. Akimichi Choji

The match looked more like a sport than a spar, with the inflated, barbeque-bribed younger boy being bounced around this way and that by his exuberant, green-clad senior. It was a relief to nearly everybody watching when the dispirited Akimichi finally gave up and trudged off with the medics

That relief didn't last long, however, when the next match called both Hyuuga down to fight.

Hyuuga Hinata vs. Hyuuga Neji

Sakura felt like she was in a dream, or perhaps a nightmare as she watched the fight unfold. No, that was too kind a description; it was a grudge-fueled beating, and Hinata was refusing to stay down. The sickest part of it all was that Sakura could imagine, with perfect clarity, just what Neji was thinking and feeling.

Or at least, she did, up until the moment she saw him shift his hand into a stance he had never used in training, never against allies, and had to be restrained from stopping his cousin's heart.

Sakura was dimly aware of Naruto screaming something, infuriated, of Sasuke's white-knuckled grip on the railing, of the stiff, unrepentant set to Neji's shoulders as he marched off to the infirmary, keeping a deliberate distance from the stretcher bearing Hinata.

She was aware of it all, but she only turned her back to the railing and slid down until she was sitting on the floor. She stared at the wall blankly, hearing Shikamaru being badgered by Ino until he made his way down for his match. She shut her eyes, forced herself to come to terms with what she had just witnessed, and began to think and plan.

She felt much more steady by the time Shikamaru had managed to incapacitate the final member of the delegation from Sound, and stood. She walked down to the arena without so much as a glance at the board. There was only one possible match-up left, after all.

Haruno Sakura vs. Tenten

It could be said that Tenten was a little on edge.

That would, of course, be a gross understatement. Over the past week, her enthusiasm for this exam had been knocked straight off its pedestal and ground firmly into the dirt. Sakura hadn't told them her team was entering the exam, first of all. And okay, perhaps it was unfair for her to be upset as Team Nine hadn't exactly announced it to their pink-haired friend either, but that certainly hadn't been for lack of trying on their part.

Sakura had been inviting them around less and less as of late. At first, Tenten thought it might be an effort to keep them away from the nuke-nin she was supposedly 'rehabilitating', but she hadn't seemed to mind much when Tenten had met Haku. Furthermore, she had started training earlier and earlier in the day, instead of using up the time Hatake wasted with his tardiness to train with them.

Tenten suspected that Sakura was training with her teammates during that free time, and yes, she didn't have a logical right to resent them for that. But she resented them anyways. It was a primal sort of anger, rooted deeply in the sentiment of We Were Here First.

Lee and Gai seemed frustratingly unruffled about the situation, even happy for Sakura, but Neji, at least, seemed to share her discomfort. They hadn't spoken about it, but Tenten knew of at least two meetings at the teahouse that Sakura hadn't been able to make. They were by no means set in stone, but he and Sakura had always seemed so dependent on those quiet little rendezvous.

She wasn't blaming Sakura for Neji's little mental break just now, certainly not, considering how negotiations with Kumogakure were finally once again beginning to move forward. It wasn't easy for Neji by any means, and being pitted against the girl who he partially blamed for his father's sacrifice had been the straw that broke the camel's back for him.

The point, however, was that Tenten was feeling resentful and neglected. Almost scorned, really, and that was never a safe state for a kunoichi to be in.

"Ready, Sakura-chan?" Tenten inquired pleasantly, rolling her shoulders to loosen them up.

Her friend was strolling down the stairs leisurely, instead of leaping straight down the way Tenten had. "Oh, just about," the younger girl replied with a blank sort of civility that only fanned the flames of Tenten's ire. "Though this is really an unfortunate match-up." She eyed the board hanging above them as though it had personally slighted her.

"Scared you're going to lose to your favorite senpai?" Tenten teased, with just a smidgeon more heat than she might normally use.

"Sorry," Sakura ducked her head apologetically. "But that's still Gai-senpai, Tenten. You've got a ways to go before you pull ahead of him in that particular poll."

"Quit chatting, Sakura-chan!" Her obnoxious teammate hollered down from the platform. "Just start already so we can move on to the next part and go home!"

Sakura waved a hand at him in annoyance, but nodded to the sickly proctor as a signal that she was ready to get down to business. He started the match and they began circling each other, matching pace for pace.

Tenten charged the moment she saw the muscles on Sakura's arms shift inwards. She couldn't allow Sakura to form more than two handseals; Sakura was frustratingly crafty when it came to regular jutsu. She didn't want to even think about what kinds of nightmarish techniques Hatake might have introduced her to over the past few months.

The ensuing close-range assault was fairly evenly matched, though Tenten had few doubts that such would be the case if Sakura removed her weights. While nowhere near Lee or Gai-sensei's level, Sakura had devoted a large chunk of her training to taijutsu. Tenten privately thought it was a means of compensating for just how weak she had been in her pre-Ringo years.

As much as it irked her to pull out an ace this early in the game, Tenten couldn't waste much more time or energy on her current course of action. And as much as she loathed the thought of giving Sakura a window that large, there was really only one way to end this quickly and on her own terms.

One strong kick against Sakura's crossed forearms allowed her to neatly backflip backwards, putting some much-needed space between them. Luckily, Sakura opted to assume a casual, defensive posture as she caught her breath, eying Tenten warily. Her eyes rounded in surprise when Tenten pulled out two scrolls, but she quickly locked down her expression.

"Do you know," Tenten asked her friend accusingly, swiftly sliding into her starting position and leaping high into the air. "How long I've worked on this technique? I was hoping to save this attack for the Finals! Well, you're worth it, I suppose, but now I have to hammer out a whole new strategy."

"Do you know," Sakura asked pleasantly in return as Tenten began to spin, the first blades appearing in her hands. "What happens when you set a scroll with things sealed in it on fire?"

"…wait wha—"

"Goukakyu no Jutsu!"

Tenten's spin brought her around just in time to see a fireball slam into one of the points where the spiraled-out scrolls crossed and quickly split, eating its way through the rest.

And then each and every weapon she had so painstakingly sealed away exploded out. Most of them were driven out of the spiral, instead of inwards, but quite a few still came her way. She was able to deflect them with the few blade she had managed to unseal herself, but one kunai was jettisoned out at an angle that severed the wires she had attached to the high ceiling in order to keep herself in the air this long.

She dropped like a stone, twisting as best she could to avoid the metal in the air and get into a decent landing position. However, a sick dizziness slammed into her out of nowhere, leaving her incredibly disoriented at the worst possible moment. Before she could even begin to attempt to break out of the simple genjutsu, she slammed into the ground, getting the wind knocked right out of her.

She struggled to push herself up, throat working uselessly as she tried to suck in air, and just managed to see the kick rocketing towards her head before darkness overtook her vision and she knew no more.

"Winner: Haruno Sakura!"

Sakura stepped back as the medics rushed over to Tenten and boisterous cheers erupted from her teammate. The rest of the winners were soon called down, and she found herself between an exuberant Naruto and a critical Sasuke.

"Your lung capacity has improved," he commented grudgingly, before narrowing his eyes and pressing a handkerchief against her bleeding forearm. "But that was a really, really stupid move. You look like shit."

Sakura swallowed a laugh and tried to look repentant as he began tugging at the mess that was left of her hair fussily. When the rain of metal death had come at her (and everybody else in the immediate vicinity), there was only so much she had been able to dodge while simultaneously building up her genjutsu. Her split concentration had cost her some shallow wounds on her arms that were still bleeding, a relatively small cut on her face, and a pigtail and roughly half of each of her long forelocks.

She shrugged. "Meh. You've been badgering me to get a haircut anyways."

Sasuke looked as though he was going to start yelling, but luckily enough they were quickly called forth to draw lots. When everybody had chosen and announced their numbers, the first matches for the Finals in one month's time were drawn up and shown.

Hyuuga Neji vs. Uzumaki Naruto

Aburame Shino vs. Sabaku no Kankuro

Sabaku no Temari vs. Naru Shikamaru

Uchiha Sasuke vs. Rock Lee

Haruno Sakura vs. Sabaku no Gaara

Team Seven shared a look.

"Well," said Sakura wryly. "This certainly looks like it'll be a fun month."

And here we are with yet another update! I'm really thrilled with how many new readers I seem to be getting lately. Before I do my usual thing an thank all my wonderful reviewers, I thought I'd clear up Team Seven's convoluted strategy for those of you who might still be confused. In the theme of 'Appearance' (True person), the configuration went something like this:

First Exam: 'Sakura' (Sasuke), 'Naruto' (clone), 'Sasuke' (Sakura), 'Misato' (clone), 'Daisuke' (Naruto), 'Kimigiku' (clone)

Before the Second Exam: The above-configured teams went into the tent. Then, all henges were dropped, leaving Sasuke, Sakura, Naruto, and three clones. A fourth clone was made, transformed into a mouse, and was left behind to scout out teams who would receive the scroll that Team Seven needed. Henges were applied again, but this time the configuration was: 'Sakura' (Sakura), 'Naruto' (Naruto), 'Sasuke' (Sasuke), 'Misato' (clone), 'Daisuke' (clone), 'Kimigiku' (clone)

During the Second Exam: A second team of clones was created. The logic behind each strategy was something like this:

Team 1: 'Misato' (clone), 'Daisuke' (clone), 'Kimigiku' (clone) - Headed straight for the targeted team with the scroll they wanted. Forced the targeted team to use escape maneuvers and head for the Tower. Aggressive enough that it would seem logical for them to be real, instead of clones. Were attacked by Orochimaru.

Team 2: 'Sakura 1' (clone), 'Naruto 1' (clone), 'Sasuke 1' (clone) - Headed to the Northwest, careful to keep out of other people's way but still 'looking for scrolls'. Supposedly wandered into the trap laid by the Rain-nin, but served as bait to draw their attention and wear them out until Team 3 stepped in and knocked them out.

Team 3: 'Sakura 2' (Sakura), 'Naruto 2' (Naruto), 'Sasuke 2' (Sasuke) - Headed straight for the Tower. Began setting traps and such, ate very little for the benefit of any observers. Easy to assume that they were 'decoys'.

Hopefully that helps you guys out!

Moving on, as always I'd like to give a great big thanks to LiveForYourself, peoplehateme101, PervertAnimeOtaku, Andelevion, sarah, MoonShadow396, cuito, konoha kid, chained2love, TwistedMusalih, Catalina-Riza and Henri, MeMyselfAndZafir, Higanbana.4, and petitefeeme! You guys rock.

I have an announcement too! (Gosh, this note is the longest yet...)

Despite the nice example I have been setting as of late, during November I can tell you for sure that Where the Heart Is will NOT be updated.

However! This is because, as part of a fanfic-version of NaNoWriMo, I will be attempting to post up a different story, with 1,667 or so words per chapter, every day. So, be on the look-out for that, come November first.

As always, feedback is always welcome! So feel free to drop me a review.