Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I do not own Naruto or any of its affiliations…I am merely borrowing its characters and settings to indulge my own fantasies and then share said fantasies with other people who equally do not own Naruto. I am not making any profit off this.

This story will occasionally synch with canon events. The main plot, and subplots, are very much canon-divergent.





Two men, well on in years and both sporting white hair, stood on the observation deck of the Konohagakure Hokage Tower, their traditional Kage robes billowing out with the breeze. The official council meeting between their respective villages had ended and now each man was reflecting on the subsequent agreed upon proposition.

"So just one, is that right?" The taller of the two and current Hokage said, though it was redundant and meant only to get a conversation started.

His companion, someone far from ever being a friend, snorted in reply. "Iwa wouldn't be reckless enough to send an entire genin squad for you Leafs to 'look after.' I don't like what my advisers say about this whole nonsense – not at all! Have they forgotten what it is we ninja do? ...But there's no helping it when they've made up their minds."

Sarutobi looked away from the Tsuchikage in order to hide his bemused smile. There was no pleasing this one, he thought. Of course, he too had his reservations about this innovative exchange programme. All too often, the villages were trying to one-up each other, even in times of peace and under the guise of treaties. Iwa and Konoha in particular both had a tendency to double-cross the other. It had been a long while since the two had been on good terms.

Which might be why the councils were willing to try out this experiment; it could be the first step in exploring other potential, possibly lucrative, avenues between the villages. And there was also the looming threat of something moving in the shadows that had all the Five Great Nations on edge.

Though Sarutobi had a strong suspicion that the Tsuchikage would use this opportunity to learn as much about the Hidden Leaf's fighting abilities and tactics as possible. Admittedly, some on his side would undoubtedly feel inclined to do just the same. He had suggested the exchange be for younger ninja for just the purpose of discouraging such offences, as well as the one year time frame.

All he had to do was find the most promising candidate who was at once a shining example of Konoha's stock and absolutely worthless in terms of clan techniques, special abilities, or any other outstanding skills that could compromise the inviolability of the village. Someone who was competent, but otherwise undistinguished. Someone unremarkable.


Haruno Sakura listened as one by one, the names of those who had passed the final exam were called out. She figured there must have been some sort of mistake, because by now Iruka was reading through the 'Rs' in the crowd and he had well passed over the 'H' students without a second thought.

He had not said her name.

She could not believe it, and by some of the looks her classmates were throwing her, she was not alone in her complete lack of comprehension as to how she had not passed. It was a well known fact that she was an obnoxious overachiever when it came to written tests and at least passable in practical exercises. She was even dubbed to be the teacher's pet as Iruka had a habit of calling her name for an answer when no one else opted to give him one – and she was always right. Always!

Iruka read out Uchiha Sasuke and Sakura automatically glanced at her crush, horrified that he was unmistakably aware of her failure and probably disgusted by it. The humiliation was suffocating and she looked back at her sensei, about to demand he re-evaluate her, when he shocked her into silence.

"Congratulations, Naruto," Iruka said, handing out a Konoha hitai-ate to the boy who was arguably the most troublesome and unpromising student with which the academy had ever dealt. There could not have been a more appropriate time for the floor beneath her to open wide and swallow her whole. Had her life really degenerated to the point where Naruto was surpassing her? The boy who skipped lecture and harassed his sensei for fun? The Number One Drop Out surpasses the Number One Know-it-All.

Sakura could not hold in her dismayed whimper as Iruka started listing off the teams of three that the new graduates would form. Even Ino's groan of being paired, expectedly but one could hope, with Shikamaru and Chouji instead of Sasuke was of no comfort.

Finally, only two genin were left without a cell and Iruka called them to the front of the class while dismissing everyone else. Sakura watched as Naruto and Sasuke made their way to their sensei's desk, wishing with all her heart that she could have been paired with them, even if she would have had to put up with Naruto's general abrasiveness. She sighed, knowing it wasn't possible, and turned to leave.

"Oh, and Sakura, would you come up here as well?"

Sakura stopped short, not sure if she had imagined Iruka's voice out of desperation. She looked over her shoulder to check, just to be sure. Her instructor was smiling gently and motioning for her to join him. Sasuke eyed her with mild interest (something wonderful swelling in her heart at his acknowledgement) while Naruto grinned as she turned back around.

Stubbornly, she willed away the glassy feeling of unshed tears. You're okay, you're okay, she told herself.

And then thought about how despicably useless she must have been to not have passed the exam! She was not okay. No jounin sensei, no team, no missions! She would have to repeat a year. Sakura physically shuddered. All those dedicated hours to studying and memorising, working to adjust her throwing aim because of the slight bowing of her arms, trying to attain the perfect body and image of a demure, unsuspecting Leaf kunoichi.

"Yes, Sensei?" Sakura said as she approached, still wary of whether or not it was a good thing he had asked her down.

"I have some exciting news for you guys," Iruka said, piquing Sakura's curiosity and stoking the little spark of hope she still had. "The three of you have been chosen to take place in a new arrangement between Konoha and Iwa."

"The three of us?" Naruto barked, a bit obtusely, but he was considerate enough not to add the obvious, 'but Sakura-chan didn't even pass! No offence, Sakura-chan!'

Though, honestly, she wondered the same thing.

"Sakura passed," the chuunin supplied happily, reading her thoughts. Sakura felt wings sprout from her shoulders as she positively died with delirious relief. "Though she's not going to be joining Team Seven with you two."

She promptly crashed back to the ground. "I don't understand, Iruka-sensei. If I passed, why am I not being put in a team?"

Iruka kept his smile. "Well, that's where the Konoha-Iwa arrangement comes into play. Sakura, instead of being paired with Sasuke and Naruto, you have been elected to train abroad in Iwa while a ninja from that village will come here in your place."

Sakura stared at her teacher – her kind, wonderful sensei who she liked very much and who was currently screwing with her life plans.

"Excuse me, sensei," she said delicately, not entirely succeeding, "are you trying to say I was going to be partnered with Sasuke-kun – and Naruto – but because of this new treaty, I am being shipped off to a foreign country to work under 'enemies-until-five-days-ago' instead?"

"This is a great honour for the three of you. You have all been chosen as an esteemed representatives of the village. There wasn't another ninja considered for the programme, Sakura," Iruka said warmly, oblivious to the minor conniption his female student was suffering.

As daunting as the whole endeavour sounded, Sakura immediately perked up at hearing this and the complete mortification from earlier, along with her flaring indignation, dissipated. She challenged, sceptical, "not even Ino-chan?"

"She doesn't have the preferred qualifications for this position."

The wings returned and began to flutter tentatively. Again her gaze slid to her crush and she valiantly withheld a triumphant grin when she saw his normally impassive face regarding her with something that must have been close to approval. Certainly close.

"Whoa! How cool, Sakura-chan! Hey, hey, I always knew you were number one!" Naruto declared from beside her, and she couldn't help the grateful twist of her lips.

The blonde was not so terrible all the time; he did have a habit of cheering for her. Sakura returned Naruto's smile, knocked back at his elbow when he nudged her happily. Sasuke rolled his eyes at the display, and noticing, she calmed down.

"How does this sound, Sakura?" Iruka asked, pride evident in his voice.

There was really only one response. "It sounds great."

And so, from there, Sakura had been ushered to the Hokage's office, where she and her parents listened to a more formal briefing about the exchange. They told her the departure time, suggested what she should bring, described how her living environment would be, explained acceptable manners, and gave her scrolls with all this information and more written down for her to look over again later. Her parents took every thing in with enthusiasm and didn't seem at all deterred that their daughter would be gone for a whole year.

It was starting to sink in for Sakura. She was alone now, only keeping company with the village elders and the Third as her parents had been shuffled off elsewhere to learn more about the Earth Country. Glancing around, she supposed it was the appropriated time that they would delve into the ninja aspect of her 'honourable' appointment.

A heavily bandaged man with a walking cane cleared his throat as he disengaged from a quiet conversation with the councillors, Mitokado and Utatane. While Sakura knew the other elders, as they were nearly as well known and respected as the Third, this man she had never seen before. His obvious battle experience, judging from the amount of injuries and scars, made her nervous.

"You must understand the obligations you have as a Leaf nin going into this," the man said, not bothering to introduce himself. "While you are away, you will be the only Konoha operative remaining in the Hidden Stone Village. Contact will be limited through messenger birds."

"But I was just told–" Sakura started, but the Third interrupted her.

"The information you are to relay directly to the Hokage Tower is only that which you deem pertinent to the well-being of our village," Sarutobi clarified, sounding a bit tired.

"Anything suspicious," the bandaged man said. "In this scroll are several codes and algorithms you are to memorise and destroy before you leave. Use one of these for anything you have to write."

Sakura took a step forward to accept the scroll and was surprised when the man caught her wrist firmly. The Third grumbled at this, though didn't call out his fellow, and she was left to stare at her superior.

"Use this time to help your village and to represent Konoha as a strong and accomplished member of our ranks. This is your first official mission as a Leaf kunoichi. Keep vigilant."

His voice was sturdy, a touch aggressive, and one that commanded authority. She nodded. "Yes, Ojii-sama. Thank you."

Sakura reclaimed her wrist as soon as his grip was loose, snatching it back to her chest. There was an overwhelming aura about the unnamed man that made her skin crawl and blood cool in her toes.

"Don't hesitate if there is an emergency." Sarutobi considered her. "We're expecting some of the same ploys from the Iwa nin, so don't feel guilty using this peaceful delegation as a means to gather intelligence."

"Of course, Hokage-sama," she answered, bowing low. "I'll do my best."

The Third smiled, but Sakura thought it didn't quite reach his eyes as he did so.


The mild, subtropical climate of Fire Country was the only environment Sakura had ever known. In contrast, Stone's arid desert terrain was like entering a giant, red and grey kiln. By the time her caravan had passed over the Earth border, she was already succumbing to heat exhaustion. Just walking was a tedious task.

"This is going to do wonders for my hair," Sakura lamented, gently petting at her long locks.

"Sakura-chan shouldn't worry about her hair. If she's this tired already, then she needs to think about training more." The escort walking alongside her said this with an honest, cheerful expression. Unlike herself, his clothes were pristine looking and his shortly cut hair hardly looked tousled at all.

Sakura thought about hitting him.

"A girl has got to look her best, you know," she said instead, sweetly mimicking his tone. Did this person not understand how women were picked apart so very acutely for their appearance? Ah, to be so lucky.

The man, who had introduced himself as Yamato, gave her an odd smile coupled with a raised eyebrow. "Oh, is that so?" he asked vaguely, his interest quickly turning elsewhere.

Sakura returned her attention to the landscape as well, wishing terribly for better company. Of the people with whom she was travelling, Yamato alone had deigned to speak to her after the first few hours of the trip. Once all the questions having to do with her excitement/trepidation about the exchange had been used up, there had been very little else that anyone seemed to want to know about from her.

They could have at least asked her about her background. Shouldn't they be impressed that a first generation ninja had been chosen to take this mission? Surely they were curious about her marks and qualifications, about her possible secret weapons or jutsu.

But apparently not. The next thing she heard out of her four travelling companions was that they were about to meet up with the Iwa nin. Which meant that already her two weeks of hiking, climbing, sweating was coming ever nearer to the end.

"Well, this is the place," Yamato said, staring out across the landscape that Sakura could have sworn was pretty much the same place it had been for the past few days. It was in such tricky environments that ninja worked solely from coordinates, which wasn't troublesome for her, as she had her own strengths with survival skills. She had never been one to landmark.

"I only see the vaguely similar rock formations I've been staring at since we entered this country," Sakura remarked, blandly squinting into the distance. She wasn't immediately aware of the dirt at her feet moving.

"Figures this is the calibre of shinobi that the Leaf produces, eh," said the dirt, making Sakura startle. She jumped away, bumping into Yamato accidentally. The older nin was nonplussed by the fact that the ground was talking.

Only, it wasn't so much the ground as the man who formed out of it. A mouth appeared, eyes, a hand and an arm. He looked like a moving statue as he pulled himself upward, his body taking better shape and more human qualities as he did so.

Finally, there was a fully formed, flesh and blood person standing before her. An Iwa nin, by the uniform. Another had sprouted up on the other side of the group.

The man in front of Sakura leaned forward, his bright hair matching his white, cocky smile. "Welcome to Stone, yeah, little kunoichi!"

Sakura could not keep the bewildered expression off her face. "Good to be here," she said dryly.

"Oh. Great. Shiro no Hitsuji, The White Sheep of Iwa," the young jounin just behind Yamato groused. Humour in her voice, "couldn't the Tsuchikage have taken us just a bit more seriously?"

The man sputtered for a second, mirroring Sakura's own incredulous look. "You! It's not 'sheep', you filthy pest! I'm Iwa's Shining Great White Ram! The Urial of the Red Desert, protector of the –"

"How's my little fleecy friend doing these days?" Sakura ducked slightly as the woman moved forward to take the Iwa nin into a headlock, messing his hair.

"Stop comparing magnificent urials to your docile pets, yeah! Just because Fire Country isn't blessed enough to be home to anything other than livestock!" Profanities and curses on the woman's household followed.

"Yamato-san..." Sakura started.

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan. Those two go way back."


"Yeah, Yuuji was Kiyomi's first attempted-assassin. She's had a bit of soft spot for him ever since."

Kiyomi was the Leaf kunoichi currently suffocating the Iwa nin against the side of her chest. She laughed louder as his face grew redder.

Sakura worried that the Exchange Programme was going to end before she even got to the hidden village.

"Hell, this guy was such a cutie when he failed to kill me that I took him out for drinks afterwards just to cheer him up!" Kiyomi was pulling the back of the man's shirt up over his head.

"Excuse me?" Sakura turned to look at the other Iwa nin that had spoken up. She looked to be in her teens, though it was hard to be certain as she was wearing a heavily layered outfit from head to toe. Her head and hair were covered to obscure most of her face, giving the impression of a very timid person. "Kiyomi-san, could you please release my sensei. His ego is very fragile."

"Meiko! It's not fragile, come on," said sensei protested, groaning.

Kiyomi snorted and opened her arms, giving Yuuji a hearty clap on the shoulder as he stumbled forward.

"Good to see you still have your upbeat attitude, Yuu-chan. I like your student..."

Sakura followed their conversation curiously. She didn't understand how these people acted so carefree around one another. For as long as she could remember, the Leaf and the Stone had always been enemies. How did Kiyomi treat someone who tried to kill her in such a friendly manner?

"Sometimes, you can't help making friends," Yamato said, noticing her puzzled gaze. And added, "despite what your military and government leadership tells you..."

The group continued moving, but Sakura still didn't understand Yamato's words. Shinobi were different from regular people; that's how she knew it to be. They carried out orders and did their duty no matter what. Friendships had nothing to do with it.

Not that Kiyomi or Yuuji would have agreed with that. As they walked the last part of the trip (which was by far the hottest), the "old pals" acted easily in each other's presence. The Leaf kunoichi continued to torture the 'Great White Ram' of Iwa, but it was obvious in his theatrical responses that he was actually quite fond of the attention.


Sakura resolved to stay as professional as possible during her time in Iwa. As soon as they had been transported inside the village- by way of a seal as it was too risky to lead the outsiders there directly – she adopted a cool façade and hardened her nerves.

If only Sasuke could see her now; surely he would have been amazed at her beautiful, dignified appearance –

Someone poured water over her head.

"Welcome to Iwagakure!" Another brightly coloured guard greeted, the pail still outstretched towards Sakura's face. "You looked a bit hot, yeah. Though, you should be more careful, leaving yourself open to an attack like that! Such a shame, these Konoha nin don't know how to train their ranks."

"I like this guy, too," Kiyomi chirped, completely dry from any water.

"Ah, thank you," Sakura managed to say, all the while internally berating herself to stay collected. Iwa nin were absolutely unreasonable and like unruly children, she decided, but she wouldn't let them get to her.

Yuuji appeared at Sakura's side. "So, Sakura-chan, before we can allow you to meet the Tsuchikage, you understand that you will need you to pass through clearance." It wasn't so much a question, but she slid her eyes to Yamato nervously, wanting to explain that, no, she didn't understand.

"You'll understand if we don't comply with the clearance check," Yamato replied.

"Not you certainly, just the girl. For precaution, of course."

Sakura started to shake her head, as a polite way to decline, but her escort answered for her. "As long as Kiyomi-kun can attend, then that seems appropriate."

That feeling of wanting to hit the amiable man returned. Shake some sense into him, maybe.

A clearance check, as Sakura discovered, was nothing of the 'appropriate' sort. Her entire body had been prodded, stretched, and scrutinised in every fashion possible. Every fashion. If she hadn't known better, she would have sworn she was being screened before entering prison.

But in the end, thankfully, the Iwa shinobi and medics declared her to be perfectly healthy and completely harmless. Which actually didn't seem such a positive evaluation result considering her chosen profession. Oh yes, how the Bingo Book would love to have her listed in its pages: Haruno Sakura, Konohagakure's Completely Harmless Kunoichi!

Not that she would ever be the Bingo Book. Missing nin were not in her area of interest, let alone being one.

Distractedly, she wondered what was the book that ranked the non-missing nin of the villages? Did it exist? A cheat list of statistics, or something...dossiers, perhaps?

"That seemed like fun, kid," Kiyomi joked as they exited the jounin headquarters to walk to the Tsuchikage's tower. "Too bad we can't stay for your introductions."

Sakura would be entering the building by herself, after her team picked up her exchange partner, and meeting her sensei with the Tsuchikage.

"Hey, Yamato-taichou! That the pebble?" Kiyomi called out and Sakura tried not to roll her eyes at her superior's tactlessness as they reunited with the escort.

A few more Iwa nin had joined them while she had been busy with her "inspection".

One was a finely dressed woman who immediately caught Sakura's attention, both for her looks, and her charming voice. "Haruno-san? Nice to meet you. I'm Otsuka Tomiko, Iwa's diplomatic liaison for Konohagakure."

She bowed and Sakura did the same in return. "Pleased to meet you, Otsuka-san."

Otsuka smiled and then motioned to the boy standing beside her, the one labelled 'Pebble' by Kiyomi. "This is Teru-kun. He'll be training in Konoha while you're here."

It was difficult for Sakura to greet Teru with a straight face; the boy had a mane. His features were otherwise normal, dark red hair, a symmetrical face, light eyes... But around his neck was a thick, fluffy collar of what looked like fur or some sort of animal hair. She could see the roots from where they started at the bottom of his neck. Perhaps it was the result of his clan having some sort of animal affiliation?

"P-pleased to meet you, Teru," she greeted. How could he possibly survive in this heat, she thought.

"Yo," was his curt response.

"From here you'll be directed up to Tsuchikage-sama's office. Your sensei has decided to go ahead and wait for you there as a more formal meeting."

A few more words and explanations were given, which Sakura studiously memorized, but all too soon her escort was preparing to leave and the situation suddenly started to weigh down on her. She was in a foreign ninja village and about to say goodbye to her only allies that she would see for the next year.

Despite having wanted to punch the man previously, Sakura was now sorely tempted to hug Yamato as he good-naturedly pet her head. His warm smile was somehow less annoying as he said goodbye, wishing her luck.

"Thank you, Yamato-taichou," she said evenly, concentrating on not letting her voice tremble. "Good bye."

With little fuss or circumstance, as shinobi were prone to do, the Leaf nin left; Yuuji and his pupil again transporting them out.

Sakura was very much alone when the cloud from the jutsu had cleared.

Except for Otsuka, who cleared her throat demurely to catch Sakura's attention. "I'll escort you up now, if you'd like. Your sensei will be the one to show you your housing."

Sakura didn't have much of a choice, so she followed the woman, chatting as they walked.

Unlike Konoha, which was architecturally and stylistically busy, Iwagakure didn't have much to offer in such areas. Stone domes, stone spirals. There were remnants of what looked like masterful carvings, but years of neglect and environmental abuse had dulled any beauty that may have been.

Which was why she couldn't help her mouth from falling open when they entered the Kage's building. Sakura had never seen so many luxurious materials in one place before. The entire entryway was carved stone and gleaming from polish, the ceiling was an extensive, shining painting, the candelabras were gold, the carpets were antiques of rare aesthetics. Every surface was something remarkable.

Sakura didn't know how a military operation could ever function in such an environment. Even the staircase banister was finished with gold leaf.

"This is unreal," she murmured.

Otsuka smiled, tight in the expression. Blushing, and just as quietly, "it's a little extravagant."

After several flights of stairs, they came to the top floor. It was painted in rich colours and very pristine, with art lining the walls, and crystal chandeliers segmenting the single hallway. There was a set of ornately designed doors at the end.

"Your sensei will greet you in there," Otsuka said, gesturing to the doors. "Ill see you around, Sakura-chan. Please contact me any time if something concerns you. Take care and good luck!"

"Thank you for taking care of me, Otsuka-san."

Then Sakura was really alone. Well, if she discounted the surveillance cameras she was certain were now recording her every move from a dozen angles. She gazed down the corridor, worried for the first time about her lack of back up.

Not that she could let the shinobi watching her see her hesitation. Sakura ordered her feet to move forward. The doors were heavy when she tried to open them, and she felt a bit clumsy when she tugged on them rather forcefully and ended up making a nice amount of commotion.

On their other side, she realised, was a small waiting room and another entrance to the actual office of the Tsuchikage. There was a guard stationed to its side and he gave her a questioning look at her unsubtle arrival.

"Ah, um, pardon me," she stammered.

The guard, who was almost as young as she was, smirked at her. "Oh, don't be embarrassed. You are a Leaf shinobi, yeah."

The demure pretence she had been attempting to recapture deflated as she gave the guard a challenging look. It was a painful moment more before she reminded herself of dignity and refinement. She cleared her throat, trying to match Otsuka's reserved manner. She ignored his comment and stated her business. "I have an appointment with the Tsuchikage."

"Oh? Pretty sure you don't."

A muscle twitched above Sakura's brow. "I was told I would be meeting my sensei here."

"Mm-hmm," the man –no, boy, answered non-committally.

"Well, could you alert your Kage that I'm here?"


Another muscle twitch, well on its way to becoming a spasm. "Fine then. Should I just wait here for my sensei?"

"Sure, you could do that, yeah," the guard agreed pleasantly, adopting a smiling veneer. It was a fake sort of expression, but Sakura took a seat on one of the couches nonetheless.

She shrugged off her pack, glad to be rid of it, and rubbed gingerly at her shoulders and raw collar bones.

"Must have been a tough trip," from her company. The guard's lips twisted just oddly enough to be somewhat off-putting compared to a normal smile.

It put her on the defensive.

"Not really," she proclaimed, stilling her massage (to the protest of her sore body), to stare at the boy. It was while she was considering him so closely that she realised he was familiar; it occurred to her that she'd seen this same person earlier, when she had first arrived.

Sakura gasped, instantly scandalised. With some effort, she managed to keep calm enough to ask the guard for his name.

"It's Deidara, yeah," he supplied, full smirk re-emerging.

"You're the one who dumped that stupid bucket of water on me," she declared, sitting forward to point at him dramatically. Sakura would commit his name to memory in order to find him later and take out revenge.

Deidara shrugged his shoulders, entirely without remorse.

"You looked like you needed some watering, Sprout," he offered, as if that were reason enough.

Wanting to share a less than friendly gesture, thinking better of it, Sakura snorted and turned away from him to frown out the window. The sun was already starting to set and she wondered how much longer she would have to wait for her new team leader to appear. Looking for a distraction, she decided to search through her scrolls for a book to read.

"Whatcha doin, yeah?" Deidara asked, affecting his voice to be more childlike, intending to bother her. Sakura continued going through her things, trying to keep everything in order while she located her stored literature.

"I'm going to find something to read so that I can better ignore you," she replied, dismissing him.

The intended effect was nil. Deidara perked up at her answer. "Oh, so you're the scholarly type then. A bookworm or something?"

She sniffed, pretending to be very busy with the bag she was looking through. "I was top of my class in school, so yes, I am quite accomplished in that area."

"I guess that's something to work with, yeah," he remarked. "You're not so terrible, Sprout."

The scroll in her hand crinkled a bit as her grip tightened. Sakura frowned at the boy across the room. "It's Sakura. Haruno Sakura. You can call me Haruno-san."

He laughed outright. "Sure! And call me Deidara-sama, yeah."

"I won't be calling you anything, yeah, because from this point on, I'll be ignoring you." She swivelled as much as she could in her seat to face away from the blond-haired pest. She finally found a book to read (Clash of Clans, Identity Politics and the Making of Konohagakure) and set about not paying attention to the man – boy – standing guard a few paces from her.

Except he was awfully terrible at being innocuous. Deidara was constantly fidgeting, and tapping his fingers, spinning a kunai, or sighing dejectedly. After the fourth such lonesome exhalation, Sakura clapped her book shut and kindly inquired as to just what the heck his problem was.

Deidara blinked at her, as if surprised to find Sakura was still in the room. He looked away to gaze, forlornly, out the window. He said, sad composure exaggerated, "oh, nothing. Nothing..."

She rolled her eyes, not intrigued.

"I'm just disappointed," he continued as soon as Sakura had resumed reading. "I could be outside right now, enjoying life, yeah, and instead I'm cooped up here. With you."

The throbbing above her temple returned. "Sorry for being such dreadful company," she mumbled, laying her sarcasm nice and thick.

"I'm sure this won't be the worst of it," Deidara said, though she didn't quite grasp his meaning. The pause stretched into a length of silence, each of them trying not to think of the other, but both nonetheless hyper aware of their company.

After what seemed like hours, and what had been about half an hour in reality, the office door to Deidara's side opened.

A short, barrel-chested man slammed out, his mouth bobbing from under his reddened nose and white moustache. It was the Tsuchikage, talking with someone who looked like an advisor, being trailed by several ANBU. His hands were animated as he talked, pointing from person to person. "And make sure that border is as tight as this runts legs are loose!"

"Tsuchikage-sama..." the apparent runt whined from behind his porcelain mask.

Sakura had abandoned her reading to stare blankly at the sudden entrance. Belatedly, she mumbled a greeting. "Ah...sir?"

Everyone's attention honed in on her insignificant presence. The Tsuchikage raised an eyebrow at her, his lips down-turned.

"The Leaf kunoichi?" he asked. The people following him all stared at her, just as baffled.

Sakura felt foolish, though she couldn't say why. She had followed orders and waited here and now the old man was surprised to see her?

"Um, yes, Tsuchikage-dono. I was informed that I would be introduced to my sensei here..." she said, but trailed off as Deidara disguised a laugh with a very unconvincing cough.

The old man startled and turned his head to glare at the boy. He then looked at Sakura as if he couldn't exactly figure her out. He sucked his teeth."Meet your sensei? Hasn't he been right here the entire time?"

The room was still empty if not counting the newly entered entourage and Tsuchikage. Sakura glanced around, wondering if her sensei was hidden somewhere, as Yuuji had done in the desert. And then, while Sakura was considering the possibility of a person popping up out of the floor again (or perhaps her seat cushion), it dawned on her. Sakura snapped her head around to glare accusingly at her blond antagonist.

"You?" she demanded of Deidara.

He gave her another cheeky grin and then a mock salute. "Deidara-sensei, at your service, Sprout."