Sasuke had dreamed of his first A-rank mission since he was a child.

His brother had told him when he was five that the village only sent "really old and decrepit ninja" on S-ranks. At five, he wasn't entirely sure what "decrepit" meant, and he had a feeling that Itachi wasn't telling him the whole truth, but Shisui had confirmed that A-ranks were way more awesome than S-ranks, so he had decided to swallow the half-truth.

He had always imagined his first A-rank would be some fantastical mission that would take him to a far off country to face dangerous ninja that no one could defeat. During the mission he would risk life and limb, but somehow (the somehow was always vague, but it generally involved some grandiose jutsu he had invented and a fair amount of luck) he would emerge victorious, kill the evil nin, and return to the village a hero.

Once in a while he altered the scheme a little; a few times he was called upon to save a village from a band of roving rogue nin, another time he had to kill an assassin who was decapitating (rather gruesomely, he might add) all the high ranking officials of the Land of Fire, and once in a blue moon he had to track down and destroy a group of Konoha nin who had turned traitor.

But never, not even once, did he imagine his first A-rank would be escorting two bratty little girls back to the Land of Fire.

It shouldn't even be an A-rank, he fumed silently. It's a damn babysitting job, not an A-rank mission.

Granted, the little brats were the nieces of the daimyo and (currently) his only living family, but they weren't the daimyo himself. Lee's team certainly could have handled the job, even without Gai.

Apparently, however, the village did not share Sasuke's views; hence, he was slogging through one of the swampiest forests in the Land of Fire on his way back to the daimyo's palace with an enormous carriage in tow.

The official story was that the two nieces, Naho and Asami, and Sakura were sisters, the daughters of a merchant who had traveled to the village during the chunin exams to peddle his wares and make some money off rich officiates, intending to stay the week of the final stage and the week after the end of the last stage. After the debacle at the exams, however, he decided to send his "precious little angels" home early while he stayed behind to try and make some profit.

That part of the story was believable. Merchants and businessmen often came to the exams; there were many rich daimyos and upper level aristocrats packed into one, small ninja village, ripe pickings for an opportunistic business-man or woman. It was above suspicion.

The second part of the story, however, was pure unadulterated malarkey.

Shino was the appointed servant of the three girls. Sasuke and Kiba were the father's "apprentices" who had been told to escort his girls safely home by prancing conspicuously around the carriage the girls were housed in, which was far too grand and ornate to be even a rich merchant's horse-drawn carriage. It screamed of royalty, or at least aristocracy. The plan also ignored the fact that there was no way two spoiled adolescent boys would run outside (in this Kami-awful mud) when they could ride in a carriage.

When he had been presented with the scenario, Sasuke had not been strong enough to resist the urge to poke holes in the plan. He had sarcastically questioned the validity of the plan, and for once Kiba had agreed wholeheartedly with him.

We might as well parade them in the midst of a bunch of rogue nin with a huge sign saying, 'Yoo-hoo! Here we are, come abduct, rape, and kill us!

The administrator had not been in the mood to argue. He had threatened to demote Sasuke if he did not follow the plan to the letter. Sasuke had agreed.

Hence, their lovely little quartet was marching through the swamp in the horrifically cold rain. Sasuke grimaced as yet another clump of mud hit him in the face. His clothes were completely destroyed. His shoes were a lost cause; he had long since abandoned them in the back of the carriage. Scratches lined his legs, and he more bug bites than he could count. He had pulled five leeches off his legs in the last three hours alone, and searching for ticks had become a nighttime ritual.

"Hate this stinking mission," Kiba growled, glaring at him. "Hate this stinking mission in this stinking stupid swamp with you stupid people!" Akamaru whined piteously from under Kiba's hood.

Feeling's mutual, dog-breath.

It didn't help that their little ramshackle team was not getting along at all. For whatever reason, and Sakura had yet to give him a rational one – Sasuke did not count "Shino's creepy!" as a rational reason - Sakura did not like Shino. Sasuke had neither the time nor desire to figure out exactly why, but she was already begging him to switch Kiba and Shino. He couldn't; they had to keep the positions the same, just in case they were tailed; but it had not deterred her.

And Sasuke seriously wanted to switch Kiba and Shino. He would have never imagined it before, but he was starting to wish Naruto was with them, and at this point, he would have had almost anyone, even Shino, with him instead of Kiba.

Their mutual dislike had a very prominent source. Kiba resented Sasuke's promotion to chunin status.

Truthfully, resent was a tame word for it. Despised, loathed, abhorred, absolutely detested were more accurate terms. Kiba had made it very clear that he thought that Sasuke had no place leading their team.

Sasuke hadn't killed Kiba. Yet. He was seriously close to it, though.

Why couldn't we have gotten the Hyuuga girl and Shino? Sakrua could whine all she wanted; Shino was still better than Kiba. He was much quieter. And while Sasuke hated the Hyuugas, he could tolerate Hinata. She wasn't the most battle-effective shinobi he had ever met, but according to Naruto she had some spark of fight in her. Most importantly, she would not be growling and moaning like Kiba.

Kiba's scowl darkened, almost as though he could read Sasuke's mind. "We're never gonna make it in time. We should just ditch that stupid carriage and dump all their junk out."

And what would we do with the princesses? Drag them all the way back to Shuri? They'd never keep up on foot. Besides, the princesses would never submit to losing their possessions. The last thing he needed was more complaining. "Shut up and keep moving."

"'Shut up and keep moving,'" Kiba mocked him. "You know, leader, you're doing a crap-tastic job."

Sasuke ignored him. Kiba's jabs were more juvenile than his uncle's, and that took some doing. He pushed forward in the rain, wincing as the hail stung his face.

As much as he hated it, they would probably have to stop soon. The horses were looking worse for the wear, and the unpaved, bumpy, and pitted road was just waiting to break the carriage's wheel.

"Keep an eye out," he ordered curtly.

"Where are you going?" Kiba asked rudely.

Sasuke sighed. "We're stopping soon," he said slowly, as though he were speaking to an inept child. "I have to speak with Shino."

Kiba brightened visibly. "I'll check ahead for some shelter and water for the horses!" He dashed ahead, Akamaru clinging tightly to his head.

Sasuke opened his mouth to call Kiba back but thought better of it. Fine. He was too exhausted to fight anymore. He kept his eye on Kiba's retreating form as he fell back to the carriage that was housing the girls.

Shino was trailing behind, driving the carriage. Sasuke would have rather assigned Kiba to that job, but the horses absolutely detested Kiba. Sasuke found that bit of trivia rather amusing, although he kept it to himself.

"We're going to stop within a half mile," Sasuke informed Shino sternly. "Kiba's scouting for somewhere to stop." He couldn't keep the condescending tone from his voice.

Shino nodded calmly and started to slow the horses. "The carriage's canopy will suffice if he can't find shelter. The rain will have flooded the creeks; water should be easily available."

Sasuke nodded. Normally, Sasuke knew he would have not gotten along well with Shino; they were both too authoritative to coexist. However, Kiba had the wonderful effect of mitigating that conflict.

Kiba appeared as quickly as he had disappeared. "There's a thicket up ahead that's pretty flat. It's near enough water for the horses. Cover's thick enough for them to stay dry, I think. If not, there's the canopy." He looked more energized than he had all night, despite the copious amounts of rainwater rolling down his face.

Sasuke nodded. "Lead us there."

Kiba smirked triumphantly, like Sasuke had just appointed him head of the team instead of allowing him to show them where a shelter was. "This way," he said authoritatively. The horses trudged forward, strain evident on their faces.

True to Kiba's word the small thicket had water and cover enough to satisfy the horses. The boys unhitched the horses quickly and allowed them to feed and rest.

Sakura opened the door on the side of the carriage and stepped uncertainly on the sodden, muddy ground. "Are we stopping for the night or for a few minutes?"

"The night," Sasuke answered. There was no sense in trying to travel anymore. "The princesses-"

Sakrua groaned loudly. "Don't ask. I think they're going to venture out tonight; they're both going stir crazy in there. I am too."

Sasuke didn't doubt it. As much as he hated the leeches and mosquitoes and ticks and mud and rain and hail, at least he could move. He had space, and with space came freedom, even if said freedom was diminished by the wretched travelling conditions.

Sakura, on the other hand, had been trapped in a three and a half by four meter carriage with two princesses to occupy.

Sakura went to the carriage and swung open both doors. "Alright, come on guys, let's get outside; the rain's letting up a little."

Naho emerged first. She was grinning, evidently overjoyed at the prospect of escaping the carriage. "When's dinner, Sakura-chan?"

"Soon," she said wearily. Naho jumped to the ground, squealing as the mud squished into her shoes and the rain dotted her hair. Without preamble, the little girl ripped off her shoes and started stomping in the mud.

She laughed loudly. "Look at all the mud!"

"Don't stomp in it, Naho." Her older sister scowled darkly as she stood at the entrance of the carriage, calculating the pros and cons of stepping outside. "You're getting dirty."

"I'll take a bath in the rain!" Naho screeched back, undeterred, spinning carelessly and shrieking.

"Don't even think about touching me," Asami sneered as she stepped gingerly out of the carriage. Her thin wrap alone was several hundred ryo, and her silk dress cost more than many families made in a year, and Sasuke knew it was one of her less expensive outfits. Her hair was perfectly coiled into two tight buns, and her make-up, albeit sparse for her, was expertly applied.

She stepped on the ground, whining as the mud coated her shoe. "Why couldn't we take the road like civilized people?" She demanded, futilely wiping at the dirt.

"Don't answer her," Sakura whispered. "That's the millionth time she's asked."

I wasn't planning to. Shino and Kiba chose that moment to return from tending the horses, and they began to throw together an impromptu camp.

"What are we eating tonight?" Asami asked in a demanding tone of voice as she crouched underneath the large blanket they had stretched overhead to give them some small shelter.

"A four course dinner complete with sake and chocolate cake," Kiba answered sarcastically, canine teeth flashing as spoke. "We're having the same prepacked garbage we ate last night."

Asami rolled her eyes. "Can't you hunt something? I know there are wild animals out there."

Uncharacteristically Shino answered her. "We're not hunters, Princess. We're ninja," he said coolly. Asami had made her disdain of ninja all too well-known, and it grated on the Abruame.

"And the only 'wild animal' out here is squirrel," Kiba shot back. "And a few frogs. You feeling like some frog leg, leaf encrusted sushi?"

Asami narrowed her eyes but didn't speak, deeming Kiba's response too inane to deserve an answer. She flipped her head defiantly, adjusted her wrap over her shoulder and huddled beneath the thin wrap she was carrying.

Asami was the epitome of the spoiled, angst-ridden princess. Truthfully, Sasuke had little sympathy for her. Yes, her parents were dead, but she still had her sister and her uncle, and she was rich enough to buy whatever company she needed. She did not need to worry about food or clothes or shelter or even her safety; all of it was provided for by her uncle. A little emotional distress did not excuse a lifetime of bad behavior.

"Naho-chan, please come and eat," Sakura begged, holding a plate of unappetizing food towards the five year old, who was still prancing about in the heavy rain.

"I don't want to!" Naho yelled cheerfully, spinning in the rain. "Come play with me, Sakura-chan! I want to play!"

"It's dinnertime," Sakura said. "Please, Naho-chan, come and eat dinner!"

Naho paused for a moment, finger on her chin, deep in thought. "Well," she stalled. Her eyes lit up, and she grinned mischievously. "I won't eat dinner until you play with me!"

Sakura's face was comical. The frustrated look had been replaced with horror. "No, Naho-chan! Come and eat now!"

"No! I don't want to!" Naho didn't sound as playful anymore. She stomped her foot, splashing globs of mud. "I don't want to eat!"


"No!" Naho shrieked, hands in fists by her side. "No, no, no!"

"Oh, just play with her already," Asami grumbled, shoving the food on her plate around in small circles. "She won't sit and eat until you do what she wants. It's the way she works."

Sakura glanced at the sister quickly before turning her attention back to the little girl. "Naho-chan, come and eat dinner now," she said, summoning a quasi-authoritative tone.

"No." Naho stuck her tongue out at Sakura before jumping into another deep puddle of mud.

That's it. Sasuke was not about to play "do whatever the five year old wants". He was far too tired for that. "Come now, Naho," he said sternly, his voice more intimidating than he intended.

Naho froze, mouth half open. She blinked at him, shock keeping her silent.

And then she burst into tears.

"You idiot!" Kiba hissed.

"Who do you think you are?" Asami demanded rudely, glaring at him. "You have no right to yell at her!"

"It's alright, Naho-chan!" Sakura cooed, rising and walking towards the sobbing girl. "Please stop crying!"

Naho looked up at Sakura and redoubled her crying.

"Please, Naho-chan!" Sakura begged. "I'll play in the mud with you! Just calm down!"

Naho blinked, suddenly and miraculously quiet. "Okay," she said, a smile spreading across her face. "Let's play!"

Sakura's jaw dropped, and Kiba broke into loud laughter.

Asami smiled smugly. "I told you so."

"Naho-chan!" Sakura said. The little girl smiled innocently.

"You said you'd play, Sakura-chan. So you have to!"

Sakura groaned. She looked pitifully at Sasuke. "Save me some food."

Sasuke woke first the next morning. The rain had not ceased; in fact, it had grown even heavier, and the air felt just as humid and muggy.

Sakura stirred beside him and slowly sat up. "Are we going to start packing up?"

He nodded in reply. He saw Shino rise silently and go to the horses, and he watched as the boy tended to them carefully.

Sakura watched as well, biting her lip. "Sasuke-kun, how long are we going to follow this trail?" She began hesitantly. "Surely…surely not all the way to Shuri, right?" Shuri was one of the towns that surrounded the capital, which housed the daimyo's palace. It was the most provincial of the surrounding cities, and technically they would be able to follow the misbegotten trail all the way to its outskirts.

Sasuke glanced at the other members of their group. Even in sleep Asami looked displeased, and Naho was starting to resemble a mud creature more than a little girl.

"Possibly." Her face fell. I'd really rather not, and we probably won't, but I don't want to hear you pleading for the rest of the trip. Sasuke also knew that if the princesses discovered that there was a chance that they could travel on a more comfortable stretch of land they would fight and scream until they got their way.

Kiba suddenly shot straight up, miraculously wide awake. "There is no way," he said, "that we are staying on this trail until we get to Shuri. I think I'll kill myself first."

"That doesn't concern me." In fact, I just got my first good reason to stay on this route until we reach Shuri.

"It'll take us twice as long!" Kiba moaned. "Especially with the two brats in tow!"

Asami's eyes opened and flashed angrily. She pushed herself up and faced Kiba. "I know you are an ill-mannered, uneducated, uncivilized, uncouth animal, but you should at least show the proper respect to your superiors!"

Naho started to stir. "Shush!" Sakura whispered urgently. "Come on, let's move the conversation away from her!"

Sasuke was already walking away. Begrudgingly the three others followed, Asami glaring resentfully at Kiba, Kiba mumbling discontentedly, and Shino staring straight ahead at nothing.

The moment they reached a small clearing that obscured the view of the carriage the fight broke out again.

"If you think I'm going to travel peacefully along this Kami-forsaken trail for another three weeks, you are sadly mistaken!" Asami announced. "I am sick to death of this stupid place! I don't care if it's more dangerous, I want to take the short way!"

So that if you do get attacked, at least you can die in relative comfort? Sasuke chose wisely not to voice his thoughts regarding her demand. "You do not choose what road we take."

"I should. I have higher authority than any of you."

"Not here you don't," Kiba answered quickly. "You're our assignment, so we get to make the decisions!"

Sasuke wasn't sure what convoluted logic had lead Kiba to that particular conclusion, but he liked it anyway.

"Oh, really?" Asami said, hands poised on her hips. "Where exactly does it say that in the laws of the Land of Fire? I studied those laws for years and I don't recall ever seeing anything like that."

"Listen," Sakura interrupted irritably. "The point is, we have to go the safest way. Maybe you don't care about your safety, but you should care about your sister's!"

Asami paused for a moment. "The four of you can't protect one little five year old?" She shook her head. "I knew you were useless, but I wouldn't have imagined that you-"

"You don't care about anything but your own crappy self, so shut up and let us figure out what we're doing," Kiba said.

Furious, Asami turned on her heels towards Kiba. "I have had enough of you," she ground out between gritted teeth.

"Yeah?" Kiba threw back. "Well, you're stuck with us until you get to Shuri, so you sure as hell better get used to it!"

Asami's hand shot out and slapped Kiba's cheek.

Sakura gasped loudly. Shino took a commanding step forward; whether to stop Kiba or to stop Asami, Sasuke wasn't sure.

"Wha- wha-," Kiba sputtered, a bright red mark decorating his right cheek. "What the hell?" e

"I-," Asami never finished her sentence.

"Onee-chan! Sakura-chan! HELP!"

Sasuke spun in the direction of the scream. What the hell- oh, Kami!

The carriage was on fire. Flames were clearly evident through the windows, bright orange and reds licking the cushioned inside of the structure, smoke billowing above it in thick grey clouds. Sasuke remembered with a sinking heart just exactly how dry it was inside the carriage.

Naho raced towards them, sobbing inconsolably and pointing at the flames. "I'm sorry!" Naho sobbed. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean-"

"You stupid girl, what did you do?" Asami screamed, slapping the younger child.

"Leave her alone and help us!" Kiba shouted.

"The river!" Sakura screamed over the din. "We have to push it into the river!" Charging chakra into her hands, she rushed at the carriage.

"Wait!" Kiba yelled. "The creek may not be deep enough!"

Sasuke didn't bother wasting words. He ran after his teammate, throwing his shoulder against the carriage. Within seconds Shino and Kiba were beside him, shoving at the unburned section of the carriage.

It finally dislodged and rolled into the river, bouncing and cracking as it bounced on the rocks and slowly tipped over into the river. The pelting rain extinguished the last few flames.

Sakura dropped to her knees, gasping heavily. Kiba bent over, hands on his knees, coughing heavily. Only Shino kept his composure, although he cleared his throat rather loudly.

Naho stared at the smoking remains of the carriage, mouth open. Her cheeks were still wet with tears, and her flushed face had suddenly paled. "Is the fire all gone?"

Asami laughed sardonically. "Yes, it's all gone." She threw her hands up in the air, pacing towards the carriage. She stopped five meters away from the ashy cinders and froze, fists shaking slightly. "Yes, Naho, the fire's gone, and so are all our things! Our clothes, our beds, our money – gone, all gone!" She whirled around and pointed angrily at her sister. "And it's all your fault! Like it always is!"

"We don't know that!" Kiba interjected. The three other shinobi stared at him, plainly shocked at his intervention on the side of the girl, but he ignored them. He stepped forward towards the little princess.

Naho sniffled pitifully, wiping at her wet face with her hand. It was futile; the rain was making her face wetter every second. "What happened?" Kiba asked, somehow equally forceful and kind.

"I didn't mean to do it! It was an accident," she said softly.

"And yet our carriage is still burnt and half drowned!" Asami added.

"Quiet," Sasuke snapped sternly. He didn't care that she was a princess. Asami scowled at him, but she quieted all the same. "What happened?"

Naho looked away. "I was cold," she whispered.

"So what did you do?" Sakura asked, stepping closer to the girl.

Naho looked up at the semicircle of shinobi around her. "I just wanted a little fire," she said softly. "I just wanted to be warm."

Kami. "You tried to start a fire in the fireplace," Sasuke said angrily.

Her lower lip trembled, and tears started welling up in her eyes again. "Yes. It was okay at first! I used that sparky thing to start it, and I added that other stuff-"

"The accelerant," Shino stated.

"Yeah, that," Naho said. The tears spilled down her cheeks. "But then it…I don't know, it got too big, and then it started touching Sakura-chan's little knives with paper-"

Kiba turned on Sakura. "You left a stack of kunai with exploding tags near a five year old kid? How stupid are you?"

"I'm not stupid!" Sakura yelled back. "We were packing up to go! I didn't have time to put them away before your stupid little argument started! Which was your fault, by the way!"

"Don't blame it all on me! Your little bastard boyfriend-"

"I am not her boyfriend-"

"Started that stupid fight!"

"He did not!" Sakura was in Kiba's face now, her face scrunched tightly and colored a brilliant shade of red. "If you weren't such a prick-"

"What did you just call me?" Kiba growled angrily. Akamaru growled with him, haunches rising as he mirrored his owner's anger.

"Stop it, all of you," Shino commanded. "You're acting like a bunch of children."

"Because you are a bunch of children!" Asami added, face pinched and angry, no longer quite as pretty as she had been.

Well, you're stuck with us regardless, so you sure as hell better get used to it. "It doesn't matter whose fault the fire was; the carriage is still gone," he said firmly.

Sakura glowered angrily at Kiba. "So what're going to do?" She asked Sasuke.

"We should check on the horses," Shino said. "They're our most reliable form of transport for now.

Sasuke nodded. "Go check on them. Kiba, go see if there is any salvageable from the carriage." Kiba opened his mouth to protest. "Now, Kiba."

"You can't order me around like I'm some stooge!" Kiba fired back angrily.

"He's a chunin! Of course he can order you around!" Sakura yelled, more to annoy Kiba than to defend her teammate.

"He shouldn't even be a chunin! He wouldn't have been if it wasn't for the stupid attack on the stupid village!" Kiba was redder than ever, and he crowded Sakura, his mere inches from hers. "He would still be a genin!"

"Wait, you're not a real chunin?" Asami asked, suddenly looking a lot younger and a lot more afraid than she had a moment before. She covered her fear immediately. "Of course. Why would you be a real chunin?" She laughed. "Our enemies don't need assassins with the ridiculous excuse for protection your village is providing us!"

Sasuke wanted to punch something, and Kiba was looking like an extremely good replacement for a punching bag at the moment. "Kiba," he snarled, furious. "Shut. Up." He slipped in between Kiba and Sakura and shoved Kiba backwards.

Kiba fell dramatically to his butt and immediately popped back to his feet, ready for a fight. "You wanna fight, Uchiha? I'll kick your bastard butt five ways-"

"I don't know what your problem is, Inzuka, and I really don't care," Sasuke interrupted, stepping closer to him. "You have some issue with me, fine. Deal with it. We have a mission, and if you're going to act this idiotic you can crawl back to Konoha for all I care, but I'm not going to have you screwing up this mission." He spoke with an authority that came from anger.

"He's right," Shino said calmly. The three other ninja turned towards him. He had been standing behind the scene of the altercation, but now he stepped forward. "We have to finish the mission. That is of top priority, not some childish battle." He eyed both Sakura and Kiba as spoke.

Kiba's face tightened, and Sasuke could plainly read the bloodlust in his eyes. He wanted a fight, but he wasn't prepared to go against Sasuke, Sakura, and Shino. "Fine," he hissed, turning away.

Sasuke smirked, satisfied.

"Well," Asami said, arms crossed tightly over her ample chest. "I'm glad you little boys have decided to get along. Maybe later we can sit in a circle and sing friendship songs together. But, in case you haven't noticed, we still have no carriage!"

Sasuke opened his mouth to answer, but Sakura beat him to it. "Yeah, we don't," Sakura spit out, "and we won't. There's nothing we can do about it. We have nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada!" She waved her arms emphatically, nearly hitting Naho, who was watching the unfolding chaos with horror-struck eyes. "It's probably all gone! Is that what you want to hear?"

"We need to find the horses," Shino insisted. "I will find them." He didn't wait for confirmation or another argument; he merely melted into the trees and disappeared.

Sasuke stared pointedly at Sakura. She looked from the spot Shino had been standing a moment before to Kiba and said, "I guess I'll go with him. Hey, Shino, wait up!" She ran after him, a streak of red dress and pink hair.

Kiba scowled, but reluctantly said, "I guess I'll look and see if there's anything not burned up and drowned in that stupid carriage, but I don't think there is."

Sasuke sighed gratefully. He turned to Asami and Naho. Naho was hugging herself tightly and biting her lip, her cheek a fierce red from her sister's slap. Unshed tears glistened in her eyes, and she looked equally terrified and guilty. "Naho," he said sternly.

Her head popped up, and she sniffled, her ponytails looking particularly droopy. "Yes?" Naho answered meekly, adding another sniff for good measure.

"That was stupid of you. You know not to play with fire."

The head hung again, and another tear dropped. "I know," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

He looked at Asami. She stood strong, silent, and defiant, arms crossed tightly over her chest. "Asami," he said, intentionally omitting the prefix. "Take care of her while we work."


"If you want to return safely home, be quiet and mind your sister."

Asami's eyes widened. "Don't you dare threaten me!"

I'd love to see you try and stop me. "It's a long way home. Things happen." He stalked away, leaving her to mull over his ominous warning.

Kiba was crouched beside the carriage. Sasuke approached him confidently; if Kiba tried to pick another fight, Sasuke was not above taking him down a notch or two. "Anything?"

Kiba shook his head, apparently willing to let the matter drop for a moment. "Nothing. The food's gone, and all the paper money's ruined. Most of their junk is too." He snorted. "It's not like we could carry it with us if it wasn't, anyway."

Sasuke examined the carriage. With a proper laborer and the correct tools and supplies, it would be reparable, but in their current state the carriage was worthless. "We'll have to destroy as much of it as we can. If someone finds it they'll know we're on foot."

Kiba nodded silently. Sasuke straightened and started to walk away.

"Uchiha," Kiba called out suddenly.

"Hn," Sasuke responded, pausing to listen.

"This isn't over, you know. This is just for now."

Sasuke didn't bother to validate Kiba's words with a response. He simply walked away.

The small band stood together in front of the fire. The rain had mercifully let up, although the thick clouds threatened to resume the downpour at any moment.

It had been difficult starting the fire, but with perseverance (and no small amount of accelerant) they had managed to effectively reduce the rest of the carriage to a burning mass, fairly unrelated to the marvelous structure it had once been.

Naho had cried on and off throughout the entire process. Asami had stared, angry and tight-lipped, but she had not protested verbally. The girls stood together between Sakura and the three boys, maintaining a careful distance from all of the ninja.

They had not found the horses. Shino, and later Kiba and Sakura as well, had searched for nearly an hour for the horses before they had finally given up.

The rain returned. Sasuke let it quench the dying flame of the fire before he spoke. "We'll have to return to the major road sooner than planned," he said in a monotone. "You won't make it unless we do." And at this point, the quicker we get to Shuri and the capital the better.

"What are we going to do about Naho?" Asami asked. Well, what do you know, the princess actually has some modicum of common sense. "She won't last five minutes."

"We can carry her," Kiba answered immediately. "It's you we gotta worry about. Your fat body is too heavy for anyone of us to carry for a while."

To Asami's credit, she ignored the rude jab. "We won't make it far without food. How exactly do you propose we get it?"

"We'll do what we have to," Shino replied, his voice a low rumble beneath his high collar.

"What do you mean?" Asami questioned insistently.

"Oh, just be quiet already," Sakura said. "We'll handle it, alright? We should start moving. It's already late."

Asami clearly wasn't satisfied. She grumbled quietly as the four ninja dumped the smoldering ashes and chunks of burned and marred wood into the river, refusing to help. Once that task was complete, they set off into the forest.

Naho made a valiant effort, but within a half hour she was too tired to go any farther. Sasuke decided to carry her first; he was the leader, after all; and carelessly hoisted her onto his back.

Kami, what the hell has this kid been eating? She was heavier than he expected, but he forced himself forward anyway, the little girl clinging tightly to him as they crept through the forest.

Sakura took over next, but she was weighed down by the child even more than him. She barely last half the time Sasuke had before Kiba had to take over. It became a game of "musical carrying"; those who weren't currently carrying Naho or supporting Asami had to carry their meager bundles of supplies, and every hour or so their duties shifted.

Asami made a valiant effort to run as fast as them, but soon she was dragging as well. They were forced to walk at a snail's pace and take frequent breaks to accommodate the elder princess.

It couldn't have been past eight o'clock when they stopped for the night. Sasuke was extraordinarily displeased with the progress, but Naho was already unconscious in Shino's arms and Asami was barely staying on her feet. It was useless to attempt to go any farther with the sisters in their current state.

Wordlessly they stopped for the night and began to set up camp. Asami sank into the ground, too tired to give more than a disgusted grimace to express how displeased she was with the current circumstances.

Naho whined as Shino laid her down beside her sister and silently gathered wood for a fire. Asami watched him with a critical eye for several minutes before speaking. "What exactly are we going to do about food?"

Sasuke had been waiting for that question. He had been hoping that they would be able to steal something to eat, but they had not passed any homes or plantations. He had not seen any cultivated (or uncultivated) crops of any kind.

"We'll make do," Kiba answered for him. "We'll find something. We've got water nearby. We won't starve."

"Two of us," Sasuke continued, "will leave and get something. You," he narrowed his eyes imposingly, hoping Asami caught just how serious he was, "will stay here."

Asami crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. "You didn't answer my question. What exactly are we going to eat?"

Sakura caught Sasuke's eye and shivered. "Trust me, Asami-san," she said. "You really, really, don't want to know."

Sasuke and Shino were chosen to leave on the impromptu hunting trip. Sakura's hunting skills were nonexistent, to say the least. Kiba would have made an excellent hunter partner, but Sasuke did not trust him, and if Kiba suddenly decided to do something foolhardy Sasuke doubted Shino would be able to stop him.

Akamaru had come along for the hunt. Kiba had been reluctant to let his puppy go with Sasuke, but he trusted Shino enough to let the dog go.

They hunted for an hour, utilizing a smorgasbord of improvised traps consisting of blunt kunai and ninja wire and relying on Shino's insects to detect movement. After an hour of slogging through the wet marsh, they caught only a half-starved rabbit, two squirrels, and a handful of frogs.

"It appears Kiba will be getting his wish," Shino said as they gathered their dinner together.

Sasuke stared at the boy blankly. Shino's…attempting humor. I have officially gone mad.

Asami's face was comical when she caught sight of the animals. "No."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow.

"No." Asami repeated herself. "I am not eating any of those…disgusting creatures!"

"Aw, come on," Kiba teased, poking the dead rabbit with his pointer finger. "Rabbits aren't disgusting creatures! I though all girls liked bunnies!"

Asami turned away from the animals and towards Kiba, seething. "First, I am not a child. Second, I will not be reduced to eating forest bait!"

Then you'll be reduced to starving, Sasuke thought. "It is your choice."

"You…you won't try and force me," Asami said slowly, watching him carefully for any sign of chicanery.

Sakura grinned, catching on to Sasuke's train of thought. "He's right. I mean, you're not a baby, so if you want to starve yourself, that's fine with us."

Asami dropped to the ground with a loud huff and a fierce scowl. Kiba snickered loudly and even Shino seemed amused.

It took four of them to reduce the animals to edible chunks of meat. Sasuke had not ever been hunting, and he was entirely unprepared for the sheer amount of blood. It did not unsettle him; he was a chunin, after all, and animal blood seemed more innocuous than human blood; but it was incredibly messy. Blood stains joined the mud stains on his shirt and shorts, but he was far too tired to care. Sakura nearly vomited four times, but somehow she managed to help them finish by roasting the meat on hot rocks.

Dinner was a silent affair. Naho whined copiously throughout the admittedly unorthodox meal, and each bite she ate had to be coaxed down her throat. She was hungry enough to choke down a good amount of the rabbit (which she thought was a frog – Sakura had lied to her, knowing that the little girl would never be able to eat a "baby bunny") and enough water to fill a camel.

Asami ate little, which worried Sasuke. He wasn't concerned about her well-being; the mission would be considered successful so long as she was returned to her city alive; he was concerned about her ability to keep up. She needed to replenish her body's store of food if she was to maintain any sort of a rapid pace, and that meant protein. And in their condition, protein meant squirrel and frog legs.

Sasuke had watch first that night. It did not bother him; he was tired, but sleep was not an attractive option in any way, shape, or form.

His nightmares had returned, and returned with a passion. Orochimaru haunted his every sleeping moment. Every time he closed his eyes the snake returned with his cackling laugh and sadistic grin, and every time Sasuke was powerless to stop it.

He still slept, of course. He made himself sleep. He was intelligent enough to know that he had to force himself to sleep, otherwise his body would do it for him.

He hated it, though. He had had night terrors until he was five, and now he was repeating the process at twelve. He had trained himself to wake silently, even when the most horrific terrors woke him. He was too old to seek comfort from his mother (he pretended that he didn't desperately want to) and too old and too stubborn to turn to his brother, not that Itachi was ever there.

Think of something else. Anything else. Remembering that he could not sleep would not enable him to sleep. The others had already gone to sleep, so he could not rely on their help. At any rate, any conversation with Kiba would end in an argument, and Shino would put me to sleep. Asami was not worth the effort. Honestly, he wished Sakura was awake, that he could talk with her, speak with her – she was the closest thing to home he had – but he was not about to wake her from a sound sleep for purely selfish methods.

He leaned against a tree trunk and glanced upwards. The sky was dark and cloudy, the stars obscured. The moisture hung in the air, telling him that they could expect even more rain the next day.

He could feel his mind drifting, starting to join with the dream world and pull him under its influence. Stubbornly he drew it back, refusing to succumb. He closed his eyes, concentrating on his chakra; balancing its distribution, directly the flow of it throughout his body, feeling the signatures of those around him. It had a calming effect, and it took enough mental energy to keep him awake.

A slight rustling caught his attention. Nerves taunt, he turned a cautious eye back towards the sleeping forms. Shino, Asami, Naho, Kiba…where the hell did Sakura go?

"You didn't have to take first watch." Sasuke jumped at Sakura's words, fatigue and distraction ruining his nerves.

He sighed. "Sakura, don't do that," he growled lowly.

She sat beside him. "I'm sorry." She picked the grass silently, mud staining her fingers. "But you shouldn't have taken it. You need to sleep more. Kiba and Shino and I could've handled it."

"I don't need your help." Or your concern.

"Well…I know you don't need it, but couldn't you use it?" She'd been getting more confident as of late. While Sasuke was thankful she had dropped the kicked puppy routine, it was getting on his nerves. Especially since she was right half the time.

He didn't respond to her question, choosing instead to look up at the sky stoically.

She ran a hand through her long pink hair nervously, but she didn't leave. "We'll have to cut through some of the smaller boroughs, won't we?"

He nodded. "We need to cut a straighter line towards the capital. It will take too long otherwise."

"It's more dangerous."

"We don't have a choice."

"I wish we did," she said softly. She wrapped a thin strand of pink hair around her finger. Her lower lip trembled slightly. "Asami is right."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, waiting.

"It is my fault the carriage burnt. I shouldn't have left the knives in there. I knew better…I should have hid them, I should have – I knew better than that." She stopped twisting her hair, and the long tendril slid down her hand. "Kakashi-sensei would have been angry. He will be, when he learns what a mess I made of this. How could I have been so stupid?" The tears were starting now, welling up in the corners of her eyes.

"You shouldn't have left them there. It was stupid."

She watched him with wide, vulnerable eyes, tears held in check firmly.

"It wasn't your fault. Naho set it on fire; it would have burned regardless, so stop the annoying pity party."

"So you're not angry?"

It was a preposterous question, one that didn't deserve a verbal answer. Sakrua smiled and scooted closer. Sasuke let her. They sat in silence, Sasuke allowing his arm to slowly wind around the smaller ninja.

She melted into his side, face turned towards his. She hesitated for a moment, clearly gathering courage, before pecking him quickly on his neck.

Sasuke leaned towards her and met her lips. They broke apart and returned quickly, Sakura's lips soft and pliant in his. It felt good to hold something so warm and soft.

She withdrew from his kiss and laid her head against his shoulder contentedly.

"Well, aren't you so adorable." Asami's sarcasm echoed across the small camp.

Sasuke felt Sakura tense up and growl beside him. "Why are you even awake?" Sakura asked angrily.

Asami ignored the question. "Why do you even bother? You do know the statistics for shinobi death rates, don't you? One of you will die within a year or so. Or maybe that's it; you've decided you might as well screw each other while you're alive."

"You have some serious issues, you know that princess?" Kiba mumbled as he rolled over in his cot, still half-asleep. "What'd the world ever do to you, besides make you rich and pretty?"

When did this turn into a group discussion? "Oh, trust me," Asami said, shooting daggers with her eyes at the genin. "The world's given me plenty to hate, including you."

"Oh, isn't this stereotypical," Kiba threw back, rising up to a half-sitting position. "The angst ridden princess, so oppressed by her life of riches!"

"Kiba, shut up!" Sakura hissed, glancing at Naho. "If she wakes up, you're the one who's going to get her to go back to sleep, not me."

"She'll be fine. She's exhausted." There was no tenderness in Asami's voice as she spoke of her sister, only remnants of the malice she'd directed towards Kiba.

"Good. Then let's hear it," Kiba said, now completely sitting up.

Asami blinked at him. "What?"

"Tell us. Tell us why."

She shook her head. "If you honestly think I'd divulge my life story to a pack of-"

"Knew it," Kiba replied. He laid back down, burrowing under his blankets.

Asami frowned. "Knew what?"

"That you were bluffing. Your life has been a bed of roses."

Asami grabbed the closest projectile, a metal bowl from dinner, and chucked it at Kiba's head. "I am not bluffing!"

"Yes, you were," Kiba stated dispassionately. "You were bluffing. It's alright; everybody lies, and if I was in your shoes-"

"I'm. Not. Lying," Asami emphasized each word as she spoke it, trying to force Kiba to acquiesce. "I'm not."

He rolled over. "Then prove it."

Asami sank back, ignoring the mud that attacked her dress. She sighed heavily. "Fine, then. I will."

Sasuke wasn't entirely surprised. Few people brought topics like 'a crappy life' into a conversation without intending to fully discuss details of said life.

That didn't mean he wasn't slightly interested. Asami was rude and annoying, but she did seem to be fairly intelligent, and she had obviously rationalized that her life sucked. There had to be some reason.

"My father died when I was only four," Asami said softly, cautiously; she obviously did not want to wake up her sister. She curled her body into a tight ball, shivering against the dampness, and watched the spot where the fire had been complacently. There was hardly any emotion in her beautiful face, with its even features and striking eyes. No emotion at all.

"So did mine," Sakura interrupted. "Well, I was a little older, but still-"

"Sakura. Shut up." Sasuke was actually intrigued, for once. Perhaps someone else's messed up life could make him forget his. At any rate, he wanted to hear her excuse. He listened to no one's definitions of valid or invalid. He had to know for himself.

Asami did not look at them as she spoke. "After my father's death, my uncle arranged for my mother to marry another man a year later, but he died before they could be married, and for the next few years my mother evaded engagement. That was our best time, our happiest time."

There was silence. Asami stared hopelessly at the fire, seemingly disinclined to continue. "Oh, hell, just tell us what happened," Kiba grumbled.

Asami shook her head ruefully but continued nonetheless. "She took a lover. He got her pregnant and then disappeared."

She rubbed the back of neck, attempting to ease her tension. "She was heart-broken, and my uncle was absolutely furious. He had been arranging for another engagement for her, you know.

"I liked him. The man who would have been my stepfather. He was a good person." Asami clenched her jaw tightly. "He probably wasn't. He was probably truly corrupt. He was probably playing me the entire time to try and charm his way into my mother's heart. He probably did not give a crap whether I lived or died. He probably wished I didn't even exist."

Sasuke wondered how often she had given herself that speech over the past years. From the dullness in her voice, he was guessing many times. Many many times.

"He probably did. Hell, I know I would hate you," Kiba opined, but his voice lacked the venom the words implied.

"I would hate you too, Kiba." Asami didn't sound half so virulent either, although she still contained more than enough animosity to unnerve the average person.

"Did he just…leave?" Sakura asked softly. Most men do, Sakura. Your father was a rarity. Or maybe your mother was just somehow gorgeous enough to justify the extra work. Sasuke doubted it, though. Very few women were attractive enough to justify the extra work of a family, especially when to get that family one would have to fight tooth and nail against the village elders. "Because of her getting pregnant?"

"He probably would have, if he had had time. My mother hid her pregnancy until she was almost at its end."

"Let me guess," Kiba said in a bored voice. "Your mom died giving birth to your sister, and now you don't like her 'cause you blame her."

"My sister had no direct influence on my mother's death," Asami stated serenely, the picture of self-control.

Shino, who had been attempting to sleep through the discussion, gave up on his futile attempts and sat up. "Then what did?"

Asami startled at his sudden intrusion. She smiled wickedly. "I should just end it there. Like you pathetic genin even have a right to know." Sasuke bristled at her obvious and intentional gaffe.

"Oh, please," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. "You're too much of an attention – whore to not tell us."

"Look at who's calling who a whore," Kiba cackled. Sasuke scowled imposingly at the genin, eyes daring Kiba to continue.

Sakura was right. Asami sighed and continued her story. "I was ten. It was right after my sister was born. There was an assassination attempt against my mother." Asami looked at the distant stars, suddenly finding it far more interesting than the faces of her audience. "We hired a ninja, one that was not affiliated with any village."

"A rogue nin," Sakura supplied.

"Yeah, I guess that's what you call them." Asami plucked a few blades of grass and tossed them into the center of the group. "He worked well at first; he foiled another assassination attempt on my mother, and he hunted down and killed the man who was trying to murder my mother."

Kiba scoffed. "Sounds like you should be thanking the ninja. They saved your mother. Or are you one of those sadistic people who want their moms' heads chopped off?"

Asami did not even glance at him. She focused on Sasuke instead. "He turned on us and killed my mother." Even in the dark of the night Sasuke could see the fire and hate in Asami's eyes. "I guess I shouldn't blame him. All ninja are trained to do is kill."

"No, all rogue ninja do is kill." Sasuke insisted, something in him forcing him to correct the princess. "Ninja from our village protect your country. They die for your country."

Asami laughed bitterly. "No, ninja from your village follow the orders of your stupid council. You murder people too; assassinate them."

"That's different!" Kiba protested angrily. "It's way different! It's not murder if you have to kill someone to save your village!"

Asami looked at him, and there was almost pity in her eyes. "You're idiotic and naïve enough to believe that, I suppose. Or maybe that's what they've always told you. Some of your assassins must still have enough of a conscience that they need to rationalize what they do. Most of them, I bet, don't even care anymore, so long as they're getting paid."

She tilted her head to the side and looked directly at him. For a minute, the animosity disappeared. "It's not just ninja villages or daimyos, you know. Wherever there's power, there's corruption and murder and avarice and 'unethical behavior'. It's the way the world works, and I don't judge your village for being as corrupt as my uncle's government." The hostility crept back, and the sneer returned. "I judge you for pretending that it doesn't exist, that you're all just perfect little angels."

"No one ever said that," Sakura interrupted. "But we're not evil! And we're not greedy and corrupt and we don't kill people!"

Asami just shook her head. "Are you all that naïve?" She caught Sasuke's eye. "No, I don't think you are, are you?" Sasuke met her searching gaze. He knew she would find nothing. "It's because you're from a clan, isn't it?"

Sasuke did not respond.

"I wonder," she said slowly, malice clearly evident, the sadness of a few minutes earlier erased. "Your clan, is it like my family? Power-mongering head, too stuffed up to worry about anything but himself? Corruption at every level? A family history permanently tarnished by previous scandal, including kinslaying? The few children in the family either too young to be of consequence or too weak to do anything at all?"

"He didn't ask you of your opinion." Shino's distinct tenor silenced the princess effectively. "And it is late. We should return to our cots and attempt to sleep. We have a long way to travel."

Asami nodded, stretching her arms slightly as she turned towards her cot.

And then her hand erupted in blood.

A/N: (emerges from hiding slowly) um…hi?

I am so so so sorry. There's really no excuse for going over a month (a MONTH!) without updating. I mean…wow. I'm incredibly sorry.

The only excuse I have is I started college in August. I am currently taking seven courses and am in honors, and both of those have seriously demolished my writing time. (I've been staying up until 2 am to finish hw and waking up at 6am to get to class in time…). Despite this, I will be trying to update faster…not fast, but faster than this abominable track record. Sorry again! :(