A/N: I couldn't bear to revisit the Land of Tea arc. So this is what you get instead.

The First Flower of Spring

Chapter Twenty-two

Shake It Until It Breaks (Part I)

"I take it all my students survived my coma? No permanently debilitating injuries?"

"Oh?" Tsunade said, honey-blonde brows rising as she shifted her attention from his chart to his person. "You heard about their encounter with Uchiha Itachi already? That's almost impressive."

"Encounter with Itachi?" Kakashi repeated blankly. "I was actually talking about unsupervised practice and a complete lack of understanding about what constitutes acceptable aggression in sparring, but sure, why not an encounter with the massacre-artist?" It must be the year for psychopaths, he thought with black humor.

Tsunade was regarding him oddly, perfectly plucked brows furrowed. She hadn't been back in the village a full week yet and already he'd overheard nurses forming a betting pool on how deep the genjutsu ran. "According to Jiraiya, he'd taken Naruto out of the village when he came looking for me, while your other students apparently overheard a conversation about your battle with Itachi. The jounin involved have already been appropriately disciplined for talking about S-class criminals where rash genin can overhear. And I told them that the next time they're too preoccupied to notice a genin with a chakra signature as loud as Uchiha Sasuke's coming into range, they can go back to being chunin. At any rate, the little pink one-Haruno Sakura, isn't it?-she followed Sasuke when he went tearing off after his brother. They found him, unfortunately enough, which is something an ANBU team should have been doing, rather than genin."

"No amount of tracking skills are comparable to being led by destiny," Kakashi quipped blandly. That earned him a more than exploratory prod in his side, which left him gasping in pain. "Patient," he wheezed.

Tsunade glared down at him. "That's right, you are. But I'm not so patient, so no more snide commentary, Hatake."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," he agreed meekly, doing his best impression of an abashed and repentant ninja.

Tsunade snorted. "It would figure that these would by your students."

Kakashi swallowed a response that questioned what exactly she thought he'd done to earn a team where the jinchuriki was the normal one.

"Right. So, your students are faced with S-class criminals and their first instinct is apparently not to escape, but to open dialogue. The Uchiha and Sakura didn't want to tell me what was said, but when I told them their next destination was over to T&I for a word-for-word transcript, they agreed. Sasuke is very lucky he isn't dead from rank stupidity, but your other student wanted to ask questions."

Tsunade pinned him with a glare. "She would," he agreed weakly.

"Oh? So it's normal now for genin in this village to imply to S-class criminals they haven't killed nearly enough people?"

"Well, no," Kakashi hedged, "but Sakura-chan is, ah, highly objective? And has poor timing?" he added when he saw his first quasi-answer hadn't satisfied Tsunade.

The Hokage frowned down at him. "Your squad is going to get themselves killed."

Sasuke might, Kakashi admitted mentally. But Naruto is highly durable and Sakura-well, Sakura at least will go into it with her eyes open.

Tsunade sighed and worked her thumb and forefinger along the bridge of her nose. "I already set the two of them to their punishments. They have been and will be doing demeaning D-ranks until you're released from the hospital, at which time you will bring your squad under control, Katashi. The next time I hear about them haring after missing-nin without orders to do so, if they come back in one piece, I'll personally make sure they don't stay that way. Understood?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama."


Sasuke was scowling as Naruto demonstrated the jutsu that the Sannin Jiraiya had apparently managed to explain in simple enough terms even the dead-last could learn it. He warred between the impulse to steal it with Sharingan or ask outright, but decided to do neither. Impressive as it was-apparently impressive enough to win Tsunade back to Konohagakure-even Naruto had seen that there were limits to its usefulness. He had questions he wanted to ask of his brother before he died.

"I mean, it's great and all," he said as chakra whorled and hummed above his palm, "but you should see what it does to trees. It pretty much just makes things dead real fast-except if you're a freaky medic-nin-and, I dunno, but I don't really see a lot of missions that call for lots of dead people in our immediate future." Naruto winced as he let the chakra construct unravel, wind rustling through his shaggy blond hair. "And you have to be really close. If an enemy is faster, especially if they use a weapon with a longer reach, I've pretty much signed off on a suicide mission. I mean, that shark-dude with the sword would probably just lop off my arm at the elbow and laugh about it."

Slow and pointed applause drew the attention of the three genin. "That was a very insightful analysis, Naruto," Kakashi congratulated the blond.

Who took a step back warily. Sakura also rose, but Sasuke chose to retain his seat. If he leaned his back and put his palms flat to the ground to quell any possibility of trembling, that was his business.

Because while Kakashi was smiling, he was very clearly not happy.

"We didn't incur any additional paperwork," Sakura defended immediately. "Tsunade-sama made us fill out all the additional forms ourselves."

Naruto buried his face in his hands and made an odd noise of distress. "I don't think that's what he's worried about, Sakura-chan," he muttered.

Sakura glanced over at him.

"We weren't caught leaving or returning to the village," Sasuke voiced irritably. "If Jiraiya hadn't reported us, it wouldn't have been a problem at all."

"And if you'd died in your little adventure?" Kakashi prompted.

"My family would not hold the village accountable. Especially if I died of my own foolishness," Sakura replied.

"And what about your poor teacher's heart?"

Pink brows drew together. "I assume you mean 'heart' metaphorically. Metaphorically, it would doubtless heal quite quickly. After all, there is no need to waste regard or regret on those who die in service to their stupidity."

"So you agree that confronting two S-class missing-nin was stupid?"

"I agree that it was ill-advised for genin of our current capabilities," Sakura conceded. Her dense vocabulary gave the lie of her composure.

Breaking rules made Sakura anxious, which in turn made her increasingly act like she was guest-lecturing at the Academy. That was something he'd learned early about his teammate, but for the first time he thought about why she'd bothered to accompany him at all. It would have been just as much in character, if not more, to send him off with a dire warning about the consequences of his own actions at the gates. And then she'd confronted him about Orochimaru and power afterwards, told him about her family. Was it possible that, in some strange way, Sakura cared?

The idea was so strange in light of her revelations he almost didn't notice that Kakashi's pointed gaze had fixed on him. He only scowled at the older ninja.

"Sasuke? Have anything to say?"

"No," Sasuke replied. "I don't regret it, so I have no intention of apologizing for it."

"Well, at least you're honest," Kakashi remarked with some asperity. "Unfortunately for you, honesty in this case was not the best policy."

"You can tell when I lie anyway," he grumbled.

"Well, yes, but that isn't the point. The point is that you're not even making an effort to admit that what you did might have been motivated by events that give you very valid reasons to hate Uchiha Itachi, but how you went about it showed poorer planning than one of Naruto's pranks."

Sasuke's scowl was threatening to become permanently engraved on his face when Kakashi sighed. "You and I are going to talk about this," Kakashi promised, "without an audience. But for now, let's see if we can't do something about some training. What with the losses we experienced during the Exam, Tsunade-sama is going to have to take some desperate measures if she wants to meet demand. Hopefully," he said with great irony, "you're not going to be experiencing another misassigned A-class, but because you, my dear little disciples, have re-taught me the meaning of 'expect the unexpected,' let's see what we can do about equipping you with some skills just in case."


Sasuke wasn't certain what skills were supposed to be built by entrapping him for three days in a one bedroom apartment with his teammates, but he was absolutely certain that he did not need them. Their client had been dragged in protest from the premises, the family-the ones who'd chartered and paid for the mission-leaving them with whispers the effect of 'best of luck'.

Upon seeing their mission stage, he'd rated the chances of their surviving this one very low. "We should set it on fire," he'd said in dull horror at the mountains of stuff that left only narrow paths open through the...could he even call it a house any longer?

Kakashi's hand had descended on his shoulder like an iron shackle. "Now, Sasuke, don't be such a pessimist. Besides, setting some of this stuff on fire would make it even more of a potential health hazard than it already is. This is even classed as a C-rank mission."

"You're punishing us," Sasuke protested.

"Yes, Sasuke, this is what regret feels like," Kakashi said dryly. "Whatever my reasons, this is your mission. You have three days and my full confidence. I've already made arrangements for disposal of most of the trash, you just need to separate it and set it outside. I expect this to look at least habitable by the time I get back. And you're going to stay on-site for the duration. We haven't had a team-building exercise for a while and there's nothing like close quarters and shared drudgery to really drive that point home."

"Yeah, Kakashi-sensei's still mad," Naruto murmured in a low voice to Sakura, who made a sound of agreement as she looked wide-eyed on the chaos.

"What happened to mission skills?"

"I taught you a jutsu."


"It's my original jutsu. Developed but not mastered until I received my Sharingan."

"Kakashi," Sasuke growled.

"You really should be honored."

"Sakura says you handed me a hammer and invited me to look at every problem as a nail."

"Nonsense. You learned your taijutsu style and fire techniques from your clan, but you have equal or better affinity with lightning, which isn't exactly an element commonly utilized in combat in Konohagakure. There's some medical ninjutsu, but I don't know any of it. And as for the ones I've learned from enemy-nin...well, let's just say that I don't feel like teaching you those just yet. What I've given you is a template-you'll have to make your own design from it."

Sasuke did not feel honored. He felt vaguely horrified even at the thought of using Kakashi's technique. It had been alright in the learning stages, as he felt the raw power of harnessed lightning coat his hand. But then he'd made him try it. It had been one of the oversized beasts from the Forest of Death, but there'd still been that queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he rammed his hand through the fleshy wall of its side until he'd touched something wet and pulsing. The lightning had leaped from his hand into the creature, burning its way down into the earth through paths of least resistance.

Kakashi had described the damage to him in graphic detail in a bland sort of voice, but he hadn't let him pull his hand free. His nostrils had been filled with the smell of melting hair where he'd shoved his hand in. He'd come very close to retching, but he breathed shallowly through his mouth as Kakashi explained how the current had caused ventricular fibrillation, the heart muscle contracting irregularly, the points where the lightning had exited leaving fleshy craters, arc burns leaving a path of further melted hair. If he'd only managed to graze an opponent but still transfer enough energy to damage, he described the 'lightning flowers' that could bloom more visibly on a human opponent, leaving them marked forever.

It was a quick death, but it was not a clean one.

Rare was the moment when he recalled that his sensei was hailed as a prodigy of a bloodier age, but he remembered it very clearly in that moment. And he wondered what lesson he'd thought to impart, but all he could think of was part of the left lung tangling beneath fingers no linger stiffened for the thrust and the smell.

He was in no hurry to repeat the experience with a human target. He'd come to terms with the smell and sight of burning flesh given the fire jutsu he used, but that was still a distant carnage. Not clean though, which was why he preferred to use it mostly as distraction and depend upon kunai to achieve the kill when it finally came to that. This was something more awful and savage yet, being wrist-deep in someone else, feeling the last tremors of their body as they died.

No, there was nothing he wanted there. Whatever Kakashi's motive had been, he'd made something very clear to Sasuke. He did not mind violence, but he despised carnage. One day, he'd been fast and sure enough to see that his enemies died before they even noticed. And he had no intention of shoving his hand into any more chest cavities if he could help it.

But this was almost as distasteful. "There are cleaning services for this sort of thing," he growled.

Kakashi rubbed sheepishly at the back of his head. "They, ah, don't do ninja residences. Lots of traps and weapons and maybe some inadequately stored poisons in here. And then there are the traps set on purpose. So watch out for those."

Sasuke's earlier opinion was reinforced. Kakashi was definitely punishing them.


Naruto kept a watchful eye on Sasuke, who looked torn by his near obsessive-compulsive desire for cleanliness and an urgent desire to be somewhere else. He really, really got the latter. "Who else votes we paper this place with explosive tags and hope for the best?" he asked.

"Idiot," Sasuke intoned, but there was an edge of consideration in his voice.

He glanced over at Sakura to get her opinion of the task, but her eyes were trained on a nearby stack mountain of what appeared to be trash, head cocked in that way of hers. "I think it's looking at me," she remarked.

"What?" Naruto asked, but then his eyes caught on the single largest cockroach he'd ever seen. And having lived where he did, Naruto had seen some cockroaches. Enormous antennae quivered, but the rest of its fist-sized body was at rest. "Is that natural?" he asked, his voice an awkward squeak.

"Kakashi-sensei did not apprise of this client holding a summoning contract with cockroaches, so we should be free to kill it."

"Yeah," Naruto said, creeping backwards so Sakura was between him and the insect. "Go for it, Sakura-chan."

In a movement little more than a flicker, one of her kunai had split open its body and roach-ooze was soaking into decades old newspaper. The vibration was apparently felt within the pile and several more insects took flight, only to be pinned to walls and ceiling by senbon. "Traps and giant bugs. It's a Forest of Death reprise," Naruto said as he watched the nearby piles warily for more movement.

"This is disgusting," Sasuke agreed. "How could such a slob be a shinobi?"

"Perhaps he was exceedingly organized in his professional life and equally as lax in his personal?" Sakura suggested.

Sasuke grunted."Well," he said grimly at last, "staring at it won't accomplish anything. At least the dead-last will finally be useful for something."

"I know you say that with love, but you really need to find a new song to sing, Sasuke," Naruto muttered darkly. "So how am I supposed to be useful here?"

"Use your shadow clones to get rid of this trash. Sakura can do pest-control. And I'll see what sort of supplies Kakashi left for us to use." Naruto gave the nearly floor-to-ceiling mountains a gimlet stare, then threw Sasuke a sloppy salute.

"Gotcha," Naruto confirmed, "but I'm going to go one the assumption that everything is trash. Just 'ta let you know."

Sasuke scowled in what he assumed was confirmation before thrusting a pair of thick rubber gloves at Naruto. "If you catch something, you might give it to us."

Tugging on the gloves, he summoned as many Narutoids as could fit in the limited space and gave them their orders. For a moment he thought there would be rebellion in the ranks, but even if he really didn't want to clean up this mess, the clones had limited free will. Soon there was a procession not unlike a mound of ants in reverse as they trundled by with bloated bags of garbage, though Sasuke reappeared from the kitchen to give a dire warning about properly sorting the trash.

It was universally disgusting, but he was glad Sakura seemed not to mind too much the bugs, picking them up as she impaled them. He corralled two Narutoids to act as spotters at the space gradually widened and more insects were flushed from hiding and they also acted to dismantle a really excessive number of traps. Any number of things came crawling out, including two scorpions and one furry spider he was absolutely certain wasn't native to Konohagakure. When the parade of insects tapered off, Sakura volunteered to attempt the kitchen, pointing out that her guardian did run a bakery and if there was one thing she had experience scrubbing, it was counters.

Sasuke emerged from wherever he'd been looking grimly victorious and mildly traumatized. "The bathroom's not all the way clean, but it's functional. It actually wasn't as bad as I was expecting."

"You have really unexpected talents, bastard," Naruto commented.

"If it weren't for his personality, Sasuke-san would make an excellent spouse," Sakura complimented from the kitchen. "He has property, breeding, and he cleans."

"Unfortunately he comes with scowl included," Naruto grinned. "You've got that one right, Sakura-chan! He's going to have to really make it up in other areas. Maybe you should take a look in the bedroom, get some pointers. I've been in shops that didn't have an echi selection like this guy. If this place wasn't so gross, I'd pocket a few to bribe the Ero-Sannin with."

Sasuke's brow twitched. "Exactly what were you doing in shops like that, idiot?"

"Research," Naruto chirruped. "The Sexy no Jutsu had to be convincing and, unlike some people who will not be named, I'm smart enough to know most actual naked ladies aren't happy to be anatomy lessons."

"That's disgusting," Sasuke pronounced.

"No," Naruto drawled, "it's funny. You just don't think so because I used you that once."

Sasuke glared at him and Naruto raised his hands placatingly. "Hey, I promised not to do it again. It's not like I can't produce other pretty-boys. It just feels weird to try and imagine what girls think of when they think 'sex object', ya know?"

"No," Sasuke replied, "I really don't. And somehow I don't feel like I'm missing anything by not knowing. And where'd you even pick up that phrase?"

"Eavesdropping," Naruto admitted shamelessly. "Shinobi are taught to expect the unexpected, so you have to pull something really unexpected if you want to distract 'em. And if the talk of drunk off-duty jounin is anything to go by, naked women seemed the way to go."

"That's almost clever, but it's still irritating as hell."

"Just because that pale skin of yours blushes easily isn't any reason to look down on the Sexy no Jutsu."

"I do not blush," Sasuke grit out.

Naruto gave him a look. Not as good as one of Sakura's looks, but he'd been practicing this one. He put in just the right arch of brow to paint clear disbelief on his face. "Wanna try that one out, Sasuke? 'Cause I got ten ryo and lunch at Ichiraku that says you blush when the smoke clears."

"It's indecent."

"Kind of the point."

"And the point of this mission is cleaning, Naruto-san, Sasuke-san," Sakura reminded them from the doorway of the kitchen.

Naruto glanced around to find that his Narutoids had stopped making themselves useful. "Guess the work doesn't continue while the brains of the operation takes a break," he grumbled. "Okay guys, we got a deadline!"

Team Seven normally went their separate ways when training ended and they'd come and gone at irregular intervals on the Wave mission, so it'd still felt like they had their own space. Now, however, when they got tired, dirty, and irritable, there was no escape from his teammates. Sasuke grew sharper edges than usual, snapping even at Sakura. Sakura became increasingly silent, but she didn't falter in her diligence, scrubbing until her hands were red and raw from the bleach and hot water she was using.

She didn't complain, but Sasuke noticed. "You idiot," he growled, snapping up her hands in his. "This place is filthy and why aren't you wearing gloves?"

"I wore gloves when I cleaned the worst of it," Sakura reassured him. "You've never done scalding water training? The water isn't really hot enough to do it properly, but the object is to use your chakra to circulate the heat away from the point of contact before it can damage the skin. Tsu-I'm going to begin fire-walking next week, but I thought I'd practice with the scalding water while I had the chance. I seem to have overlooked the bleach," she confessed sheepishly.

Naruto watched Sasuke warily, because he looked like he couldn't decide whether to brain Sakura over the head with something heavy or do something to make it better. You could never tell with Sasuke.

He took a deep, forced breath in through his teeth. "And why didn't you stop when it started hurting?"

"...I wanted to finish this counter?" Sakura tried. "It didn't seem worth stopping for. It isn't even a proper injury, really."

"Until the skin breaks, you catch something from this dump, and you die in misery and regret," Sasuke told her.

"Way to be dramatic," Naruto murmured. He pulled off his gloves and rubbed at his eyes. He was actually starting to feel nauseas from exhaustion, which was explained when he saw morning sunlight outside the window. Kakashi had pressed them into service in the early morning and now it was mid-morning again-they'd worked through the night with only two rest breaks to eat things hastily snatched and devoured from their packs, then returned to their task. And it was hardly the kind of work they were used to, so it was no wonder his teammates were being more weird than usual.

With a sound like firecrackers going off, he clumsily let go of his shadow-clones and groaned as their feedback made him sag with tiredness. The sick feeling made itself known with a vengeance and he groaned again. "Okay guys, if I don't sleep now, I'm going to be sick all over this floor and I don't think we need more mess. And Sasuke has obviously been watching waaay too much drama in his free time, so I it's time we all took a nice long nap. Including you, Sakura-chan, though I'm gonna guess you've done some sleep deprivation training."

She nodded placidly.

"Do you actually have hobbies or just a training schedule?" he asked in exasperation. "Never mind. I'm going to go find the cleanest open space on the floor and go admire it from up close."

Pulling out bedding, Naruto eyed the floor, which was now mostly clear, the large debris having been swept up. It still needed scrubbed yet, so he dug back into the pack for the tarp he knew would be there. Spreading it and dumping the bedding on top, he hastily erected the frame that shaped the mosquito netting that was all the tent most Konoha shinobi used on balmy nights, tugging it easily into place through long practice. When that was done, he stomped to the bathroom to rinse away the worst of the sweat and grime and changed into clothing that stank less like sweat and worse things.

Flopping eagerly onto his bedding, he cooed sweet nothings into his pillow. He was still at it when Sasuke kicked his legs out of the way. "Stay on your side," Sasuke warned. "You snore and drool."

Naruto rolled his eyes even though he knew Sasuke couldn't see. "If I end up on your side, I've somehow managed to crawl over Sakura without waking her up. I think someone's paranoid."

Sasuke scoffed. When Sakura'd finished in the bathroom and turned off the lights, which really didn't do anything about the sun streaming in through the windows, she padded up to join them.

"What, not going to snuggle your big pointy stick?" Naruto asked as she ducked under the netting and pulled it securely shut behind her. He'd lived in an orphanage before entering the Academy, so he was very familiar with all sorts of comfort objects used to substitute for the attention it just wasn't practical to give so children, but the first time they'd struck camp and shared space, he'd goggled at Sakura's bizarre sleep habit. Shinobi slept with their weapons tucked beneath their pillow, sure, but what she did just looked silly. She curled up like a pillbug next to her polearm, pillow half-covering the shaft so she could tuck one hand comfortably next to it. It was adorable and disturbing all at once, which was a pretty accurate description of Sakura in general.

Her nose wriggled up in distaste. "It's dirty."

"And your weapon is too good for that sort of thing, but we aren't?" he demanded into his pillow.

Sakura made a soft sound of agreement. "I won't sully Shiho-nii for my comfort," she murmured as she eased between them.

"You stick it in people," Naruto muttered, too tired and sick to fall immediately to sleep, but not exactly up for deep conversation or awkward silence either. Sasuke was weird to share sleep-space with. Naruto was usually the first one asleep, as his comfort requirements were apparently way below Sasuke's. But he sprawled, Sakura pillbugged and Sasuke tried to make out like he was the only one out of the lot with good sleep posture, holding himself so stiffly there was absolutely no way he was relaxed enough to sleep. When Naruto'd woken in the middle of the night to take a piss, he'd had all of about three seconds to witness that Sasuke was a gravitator. Not quite a snuggler, not even sleep making him that relaxed around his teammates, but his back was nearly pressing against the barrier of Sakura's guan-dao, which was much closer than he'd started out the night. Unfortunately for practical joke purposes, he also seemed incredibly sensitive to the breathing of his tentmates, waking moments after Naruto had slowly levered himself upright even though there hadn't been foreign chakra or hostility to indicate an enemy.

"People are beautiful," Sakura replied sleepily.

There was a grunt from Sasuke that he was too tired to translate, but it sounded further away than he'd expected. Curiosity warred with burning arm muscles that had spent more than twenty-odd hours hauling tons of trash, but curiosity won. Shoving himself up just enough to peer over Sakura, he found that Sasuke had claimed the opposite wall of their little insect-free sanctuary, which was a little extreme even for Sasuke.

"I don't think Sakura has cooties or anything, bastard."

Another grunt answered him.

"Seriously, Sasuke, if you roll over you're going to get tangled in the netting and you're bring this thing down on our heads. And I think I'll have just enough energy to smother you. Sakura doesn't bite."

"Leave him be, Naruto-san," Sakura suggested.

With a huff, he flopped back down on his pillow and let his mind drift. The musty scent of the room was not helping, so he tried to focus his too-acute sense of smell on his teammates. Comforting and familiar scents were always relaxing. But not tonight, because Sasuke was more anxious than made any sense. The other boy had always been weird about teamwork things that weren't working towards an obvious objective, like eating together or sharing a room, but then he'd been reserved, standoffish, and only mildly anxious. In his head, Sasuke was the cat that had had its fur stroked backwards, all offended dignity and ready claws. Now he was a wet cat, trembling and bristling at some threat Naruto just didn't get.

He hadn't noticed the sharp scent of fear earlier, so why now? Of course, he hadn't been focusing on it, either, but there wasn't a real threat here. So what was Sasuke reacting to? Prodding his sluggish mind to something like awareness, he tried to reason out what was here that would make Sasuke afraid to be in the dark with it.

A/N: If you can use Raikiri to cut a lightning bolt, I thought it might be reasonable to expect that the damage inflicted by it would be similar. And I'm not looking down on Rasengan, really, but it sort of turned into the be-all, end-all attack for Naruto. Not fun, not clever, not foxlike. So not the defining move for this Naruto. It's unfair if I take only Sakura different places, isn't it?