Notes: I need to start off by giving much thanks and praise to all of the readers who contributed ideas for the title of this story. Also, an extra special thanks to MagykjayEmmax, who came up with the title idea that I eventually decided on.

The original idea for this story came from two particular pieces of dialogue in Chapter 17 of S'TarKan's famous fanfic, "Team 8." I won't quote them here (it's far better if you read the story yourself, assuming you're among the few that haven't yet), but the main idea is this: Naruto has just done some major revenge-stomping on Neji's face in the chunin exams, and Shikamaru asks if Naruto went a bit overboard. Shino explains that some things simply should not be tolerated between allies and teammates, and Naruto asks how Shikamaru would feel if someone put Ino in the hospital. Naturally, there are only two people among the Konoha Eleven so arrogant that they might even do such a thing, and only one of them actually betrays the village, so sucks to be you, Sasuke.

Warning: There is major character death, I won't tell you again.

Summary: Sasuke meets Ino instead of Sakura on his way out of the village, and learns a valuable lesson: don't start a clan war with three others. Especially if yours happens to be dead.


A Naruto Oneshot Fanfic by

Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)

It is only as his mind is torn into millions of agonized pieces that Uchiha Sasuke remembers.

Had he been without his own clan for so long that he'd simply forgotten? Or had the poisonous seal on his shoulder conveniently led him right past that oh so obvious truth?

Every clan was made up of individuals, each different as night and day. But give them a cause worth fighting for, and the clan would unite into a single, unstoppable entity with a hundred heads, a force that no lone ninja (at least, not a lone genin) could stand against.

Sasuke could now admit that he'd made a grave mistake. In his haste and blind arrogance, he'd mistakenly labeled Yamanaka Ino as a minor annoyance that suddenly bumped herself up to a major one. She'd left him little choice but to kill her. He had even done it quickly, as cleanly as possible, if only because he had a timetable to work with.

But Sasuke had forgotten that who he was did not outweigh who Ino was, not in the eyes of her clan. Not in the eyes of three clans, actually.

And that was what made all the difference in the world.

Sasuke could easily command respect and demand favors from most of Konoha's merchants, all because of his dead clan. The Yamanaka might have trouble doing the same, not because it was beyond their influence, but because it wasn't their way. They were not arrogant, and that was one of many reasons that they were still alive, if not flourishing.

There were many that might say that only the Hyuuga had enough social status to rival that of the Uchiha. This, even if true, simply did not matter, not in this case. The Yamanaka did not have equal status with the Uchiha, nor had they ever really needed it. What they had instead was far more important: an unbreakable bond with the Nara and Akimichi clans. What this amounted to was an unparalleled influence over the markets of medicine and flowers, a direct connection to ANBU's Torture and Interrogation Unit, as well as a guaranteed triple vote in all village council matters.

All Sasuke had was his name, and whatever power he brought to the table. He liked to think it was impressive. Enough people certainly told him it was. But all of them had forgotten a very simple truth that Sasuke had actually first learned back at the Ninja Academy.

When stranded alone, hopelessly outnumbered and overpowered by a group of enemies, your power was whatever they said it was.

The same held true for clan warfare: in short, don't start a clan war with three others, especially if your happens to already be dead.

Sasuke had never suspected that he would run into anyone he knew on his way out of the village. He had purposely waited for the dead of night, and chosen routes that were always guarded the least. When he had no choice but to take the one path leading out of the village, he'd stayed off of the main road, darting through bushes and crouching behind trees.

He almost made it undetected.

But the moment that he spotted Ino standing in the road, Sasuke knew exactly why she was there. Why else would she be there? Sakura must have blurted out something that made Ino worry about him, and somehow she'd figured out that he'd try to leave the village that night. It was a small relief that Sakura wasn't with her, but Sasuke figured he couldn't be that lucky: Sakura would probably be along any minute, so it was best to get past this obstacle right away.

He had every intention of slipping past without her ever noticing. As far as Sasuke knew, Ino was a sub par kunoichi and she wouldn't see him unless he allowed her to. But even as he reassured himself of this, Ino's bright blue eyes landed directly on his hiding place, and did not move away.

Strangely enough, she did not immediately paste on her usual megawatt grin and fling herself at him. Instead, she bit her lip and murmured tentatively, "You're not really going to leave the village, are you, Sasuke-kun?"

Not about to disgrace himself further by hiding a second longer, Sasuke stood up in plain view and scowled at her. "What I do is not your concern. You should go home. And when you run into Sakura, tell her the same thing."

"I'm not leaving, and I'm not letting you leave, either!" Ino cried. Then, perhaps realizing she might be overhead, she lowered her voice. "You don't have to do this, Sasuke-kun. Whatever it is you need, I can help you get it. My father works with ANBU sometimes, so he-"

"There is nothing left in this village that I need," Sasuke interrupted firmly, "and there is nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me." With that, he turned his back on her and started to walk away.

There was a long pause, and then Sasuke heard Ino crashing ungracefully through the bushes, obviously trying to catch up with him. Still he ignored her until she leaped into his path, obviously intending to block his way.

"I'm not letting you leave!" Ino repeated, glaring at him. "If you try to run, I'll tell my father, and you'll have ANBU on your trail in two minutes!"

Sasuke's eyes widened. He didn't know much about Ino's family, but the part about her father hadn't been bragging (Ino had done that plenty in the past, so he knew what it sounded like), and was probably an actual fact. Even worse, if there was one thing Ino was known for, it was not keeping her mouth shut, and certainly she wouldn't disappoint when something was this important to her.

He needed to keep her quiet, if only long enough so that he had a decent head start on any pursuing units. Sasuke's first thought was simply to knock her out and leave her in the bushes.

But then what was rapidly becoming a very familiar voice in his head spoke up.

"Not enough," it whispered silkily. "She could always wake up faster than you expect, and you need time to get away. You need a more permanent solution. You need to make it so she can never tell."

Perhaps the most alarming thing was that Sasuke was at once in complete agreement, where he might have at least hesitated to make such a choice the day before. But now that he had experienced the power that Orochimaru had given the Sound Four, there was no way that Sasuke could pass up the chance to become so much stronger. If the only thing that stood between him and finally gaining the power to avenge his clan was Ino, he would just go straight through her.

"I guess I have to commend you, Ino," Sasuke said softy, startling her. "There aren't many people that have the courage to stand up to me." She began to smile, until Sasuke's hands closed around her throat. "Of course, most of them aren't quite that stupid."

"No, Sasuke-kun!" Ino pleaded, trying to break his grip as he forced her away from the road. "Don't do this!"

"You left me no choice," he reminded her coolly.

"You don't understand!" she gasped, pushing uselessly at his chest. "You don't know what they'll do to you!"

Sasuke assumed she was referring to the village council, and he merely snorted in amusement. Most of them were old, retired ninja that thought the Sharingan was among the greatest things to ever happen to the ninja world. Whatever their response, they wouldn't kill him, and he didn't intend on getting caught in the first place. He summed up his thoughts in only five words. "Please. You aren't that important."

Sakura was indeed on her way to the very spot where Sasuke encountered Ino several minutes later, with much the same plan in mind. She had wanted to get there earlier, but Naruto had begged her to stay at Ichiraku Ramen for another bowl. Since Sakura fully expected to leave with Sasuke that same night, and since she might never see Naruto again as a result, she'd been willing to spend a little more time with him. But now she was starting to regret it. What if Sasuke had already left? If she had missed him because of Naruto, Sakura didn't like to think about what she might say to Naruto the next time she saw him. She'd hurt him enough as it was.

Aside from that, Ino had been giving Sakura the stink-eye lately, and it was entirely possible that Ino might have reached Sasuke first. Despite her best intentions, Ino couldn't possibly understand everything that Sasuke had been through lately, and she could very well end up driving him away even faster. Sakura felt that only she and Naruto were in a position to help Sasuke, and Naruto seemed convinced that Sasuke would work through it alone. The only problem there was that Naruto and Sasuke were different. Naruto was used to taking abuse, and even seemed to thrive on it to a certain degree. Managing to do things that others said he couldn't was practically his way of life. But Sasuke was the village's golden boy, and while he certainly worked hard to become the best ninja he could possibly be, he wasn't used to anyone being better than him. It especially stung that Naruto, formerly the worst student in the Ninja Academy, was somehow able to compete at Sasuke's level, and easily at that. Sakura had no explanation for how it happened, either, but that wasn't important. All that mattered now was convincing Sasuke that everything he needed was right under his nose, and that he didn't have to go looking for it elsewhere.

But Sasuke wasn't there when Sakura arrived at that fateful spot. Instead, she spotted Shikamaru standing slightly off the path. He wasn't moving at all.

Sakura approached him from behind, intending to ask what he was doing. It was, all things considered, a huge mistake. Shikamaru was probably the smartest among the rookies, and anything that caused him to react in such a way was probably beyond their capabilities to handle. That was certainly the case this time, because Sakura was completely unprepared to find him standing over the body of her former best friend.

And it was definitely a body, and no longer Ino. She was far too still, far too lifeless, far too small somehow. The cause of death was both obvious and worrying: a ring of reddish fingerprint bruises around her neck. Most ninja would have used anything but their bare hands to kill, and even then they would prefer a faster method. But to literally choke the life out of someone, that typically took nerve and a rather strong desire to commit murder. The very idea that someone like that was walking around the village scared Sakura to no end. There was at least a small chance that the killer had been heading out of the village, but there was no immediate way to prove that.

Then Shikamaru said something that made Sakura forget all about the killer, or at least the idea of the killer being some faceless stranger.

"She was coming here to meet Sasuke."

At first, Sakura thought he was concerned about her teammate. But the words had been too cold, the expression on Shikamaru's face too angry. It was only then that she even considered that Sasuke might have had something (or perhaps everything) to do with Ino's death. He hadn't been himself lately, and even before then, he'd always found Ino annoying. What if she'd pushed him too far tonight, and he'd just snapped? Sakura didn't like to think that Sasuke could be capable of that, but even when she considered the rest of the rookies, Sasuke was the only one that had ever shown any interest in actually killing someone, justified or not. Wasn't his whole ambition in life to kill a certain man? For all she knew, Sasuke had known exactly what he was doing, and had no problem whatsoever with ending Ino's life.

And though Sakura hated to admit it, what bothered her the most about this was that it could have easily been her lying there, instead of Ino.

The next thing she knew, Shikamaru had knelt down and was carefully gathering Ino's body in his arms. Sakura knew it was just her imagination, but he seemed to pick her up in a way that allowed Ino's head to flop to the side, turning her dead stare directly on Sakura for several seconds.

"You better get over him fast, Sakura," Shikamaru advised quietly. "Because I can promise you he'll be dead if you ever see him again."

Every clan handled their dead in a specific way. Uchiha, if the rumors were true, harvested their dead for parts before disposing of them. That in itself wasn't really considered unethical among ninja. Being a ninja was largely about survival, and it was idiotic to throw away reusable pieces of a perfectly good weapon. Respect for the dead could only go so far before it interfered with the living, and indeed, remaining alive in the first place.

But it was never the rumors about the Uchiha that had bothered Nara Shikaku. It was the arrogance. They'd even seen the other clans as second-class citizens (if that), and had always taken offense when it was suggested there might be a task that they needed the help of another clan to accomplish. Part of why so many of them were dead (before Itachi, that is) was because they'd been so sure they could bring down the Nine-Tails without help. To their credit, they had slowed the demon down and even held its attention temporarily, though Shikaku assumed that was so the monstrous fox could focus and thoroughly enjoy wiping them out.

He was among several ninja (all wise enough to keep silent on the matter) that had a growing discomfort with the way the fallen Uchiha (as well as the one they had left) were glorified, both among civilians and the village council. He was willing to give them credit for their accomplishments and the strength they'd given Konoha, but as far as he was concerned, they were dead and Sasuke needed to earn any respect that he was given. Part of the reason Itachi had gone rogue was because his father had made the mistake of thinking there should be no separation between Itachi and the clan. It was completely unreasonable to place the weight of an entire clan on any one person's shoulders: Itachi had thrown off that weight forcibly, and Sasuke was well on his way to collapsing under that same weight, though if clan history meant anything, he'd snap and take out as many people as he could in the process. As it was, Shikaku was relieved that he didn't have any daughters that were obsessed with the boy, and he could certainly understand Inoichi's frustration. More than once Ino had asked to sleep in the Nara's spare room, claiming her father was being completely unreasonable about Sasuke. Shikaku was more inclined to believe that Inoichi was being completely right about Sasuke. But he only ever gave permission for Ino to stay over, then let Inoichi know where she was the moment she fell asleep.

In other words, Shikaku had always feared that the boy would go bad. But he had also counted on the idea that he, Inoichi, and Choza (not to mention their sons) would be able to keep Ino a safe distance away from Sasuke.

The sight of Shikamaru emerging from the woods, clutching Ino's body tightly in his arms, told Shikaku that the plan had failed. For a moment, he dared to hope that Ino had merely vacated her body temporarily, placing her mind somewhere else. But there was only one thing that could explain the rage in his son's eyes.

"Who did it?" Shikaku asked flatly as Shikamaru stopped in front of him.

"I can't prove it yet, but-"

"Who?" Shikaku demanded.

Shikamaru's eyes narrowed. "Uchiha Sasuke. And I'd bet everything that he fled the village right after."

"Then we don't have much time." Shikaku closed his eyes briefly before staring at his son. "I had a mission tomorrow morning, but it looks like I'll miss it. I have to ask you to take her home, Shikamaru."

"I can do that," Shikamaru agreed at once. "What will you do?"

"What needs to be done. It won't take long," Shikaku replied simply. "Tell no one but Inoichi, and don't let yourself be seen if you can help it."

Sakura's parents had always encouraged her friendship with Ino. She hadn't understood why, at first: Ino was perfectly nice around most adults (especially if she was trying to make a good first impression), but most of their classmates had learned to be wary of her temper early on. Ino was basically everything that Sakura had not been then: loud, popular, and strongly opinionated. It seemed odd that her parents would want her exposed to such a person for her first friend.

But as it turned out, Sakura's parents valued her friendship with Ino less because of Ino and more because of Ino's father. In all honesty, so long as Ino didn't get herself kicked out of her clan, they didn't really care what she did. Yamanaka Inoichi was fiercely protective of his daughter, to the point where he had interviewed Sakura for a whole twenty minutes before Ino had pointed out that she befriended Sakura, not the other way around. After that, he had become something of an uncle to Sakura, but she never really forgot how intimidating he could be, partially because he didn't let her. Each time a new boy approached Sakura, Inoichi just seemed to materialize out of thin air with a set of intensely personal questions that either scared said boy off, or convinced him to try again when Inoichi wasn't around. Ino thought the whole routine was rather embarrassing, but Sakura appreciated it for what it was, and made sure to thank Inoichi when he did actually frighten off any boy that was pestering her. Even when she and Ino had dissolved their friendship, Inoichi had still gone out of his way to check up on Sakura every so often. The one time Sakura had questioned him about it, he had only given her an awkward smile and murmured, "I'm a father, Sakura. I'd cut off my own arm before I stopped looking after my girls." It was not quite the way Sakura had imagined her first acceptable love confession (Naruto's didn't count), but it was easily the most memorable and heartfelt one, and she would treasure it always.

She had never imagined that she would need that connection so desperately as she did now.

The more Sakura thought about it, the more she was sure that Sasuke had either killed Ino, or had a major hand in her death. But she was also convinced that he was under the influence of that horrible seal on his neck, and that he would never do such a thing normally. The only thing she could do was tell Inoichi that and hope he might be convinced not to kill Sasuke on sight.

But even though Sakura had gone straight to Inoichi's home, Shikamaru had somehow beaten her there. By the time she arrived, Shikamaru was standing outside, muttering to himself and pointedly not looking at her. Sakura ran inside, only to stumble upon the heartbreaking sight of Inoichi clutching his daughter's body to his chest, sobbing as if he would never be whole again. Sakura's eyes blurred, and then she was clinging to him and Ino both, her initial fear of the body long since forgotten.

Once the tears had stopped for both of them, Inoichi carefully carried Ino to her bedroom and placed her on the bed. Sakura followed, all thoughts of pleading for mercy for Sasuke forgotten, for the moment. Sasuke had had no place in her happier memories of Ino before, and he certainly didn't now.

"Will you stay with her for a while, Sakura?" Inoichi asked abruptly.

It was an odd request, and had it been anyone else asking her to stay with any other body, Sakura knew she would have refused. Instead, she merely nodded and asked, "Where will you be, Inoichi-san?"

"I need confirmation of something that Shikamaru told me."

Alarm bells went off in Sakura's head. "Um, Inoichi-san, I don't think-"

Moving so fast that she could barely track the motion, Inoichi gently laid two fingers on her forehead, and Sakura suddenly forgot how to speak. Her mouth kept moving for a few seconds before this surprising fact sunk in.

"I think I know what you're going to ask, Sakura. I suggest that you don't. There's no need for me to lose another daughter tonight. The best thing you can do right now is say goodbye to Ino." He paused, and perhaps not wanting to seem too harsh, reached out and lightly patted her head before leaving the room and locking the door behind him.

Shikamaru was not sure when the wind had changed, or how exactly he has missed the multiple presences that came with it. All he knew was that one moment, he was alone outside the Yamanaka home, and the next, he was surrounded.

Most of them were Akimichi, he saw at once: solidly built men (and a few women), all with Chōji's familiar round face, and all with rather distinctive hairstyles. But there were also several Nara, and more than a few Yamanaka. There were even a few ANBU in full uniform scattered through the crowd, though Shikamaru suspected that beneath their masks, they either had blonde hair, round cheeks, or bored expressions. One of them was even making muted chewing sounds behind his mask.

They all had one thing in common, however: all of them clearly knew exactly why they were there. Several clapped Shikamaru on the shoulder without saying anything, others gave him sympathetic looks, and someone put an open bag of barbeque-flavored potato chips in his hand. He ate one without really tasting it, then passed the rest to the chewing ANBU, who promptly inhaled the contents of the bag, and then just as promptly continued chewing.

Inoichi came out of the house a moment later, actually looking startled when he noticed that Shikamaru was no longer alone.

Shikamaru's father was the only one that spoke. "We're ready, Inoichi."

"For what?" Inoichi asked. To Shikamaru, Inoichi didn't sound confused. He sounded like a man who didn't want to let on that he knew exactly what was going on.

"We're ready," Shikaku repeated. "We can leave any time, though it should be now. We won't get this chance again."

Inoichi suddenly bit his lip, and all traces of hesitancy left his face. "Yes," was all he said.

Shikamaru stood up abruptly, very aware of the sensation of every head turning toward him. "I'm going with you."

Shikaku blinked and stared at his son. He didn't look surprised.

Inoichi frowned. "Shikamaru, I don't think-"

"I'm going," Shikamaru insisted. "If Sasuke really did this, I'm going."

"That isn't-"

"She was my friend. She was annoying as hell, and she would never shut up, but she was my friend, dammit. She didn't deserve to die like that, and this is all I can do for her."

Inoichi didn't look upset, amazingly enough. He looked like he wanted to laugh, actually. But Shikamaru didn't doubt he would pay for that little bit of truth somewhere down the road, once things had calmed down.

"It's your call, Shikaku," Inoichi said at last, laughter still in his tone. "He's your son."

Shikaku blinked again. "He's going to die, Shikamaru. You'll have to watch." It was a warning, plain and simple.

Shikamaru smiled grimly. "Promise?"

The matching expression on Shikaku's face told Shikamaru all he needed to know.

Luck favors the prepared. But even being prepared can only do so much.

Orochimaru was always prepared. Extremely so. The popular theory among his subordinates was that he had no less than a thousand different backup plans for every move that he made.

Orochimaru demanded perfection in his troops. He rarely ever got it, but he didn't actually expect to. Instead, he drilled them over and over again, until they got as close to perfection as their imperfect bodies and minds would allow. That was enough, but he certainly never told them so.

The Sound Five were handled differently, however. Anyone else in his command, Orochimaru would simply kill without hesitation if they messed up too often. But he had invested far too much time and effort into the Sound Five. Replacing any of them would be nearly as costly. So he couldn't just kill them, although none of them knew that for certain. The safest rule of thumb when serving Orochimaru was that no one was above a good beheading, something only he and a handful of others could survive.

Orochimaru found other ways to motivate the Sound Five. For example, in preparation for the Sasuke retrieval mission, he made sure that they knew practically every inch of Konoha's forests, despite never having been there themselves. This was easily accomplished, as Orochimaru had traveled those same forests many times in his youth, so he had all of the important details committed to memory. And if any of the Sound Five made a mistake in the recall, he punished all of them. Sometimes it was nothing physical. Orochimaru had actually invented a genjutsu that was nothing but having every inch of one's flesh slowly peeled away from the body, and then tossing that same body into boiling saltwater. And sometimes there would be pirahnas in the water. But only the worst kind: the kind actually tough enough to thrive in boiling saltwater.

Needless to say, Orochimaru found ways to get the results he desired. He was always prepared, and so were his people.

The only problem was that Orochimaru had not counted on Sasuke enraging three clans in his escape attempt. Konoha had many clans, and really only the most famous ones would present a challenge. If Sasuke had managed to piss off the Inuzuka, for example, Orochimaru would have left him for dead. Not because the Inuzuka were especially threatening, but because they simply never stopped pursuing once wronged. Even if Orochimaru, determined to save Sasuke, stormed into Konoha and wiped out the entire clan, he would still be looking over his shoulder a century later. He knew very well that if there was a way to get even, an Inuzuka would find it and sink their fangs into it gleefully.

The Yamanaka were infinitely worse, because you couldn't just anger one of them. They read each other the same way most people read children's books, and Orochimaru had seen more than a few young men meet their doom after breaking the heart of a Yamanaka girl. All things considered, breaking a date with Tsunade was safer by comparison. Tsunade might break every bone in your body, but at least if she killed, the cause would be obvious. A Yamanaka could break hearts, dreams, and minds in the same breath, if they'd been properly trained in their gift. And one that hadn't been properly trained could actually cause worse damage, if they had no idea or concern for what they were doing.

None of that, however, was the worst part of the Yamanaka. The worst part, by far, was that they were eternally linked to the Nara and Akimichi clans. All things considered, Orochimaru could handle an assault from any one of those clans. He knew their specialties well enough. He also knew how much of a chance most ninja stood against those three specialties while they were present in a single team.

If Orochimaru had ever guessed that Sasuke might earn the wrath of all three clans at once, he would have promptly given up all hope of obtaining the Sharingan that way. It had nothing at all to do with fear, and everything to do with reality.

And the reality was that nobody could outrun a Nara in Konoha's forests at night.

A lone Nara would be no problem: their stamina left plenty to be desired, and between the chase itself and the chakra they'd need for the capture, they'd be worn out soon enough.

This case was not a lone Nara, but several of them. And not one of them was wasting any energy running, because each one was clinging to the back of an Akimichi, all of whom had enlarged and reinforced their legs for that very purpose. That a large, round ninja could not move swiftly was an absolute lie: a determined Akimichi could cover familiar terrain three times faster than the average ninja under proper conditions.

The Yamanaka had the best traits of both types: the necessary stamina to run at high speed for an extended period, and because the majority of their offense was mental and spiritual, rather than physical, any fatigue they picked up during the run would not be as hindering a factor as with other ninja.

Of course, the one thing that overrode any normal or average estimates of their abilities was the group's mindset.

Uchiha Sasuke had killed one of their own, and they fully intended to return the favor.

The Sound Four could not be blamed for their failure.

They could not have counted on the type of assault that hit them. With Konoha still greatly wounded from the invasion, they had been told to expect only a ragtag team of what the acting Hokage could scrape together on short notice: perhaps a bunch of chunin, at best.

The shadows of the Nara were upon them before the Sound-nin even realized it. Those that weren't immediately brought down by heavy, fatal blows to the head or neck simply had the greater misfortune of having their brains overloaded by the mental equivalent of a bomb.

In a manner of seconds, Sasuke found himself alone against the combined might of three clans.

For just a moment, they hesitated.

Sasuke started to think that they were having second thoughts, or perhaps just waiting for him to do something.

Then Ino's father broke the tense silence with just two words: "Take him."

And so they did.

Talented genin though he was, Sasuke could not hope to outrun or overwhelm them all. Before he could even think of drawing on his seal's power, no less than ten senbon slammed into it, and consuming numbness began to spread rapidly through his body. He fell to his knees as Ino's father walked up to him, roughly seizing a lock of his dark hair.

"I'm only going to ask you once, scum. No matter what you say, I'm going to gladly tear your mind apart in search of answers. But how much damage I do in the process will depend heavily on how you answer me."

Sasuke hissed in pain as his head was jerked up, and several strong hands grabbed him, forcing him to look into Yamanaka Inoichi's narrowed eyes.

"Did you kill my little girl?" the man asked.

"She left me no choice," Sasuke answered. "If you want an apology-"

"Don't bother. Words won't bring my Ino back. I'm going to assume you're telling me the truth."

Sasuke visibly relaxed, until he noticed that Inoichi's expression hadn't changed.

"In case you couldn't tell, that isn't a good thing." His grip on Sasuke's hair tightened slightly. "I'll tell you now: the crime of betraying the village in any form is punishable by death. Because you're the last Uchiha we have, they probably would have let you off with imprisonment for five, maybe ten years." He paused, leaning in to whisper directly into Sasuke's ear. "But because you admitted to killing my Ino, I'm going to promise you death. Once I see how you did it, we'll determine what kind of death it will be. So if you have a dying wish, say it now."

"My brother," Sasuke said without hesitation. "Kill him."

Inoichi blinked, more than a little startled. "Tell me something, then. You obviously understand clan loyalty. You had to know what would happen if you touched my daughter. You could have just knocked her out. Why go any further than that?"

Sasuke just stared at him. He wasn't about to admit aloud that he'd thought Ino's death wouldn't matter.

Not that it mattered at all, since Inoichi would soon see that and more within Sasuke's mind.

All things considered, Shikamaru was impressed with the way the three clans handled the execution of Sasuke. He hadn't known they could be so efficient and ruthless at the same time.

First, Inoichi had penetrated Sasuke's mind and confirmed that he was indeed Ino's killer. He didn't discuss the details of what he'd found, and no one asked him to.

For the next ten minutes, each Yamanaka took a turn in exposing Sasuke's already weakened mind to the worst mental torture they could think of. To Sasuke's credit, he only twitched the first turn, but by the last, he was a sobbing, broken wreck. Anytime Shikamaru started to pity him, he thought of the weight of Ino's dead body in his arms, and the pity faded quickly.

Next were the Akimichi: they quickly and loudly broke every single bone in Sasuke's body. He stopped crying out around the sixteenth.

When it was his clan's turn, Shikamaru stepped forward, having no idea what he was meant to do, but still willing to participate. His father's hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"Not this time, Shikamaru. You're only meant to watch. Your part comes later."

Shikamaru was glad that his father stopped him, considering what he saw next.

Shadows raced across the ground, sliding over Sasuke's body until none of him was visible. It was eerily similar to Gaara's sand, and Shikamaru knew with a start what they would do to Sasuke, but he couldn't force himself to look away. For Ino's sake, he had to know that the nightmare was over.

By mid-morning, only a handful of people had any idea that something had gone terribly wrong in Konoha.

Two sets of guards at Konoha's gates had blank spots in their memories, and could not explain with any confidence what had happened to them.

Hatake Kakashi could only confirm the whereabouts of one of his students, and that one had practically flooded Konoha with Shadow Clones in his desperation to find his teammates. Two of these clones had been sent to the Godaime Hokage (one to wake her and take the resulting deathblow, and the other to inform her of why they were waking her). Concerned but not yet worried, the Hokage had several ANBU search the village, and came up with two disturbing bits of news.

First, Yamanaka Inoichi was making funeral arrangements for his only daughter.

Second, Uchiha Sasuke was nowhere to be found.

These two events did not, at first, appear to be related. Having never actually spent more than a moment around either genin, Tsunade had no idea how one felt about the other, or that any average genin would be foolish enough to stand alone in an Uchiha's way. It was only when Inoichi came into her office around noon and calmly informed her that Sasuke had been tried and executed for Ino's murder that the pieces started to fit together. He even insisted on Tsunade being the one to confirm that the fingerprint bruises around Ino's neck had come from Sasuke's hands, which was done easily enough.

It was the start of yet another bad day for Tsunade: she would have to face the village council and inform them that their golden boy was dead. While it was true that Inoichi had completely ignored the chain of command and taken justice into his own hands, Tsunade certainly would not have hesitated to put a genin that killed another without reason to death, no matter who he was.

Inoichi, however, was surprisingly helpful, despite his guilt. He even offered to face the council with her, which was both convenient and suspicious. Especially considering that he requested it be a full meeting, with all clan heads in attendance. Tsunade knew without asking that this meeting would have a major impact on Konoha, but at the very least, she felt certain that little if any blame would fall on her.

Yamanaka Inoichi was completely calm as he stood before the village council. He had no doubts or misgivings about what he'd done, and he had been mentally preparing himself for this moment from the very instant he'd learned of his daughter's death.

"You understand why you are here, Inoichi?" Homura asked. As one of the senior members of the council, he was more or less presiding over the meeting.

"To provide an account of my retallitory actions concerning the murder of my daughter, Yamanaka Ino."

There was a great deal of murmuring at this: many council members had already learned of Ino's death, but this was the first most of them had heard of it being called murder.

Homura scowled, obviously able to tell that Inoichi was manipulating them. "Start at the beginning, please."

"Last night, my daughter observed Uchiha Sasuke attempting to leave the village. While he did not state his intentions, I have since spoken to one of his teammates, who believes Sasuke was planning to join Orochimaru in exchange for the power needed to kill Uchiha Itachi."

This claim was met with shocked silence.

"You have already interviewed Sasuke's teammate, Haruno Sakura?" Homura asked with a frown.

"Yes. I was more familiar with her than the other teammate, Uzumaki Naruto, and she was the second person to find Ino's body."

"The first being?"

"Nara Shikamaru, Shikaku's son."

Homura's eyebrows rose. "You're saying that two people found the body before you, and you never suspected them?"

"There was absolutely no reason to. Shikamaru, Sakura, and their families are close friends, and Ino was family to them. They would never hurt her. Aside from that, Shikamaru was the one who brought my daughter's body to me, and he was just as eager to bring her killer to justice as I was. The only reason Sakura didn't feel the same way was because she was still traumatized, both by the death of a friend and the betrayal of a teammate."

"What occurred between your daughter and Sasuke on the night in question, and how did you obtain knowledge of these events?"

Inoichi took a deep breath. "Shikamaru told me what little he knew: that Ino had gone out to find Sasuke and cheer him up. Based on Sasuke's recent behavioral changes, as well as the seal he recieved from Orochimaru, his mental stability was in question at the very least. We had every reason to believe Ino was alive when she met Sasuke that night, and every reason to believe she wasn't when he left her."

"You are implying that Sasuke killed your daughter?"

"No, I am stating that Sasuke killed my daughter. I obtained the evidence from a memory in his own mind. So at the very least, I can say with confidence that Sasuke either killed my daughter, or had a genjutsu placed upon him by the actual killer that made him think he had. Either way, he admitted to having killed her even before I searched his mind."

"How is it you were able to question Sasuke if he had fled the village?"

"Myself, and several members of my clan, along with members of the Akimichi and Nara clans, banded together and pursued Sasuke."

"You had permission to do this?"

To Inoichi's credit, he did not smirk. "Of course not."

Homura frowned at him. "You say that so easily."

"When a member of your family is killed in your backyard, you don't ask permission to get revenge. You take it and consider the consequences later."

"Then is it safe to assume you were unable to appreciate how this council would react to your actions?"

"Oh, I knew perfectly well how you'd all feel. But you're overlooking two facts. First, as a shinobi of Konaha, I take orders from the Hokage, not you. Second, it's obvious that very few people around here learned from the last time we handled the Uchiha incorrectly, which is how Sasuke ended up in the state he was in. The Sandaime was a good Hokage, but allowing Sasuke to roam free, with that seal on him, was a grave mistake. I know for a fact that Mitarashi Anko underwent a solid month of questioning before she was allowed-"

"That woman was Orochimaru's apprentice, and we had valid reason to suspect her of betraying the village," Homura interrupted.

"I'm fairly certain Orochimaru didn't lure Sasuke away with the idea of making him a mere foot soldier. If nothing else, experience with Anko should prove that anyone with Orochimaru's seal on them needs to be handled with extreme caution. Sasuke was not, because of who he is, or more accurately, who his family was, and this is the result. Is it any wonder I was unable to trust this village's judgment where Uchiha are concerned? Sasuke himself was confident that even if he were caught, the worst he'd get was a little jail time. He was under the impression that the murder of my daughter wouldn't stack up to his Uchiha name, that she would be overlooked in favor of having the last Uchiha fight for this village. So the way I see it, this council has two options. You can look me in my eye, tell me that my daughter choosing to sacrifice her life for this village carries no weight at all, and let your precious Uchiha go free. Or you can actually uphold the village law that states that any and all willing traitors are sentenced to death, and prove that no one doujutsu is greater than loyal ninja who observe and obey Konoha's laws."

"I'm sure no one here is going to overlook the death of a loyal kunoichi, Inoichi," Homura stated calmly. "Your daughter was a ninja of Konoha, and will be treated as such. But you fail to appreciate that your own actions work against you. You have taken justice into your own hands, completely ignored the chain of command, and meddled with the mind of a suspect without proper authorization. We can no longer trust anything Sasuke might tell us, thanks to that. We can not trust the testimony of any witnesses, as they would clearly side with you. All we have is your word, and evidence you collected. Sasuke will indeed be punished, but so will you. Every ninja must know his place, and there is no excuse for your behavior in this incident. Whatever your feelings on the Uchiha, you should have had faith that we would uphold Konoha's laws, even where Sasuke is concerned."

"So you will be executing him, as Konoha's law demands?" Inoichi demanded sharply. "Anything less is an insult to them, my entire clan, as well as every ninja who gave his life believing that this village would always do what was needed to maintain its integrity. So long as you guarantee that Uchiha Sasuke will be put to death for the murder of my daughter, I will gladly submit to any punishment you see fit to hand down."

"This has gone on long enough."

All eyes turned to Danzo, who let out a dry cough before continuing.

"What you said is certainly true, Inoichi: many people in this village hold Sasuke in higher regard than they do your daughter. And they have every right to. Do you have any idea how much profit Sasuke's name alone brought to this village during the chunin exams? I guarantee you that none of our honored guests came to see your daughter fight. How could they, when she failed to pass the preliminaries? Even if she is dead by Sasuke's hand, he would only be killed after we had wrung all possible value left out of him. Even a dead Uchiha is worth more to this village that your daughter ever was alive. It's time you accepted that and stopped thinking you're in any position to give orders to this council."

"I see," Inoichi said softly. "Then it's very fortunate that I can at least do that much right. Uchiha Sasuke is very much dead, and assuming you start paying my daughter's memory the proper respect, I might even show you where I put all of the pieces."

Kakashi had always wondered how his sensei had gotten past Obito's death. He had never dared to ask, but now he desperately wished he had.

He knew for a fact that Sasuke was dead: Nara Shikaku had told him as much that morning. Kakashi had never really been close to the man, but he also knew that Shikaku had been killing people for a long time. If Shikaku said he took part in someone's death, they were very much dead.

Accepting that wasn't even the hard part. Kakashi had already known that if Sasuke kept going down the path he'd chosen, he was going to end up dead or worse sooner rather than later.

The hard part was telling the rest of his students, and the other rookies, that two of their own were dead. Really, Kakashi was only responsible for telling his own team, but as far as he was concerned, his failures with Sasuke had gotten Ino killed. The least he could do was accept any blame.

He could tell it would go badly the moment he stepped onto the training field.

Sakura was already in tears, and as a sign of how bad she was feeling, she was allowing Naruto, of all people, to hold her. For his part, Naruto seemed to be in as much disbelief as Kakashi at the moment. Kurenai's rookies were huddled around their sensei, looking anxious but not saying anything. Asuma was more solemn than Kakashi had ever seen him, Chouji just looked numb, but Shikamaru was visibly angry. That was a true first: Kakashi had expected sadness from him, or at least satisfaction.

"I know some of you have already heard this from your parents, but I thought it best if the rest of you heard it from me," Kakashi began. "Last night, two of our genin were killed."

It didn't take long for the to figure out who he meant, as Ino and Sasuke were the only ones missing. Hinata gasped, Kiba's eyes narrowed, and Naruto looked absolutely furious.

"I know this is difficult-"

"You're lying!" Naruto shouted. "He's not dead! There's no way that Sasuke could be dead! He wouldn't just-"

"Naruto," Kakashi interrupted, "you don't know the circumstances."

"So tell him," Shikamaru insisted coolly. "Or should I, Kakashi-sensei?"

Naruto immediately lost all interest in Kakashi. "What do you know?" he demanded, taking a step toward Shikamaru.

"I know plenty," Shikamaru said flatly. "I know Sasuke tried to leave the village last night, intending to go straight to Orochimaru for power. I know Ino tried to stop him. I know that instead of just knocking her out, or even injuring her, Sasuke chose to take her life. I know my clan and two others hunted Sasuke down like the dog he was, took their time taking him apart, and ensured that he'd never hurt another innocent. I know that because I was there, and I wish I'd taken part, but I didn't. With his last actions, Sasuke betrayed your team and this village. So don't you dare stand there and act like it's bad that he's dead. He got what all traitors deserve: he died alone, and in the most painful way."

"Shut up!" Naruto shouted, lunging at Shikamaru.

It would have been simpler and cleaner for Kakashi or any other sensei to intervene. They held back for two reasons: the first was that Naruto needed to learn, and the second was curiosity, to see how their students would handle this.

Naruto was still inches away from his target when a cloud of Kikaichi insects engulfed the lower half of his body, halting his progress. Het let out a strangled yell and tried to swat them away, only to receive a powerful punch to the jaw that laid him flat on his back, courtesy of Kiba.

"Be smart for once and stay down, Naruto," Kiba growled. "There's nothing you can say to defend that traitor, so don't bother."

"You didn't know him!" Naruto yelled. He searched the gathered faces for any sign of support, but there was none. The sensei were avoiding his eyes, and even Sakura had turned her head. In desperation, Naruto even looked to Hinata, but she, too, was staring at her feet, though she still seemed to flinch as his gaze landed on her, as if she could feel him looking.

"Then if you did know him," Shino chimed in, "and you failed to prevent this, should we hold you responsible for Ino's death? Do you have any idea what her clan could demand be done to you if that were the case? Beyond that, do you have any idea how many people in this village would jump at the chance to see you exiled or put to death? Someone in your position should choose his words and actions far more carefully, Naruto."

"I think that's more than enough," said a new voice. "Let him up."

Naruto tensed as Ino's father stood over him, gazing down into his face with an unreadable expression.

"Let me guess," Inoichi murmured as Shino's insects withdrew. "You're angry because you believe your teammate was unfairly tried and executed. You're thinking that whatever he did or didn't do, he somehow wasn't to blame."

"It was that stupid thing on his shoulder!" Naruto howled. "Whatever that freak in the forest did to him, it changed Sasuke! None of this was his fault!"

"I see," Inoichi replied. "Well, I do believe that. But that happened during the second stage of the chuunin exams. So why didn't you report this before the preliminaries began, when the Sandaime asked if anyone was unfit to continue? Surely you didn't think that a mind-altering seal on your teammate made him competent to compete?"

"I didn't know what it would do to him!" Naruto insisted.

"Even more reason to report it. It was your duty as a ninja of Konoha and Sasuke's teammate to report that seal the first chance you got. Your failure to do so may have contributed to the deaths of both my daughter and Sasuke. So, again, why would you not report it? If the seal had been on Sakura, would you have said something?"

Naruto glared at him. "Of course I would have! But Sasuke told us not to say anything! He wanted to get stronger as soon as possible, and he never would have forgiven us if we'd gotten him kicked out of the exams!"

"And instead he became a traitor." Inoichi shook his head. "You can rest assured of one thing, Naruto: I don't blame you for Ino's death. Sasuke killed her, and whatever his reasons, he is the one I will always blame. You have a right to be upset, as his teammate. But therein lies three contradictions. First, as his teammate, you should have been concerned enough to report the seal. Second, even after you failed to report the seal, you should have been keeping a closer eye on Sasuke's activities, especially when you noticed changes in his behavior. Finally, by killing a fellow ninja of Konoha, Sasuke knowingly betrayed the oath he swore to his team and his village. He quit your team the moment he decided to kill my daughter. So I have no mercy for him, and I have no sympathy for you. We are all ninja, Naruto. We make decisions that could result in death, for us or for others, every day. The only thing we can do is try to make honorable choices, and hope that the dishonorable ones at least benefit someone else. So tell me: was Sasuke's goal in life so much more important than Ino's life? I heard you spout several excuses for his behavior, and yet not a single word of her death. Did she mean so little to you, too? Would you have strangled her and left her on the side of the road like garbage, too?"

Naruto looked away, unable to meet Inoichi's eyes any longer. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "But he was my best friend, like a brother to me. Ino was barely even a friend, and that was her choice. I didn't want her to die. I didn't want either of them to die. But Sasuke's life meant more to me, and I won't apologize for that!"

"Nor would I ask you to," Inoichi replied calmly. "Instead, I would ask this: if Sasuke's life meant so much to you, why allow him to be so reckless with it? If you valued your friend as much as you say you did, you should have reported the seal, followed his every move afterward, and reported any sign of suspicious behavior. Instead, you kept silent and trusted that he could handle it. But you were wrong twice over, Naruto, and you weren't the only one. Nor are you the only one that seems intent on ignoring Ino's death. Just moments ago, the council threatened to have everyone who participated in Sasuke's execution stripped of their ninja status and imprisoned. In the end, we got off with heavy fines and black marks on our records. Do you know why?"

Naruto shook his head, and it was clear he saw Inoichi's fate as a grave miscarriage of justice.

"It's because the majority of my clan threatened to withdraw from Konoha, and so did the Nara and Akimichi. It's because we cherish the bonds of friendship we formed as children, and have for generations. When someone kills one of us, they have to deal with all of us. When one of us is threatened, we all defend him. That is what it means to be part of clan. Sasuke may have forgotten that, or perhaps he lost his clan too early to ever learn it. But no one person, or their dream, is bigger than their clan, or the village. Sasuke may have been carrying the weight of vengeance on his shoulders, but the moment he lashed out against a fellow Leaf-nin, he became the evil he'd been targeting all along. One way or another, he was going to get himself killed with the route he chose."

"But it wasn't up to you to make that choice!" Naruto shouted. "He was our teammate, and our problem!"

Inoichi shook his head. "I told you, he ceased to be your teammate the moment he chose to leave this village, and certainly when he put his hands on Ino. At that moment, he became the village's problem. But I don't think you understand how serious the situation was, Naruto. If you had been selected for the mission to either bring Sasuke back or put him down, and he refused to come back, what would you have done? Would you have been able to kill him? Or would you let him escape, and possibly become an even greater threat to the village than his brother ever was? Nevermind being Hokage, these are the choices we as ninja must make every single day. If you can't accept that, then you might as well quit. Save your loyalty for the friends who remain loyal to you, not those that have turned their back on you. That's only a good, fast way to end up dead, believe me."

"I think I understand," Naruto muttered. "But I'll never forgive you."

"You don't have to, and I don't need you to," Inoichi replied firmly. "I got my peace of mind when I saw my daughter's murderer put to death. Maybe you can have yours when I tell you that Sakura was the second person to find Ino's body, but she easily could have been the only person that Sasuke encountered on his way out of the village. Would you still feel the same about him, if he had killed her instead of Ino?"

At once, Naruto opened his mouth to say that Sasuke would never have hurt Sakura. But as he looked into the stricken face of his only remaining teammate, Naruto found he couldn't say anything. He was no longer sure what Sasuke would have done, thanks to the mind-altering seal. Just yesterday, he had firmly believed that Sasuke could never turn his back on his team and village, or kill a defenseless girl, and yet he had done both in the space of a few minutes. Would Sasuke have killed Sakura? There was no real way to be certain anymore. Knowing what he knew now, if Naruto had known that Sakura had intended to stop Sasuke, he would have told everyone jounin in the village in an attempt to prevent her. He wouldn't have taken such a huge risk with Sakura's life, because she was precious to him, both as a teammate and a friend. No matter how annoying Ino had been, she had been a Leaf-nin, and there was simply no excuse for Sasuke attacking her outside of a spar, much less killing her if she hadn't attacked him first. The idea that Ino would rather die before attacking Sasuke was now no longer a joke: it was simply a cold, hard fact that settled like a boulder in Naruto's belly. What made it worse was that part of him could understand that Inoichi hadn't killed Sasuke solely for the sake of revenge. He had done so to stop Sasuke from becoming a future threat to village, and to keep Sasuke's power out of Orochimaru's hands. Much as Naruto hated Orochimaru, he couldn't say with certainty that he'd have been able to kill Sasuke to keep him away from Orochimaru.

Naruto's thoughts came to an abrupt end as he felt a hand grip his shoulder. It was Sakura, and she was staring straight at Shikamaru and Chouji, or more precisely, the empty space beside them where Ino would never stand again. She began to open her mouth, but Kakashi cut her off.

"You can do this, if it's what you need to move on, Sakura. But you have to be sure. There's no room for doubt."

Sakura seemed surprised, at first. Then she smiled sadly at him and nodded, before turning back to the remaining members of Team 8. "Asuma-sensei? I request your permission to join your team."

Chouji and Shikamaru were clearly stunned, but Asuma looked as if he'd expected as much. "You want to replace Ino?"

"No. No one could ever do that. It's because of Ino that I learned to stop doubting myself, and I never thanked her for that. This only way I can make amends to your team. Being part of Team 7 made me happy, but being a ninja isn't about being happy. It's about doing what you need to do, when the time comes. Ino obviously learned that from you, and I want to as well."

"Any objections?" Asuma asked his boys. When neither one said a word after several seconds, he nodded. "Permission granted. Welcome to the team, Sakura. Assuming the Hokage approves, that is."

Not surprisingly, everyone turned to Naruto, knowing full well that he had the Hokage's ear.

"Naruto?" Sakura asked hesitantly.

"What?" he muttered. "We're not teammates anymore, so why do you care what I think?"

"I'm sorry," Sakura whispered. "But it's not as if our team was working out. We've more than proved that-"

"Yes, it was!" Naruto snapped. "Even now, all you can think about is HIM! Well, guess what, Sakura? The two of us, we didn't betray the village or each other! It was all him! Everything was always about him! He was the only reason you were happy to be on this team, he was the only one that screwed things up when they were going great, and he was the one that killed Ino! So don't you stand there and act like we were all failures! He's the one that messed up, and we don't deserve to be punished for that!"

"I'm not doing this to punish you, Naruto," Sakura said patiently. "I'm doing this to free you. I've seen how hard you worked to keep up with Sasuke. He was good for that much. At some point, it stopped being about impressing me, and became more for you. I'm proud of that. No, I'm proud of you. You've learned the value of working hard and how much stronger it can make you... but I haven't. And I never will, if I keep letting you protect me. Shikamaru and Chouji won't do that. They didn't with Ino, and they won't with me. They'll be better for me."

"And being alone again will be better for me?" Naruto spat.

"Yes," Sakura said firmly, startling him. "The way I was, I would only have weighed down any team I was on. You don't need that, Naruto, and you never did. You deserve to have Kakashi-sensei's undivided attention, and now you will. You don't need me or Sasuke to help you get stronger anymore. We each need to find our own strength. This is how I'm going to find mine. Maybe someday we'll be able to work together again, but right now we need to be apart."

Naruto stared at her. "So that's it," he said weakly.

"I guess so. I'm sorry, Naruto, but I need this." Sakura hesitated, then quickly gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek that he had no time to enjoy, before she ran off with fresh tears in her eyes, her new team following at a respectful distance.

"We'll be leaving, too," Kurenai added. She stared hard at Kiba, who shuffled over to Naruto and muttered what might have been an apology for hitting him so hard. Naruto, who had grown up with Kiba and seen him lose his temper at least once a week, was used to such apologies, and after a quick fist bump, any bad feelings between them were simply more water under the bridge.

That still left Hinata, who seemed more awkward than was normal for her as she approached Naruto.

"I'm sorry, Naruto-kun," she murmured, "for not supporting you earlier. It's just that-"

"It's okay, Hinata," Naruto sighed. "I know Sasuke was a jerk, and you had no real reason to like him. I didn't really expect you to speak up for him."

There was a long pause, and Hinata's voice was oddly cold when she next spoke.

"I know you're in pain right now, Naruto-kun, but you need to know something: I would never speak up for someone like him."

Naruto stared at her in shock. "Um, why not?" He couldn't think of a single thing Sasuke had done to Hinata personally.

"Because if you had tried to stop him, and he had killed you instead, I would feel the same way that Shikamaru did."

Naruto gaped at her. "Oh," was all he could come up with.

There was an even longer pause, and then Hinata slowly reached out and gently touched his arm. "I'm sorry about your team, Naruto-kun. If you ever need someone to practice with, or even if you just want someone to listen, I'll be here for you."

"Thanks," Naruto said, less because he appreciated it and more because Hinata was starting to scare him.

Hinata gave him a small smile before hurrying after her team.

Naruto turned his attention to Inoichi, suddenly aware that he had never been able to answer the man's question. Would he feel the same if Sasuke had killed Sakura? Certainly not: Sakura was his friend, teammate, and first love. If Sasuke had killed her, Naruto would have been the first one out for his blood. The village's stance wouldn't have mattered to Naruto one bit... just as it hadn't to Inoichi.

Inoichi seemed to sense the shift in Naruto's thinking. He nodded and left without another word.

Naruto turned to Kakashi, expecting him to leave as well. But Kakashi surprised him, both by staying and with his next words.

"I'm sorry, Naruto, for a great deal of things. We can get into the details later, but for now, I'd like to reapy a debt to an old friend, if you'll let me."

Naruto had no idea what Kakashi meant, and was about to say so. But then he watched in growing shock as Kakashi extended his hand, and rapidly began to gather visible chakra into familiar, swirling shape. "Kakashi-sensei, you know the Rasengan!"

"I know many things, Naruto," Kakashi replied, "and as my student, I should have shared more of them with you. I apologize for not doing so, but we can start making up for that right now. Sakura was right: as I have no other students, I have no more excuses. If you're willing, I will take you as far along the path of the ninja as I possibly can. When we can go no further together, I'll make sure you have a more experienced teacher to further your training."

Naruto's eyes dimmed, losing their excitement. "Only because Sasuke's not here anymore, right?" he muttered.

"No. Because your father expected better of me, and as his only surviving student, I expected better of myself."

Naruto's head snapped up. "You knew my-?"

"I did. And when you're ready, so will you. But for now, the best thing you can do, for yourself and for Sasuke's memory, is learn from his mistake. All the tools you need to become a great ninja are right here in this village, and it's time I started showing you proof of that."

"But I already know the Rasengan," Naruto pointed out.

Kakashi blinked. "Oh? So you've completely mastered it, know every possible way to use it, and require no further instruction on it?"

Naruto scowled at him. "...yeah?"

"Do it with only one hand."

"Okay, I haven't mastered it!"

"Then we'll start from there," Kakashi replied, chuckling lightly.

Several years had passed before Inoichi ever found himself facing Naruto again. By then, Naruto was a chunin (though, going all out, he could probably kill anyone in the village except the current Hokage, and only because Kakashi wouldn't hesitate to fight dirty), while Inoichi had more or less stayed at the same job, though now had far more responsibilities than he cared for. One of those happened to be thoroughly examining former missing-nin wishing to join Konoha's ranks.

In truth, even had he known back then that Uchiha Itachi would be sitting in his office one day, Inoichi still would have chosen to execute Sasuke for Ino's murder. In hindsight, however, allowing Sasuke to live would have only made the meeting a tiny bit less awkward, considering that Itachi's monstrous partner Hoshigaki Kisame had accompanied him.

Itachi by himself was a difficult enough case: he had returned to the village almost entirely blind, but otherwise in fairly good health. Technically, there was no reason why they couldn't insert him right back into ANBU: it would allow Inoichi to keep a close eye on him, and now that Itachi's mission as a double agent had been revealed to the proper parties, his loyalty was hardly in question.

Still, Inoichi had killed Itachi's only surviving relative, and the very person Itachi himself had been unable to kill out of love. Things were going to be tense no matter what anyone said.

Then Naruto ruined everything by bursting into the room and demanding that Itachi be allowed to rejoin the ranks, even offering to vouch for him. He soon noticed Kisame grinning at him, paled, and muttered, "Um, but he's on his own."

After dragging Naruto outside the office and giving him a very long lecture on when he definitely shouldn't interrupt, Naruto scowled at him and finally said, "But you have to let Itachi back in! If he hasn't killed you already, then he isn't going to!"

Inoichi could agree with that somewhat: Itachi and Kisame had presented nine Akatsuki rings as a show of good faith, so clearly it was within their power to get rid of Inoichi. About the most threatening thing they'd done so far was imply that they wouldn't mind working for him directly (which, again, only made sense, but would still be extremely awkward for Inoichi).

"It isn't a question of how they feel about me, but how they feel about the village," Inoichi pointed out. "Itachi at least has some ties here, but Hoshigaki is a total unknown."

"He can hardly be much more dangerous than my tenant, right?" Naruto offered hesitantly.

Inoichi frowned. "Your tenant is sealed. Hoshigaki isn't. And even if he were, that would just make him more suspicious, since we wouldn't have done the sealing. All that aside, together he and Itachi took down almost all of Akatsuki. Somehow, I doubt you could have done that."

Before Naruto could disagree, Kisame poked his head out of the office. "Itachi-san and I have been talking. We have a counter-offer."

Inoichi sighed. "What?"

"You can either let us join you here, or we could offer our services to another village. I always did like the climate in Kumo."

Inoichi cursed under his breath. "Fine, you're in. But don't kill anyone without permission."

Kisame grinned in a completely threatening way. "You'd be surprised what some people can live through," he said over his shoulder as he went back into the office.

"You let them in because you feel guilty about Sasuke?" Naruto guessed.

Inoichi shook his head. "No, I let them in because saying no would be like sending ten copies of Sasuke to Kumo, and frankly, some people are still sore that I got rid of the one. If Itachi isn't going to dwell on it, then I can't afford to, for the sake of the village."

"So would you have done it even if the village didn't need them?"

"Probably. Itachi doesn't seem to hold a grudge, but no reason we need to test that theory."

"It'll be pretty hard to place them, though, right?" Naruto asked. "Who's going to trust them enough to work with them?"

Inoichi smirked. "I don't know about that, but it has come to my attention that you've been working without a team for quite some time. I'll get the transfer paperwork started."

Naruto paled. "Hey, wait a-"

"Give it up. They already requested you, and I don't think you want to risk taking this matter to the Hokage."

They both knew very well that the last time Naruto had complained about the way the Hokage ran things, he'd had to assist Iruka at the Ninja Academy for a whole month. Supposedly his hearing hadn't been negatively impacted, but Inoichi had his suspicions.

"I guess it's too late for me to run away from the village?" Naruto grumbled.

"No. But I'd just send those two out after you, and I don't think you want to give Hoshigaki any additional reason to fight you."

Sighing, Naruto shoved his hands in his pockets. "I want better pay if I have to deal with him all the time."

"You can have half of whatever we're paid," Itachi said as he emerged from the office with Kisame behind him. "We'd have to stay with you, though, since we're effectively homeless now."

Naruto's jaw dropped in horror. "ANBU has dorms! They have to!"

"They do," Inoichi agreed.

Naruto sighed in relief.

"You can all stay together that way."

The horror was back in Naruto's eyes. Kisame's grin only widened. And even Inoichi had to admit a small part of him wanted to grin, too.

"That kid will murder you in your sleep for signing off on this," Inoichi pointed out an hour later.

Kakashi giggled, his one visible eye full of amusement as he handed the paperwork back to Inoichi. "He hasn't managed it yet, and not for lack of trying. But I promised I'd make him a great ninja, and this is currently the best way. Speaking of which, do you think 'Team Overkill' is too obvious a name?"

Inoichi coughed. "Just a little."

The End.

Endnotes: I wanted to produce something in time for the holidays, and it was either this, completed, or a single chapter of another Naruto story. It was pretty close, so I went with this one, since it had been in production the longest.