Kuushou sat motionless in his living room, staring at the wall. His eyes were twitching back and forth randomly and his expression was vacant. He had been like this for over an hour now, ever since he had returned to his apartment. Despite his stillness on the outside, inside, his thoughts were churning as he relentlessly evaluated and discarded countless ninja, pondering who should be his third team member.

He had started by scanning the village and locating the largest sources of chakra, which in turn signified strong ninja who would add to the power and capability of his team. Some of those signatures he had memorized long ago, as they belonged to the Hokage, key ANBU members, or famous ninja such as Gai and Kakashi. Naturally, they were out.

Others he had not encountered directly, but were in turn eliminated due to their locations - the largest cluster were ANBU, none of which would make a suitable choice for his purposes. Others were located deep within the Hokage's Tower, or in Danzo's network of underground tunnels, or nestled within clan compounds.

When that failed to produce a likely candidate, he had turned his attention to his own memories, considering each ninja he had personally met. Some he would have preferred, like Temari, were not ninja of Konoha. Others, like Hana Inuzuka, had too much seniority in both service and physical age to make willing subordinates.

This limited his field of candidates even further, to recent graduates and freshly promoted chuunin. Neji Hyuuga, while skilled, would clash horribly with Hinata and did not bring any new benefits to the team. Lee Rock would never consider changing teams, and Tenten... Tenten was a possibility. She had shown an understated competence in Wave, and her ranged techniques were both versatile and could easily be boosted with the addition of exploding tags, something he could supply himself.

On the other hand, the odds of convincing her to leave her team within six days - four, really, considering he would need a team member before the deadline and he'd already spent one day acquiring the first two - were slim.

That left his own students, of which only three had really caught his attention: Hinata, Sasuke, and Sakura. Hinata he had already secured, but Sasuke and Sakura...

Sasuke had a drive that would see him reach S-rank by twenty, possibly long before that. He also had a goal that mattered more to him than his own standing in the village, a goal that he would abandon everything to pursue, a goal that he could exploit to his own ends.

On the other hand, that goal was killing Itachi Uchiha, so Sasuke's usefulness and life would both end abruptly the moment he actually found his brother. As one of Sasuke's teachers over the last few months, he had a very clear picture of his current level as well as where he would likely be over the next year or two. Being generous, by the time Sasuke was fifteen he might actually be able to defeat Itachi... as he was at age nine.

Kuushou allowed his thoughts to drift a moment to focus on the problem that was Itachi. In his own world, Itachi had nearly recognized his true nature at their very first meeting, though it would take him years to ultimately make that final step from "container of the Bijuu" to "the Bijuu itself." That still put him far, far ahead of the other ninja in the village, who had yet to realize what he truly was before his abrupt departure.

Itachi had come to him after he finally made that connection, revealing his knowledge and showing more curiosity than fear. They had parted ways that same night, Itachi fleeing the village that had so effectively alienated him and Kuushou remaining behind in a carefully staged scene as a "survivor" of "Itachi's madness." He would hardly count that Itachi as a friend - even ally was pushing it - but they had parted with a mutual understanding and respect that had served him well.

Which made it a shame that he could not say the same of the Itachi in this world. He didn't really believe that Itachi had massacred the Uchiha clan to "test his capacity" - though he couldn't fully discount the possibility of actual madness without meeting the ninja himself - but clearly things had gone a very different path in this world, different enough that he was forced to doubt most of what he had learned of Itachi over the years. Perhaps his treatment had been even worse here than in his own world, or perhaps...

But, focusing on his own purposes, while Sasuke's obsession with Itachi might prove a useful lever in manipulating him, it could just as easily be used by anyone else as well. Sasuke was also unlikely to have much patience with side trips and detours that did not directly benefit him or increase his power, which would create a repeated source of conflict. And, most of all, if they ever met Itachi in the field he would swiftly be down one Uchiha teammate, rendering all of his work up to that point useless.

So Sasuke was out.

That left him with Sakura, who was nearly as problematic, if for very different reasons. Her promotion to Chuunin did not suddenly boost her combat performance, which was definitely still lacking in terms of offense. Her defensive capabilities, especially with the shukuchi, were quite impressive but that alone would only get her so far. He could easily see her making it to S-rank as well, but she had a much longer and more arduous road to travel than Sasuke did.

In the meantime, she would bring nothing like Hinata's Byakugan or Sai's connections to Danzo and his network that made her presence on the team in and of itself useful. And, even though his spar with Sai lasted less than two minutes, that brief exchange had still shown more power, speed, and ruthlessness than Sakura had in months of training. He would give Hinata's Gentle Fist the edge over Sai in terms of combat, barring unusual abilities the boy might possess, but both stood head and shoulders above Sakura on the battlefield.

With the amount of gratitude and emotional attachment she had displayed, she was practically his for the asking if he wanted her on his team. The problem was, he wasn't sure it would be worth asking right now. If it wasn't Sakura, though, he was down to asking a random chuunin or even genin to act as temporary filler.

A slight frown marred his face as he stared at the wall.

Despite her current lack of power, though, she had nothing stopping her from rapidly growing stronger. Her chakra reserves were rapidly expanding and her physical regimen was starting to show definite results. Teach her a few low-cost techniques in the short term, focus on leveraging her chakra control over her growing reserves in the long term... given time, she could be very dangerous indeed. He could even recall a few of the jutsu from the Forbidden Scroll that were almost perfect for-

He snapped upright in his seat, his eyes wide.

Even though he could use human chakra now, he had mentally set aside the techniques from the Forbidden Scroll because of their complexity and the problems that would surely arise if he flaunted techniques from the stolen scroll. It was a problem he would deal with down the road, after he had resolved far more pressing concerns. But, because of that, he had almost overlooked a perfect opportunity.

He had just spent a month working with Sakura to recreate a technique based on nothing more than a general description of its function and his own memory of how the technique had felt when performed by someone else. Despite their amazement at the feat, not a single person had questioned whether Sakura was actually capable of accomplishing it. In fact, with her record from the Academy and studious nature, it was almost expected that she would develop her own techniques. And as the person helping her, he would naturally learn them as well...

And with her on his team, taking missions outside the village, with all the time in the world and every opportunity to sense many techniques being used by other ninja, it wouldn't be any surprise at all if some of them happened to resemble techniques from the Forbidden Scroll. As long as they weren't the only techniques they came up with, no one would think anything of it.

And that was definitely worth the asking.

~ Scene Break ~

His decision made, he hadn't wasted any time in tracking Sakura down and making the offer.

"I... I... wow," Sakura stuttered, eyes wide as she stared across the table at Kuushou.

"We already know we can work well together, and I think you'd be a great fit for the team I'm building," Kuushou pressed, confident and earnest.

Around them, one of the many bars that catered to ninja continued its normal routine. A table of off-duty ANBU raised their glasses in a silent toast while beside them a trio of chuunin competed to find out who had the most outrageous story. A few scattered ninja were steadily drinking the day away, staring blankly at their glasses while the crowd respectfully flowed around them. The largest crowd was gathered around a fierce contest between two jounin as they alternated using shuriken and kunai to form increasingly complex shapes on the large target area on the wall at the back of the room.

Sakura had been hesitant to use this as their impromptu meeting place, but the warm reception she had received had left her both blushing and grinning. They were still receiving quite a bit of attention, actually, but the two of them were arguably the most famous chuunin in Konoha for the moment, so that much was to be expected. Other than the occasional toast directed at himself or Sakura, they had been left alone - as alone as anyone could be in a crowded bar, at least.

Kuushou waited patiently, letting Sakura work her way through her surprise while he studied the bar around him. After several minutes, she finally responded.

"I- well, I guess first I should say congratulations on making it back on the active roster," she said, shaking herself and regaining her equilibrium.

"Thanks," Kuushou replied with a quick nod.

"And it's great that you're starting your own team, and... I'm really flattered that you want me to be part of it."

"After seeing what you accomplished before and during the exams, I'd be foolish not to," he responded.

She grinned at that, but it was a little strained. Kuushou's eyes narrowed slightly as he studied her reaction more closely; she wasn't as enthused or excited as he would have expected. In fact...

"I really, really am, but..." Sakura paused, drawing in a deep breath, "but I have to decline."

Kuushou stared at her, not saying a word, and Sakura hastened to explain.

"It's nothing against you, honest!" she rushed out, holding up her hands. "It's just, I really like where I am right now. After the exams Kakashi-sensei and I had a long talk - several long talks, actually - and I understand where he was coming from when he did what he did." She flushed, scratching her cheek as she looked away. "I was kind of... bitchy to him, too," she muttered quietly.

She looked back up, frowning. "Don't get me wrong, I'm still not happy that he couldn't even bother to properly explain things before he took off, but I could have handled it better." She shook her head. "Anyway, he's been doing really awesome as an instructor since then, and he's even helping me work out different ways to use the shukuchi during our spars. And Sasuke-kun..."

She smiled, a prominent blush staining her cheeks. "Sasuke-kun's been paying a lot more attention to me lately, too. He's even asked to spar with me several times outside of training, and he's talking with me a lot more, too! That never happened before I got promoted! He finally sees that I'm a strong kunoichi!"

Kuushou continued to stare at her, forcing himself not to follow his first reaction... or several beyond that, lest he undo all of the work he'd put into her up to this point. Though he was swiftly starting to doubt just how effective his work had been, if she was willing to set aside everything he'd done for her in favor of her dogged pursuit of Sasuke.

Sakura looked increasingly uncomfortable at his lack of response. "S-so, that's- things are going really well for me on Kakashi-sensei's team, a-and I'm honored that you would ask me, but it doesn't feel right to leave the team now that I'm finally getting somewhere.

"Sorry," she finished quietly, her eyes dropping to the table.

Kuushou held up his hand, shaking his head. "There's no need to be sorry. That wasn't the answer I had hoped for, obviously, but you have your own dreams you are aiming for, just as I do. I can't fault you for trying to achieve them," he added with a wry grin.

Sakura visibly relaxed at his words, nodding in relief. "Thanks, Naruto," she said.

"That said," he continued, standing and placing a handful of ryo on the table to cover his portion of the bill, "I am a little disappointed in your priorities. I was really looking forward to what you could have become, in time."

Sakura frowned, looking confused and a little hurt. He turned and began walking towards the exit, not giving her a chance to reply.

"Good luck, Sakura," he called back over his shoulder as he left.

~ Scene Break ~

Kuushou began moving in the general direction of the training grounds, easily evading Sakura as she rushed out of the bar and tried to catch up with him.

He was angry, but surprisingly it was mostly at himself. He had misread this Sakura, seeing too much of the girl Ino had carefully groomed over their years in the Academy and not enough of the girl he was actually dealing with. Her obsession with Sasuke lay far more deeply rooted than he had believed, which in turn meant that he had not spent nearly enough time addressing that issue. It didn't help that he hadn't been actively trying to sway Sakura's loyalties, either, instead simply taking advantage of opportunities as they appeared.

He was also angry with Sakura, of course, but he needed to reconsider the situation before determining how he should handle her now. Even so, he hadn't been able to stop that final cutting remark, somewhat veiled though it had been. It was vague enough to be interpreted several ways, but it would need to be dealt with if he decided to continue working with her.

Kuushou's anger with Sakura grew slightly as he realized his chances of finding someone capable of filling her role as technique creator were incredibly low. All his plans for the Forbidden Scroll would need to be adjusted or even abandoned now.

He returned his attention to the world around him when he realized he had altered his path while wrapped up in his thoughts, and then smirked slightly as he recognized the chakra signature he was now moving to intercept.

Anko had finally returned to Konoha. She had three other chakra signatures walking slightly ahead of her, none of them particularly impressive and none that he recognized, from either this world or his own. His eyes scanned over the group as he turned the corner and finally caught sight of them directly.

The genin - two girls and one boy - were all dressed in dark clothing with cloaks draped over their forms, small bulges here and there hinting at pouches and packs. The clothing appeared new, if you looked past the rips, tears, stains, holes, and burn marks that covered them. The genin themselves were about in the same condition; half-covered in bandages, limping, moving stiffly and generally giving off the sense that they'd just come back from a war zone.

One of them, a short girl with straight black hair that looked like it was normally worn in a ponytail but was now both singed and ended in an uneven cut, had her left arm in a sling and tied against her torso. The other two looked as if they had managed to avoid more serious injuries, but had the same air of exhaustion. Compared to their obvious physical fatigue, their expressions were happy and excited. They all had small smiles that never wavered, and they would occasionally glance at each other or bump shoulders before grinning.

Anko herself walked behind them at a sedate pace, her arms tucked behind her head as she strolled down the road. She was trying and failing to keep a smirk off of her own face, and her whole form radiated a sense of smug satisfaction.

She spotted him approaching and waved to him. "Blondie!" she called out, causing her students to pause and look around.

"About time you got back," he greeted her, coming to a stop a few feet away from Anko. Her students stood off to the side, the other girl, this one with close-cropped blonde hair, looking at him with a stunned expression.

"Just putting my new minions through their paces," she shot back. "It looks like I'll be keeping them, so I'll do some introductions. This is Taiki Yamaguchi," she pointed to the boy who was trying to hide his evaluating gaze and doing a poor job of it, "Hanako Hisakawa," she pointed to the blonde who had recovered enough to only looked mildly shocked, "and Kokoro Hamasaki," she finished, pointing to the black-haired girl with her arm in the sling.

"Minions, this is Naruto Yamanaka."

"Yama- I thought it was Uzumaki, Sensei?" Hanako interrupted, turning a confused expression towards Anko.

"It's complicated, but he sticks with Yamanaka," she said, waving off the question. "He's the partner I've been telling you about."

"But- he's only a chuunin," Kokoro pointed out, Taiki nodding silently in agreement while Hanako flinched.

"He started out as a genin not that long ago, not that it matters. Anyway," she said, turning to Kuushou, "you found us at just the right time, Blondie! I was about to treat my minions to dango, and now you can treat me to dango to welcome me back to the village!"

Kuushou paused for a moment, considering the offer, then shrugged and nodded.

~ Scene Break ~

"So what've you been up to while I was out?" Anko asked after everyone had settled into their seats and placed their orders. Her min- students were sitting on the other side of the table, and Kokoro looked like she had fallen asleep as soon as she laid her head on the table. Taiki and Hanako were speaking quietly, trying not to disturb her. Hanako kept glancing at him for some reason, though he couldn't figure out exactly why. She wasn't blushing or trying to hide her interest, it was more... watchful, like she was waiting for him to do or say something.

"I've finally been cleared for missions again," he replied.

"So that means you've got your chakra control sharpened up?" Anko pressed.

"To a point," he said, frowning. "I've got the basic three down well enough, but it's still nothing compared to what I'm used to, especially when I'm not focusing exclusively on the technique."

"So you're saying you need some more practice," Anko said, leaning forward slightly. "I just happen to know a group of genin who could use someone to spar against."

Hanako, who was taking a long drink of water when Anko said that, inhaled sharply and started choking and coughing. Taiki started pounding her back while Kokoro awoke, slowly raising her head from the table as she looked around blearily.

It took a minute for Hanako to get her breathing back under control, and she looked wild-eyed across the table at Anko. "You're joking, right, Sensei?" she asked, her voice somewhat hoarse. It wasn't clear if that was from the water or her shock.

"Why would I be joking?" Anko asked, frowning slightly.

Hanako stared at Anko in disbelief, a slightly hysterical giggle slipping out.

"Oh," Kokoro said softly, her eyes widening as she stared at Kuushou. "That's where I heard the name. The Kyuubi Jinchuuriki."

Hanako just nodded her head rapidly while Taiki shifted uncomfortably, looking away.

Anko snorted and flipped her hand dismissively. "Like he'd even need to use that on you guys. Even if you are my minions, you're getting way ahead of yourselves."

Kuushou decided to break into the conversation that point. "While it's an interesting idea, it will have to wait," he said, noting that Hanako visibly relaxed at that. "After talking with the Hokage, I've decided to form a team of my own."

"Ah, I see," Anko said, nodding sagely. "Couldn't wait to follow in my footsteps and find some minions of your own." She sniffed loudly and wiped a fake tear from her eye. "They grow up so fast," she declared dramatically. "So, who have you gotten so far?"

"Hinata Hyuuga and one of Danzo's... sponsored ninja, Sai."

The wide smirk that had begun to form as soon as he said Hinata's name faltered and vanished when he mentioned Sai.

"Naruto," she said lowly, looking at him seriously, "I don't know this Sai personally, but you need to be wary of anything to do with Danzo. Danzo is the kind of ninja who never does anything without standing to gain something. If he's giving up one of his own ninja, it's because he's getting something bigger in return."

Kuushou nodded in agreement. "I have no doubt that Danzo intends to profit by this; I intend to do the same," he added, grinning slyly.

"I really hope you know what you're doing, Naruto," Anko said after a moment, a hint of worry in her face. She shook herself and her previous smirk quickly returned. "So, Hinata, huh? How'd you manage to get her away from Kurenai?"

"Hiashi was easy enough to convince, since he credited me with Hinata's growth in skill. It was a done deal by the time I informed Hinata."

Anko sucked in a harsh breath. "Oh, damn. Bet Kurenai wasn't happy about that."

"That would be putting it mildly," Kuushou agreed, reaching for the plate of dango that the waitress had placed on the table. Anko smacked his hand away and pushed the plate towards her students, though she did snag one for herself.

He raised an eyebrow at Anko actively giving someone else dango, but didn't comment on it as he continued. "Hinata has too much potential to just leave her on that team, though."

"She surprised the hell out of me, that's for sure. So I guess you're aiming for Sakura next?"

Kuushou snorted. "She turned me down."

Anko sat back, looking at him with surprise. "Huh. Wouldn't have figured on that."

"Apparently, she would rather patch things up with Kakashi and spend more time with Sasuke. Or so she informed me, anyway."

Anko stared at him for several seconds, her expression incredulous. "After all that time you- Kakashi I could understand, but- more time with- fuck!" she spat, looking disgusted. She glanced at her students, who were staring at her with wide eyes.

"Sasuke Uchiha is a good ninja as far as that goes, but the kid's fucked in the head. I thought Pinkie was finally moving past the little shit, but... fuck!" she cursed again, scowling darkly.

"Is everything alright, Sensei?" Hanako asked hesitantly.

Anko kept fuming for a moment before she nodded sharply. "Yeah, everything's fine. We're here for you guys anyway, so don't worry about her." Her gaze shifted to Kokoro for a moment before she grinned.

"Say, Blondie, would you mind working your magic on my minions? I was kinda hoping to start their real training tomorrow, but with their injuries, especially Kokoro, they'd need a few days to rest up."

Kuushou shrugged. "Sure," he said as he stood to move around to the other side of the table, approaching Kokoro first.

"Magic?" Kokoro asked warily, subtly shifting closer to her teammates as he approached. Hanako was sitting stiff as a board, her eyes tracking his every movement.

"Blondie here ain't just an asskicker, he's also a damn good med-nin," Anko explained. "He'll get you fixed up in no time, and we won't have to waste any time waiting for you to rest up!"

From their expressions, her minio- students weren't quite sure how to feel about that.

"Hold still," Kuushou told Kokoro as he knelt next to her chair, putting his head roughly even with hers. She nodded uncertainly, watching him closely with a mixture of wariness and curiosity.

He placed both of his hands on her bandaged arm, pushing his mixed youki and chakra into her body. She had a variety of scrapes and bruises, quite a few clearly Anko's handiwork, but the most serious was definitely her arm. Her shoulder and upper arm were deeply bruised, along with torn tendons and ligaments, several small fractures, and two full breaks that had been carefully set. That didn't seem like Anko's style - she definitely went for pain rather than actual damage.

"How did you injure your arm?" he asked as he numbed the nerves in preparation for his work.

"I... I got stupid," Kokoro muttered. "I didn't check-" she started before her entire body sagged as the numbness took hold. "Oh wow," she breathed, a little stunned as she blinked rapidly. "I didn't realize how much that still hurt."

"You ok?" Taiki asked quickly.

"Better than ok," Kokoro replied, smiling.

"Told ya Blondie was good," Anko said proudly, as if she was directly responsible. "Still, you should have told me it was still that bad," she added, frowning. "We could have gone to the hospital first."

Kokoro quickly shook her head. "It wasn't, really. I guess I'd just got used to it."

Anko nodded after a moment, still frowning but also looking faintly pleased.

"I'll need to remove the bandages," Kuushou said, already forming a chakra scalpel in his left hand as Kokoro nodded. Once he had sliced through the bandages and her arm was no longer bound, he lifted it and pulled it straight to the side, fully extending it. The wariness had faded from Kokoro's face, and she was watching with open curiosity as he manipulated her limb. She even used her free hand to poke at her own arm, smirking slightly in amusement as she did so.

He released the chakra scalpel and placed his other hand on her shoulder, bracing as he pulled her arm at the wrist, twisting the bones into the proper alignment. There were several small pops and cracks emitted from her arm as he directly manipulated her bones, resetting them at the proper alignment and sealing the fractures. He focused on the muscles next, healing the damage from the inside out.

Hanako looked pale, almost ill, her dango lying forgotten on the plate in front of her. Taiki had jumped to his feet and then stopped, standing awkwardly as if he was unsure whether to jump forward or fall back into his seat.

Kokoro herself, who hadn't felt a single thing during the entire procedure, blinked several times before declaring, "That was cool." She raised her still mostly numb arm, flexing her fingers and watching them twitch about.

"Done," Kuushou announced as he moved to stand next to Hanako. Taiki slowly settled back into his seat, glancing between Kuushou and Kokoro and watching as Kokoro twisted her arm, a small smile on her face.

Kuushou focused on his next patient, settling his hand on Hanako's shoulder and quickly scanning her for injuries. He frowned when he noted that her heart was hammering in her chest and her entire body was trembling even as she fought to hide that fact with everything she had. He recognized her reactions for what they were, now.

She was scared of him.

He glanced up at Anko to see her watching Hanako with a faint tinge of sadness before she returned his gaze and shook her head slightly. He healed up her relatively minor injuries and quickly moved on to Taiki, who accepted the treatment stoically, most of his focus on his teammates. Kuushou noticed that the boy seemed unable to look him in the eye, though he had no idea why.

When he was done healing them, he returned to his seat and picked up a stick of dango.

"Thank you," Kokoro told him, bowing slightly while her two teammates followed her lead.

"Don't worry about it," he told her, waving off her objection and swiping one of Anko's dango as she was looking the other way. He then glanced down to find his entire plate missing and Anko smirking at him.

Later, as everyone had finished eating and Anko's team was saying their goodbyes before they headed back to their homes for the evening, Anko pulled him aside.

"Have you completely given up on Sakura?" she asked quietly.

Kuushou shook his head. "I'd still prefer to have her on my team, if at all possible, but given her reasons I don't see her leaving Team Kakashi," he replied, wondering where she was going with this.

"Good," Anko said, nodding sharply. "Just... let me talk to Sakura before you make any decisions. If she chose to stick with Kakashi because of Kakashi that would be one thing, but..." Her expression twisted. "If she's truly doing this to get closer to the Uchiha..."

"Why does it bother you so much?" Kuushou asked. He hadn't expected this sort of reaction from Anko, hadn't expected her to care much about Sakura at all, really.

"I didn't think much of her at first, but she proved she had what it takes to be a real kunoichi when she faced off against Gaara. And, even if she did have your help, she basically took the idea of a technique and over the course of a month turned it into something that let her stand against a jinchuuriki and survive. If she can keep doing that..." she shook her head wryly.

"Most ninja stall out at B-rank, and the really good ones make it to A-rank. After what I saw, I think she has the kind of raw talent that it takes to make it to S-rank. I didn't think she had it in her anymore than Kakashi or anyone else did, but now that I know she does, I'll be damned if I let her squander that because of an idiotic crush."

Kuushou nodded slowly, the vague beginnings of a plan taking root in his mind. He had already decided that Sasuke was the real reason Sakura had turned him down; she might be getting along with Kakashi now, but there was also lingering resentment as well. If Anko, a powerful and respected kunoichi who Sakura had spent at least a little time with, challenged her focus on Sasuke... that alone would likely not be enough, but it would at the very least create an opening.

"I won't make any decisions yet, but I do have a deadline in six days. There's a mission lined up for my team already, something that would be a good first mission for us. I intend to take that mission, with or without her."

Anko looked curious, but nodded without pressing for details. "I mostly just want to make sure she has her head on straight, but I'll try to track her down tomorrow."

With that, she moved off to join her minions, and Kuushou turned towards his apartment.

Even if there was an opening, however, he still needed to figure out how to take advantage of it.

~ Scene Break ~

Kuushou was pacing around his living room, rapidly conjuring up plans and discarding them just as quickly as he attacked the problem from different angles.

It was clear that Sakura wasn't going to change her mind easily, and that whatever goodwill he had built up was not going to be enough. Short of outright forcing her to join his team or convincing the Hokage to order her to change teams, there was little he could do directly to resolve the issue. He could imagine a few scenarios where he could pull one of those off, but that would wipe out a lot of his work with Sakura and lead to resentment, which would remove the primary reason he wanted her on his team on the first place.

No, he needed her to join his team willingly. And despite what he had learned of Sakura and the opportunity Anko was unwittingly going to create for him, he was failing to come up with any plan to accomplish that goal.

Once again, he wished Ino was here. She knew Sakura better than anyone, and her insights into Sakura's personality and mind, not to mention her natural talent and extensive training for understanding other people, would be invaluable for forming a new plan.

Then again, if Ino knew Sakura better than anyone, he knew Ino better than anyone. What would Ino do?

"Ha! I'm amazed you made it this far without me, little brother. Well, don't worry, as your sister I'll help you out this time."

He snorted to himself in amusement. While she would definitely say something like that, that wasn't exactly what he needed. Thoughts of her one-sided rivalry with Shizune to prove she was a better "sister" did trigger a memory though...

Ino paced around the backyard of the Yamanaka home, her shoulder-length hair hanging loose and trailing behind her as she moved and turned. As she spoke, she gestured wildly with her hands, trying to emphasize certain phrases and words.

"So Dad said you had to think really hard about the way someone was acting, and what they said, and the things they paid attention to. Like, if someone always asked about how much a mission paid first, and they were constantly checking to make sure their money pouch was still with them, and they always studied prices in the market really carefully, that'd mean they cared a lot about money, right?" she asked, stopping and turning to stare at him.

"Right," Kuushou nodded, hiding his amusement as he listened to Ino's interpretation of Inoichi's latest lecture.

"Ha! Maybe not!" Ino shot back triumphantly. "See, what they really care about is- damn, wait," she muttered, frowning. She fell silent for a bit, shaking her head and muttering under her breath, before she nodded decisively and looked back up at him.

"Maybe not!" she began again, using the same triumphant tone she had used before. "See, just because that's what they're focused on doesn't mean that's all there is to it. It could just be a habit, how they were raised or a remnant of a different time in their lives. But what if they're worried about money because they are planning something big in the future? What if they have someone they care about who is sick and they are trying to make ends meet? What if they have gambled all of their money away and are deep in debt?

"So the actions you see don't tell the whole story, or even half the story. There's always something underneath the surface that gives an entirely different meaning to what you observed."

Kuushou nodded solemnly, deciding not to point out that he could tell at least half of that was a direct quote from Inoichi.

"Observing someone's actions is easy, anyone can do that. Understanding what truly drives someone requires a lot of time and effort to study their circumstances, their history, their hopes and fears, their interactions with their friends and enemies, everything. You could spend months or even years doing nothing but that and still miss some vital component that makes a person who they are.

"Or you could just peer directly into their mind," she added, smirking. "That's something only a Yamanaka could do!"

Kuushou grinned in return, causing Ino to beam at him for a moment before she calmed and continued.

"And sometimes, what people are focused on, what they think they are worried about, isn't actually what's driving them at all..."

Kuushou paused, thinking over that memory again. There was a reason that came to mind now, when he was trying to find a way to convince Sakura. The examples Ino had used at the time didn't apply to his current problem, but the principle just might.

Assuming that was the case, what did Sakura think she wanted?

That was easy enough to answer; she had told him directly only a few hours ago. She wanted to reconcile with Kakashi, and she wanted to grow closer to Sasuke.

So then what did Sakura actually want?

Sasuke... would be his first answer, but his own mind was telling him otherwise. He had ignored his own instincts about the Summons and the demon sealed within Gaara; he wasn't about to make that mistake again.

So if it wasn't Sasuke, what was it?

Another memory rose to his mind, and he saw Sakura's face filled with anger and frustration.

"I think I've tried too fucking hard for too fucking long and put up with too much fuckingbullshit to just quit, Shannaro!" Sakura snarled, stepping forward and getting face-to-face with him. "I don't care who he is or what he can do! He's just a kid like me, and I. Am. Not. Weak!"

Yes, there was that, wasn't there? Her decision to fight Gaara, even against Kakashi's advice, had nothing to do with Sasuke. It had been at least a week before his name even came up during their training, and he was the one to do it.

And that did add some weight to his thoughts that Sakura was really driven by something else. Sakura during that time had reminded him a great deal of the Sakura of his own world, the one who had been groomed and molded by Ino. That Sakura had been obsessed with Sasuke as well, but Ino had broken her of that... problem...

But that didn't happen here.

Another memory rose, this one from just after he had found himself in this familiar yet utterly bizarre world.

Sakura's face quickly brightened as she pushed Ino forward. "He's looking for you, Ino-pig! You two can talk while I go sit with Sasuke-kun!"

Sakura began to step around him, already beginning to ignore him as she focused on Sasuke, but Ino reached out and grabbed her hair, yanking her backwards. "Not so fast, Forehead! I don't know what you promised him to get him to do this, but I'm not falling for it!"

Kuushou's frown slowly began morphing into a grin as his mind started making the connections.

She liked Sasuke, of course, but she also admired Ino, and if Ino obsessed over Sasuke just like she did, then those two elements would feed off one another. Ino liked Sasuke just as she did, giving them more in common. Her friends liked Sasuke, so she must be right to like him as well...

But somewhere along the line, Sasuke had become a point of contention rather than agreement... and Sakura had chosen Sasuke over Ino. He remembered the picture at the Yamanaka's house that showed Ino and Sakura as children, their arms around each others shoulders and wide smiles on their faces. They weren't nearly that close now, and Sasuke was demonstrably still a source of tension between the two of them.

And then, once she had given up one important thing in her pursuit of Sasuke, it artificially inflated his value. She had sacrificed her close friendship with Ino, but in her mind Sasuke was worth it. No, for her he had to be worth it, or else what had she made the sacrifice for?

And that's what he was really up against. Who knows how many opportunities and chances Sakura had ignored or abandoned trying to catch Sasuke's attention. If he was going to break that cycle, he needed to convince her that either she will never get Sasuke, or that Sasuke wasn't worth having.

The first... was effectively impossible, at this point. He'd have to kill Sasuke or break Sakura's self-confidence entirely, and the latter would make her useless for his purposes. The former... well, it's unlikely he could get away with it, and it's not like Sasuke was completely useless to him.

Convince her that Sasuke isn't worth having, though, that... that he might be able to do.

After all, what Sakura truly sought, what she yearned for in the depths of her mind, wasn't Sasuke himself, no... but rather what Sasuke had come to represent for her.

"He finally sees that I'm a strong kunoichi!"

And with that, he had his plan.

~ Scene Break ~

Kuushou heard the knock upon his door promptly at eight the next morning, not at all surprised to find that a ninja trained by Danzo would be so exactingly punctual.

He opened the door to find the pale boy waiting on the other side. Sai wore the same type of clothing now as he had every time they had met, a zippered vest that covered the upper half of his chest, a similarly short jacket with uneven sleeves, and pants cinched at the waist, all in shades of black or gray. The hilt of his tanto stuck up over his right shoulder, and he had a pack attached to his waist and a pouch tied to his leg.

Sai looked at him and smiled, the expression one of the most fake Kuushou had ever witnessed.

"Good morning, Naruto-senpai," Sai said, bowing slightly. "Danzo-sama has informed me that I will be joining your team from now on. I look forward to working with you." The tone sounded like it was meant to be cheerful and friendly, but it completely lacked any genuine emotion.

"Likewise," Kuushou replied, nodding in reply as he stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him. It occurred to him that this was the first time he had actually heard Sai speak. Given what he had seen so far, if this was indicative of the other ninja under Danzo's "sponsorship", it was no mystery why so many ninja in Konoha disliked his methods.

"How much did Shimura-san tell you?" he asked, setting his thoughts aside.

Sai's gaze flicked to the side as the security seals Kuushou had layered on his apartment flared to life, but otherwise did not react as he fell into step.

"That you are aware that I will occasionally receive missions which require a temporary absence from the team, and that you are willing to work with me when they arise," the boy replied. His smile had faded and his tone gained a slightly clipped quality as he spoke. "In exchange you will be granted limited assistance from assets in the field, to the extent that such assistance does not interfere with primary objectives."

"Anything else?" Kuushou prompted as they reached the stairwell at the end of the hall.

"I am to learn as much as I can from this assignment, especially from a combat perspective. Danzo-sama believes that I will gain much experience under your command."

"Does he?" Kuushou replied vaguely, watching Sai from the corner of his eye. The boy's expression never shifted and his tone never wavered.

"Yes. Your service record to date suggests a high propensity towards lethal violence and your close relationship with Anko Mitarashi implies a sadistic mindset, making conflict with enemy forces a certainty."

Kuushou stopped, turning to face Sai fully as he stared, uncertain he had correctly heard that. "What?"

Sai looked back at him, blinking once as a flash of uncertainty passed over his face. "Should I not have mentioned that? You already have more kills to your name than most chuunin; three hundred forty four, if you include non-ninja hostiles. I was most impressed."

He plastered that fake smile on his face again, nodding slightly.

After several seconds of trying and failing to come up with a response, or even grasp what Sai was trying to accomplish by saying that, Kuushou turned on his heel and continued walking.

Sai was perfectly willing to remain silent, so they spoke no further until they reached the training ground where Kuushou had told Hinata to meet them.

Unsurprisingly, she was already present, standing nervously next to a set of training posts. Her face lit up when they entered the training ground, and a small smile seemed permanently etched on her face.

"G-good morning, Naruto-kun," she said, bowing slightly. "Thank you again for letting me join your team!"

"Let isn't the word I would use," Kuushou countered as they reached her. "You were my first choice, after all."

Hinata didn't have a reply to that, and so just smiled more widely as she blushed.

"This is Sai, one of our other teammates," Kuushou said, motioning to the dark-haired boy at his side.

"I look forward to working with you," Hinata offered politely, nodding her head in his direction.

"I had heard that Naruto-senpai had chosen you for his team," Sai replied, that completely fake smile on his face again, "so I suppose it's true that you aren't as useless as you used to be."

He continued to smile at them as they both stared.

~ Scene Break ~

It took another two days for circumstances to properly align.

The greatest obstacle to his plan for Sakura - aside from Sakura herself - was Kakashi. The jounin was sure to interfere and smooth things over before they reached the point Kuushou needed them to, so he had to make his move while Kakashi was distracted or, better yet, out of the village entirely. While he didn't know the details or duration of Kakashi's latest mission, he did sense the Copy Ninja leaving the village an hour past midnight, accompanied by two signatures he recognized as ANBU. He wouldn't be around to run interference between Sakura and Sasuke today, and that was enough.

Kuushou had also successfully avoided interacting with Sakura directly, leaving her to stew on their last conversation. He had made a point to let her catch sight of him, however, vanishing around a corner or entering a shop only to disappear. He'd had to move quickly on occasion, especially when she went so far as to use the shukuchi to try and catch up with him, but he'd managed it.

Anko also told him that she had a long talk with Sakura about what it meant to be a ninja and a kunoichi, and that she should make sure she understood what she was doing and why. She insisted that Sakura was at least thinking things over again, but hadn't been able to promise more than that.

The final piece was Sasuke. He'd started by showing up late to their latest training session, only to tell Sasuke that he'd have to reschedule to tomorrow before immediately leaving again. He'd done exactly the same thing the next day, again without any explanation.

The morning after he felt Kakashi leaving the village on a mission, he'd sent messages to both Sasuke and Sakura, asking for a meeting. He promised Sasuke that he would explain why he'd been so busy the last few days, and told Sakura he wanted to talk to her again and apologize for his remarks at their last meeting. Sasuke would be meeting him at the ramen stand at noon, and Sakura at the training ground where they had developed the shukuchi thirty minutes later.

All he had to do now was push the right buttons, then step back and watch.

Kuushou tipped back his ramen bowl, draining the last of the ramen broth as Sasuke entered the stand and settled onto a stool beside him. A glance out of the corner of his eye showed Sasuke barely controlling his irritation and frustration, swallowing whatever he wanted to say in favor of the coming explanation.

Time to add some fuel to the fire.

"Thanks for meeting me," Kuushou said to Sasuke, placing down his bowl and shooting a quick smile at Ayame.

"Hn," Sasuke grunted in response, his jaw clenching slightly.

"I apologize about the last couple of days. I've been really busy with some new responsibilities and I'm coming up against a deadline. That's no excuse, really, but that's what I've got."

Sasuke stared at him for a moment before nodding jerkily. "It's fine," he managed to say, even if he clearly didn't mean it.

"That new responsibility is pulling together my own team," Kuushou continued. "Now that I'm allowed back in the field, I've decided I want to take more of a leading role on missions. I've spent the last several days recruiting, picking out the people I think would work best on my team."

Some of the irritation had faded from Sasuke's face as his eyes widened slightly. As Kuushou continued to speak, an interested, calculating expression grew.

"I've already managed to secure Hinata Hyuuga. She was my first choice, honestly. I've been working with her for months now and she's already grown in leaps and bounds." Kuushou pretended not to notice the flush creeping along Sasuke's cheeks as he praised the girl who had ended up defeating the Uchiha in the Chuunin Exams. "For all that she's already accomplished, though, it's what she could become in the future that I look forward to seeing most. The negotiation with the Hyuuga Clan was tough as well; For all that Hiashi Hyuuga acts cold and distant, he definitely cares for his daughter. It took some work to secure her for my team, but it was absolutely worth it.

"Then there's Sai. I doubt you've met him - he was taken under the wing of one of the Elders of Konoha, Danzo, and trained by him directly from a very young age. He's an incredibly skilled ninja, good enough for ANBU even as young as he is. Getting Danzo to agree to his placement on my team took quite a bit of work as well, and cost me several favors. Even then, I think Danzo only agreed to it because he sees the potential of the group I'm trying to put together."

He was laying it on a little thick - not to mention generously interpreting the way things actually happened - but Sasuke was eating it up. He could see the anticipation building in the Uchiha's black eyes, the rapid calculations being performed in his head. He was certain Sasuke was convinced he was about to be invited to join the team as well, and already he was weighing his options.

Should he stick with Kakashi, who can teach him more about the Sharingan and was one of the strongest ninja in the village? Should he join this new team, one apparently filled to the brim with up and coming prodigies, a team that could become the next generation's answer to the Sannin? Could he work with Hinata, or was this perhaps his chance to prove that Hinata's victory was just a fluke? Would he learn more from Kakashi or fighting on his own?

Which path would make him stronger?

Kuushou placed some money on the counter, enough to cover his meal and a generous tip besides, and stood. "Thanks for the meal, Ayame-nee-chan!" he called out, shooting the waitress another smile before motioning for Sasuke to follow him.

They began walking along the streets of Konoha, moving at a leisurely pace towards the training grounds. Sakura was already waiting for him; she was over ten minutes early and pacing back and forth in a tight loop. Kuushou stifled a smile as he felt the pieces snapping into place one by one.

"My third recruit is proving to be even more complicated than the first two, however," Kuushou said, glancing over at Sasuke. The genin met his gaze, curiosity and eagerness shining clearly.

"Their jounin instructor would fight me tooth and nail to keep them, not to mention that I've managed to piss that instructor off for other reasons already. I've seen their potential, though, and I truly believe that they would flourish on my team and reach heights they never will on their current team.

"I know we would work well together, they would bring unique benefits to the team, and they would follow my lead when it really matters. Really, I'll do whatever it takes to make sure I get them on my team, as long as they want to be there. Ultimately, the decision lies with the recruit."

The walked in silence for a bit, getting closer and closer to the training ground and the pink-haired chuunin still pacing within. Kuushou let Sasuke's thoughts continue down their mistaken path, knowing that he was seriously considering the offer he thought was about to come. When they finally reached the small gate in the fence that served as the boundary marker for the training ground, Kuushou turned to Sasuke once again.

"Which is why I have a favor to ask of you," he announced, making Sasuke's eyes widen once more. "Sakura has already turned me down once, and though I've prepared as best I could for this next meeting, she may do it again. If she does, I'd really appreciate it if you would talk with her as well and try to convince her of the benefits."

Sasuke's expression had frozen, and Kuushou could practically hear his thoughts and assumptions crashing into one another as his brain ground to a halt. His mouth opened slightly as a question tried to force its way out of his throat, but Kuushou spoke over him before he could ask.

"You saw how well she did in the finals, and you and I both know that she didn't become that strong because of Team Kakashi. She's already made it to chuunin, and the Hokage himself has expressed an interest in the shukuchi. She needs to take the next step and strike out on her own, or all of her progress is going to go to waste."

Kuushou reached out and clapped Sasuke on the shoulder. "Hopefully none of this will be necessary, but I think if you tried to convince her as well, that might just be the push she needs." He turned and moved towards the gate, then paused. "Oh, I forgot to tell you earlier. Since I'm leading my own team now, the training sessions are officially ending. All of my students have met the goals the Hokage set for me anyway. I might have more time later, but the next few months will be focused on my team and our missions.

"Anyway, wish me luck!" he called out.

Before he could take another step, someone appeared in front of him in a swirl of leaves, kneeling with their head bowed and one fist placed on the ground.

"Naruto-senpai, I have been ordered to bring you to an urgent meeting. Please come with me at once," Sai said in a dull monotone. His eyes flicked over to Sasuke for a moment before dismissing him and moving back to Kuushou.

"Sai?" Kuushou asked. "I was just about to meet with Sakura. Now isn't the best-"

"Apologies, Naruto-senpai, but it was made clear that you needed to come with me at once."

"Dammit," Kuushou muttered under his breath before turning to Sasuke, whose face was turning a very nasty shade of red. "Sasuke, Sakura is waiting inside the training ground. Can you tell her that I will be back as soon as possible and to wait for me? I need to talk with her. She-"

"Naruto-senpai, we need to go now," Sai interrupted.

"Tell her I will talk to her," Kuushou told Sasuke insistently before nodding to Sai. They both left in a shunshin, coming to a stop a few seconds later on a rooftop some distance away.

Kuushou focused on Sasuke's signature, which was still standing in the same place. He had yet to make a move in either direction, either to leave altogether or to confront Sakura.

This was the key moment of his entire plan. If Sasuke walked away now, then his odds of convincing Sakura to join his team before the deadline was up were pretty much zero. If Sasuke confronted her, if he vented all of his simmering anger and frustration on her - that he'd lost the exams, that Sakura was promoted and he wasn't, that others were growing so much stronger while he still struggled, and everything Kuushou had just dumped on him - then Sakura just might come to him on her own.

"Was that satisfactory, Naruto-senpai?" Sai asked, moving to stand beside him and watching him with that same fake smile.

Sasuke finally moved, crossing over the fence and entering the training ground.

"That was just what I wanted," Kuushou replied, grinning widely.

~ Scene Break ~

Kuushou let Sakura sit for nearly half an hour after Sasuke had left before he entered the training ground, arriving in a shunshin only a few feet away from her. She was pacing about angrily, but immediately whirled on him when he did so, a kunai appeared in one of her hands. She barely stopped herself from throwing it at him, instead bringing it back down to her side.

Sakura's face was slightly blotchy, a slight redness around her eyes showing that she had been crying. Her attitude wasn't depressed or upset, however, but rather angry and determined.

"I'm sorry I'm late. Did Sasuke tell you-"

"Do not," Sakura spat, her hand clenching around the kunai tightly, "mention that... that... that asshole, Shannaro!"

"... What happened?" he asked, blinking in surprise.

"Apparently I'm wasting the oh-so-valuable time of better ninja," she growled. "Apparently I didn't really deserve my promotion to chuunin. Apparently my stupid technique is worthless to a real ninja. Did he go out there and face that monster? No, he'd already lost!"

"I see," Kuushou said slowly, a small, disappointed frown on his face.

Sakura continued ranting without so much as glancing at him. "He got a whole month of training with Kakashi-sensei, so where does he get off saying that he's wasting time helping me work on the shukuchi, huh? He's just jealous 'cause he can't do it himself! I even tried to teach him! Gave him pointers! It wasn't useless then, was it?" she ranted, pacing back and forth again.

She suddenly whirled, and Kuushou's eyebrows shot up when he felt her activating the shukuchi and shifting all of the chakra to her fingertips. There was a loud crack, then the sound of shattering wood. Kuushou turned to look at where the kunai had gone and found a tree with a large section on the side of its chunk shattered, splinters of wood and bark spinning through the air around it. The kunai itself was buried up to the ring in a tree further down.

"How's that for useless, huh?" she shouted, panting harshly. Kuushou remained silent, letting some of the anger drain before he drew her attention again.

Sakura abruptly whirled again, stomping over to him with a sharp scowl etched on her face.

"Yes," she snapped, glaring at him as if daring him to disagree.

"... Yes?"

"You're here to ask me to join your team again, right? Yes, I'll join," she said, calming slightly.

Kuushou didn't reply immediately, instead meeting Sakura's stare with his own. After a few seconds, he said, "I'd be glad to have you on the team, of course, but only if you are actually committed. If you change your mind and go back to Team Kakashi, I won't be asking again."

Sakura met his gaze solemnly as she nodded sharply. "I won't," she told him. "I'd already been thinking about why I was really staying on the team, and..." Her expression grew strained, but her eyes were clear and determined. "I need to prove that the Chuunin Exams weren't just a fluke, and I can't do that where I am now."

"Then welcome to the team."

~ Scene Break ~

Hinata and Sai were both waiting in the training ground when he arrived the next morning with Sakura in tow. Hinata was deeply focused on a chakra string exercise, juggling four kunai at once, while Sai was seated on a small tree stump a short distance away, sketching something in a notebook.

"Good morning, Naruto-senpai," Sai called out across the clearing, snapping his notebook shut as his smile slid into place. "Is this our third teammate?"

Hinata looked up, a wide smile on her face as she began to call out her greeting. "Good mo-" she started, but abruptly froze when she caught sight of Sakura. She immediately lost control of the chakra strings, the kunai flying off in all directions. One whipped past Sakura with only inches to spare, landing in the tree behind her with a dull thunk.

Sakura yelped and jumped sideways, staring wide-eyed at the kunai that had almost hit her before looking back at Hinata.

"My apologies, Haruno-san," Hinata called out as she rose to her feet and began walking over. "I was just... surprised to see you, and I'm afraid I lost control." She inclined her head in apology as she stopped a few feet away, then turned to Kuushou. "Hello, Naruto-kun," she greeted, getting a smile and a nod in reply.

"No worries," Sakura said, laughing slightly nervously as she waved off the apology. "So you're on the team? That's great!" she said, recovering and smiling brightly. "You were really impressive during the Chuunin Exams."

"Thank you," Hinata replied politely. "I was also impressed with your performance as well."

Kuushou stepped in at that point, motioning to the silent ninja standing nearby with his unwavering smile. "And this is Sai. I don't believe you've met before."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Sakura said, turning to Sai and smiling. "I look forward to working with you!"

"I was also very impressed with how you didn't die immediately facing the Suna jinchuuriki."

Sakura's smile grew strained, and her jaw clenched as she bit out, "Thanks."

Sai turned to Kuushou next. "Senpai, I don't understand what role she will play on the team. Is she going to act as bait?"

Sakura's head snapped back as if she'd been slapped, and then she leapt forward, yelling, "I'll show you bait, Shannaro!"

Sai smoothly evaded her wild punch, his hand drifting to the hilt of his tanto automatically before he stopped himself. He instead began evading, moving in easy circles, that same smile still plastered on his face.

"I can see why you chose to immediately run during the exams," Sai commented, twisting out of the way of Sakura's kick. "Your physical skills are-"

Kuushou's eyes sharpened when he felt Sakura using the shukuchi again, only this time it was all focused on a single leg. One moment she was balanced on her left leg, the right leg extended in the kick Sai had just evaded, and the next her left knee was smashing into Sai's ribs. Sai's commentary was abruptly cut off as the air left his lungs and he stumbled back a step, his hand clenched around the hilt of his tanto firmly.

Kuushou had to admit he was impressed, and all the more certain that he had made the right choice in recruiting Sakura. That made two variations of the shukuchi now, both developed since the Chuunin Exams. Even accounting for Kakashi's assistance, Sakura still had to put in the work to actually learn and utilize them.

He glanced over at Hinata, who was studying Sakura intently with a small frown etched on her face, before stepping forward.

"That's enough!" he barked. Sai immediately leapt back and snapped into a rigid posture before remaining still. Sakura didn't pursue him, instead recovering from her attack and failing to hide a wince as she placed weight on her left leg.

Kuushou made note of that before walking over to Sai. "Alright, that's three times now. Why are you provoking us? We're supposed to be working together as a team."

Sai's smile disappeared as he adopted a neutral expression once more, though there was another brief flash of uncertainty as he did so.

"I was attempting to compliment her. Is it not standard practice to praise others when they exceed expectations?"

"And that 'useless' comment?" Hinata asked pointedly. Sakura's head swiveled back and forth as she followed the conversation, her confusion clear.

"Your skills have grown considerably since you graduated from the Academy," Sai replied. "That Naruto-senpai chose you for his team indicates that he anticipates further growth."

"Wait, you honestly thought that was a compliment?" Sakura asked in disbelief. "What the hell was that about bait, then?"

"My current knowledge of your abilities is insufficient. I was attempting to acquire further information as to the reason behind your recruitment."

"You... really need to work on that," Sakura said finally, her shoulders slumping as she let go of the last of her anger.

"I am trying," Sai replied, his smile snapping back into place. Sakura actually looked faintly disturbed at the expression. "Thank you for the advice, ugly."

Sakura blinked once before she leapt towards him again, fist lashing out. "That was just bullshit, wasn't it, shannaro! I'm not falling for that again!"

Kuushou watched as Sakura chased after Sai again, noting that the pale ninja was watching her movements much more carefully this time. He looked over as Hinata stepped up beside him and giggled softly.

"I think I like him after all," she said.

~ Scene Break ~

Two days later, Kuushou strolled into the mission room with his team in tow. Hinata was walking to his left, small smile still etched on her face, while Sai and Sakura trailed slightly behind them.

"So it's an escort mission, huh?" Sakura asked. "What's so special about that?"

"This will be my first mission escorting a civilian," Sai noted, smiling. "I am very excited to have this opportunity."

"... Sai?" Sakura said slowly.


"Never say that again. And is this really your first escort mission?"

"For a civilian, yes. I was often tasked with operating as Danzo-sama's bodyguard, but a typical threat in his case would be a skilled assassin or large number of enemies. I will rely on your expertise in defending less important individuals."

"... Why don't you come over here and say-"

"Team Naruto, reporting for our assignment," Kuushou told the ninja working the desk, cutting off Sakura's rant before it could get started.

The ninja glanced up at them, his eyes widening slightly as he took in Kuushou's form, before he recovered his professional demeanor. "Right on time, Naruto-san," the ninja told him. "The client is waiting in room four for you," he continued, handing over a scroll tightly bound with red string.

Kuushou took it with a nod and turned to head towards the indicated room. He broke the string and unfurled the scroll with a snap, scanning through the text quickly before handing it over to Hinata. Sakura moved closer to look over Hinata's shoulder even as they reached the door of the room where the client waited. Kuushou had to focus to pick up the faint chakra signature the figure emitted; it wasn't due to great skill in suppressing it, however, but due to the fact that the client was a civilian.

"No way," Sakura breathed out as she read the scroll over Hinata's shoulder.

Kuushou paused before he pushed open the door, turning to Sai. "Sai? No talking. At all," he ordered. He waited for Sai's smiling assent before entering the room.

Inside was seated an older man with short, graying hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His clothing was simple, but well-made and fit his frame well, revealing that he was physically fit. He had a polite smile on his weathered face and adjusted his glasses slightly as he rose to his feet.

"Good morning, honored ninja. I am Sandayu, personal manager of Yukie Fujikaze. Are you the team who has accepted our mission request?"

"We are," Kuushou said, returning the client's smile.

Sandayu's gaze drifted over the team, skimming over Sakura and Sai and lingering a moment on Hinata's pale eyes before finally coming to a rest on Kuushou.

"I have heard a great deal about you, Naruto... Yamanaka, I believe it was?" At Kuushou's nod, he continued, "Everyone will be greatly relieved to know that a ninja of your strength is protecting us." He bowed deeply, and his smile was a little wider and more genuine when he rose, once more fixing his gaze on Kuushou.

"I look forward to working with you."

~ End Part I - Displaced ~

A/N: As always, thanks for reading and thanks for all the reviews!

With the conclusion of Part 1, STC will be on hiatus. My focus will be on completing The Empty Cage (or at least getting it much further along). With everything else I've got going on, I don't have the time to keep three fanfics regularly updated. ... Not that I kept a regular schedule that well anyway. :)

Also, since this is the last chapter that will use this particular naming system, any guesses as to what it was? I can't remember if anyone guessed/noticed prior to this.