A/N: Screw editing. I'll apologize at the bottom—you've waited long enough.

Arc Three

Chapter 37: Reapplication

Sasuke's legs seemed to blur under him as he sped through the streets. Kubikiribōchō was in his left hand, held there steadily with a strength only his massive Yin Chakra surplus could provide him.

He dodged past another gaggle of civilians, who shrieked in surprise as a small dark object with a large bright sword darted between them.

By the second squeal that followed soon after, he guessed his pursuers were not far behind.

He caught his footing and spun as he skidded, the dusty earth accommodating to his momentum. Kubikiribōchō came up.

The twin kunai impacted the blade with a resounding clang. His assailant took advantage of the collision's limited elasticity to leap backward, as his teammate rushed at Sasuke from beneath the airborne form.

The world froze as the Sharingan came out.

The one in the air won't be a problem for about a second and a half, give or take, Sasuke's mind supplied calmly. I can run the calculations and get an exact number.

He didn't bother. Instead he focused on the motion of his second foe.

A quick calculation told him that his foe would almost certainly arrive at his current position in about a quarter of a second. Not long enough to do much, but enough to do something.

Sasuke examined the position of the man's single kunai. He compensated for the man's slashing arc in his head and proceeded to move.

The man's charge almost ended with the loss of his right hand as his wrist came within a hair's breadth of Kubikiribōchō before he realized his error and spun so that he swept past Sasuke like a whirlwind.

"No fair, Sasuke!" Naruto cried as he landed. "No Sharingan! That was the whole idea!"

Sasuke smiled thinly at his teammate. As Kakashi recovered from the near miss behind him. "No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy."

Naruto's eyes narrowed.

Sasuke whirled to block Kakashi's attempted backstab and quickly leapt up and backwards, landing on the charging Naruto's head and using his blond teammate as a trampoline to propel himself to the rooftops. As soon as his sandals made firm contact with the shingles, he was off again at speed.

He heard Naruto's raucous pursuit behind him in the clatter of disturbed tiles before it leveled out into a more rhythmic tap—tap—tap as Naruto gained his footing.

Sasuke frowned. Where was Kakashi?

He'll be preparing an ambush, the Uchiha decided. Given that, rather than walk into it...

He turned left and rushed in the direction of the Hokage Monument. He heard Naruto's curse and the skid over the shingles as his teammate turned to chase him.

Kakashi jumped in suddenly from Sasuke's right, planning to intercept his student. Sasuke, mid-bound, twisted in the air, almost snakelike, slashing at his Sensei with the blade in his left hand in an upward sweep, forcing the Hatake to shift to avoid the fatal slash, rendering his charge ineffective.

His still impacted Sasuke, however, knocking the Genin off-course. Time froze again as Sasuke calculated his own trajectory. He was headed down now, toward the wall of the building before him. Kakashi had impacted his legs.

If I use the spin along the horizontal plane from that impact, he thought, I can hit the wall with my feet. The angle will then cause me to bounce down to the street without intervention.

He acted, spinning simultaneously like a rolling log from his maneuver to parry Kakashi and like a boomerang from the impact. His legs he shifted under him, angling them out so that they would hit the wall feet-first.

They did. His instinct screamed at him to grab on with Chakra while his body caught up with the vertigo induced by that last move, but he ignored them. My brain can deal with it, he told himself. The panic is an illusion. Like pain.

Instead he bounced elastically off of the wall, flipping forward as he did so. His feet hit the ground a moment later. As soon as they did, he began to rotate to his right, taking advantage of the momentum remaining from the earlier spinning motion.

Kubikiribōchō was still sweeping downward from his landing, however, and as he spun, it sank into the earth, tearing a gash in the ground before he pulled it out, dust streaming from it, to block the strike he had known was coming from Naruto's twin kunai.

The clanging impact forced Naruto back, and Sasuke spun again to face Kakashi, who...

Was not looking at him.

Sasuke spared no time to question it. He charged.

And stopped, because then he saw what Kakashi had seen.

Gaara had arrived.

Naruto landed, looked, saw. Sasuke was standing—not running—sword raised over Kakashi, but the blade was not falling. Both of them were looking in the other direction. He looked there too.

"Gaara!" he cried, and ran towards them. Belatedly he noticed that Gaara was not alone. Temari and Kankuro were there too.

He blinked.

Chūnin Exam, idiot. Kurama was happy to supply an explanation.


And now you've royally blown your cover.

Not really. Well, not royally, at least.

Just a minor dukedom, then?

Shut up, furball.

"That is your name, right?" Naruto asked, trying to recover.

Gaara nodded. "Sabaku no Gaara."

"You've heard of us then?" Kankuro asked, a smug grin on his face.

"Oh, no," said Naruto, smiling innocently. "Just Gaara. Are you two his bodyguards?"

"My siblings," said Gaara, smiling slightly at the veiled joke while Kankuro spluttered and Kurama laughed uproariously. "Uzumaki Naruto, correct?"

Naruto bowed. "At your service." Rising, he nodded at the other two. "These are my teammate and our Jōnin-sensei, Uchiha Sasuke—the one with the big sword—and Hatake Kakashi, respectively. Say hi."


"Or don't, that works too."

"I'm the Jōnin here, Naruto," Kakashi looked at him reproachfully. "I'm supposed to do the big important things like introduce the team to foreign dignitaries while the Genin just run around doing whatever cute thing it is you Genin do with your spare time."

Sasuke snorted. "Dignitaries? One of them's wearing carnival face-paint."

"It's war paint!" Kankuro snarled.

Sasuke sighed. "I'm never going to hear the end of this one." He looked straight at Kankuro. "face-paintedchildsayswhat."

"What?" Kankuro frowned at him.

"Case in point. Shut up, Naruto."

"What did I say?" Kakashi said over Naruto's laughter. "Cute little Genin things."

"Shut up, Kakashi."

"So, how do you know about Gaara?" Temari asked Naruto while Kakashi glared at Sasuke.

Naruto gave her his best 'unimpressed' face. "If you're trying to keep a Jinchūriki secret from the other villages, then you're not doing a very good job," he complained. "Hell, even Konoha does a better job, and frankly our Jinchūriki is probably our single worst-kept secret. Literally three quarters of the village knows and acts on it, law in place or no."

Sasuke shrugged. "Law doesn't apply to them, though, does it? Somehow or other, our generation stayed clean. Don't have the faintest idea how, though—if everybody's parents were willing to make asses of themselves, why not the kids too?"

"Probably the punishment involved," Naruto grimaced. "The Hokage promised to personally make life suck for whoever blabbed. He just said it with prettier words."

"That might do it," Sasuke agreed sagely. "Civilians are so easy to terrify into submission."

Kakashi frowned at him. "That's not how a Shinobi of Konoha should feel, Sasuke," he said reproachfully."

"Says the guy who watches civilian women in various degrees of undress on a regular bases," Sasuke returned instantly. "Your opinion on the matter is not valid. When are the Chūnin Exams?"

Kakashi sighed. "The first test is in a week. Your forms will be due then."

"You watch your civilians naked?" Temari frowned at Kakashi, disgusted.

"We don't have our forms yet!" Naruto exclaimed with a pout at Kakashi.

"He peeps on the hot springs," Sasuke told Temari. "Konoha is famous for its perverts and voyeurs among our male Ninja. Just keep your curtains closed and don't visit the public baths more often than necessary."

"I'll get the forms to you at the team meeting tomorrow, Naruto."

"What kind of scum peeks on the public hot springs?"


"Why are we here again?" Kankuro asked Gaara.

"Chūnin Exam," said Naruto, Gaara, and Temari in unison.

Then there was silence.

The Gaara sighed. "Naruto. Leave. Before I go insane."

"You already are insane."

"Then do it more quickly."

"No fair using the Sharingan, Sasuke!" Naruto whined at the training ground later. The three of them were seated in a ring (or, more correctly, a triangle) in the middle of a glade. There were upright logs scattered throughout the field—shuriken/kunai targets. "The whole idea was to get you practice in a combat scenario without the eyes!"

Sasuke nodded. "Yeah, but the ambush was unnecessary." They had accosted them in the early hours of the morning while he trained and so the chase had began, without even waiting for him to okay the fight. "As were the stacked odds. Two against one?"

"We were going easy on you!"

"Oh, that makes me feel so much better, Naruto. Thank you." Sasuke flopped down on his back. The sun was just beginning to leave its zenith and the day was hot. The gentle wind rustled the heated air and formed a balm for his sore muscles. Sparring at full speed with mostly taijutsu for six hours was not an easy training regimen for his young body.

"Tired?" Kakashi asked sympathetically.

"A bit."

"Same here," Naruto agreed. "But I'm better off. Kurama helps with that."

"Speaking of which," Sasuke sat back up. "What do we do about Temari, Naruto? Shikamaru might be a problem."

Naruto shook his head. "If anyone was going to be a problem, over that, it was going to be me, with Hinata when we first got back. Shikamaru shouldn't have any trouble by comparison."

Sasuke nodded. "I see your point. Still, I have to worry. Shikamaru's so logical about everything else—mightn't that be his one break?"

Naruto shook his head. "You didn't see their courtship. Shikamaru never really broke character. I trust him to do the same now."

"Your call." Sasuke sighed. Laying back down and closing his eyes. "Kami, it's hot today."

Silence met that statement, as no one saw reason to reply to such a universal truth.

"I wonder if Gaara has a plan." Naruto's voice seemed to be coming from far away. "And I wonder if he'll run it by us."

"Hn." Sasuke didn't bother to verbalize.

Kakashi chuckled. "Sleepy?"


"You'll get a rash from the grass, you know."

"I've got a balm at home, Mother."

"Don't say I didn't warn you. Spar, Naruto?"

Sasuke didn't even hear the blond's reply.

"Who were those three earlier?" Temari asked Gaara. They were in the team's hotel suite—a fairly large, three-bedroom affair—originally booked so no one had to sleep with Gaara. As it was, Baki and Temari would now be the ones with their own rooms, with Gaara and Kankuro sharing. The Jinchūriki thought this a notable victory, all things considered.

At this time, however, they were in the central kitchen/dining/living room affair. Baki was preparing a meal at the counter on one end of the room, Temari and Kankuro were seated on the couch at the opposite wall, and Gaara was in his own armchair at right angle to them.

"Better question: who did they think they were?" Kankuro was still angry. "I'll cream them in this exam, if they don't wash out first!"

"Don't try." Gaara spoke flatly. He didn't really care what his brother wanted on the subject currently. It wouldn't be a problem in the first two rounds, and if he came against one of Naruto's force in the third, then he would simply lose—no questions asked. Still, better to at least try to steer Kankuro away from self destruction. "Uzumaki is a Jinchūriki, like me."

Temari's eyes widened. "So he's almost as strong as you are?"

Gaara chuckled dryly. "Stronger." He did not fail to notice that Baki had stopped chopping the onion he'd been working with.

"But he was so... well..." Temari's voice trailed into sheepish silence.

"Sane?" Gaara finished gently.

"No!" Temari's forceful denial came as a surprise. "No. You're not insane, Gaara—maybe you were, but not anymore. I just meant that he was weirdly upbeat."

Gaara nodded. "He's... like that."

"Well, the other one, then." Kankuro seemed quite determined. "He was annoying."

Gaara rolled his eyes. "Uchiha Sasuke could probably kill me. Don't be a fool."

"He's that good?" Temari was surprised.

"Better." Gaara spoke flatly, without inflection. It was true.

"Where did Konoha get all these prodigies?" Kankuro wailed, despairing. "And why did they have to pick a fight with me?"

Gaara rolled his eyes. "They won't tell anyone about it. No one will know if and when you back out of your ridiculous idea of a 'feud.'"

"That's not the point!" Kankuro cried inconsolably. "I'll know!"

"Stop whining, Kankuro," said Baki, approaching with the now-ready lamb salad. "Gaara, how do you know so much about these two?"

Gaara looked over at him. "That's a long story, Sensei. Suffice to say we've met before, and leave it at that."

"When you disappeared a month ago?" Temari asked shrewdly.

Gaara nodded. "Yes." Not exclusively, of course, but still true.

"You know that was illegal, Gaara?" Baki asked cynically. "You might have been punished."

Gaara snorted. "You mean Father might have thrown even more would-be assassins at me?"

There was silence at that. Temari and Kankuro looked at each other. Gaara knew they were still having a hard time reconciling a father who, to them, had always been a cold and distant figure, but still very much a father figure, with the one Gaara knew.

The one who had tried for years to murder his own son without success.

Baki shook himself back into business-mode first. "All right." he said, handing out bowls and dishing out the food. "We need to plan. You all remember the idea?"

Temari nodded. "We wait until the final part of the Chūnin Exam, and then we invade Konoha from within, trapping them with us—and Gaara—on the inside, and our forces on the outside."

"Mightn't that be a problem, though, if these kids—Uchiha and Uzumaki—are stronger than Gaara?" Kankura asked, baffled.

Gaara shook his head. "Konoha has any number of Shinobi stronger than me." Not actually true, but it was the first time. "We'll have support, and we're counting on several of their failsafes not shooting to kill—no one wants to be the one who kills a Jinchūriki and has to see what happens."

"Exactly," Baki agreed. "Konoha is soft, and we have some support on the inside which should thin their numbers a bit. Besides, a lot of their force will be directed outward, to our invading army with Oto."

Gaara nodded. Then, slightly hesitantly (though only in thought—his voice he kept carefully toneless), he said, "Does anyone understand how we got so close to Otogakure so quickly?" Other than me and our dear deceased father.

Baki frowned at him. "That's really not our place to wonder."

Gaara shrugged. "The village is run by a traitor," he said simply. "That's not exactly a sign that they're trustworthy."

Baki grimaced. "If I were Kazekage, I'd agree. But I'm not, and nor are you."

Shows what you know, Gaara said to himself petulantly. "Understood," he said, injecting exactly enough disagreement into his voice to remain in character and yet not cause strife.

"Good," said Baki. "We'll be able to plan this more effectively closer to the tournament. In the meantime, just keep in mind two things. First, you must clear every obstacle in the Exams. If you don't, the entire plan crumbles."

"No pressure, though, I hope!" Kankuro laughed, but Gaara detected the undercurrent of nerves with ease, and he was sure Temari and Baki did too.

Baki grinned at him. "Of course not." He cleared his throat and continued. "Second, you can do this. There is not a single obstacle Konoha can put before you that you cannot, somehow, pass. Remember: the test is designed to be beaten. That's why it exists."

"So we beat it." Temari's voice was not questioning.

"Precisely," Baki confirmed.

Gaara smiled slightly. Don't worry, Baki. I'm with you that far.

"So what do you want from me?" Shikamaru's voice help no particular emotion beyond boredom.

"I just want to know what you're going to do," Sasuke replied testily. "And you know it—you'd do the same."

Shikamaru shrugged. "I might."

They were seated on Shikamaru's bamboo porch, barefooted legs hanging off the side. Sasuke's feet just barely brushed the grass of the lawn. The sun was setting in the west, giving everything a dim red glow. Water trickled merrily in a fountain to their right, and a doe lounged idly under a tree to the left.

After a short silence, Shikamaru looked over at his fellow. "I'm not going to be an idiot, Sasuke," he chided. "You know that. I'm sure Naruto told you as much."

Sasuke nodded grudgingly. "He did. I want to know what that means."

Shikamaru snorted. "I'm not going to be able to suppress it entirely, if that's what you're asking. That's impossible, even for someone like me—or you."

"Or me?" Sasuke glanced warningly at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Shikamaru snorted again. "Make of it what you will." Then he sighed and looked up at the sky. It was clear, and the blue twilight in the east gave way in almost pastel gradients to the inferno of color surrounding the setting star on the horizon. No clouds to watch, he thought pointlessly. "You've never loved romantically," he murmured.

It hadn't been a question. As such, Sasuke did not see fit to dignify it with an answer.

"You will," Shikamaru decided. "Eventually. Once you go beyond the past and start looking forward."

Again, Sasuke was silent. Shikamaru glanced at him sidelong and saw that his eyes were closed in enjoyment of the gentle breeze.

"Once that happens," he said quietly, "You'll find that it's not like most other emotions. Simple emotions like joy and sorrow can be masked easily, and even changed if you just put a dissonant expression on your face. Hate and rage can be altered, shifted into coldness or heat. You can control them."

"Not love?" Sasuke asked softly.

"Not love," Shikamaru confirmed. "It's different for romantic passion than, say, siblings, though. You can put a leash on it, but it'll drag you, not the other way around."

"You can slow it, but not stop it," Sasuke surmised.

"Right." Shikamaru yawned. "I'll be able to keep Temari from panicking or worrying too much—though she'll probably guess, at least, that I find her attractive—but only for a limited time. Eventually, something will slip. It always does."

"Let's just hope it's not before the invasion, then," Sasuke muttered. Shikamaru, looking over at him again, saw that his brow was now creased in either thought or worry.

"Let's," Shikamaru agreed.

"Shikamaru!" his mother's voice called from inside the house. "Supper's ready!"

"Coming, Kaa-chan," Shikamaru glanced over at Sasuke. "Do you want to stay for dinner?"

Sasuke grinned and shook his head. "Thanks, but no thanks." The Uchiha stood and smirked at him. "I think I'll wait until you can trust me as far as you can throw me."

Shikamaru didn't even bother to look embarrassed. Sasuke was observant, and Shikamaru wasn't perfect—especially when he didn't need to be. "Naruto trusts you," he said flatly. "That's enough."

"Not for you to trust me, but for you to work with me," Sasuke elaborated for him, smirk still in place. "Don't worry, I don't like you all that much either."

Shikamaru grinned, held out a hand open. "Comrades?"

Sasuke took it and shook. "Comrades."

"Good," said Shikamaru, without letting go. "Kaa-chan, Sasuke's staying over, okay?"

Without waiting for conformation either from his mother or from his stunned sort-of friend, he dragged the Uchiha inside.

"Hey, Sasuke," Naruto spoke suddenly to his meditating friend. The entirety of Team Seven was in training ground 17. Naruto and Sakura sat on their silent teammates two sides, and Kakashi sat across from them, his back to a log, reading silently. Naruto was slowly munching on an onigiri, and Sakura was working through a salad (one that actually contained calories, for once) but the Uchiha's lunch remained unopened, and Naruto couldn't say how much Kakashi had eaten—he hadn't seen him eating, after all.

The black-haired Genin's eyes opened and he looked over at Naruto. "What?"

"Why the hell is the Uchiha clan symbol an uchiwa?"

Sasuke looked at him uncomprehendingly. "Are you stupid?"

Naruto shook his head. "No, better question. What idiot makes a clan symbol that literally puts a sign on the collective backside of the clan saying 'Please make bad puns!' for Kami's sake?"

Sasuke blinked at him. "Probably the same idiot who decided a spiral would make a good symbol for a clan who's name has uzu in it."

"Yeah, but at least my clan doesn't have good jokes you can make about it!"

Sasuke snorted. "When did good jokes have anything to do with it?"

"...Point taken," Naruto muttered in defeat, taking a bite out of his rice ball.

Kaakshi chuckled. "Most clans have some stupid tradition like that."

"You don't say, Scarecrow?" Naruto giggled childishly.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "If you're quite finished, Naruto. Kakashi, I think there was something you were supposed to talkto Sakura about during lunch...?"

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "You could have mentioned it."

Sasuke cocked his head at him, face utterly uninterested. "I'm a Genin. You're a Jōnin. This is your job."

Kakashi sighed. "Sakura. Chūnin Exam. I'm recommending the team for it."

Sakura blinked at him, then gasped. "What? Already?"

Kakashi nodded. "All three of you have improved more quickly than anyone could have expected." Irony, Naruto thought, bored. Seen it. "You're more than ready, rookies or no."

"...Even me?" The girl's voice was small.

Naruto blinked. ...Oh, hell. This might be a problem.

If Sakura did not sign up for the exam, their team could not take it. If Team Seven did not participate in the Chūnin Exams, it would throw every carefully-designed plan out the window.

"Especially you," Sasuke's voice was quiet, and almost intimate, as he turned to the girl on the team.

Naruto's eyes widened fractionally. Sasuke, you manipulative bastard.

"We can't do this without you, Sakura." Sasuke said simply. "You're our strategist in battle. Naruto just charges in and I tend to go overboard. We'll need you to harness our talents."

"That'll be especially useful in the Exams," Naruto put in, glaring at the back of Sasuke's head, especially when the boy didn't even turn to him. "Going too far can mean killing someone we don't want dead, and showing the other villages too much of Konoha."

"Which is why we need your help," Sasuke finished. He said nothing more—Naruto was grateful for that, at least.

"You don't have to decide now," Kakashi interjected, seeming to sense Naruto's displeasure. "In any case, it's time we got back to work. Naruto, Sasuke, you two spar. I'm going to work with Sakura on her Genjutsu. Come on, my cute little Genin." This last was said to the Kunoichi with a smile which would have been creepy on a less familiar face.

Hell, it's still creepy. Naruto thought. Kurama agreed without comment.

The other two left the clearing and Sasuke and Naruto stood. The Uchiha turned towards the Jinchūriki, a resigned look on his face. "You disapprove?"

"Of course I disapprove!" Naruto growled at his teammate. "What were you thinking?"

Sasuke shrugged and got into a fighting stance. Naruto emulated him, his rage building.

Kurama growled sharply—displeased, not with the former traitor, but with his container. Calm down, brat. It's not as though he did anything but help the cause.

Shut up, Furball! This is personal!

"Answer me, Sasuke," Naruto hissed, setting aside his tenant's complaint.

"You know the answer." Sasuke sounded bored. "Why bother?"

The Sharingan adept was, of course, anticipating the sucker punch. He dodged it with ease, leaping backward, not even twitching to retaliate. "Fine," Naruto said, his voice growing less animal in its rage, exchanging it for a deadly chill. "How could you? Is that a better question?"

Sasuke actually shuddered, his eyes closing for a fraction of a second. That surprised both Naruto and the fox he carried. When the eyes opened again, they were no longer bored—the Uchiha's gaze was sharp and red. "I will defend." Sasuke said simply. "By any means necessary. You understand this already, Naruto."

Naruto blinked and sighed. "Yeah. I do."

And what will you defend? Kurama's voice was a surprise, although he had taken to speaking to people other than Naruto a little more often lately.

Sasuke's lips curled into a wan smile that was more like a grimace of pain. "Everything." The word was spoken without force or power—it was simply fact. "What I destroyed and what I couldn't."

Silence descended for a moment, and then, as one, the two boys moved and struck.

Sakura took one last look around the village street before pushing the door into the Academy open. The "entrance hall" (for want of a better name—it was little more that the room that happened to be the first room anyone entering by the front door reached, which contained the front desk and a couple of couches) was empty of the usual academy staff and of the children and parents usually present or one reason or another. Instead, the couches were filled to bursting—as was some of the floor—with Genin waiting for other members of their teams to arrive.

The pink-haired rookie scanned the room for her squadmates. There they were—standing in a corner, away from the crowd, talking quietly. She raised a hand and waved.

Her heart leapt slightly when Sasuke spotted her and waved back with something that might have been the ghost of a smile on his face. But she kept the feeling internal; Sasuke didn't just dislike the kind of flagrant affection he'd received in this Academy—both from her and others—he hated it, and she knew that now. She only wished she'd realized it sooner.

Still, it was something of a vindication that she'd one-upped all the competition in terms of finding out the heartthrob's tastes. But not as much as might have been once—and somehow, that was reassuring.

She picked her way through the mass of aimless bodies towards her team.

"Hey, Sakura," Naruto greeted with a big, infectious grin on his face. Sasuke just nodded at her arrival, still with that secret smile on his features.

She smiled back at them. "Well, are you two ready?"

Sasuke nodded. "The Exam's on the third floor. Let's go."

They climbed the two flights of stairs and reached the third floor. A large number of Genin were congregated there.

Naruto and Sasuke nodded at each other and the Uzumaki quietly said, "Stay here, Sakura," to her. She nodded, blinking as they melted into the crowd. She could see ahead a pair of older Genin blocking the door and loudly saying something about how they were doing the younger Genin a favor by turning them around before the test.

Suddenly, Naruto reappeared, leading Team Eight—in Kiba's case, by he ear with a hand over his mouth. Shino, behind him, walked in a slow and stoic gait, while Hinata was just blinking in surprise and something like awe at the blond.

Poor girl, Sakura thought sympathetically, to fall so hard for the most oblivious person in history.

The irony was, of course, completely lost on her.

Naruto muttered to Shino. "Get your team up the stairs—and for Kami's sake keep Kiba quiet!"

Shino nodded, took Kiba by the hood, and dragged the (silently) struggling Inuzuka up the stairs.

"You too, Hinata-chan," said Naruto with a smile at their former Hyūga classmate, who blushed deeply at the attention. "I'll catch up."

Sakura blinked. ...Huh. That's a switch.

"O- okay, Naruto-kun," Hinata said timidly. "Good luck!"

"You too, Hinata-chan," Naruto smiled at her in a way Sakura had never seen—or imagined seeing—on the boy's face, and watched the girl's ascent with a look in his eye that Sakura recognized, although she couldn't have said from where.

It almost made her jealous, although she wasn't sure of whom.

Then Sasuke returned, leading another team—Team Nine, a squad of Genin from one year above them. Hyūga Neji walked beside him in silence, but behind them, the team's Kunoichi, Tenten, was looking sheepish as she covered the green-spandex-clad Rock Lee's mouth with one hand.

"Nara Shikamaru-san asked me to tell you," Neji said to Naruto as they reached the wall where Sakura and Naruto were standing, "That Team Ten is already in position. I see now what he meant. And before you ask, I don't know why he left the message, and I don't particularly care."

Naruto shrugged, a strange smirk on his face. "I was more wondering why he left it with you, but I wasn't going to ask. I'm glad you don't care, though—it means you won't feel bitter when I don't explain. Take care, Hyūga-san."

Neji's eyes had narrowed somewhat as Naruto spoke, and he stood still for a moment after Naruto finished before he gestured to his teammates and led them up the stairs without another look at the Uzumaki.

Sakura frowned, trying to understand. Naruto's words had sounded like a dismissal, and Neji's actions had seemed to be an attepmt to show contempt for Naruto's authority by showing that he moved only under his own direction. But why? It wasn't like Naruto had any authority, or Neji any particular rank.

"Bastard," said Sasuke succinctly, and Sakura was inclined to agree. His behavious, she decided, seemed simply pompous.

Naruto snorted. "Come on. Quietly."

Sakura blinked, and finally understood. We climbed two flights of stairs to get to the third floor... Her face broke involuntarily into a smile. First test: passed.

A/N: Okay. And here's the inevitable apology.

Turns out that my new word processor is garbage for inputting special characters—like accented vowels. It's a nightmare. So editing's been extra slow. Add to that what I call "Workload+" (patent pending) and you get a year of trying and failing to edit a story that should have been revamped half a year ago. As it is, I've given up. The old parts of the story will remain as they are—all new stylistic changes will go into future chapters only, and no 1984-style post-release editing for me. Maybe later. When I have time. And a better word processor.

Also. Dragon Age. DotA 2. Smite. Mass Effect. In general: GAYMZ. They're fun. Too damn fun.

But I'm back, and sucks to your ass-mar.