Behind the Mask
Rated: T for language and violence
Disclaimer: Naruto characters (c) Masashi Kishimoto,
Summary: We all wear masks. That only makes it harder to tell the difference between truth and lies.

Note: Re-writing this chapter was like pulling teeth. Again, I apologize not only for my stupidity, but also for taking so long to get this out. I wish it could be better and the original had an entire section dedicated to Shikamaru which I could not for the life of me reproduce.

In any case, I hope you enjoy what I managed to get together.


026: 渗透
(infiltration)

Naruto remembered the first time he had seen Sakura's eyes when he had just been a boy. He realized that nothing in the world could compare to the brilliant green of her eyes. Even then, as a child, Naruto had wished for nothing more than the chance to see those eyes every day for the rest of his life.

And surprisingly enough, Naruto had gotten his wish which was something which didn't often happen. Since that day on the bridge, when Haruno Sakura betrayed her mother's orders and decided to train along Naruto under Hatake Kakashi's tutelage, they had become inseparable. They had shoveled snow in below zero temperatures, they had raked leaves in the rain. They had fought tooth and nail just to get their hands on the bells hanging from Kakashi's vest pocket and they had both experienced the pain of his Sennen Goroshi technique.

But for that one person who he spent almost every waking minute with to suddenly be gone, Naruto almost felt like a piece of himself had gone missing as well. If Sakura never woke, would that piece of himself be gone forever? If she died, would that piece die with her?

That thought was too much for Naruto to handle. He had once heard Tsunade berating the servants that idle hands did the devils work. He wasn't sure exactly what she meant by that, but he got the impression that similarly, idle minds would only drive him more insane than he already was. He needed something to do.

The only problem was, he knew exactly what he should have been doing but had no idea on how to do it. How was he supposed to track down whoever put Sakura in a coma if he had absolutely no way of finding out who did it? Scouting around the scene of the crime hadn't done him any good and he had no leads concerning any other possibilities.

Unless…

Jumps in logic had never been Naruto's strong suit. He usually needed the evidence to be in front of his face before he could jump to any conclusions. But maybe his desperateness was driving his brain to look at possibilities he would have otherwise ignored.

Tsunade had returned the other day, dressed completely in white and looking worse for wear than he had ever seen her. While she conducted Sakura's check-up, she had informed Naruto that Governor Feng was dead, that he had been apparently murdered in the woods the day before Naruto had returned to Peking. Which incidentally was the same day Sakura had presumably gotten into a fight.

Nauto hadn't cared about what Tsunade was telling him at the time, but now his mind thought what if? What if the person who killed Governor Feng and the person who attacked Sakura were one and the same? It was completely a long shot, but the more Naruto thought about it, the more he felt something that he hadn't felt in a long time filling his chest: hope.

And Naruto knew who he had to speak to.


The Raikage steepled his long bony fingers against his temples, ruffling his short and greying hair in the process as he closed his eyes. The Raikage was not as young as he used to be and he found that he no longer had the patience for such things.

"Could you explain to me, just once more, what happened?" The Raikage asked before he slowly opened his blue eyes to focus on the two boys before him.

The shorter of the two scowled at him, eyes flashing in annoyance at having to explain the situation once more. "What happened is that the nao can tried scamming us." The boy responded, fingers twitching as he folded his arms over his chest and slouched his posture. His body language screamed of utter disrespect.

"Language." The Raikage reprimanded as the taller boy, standing a pace behind the shorter one prodded at the shorter boy's arm. The shorter boy rolled his eyes before dropping his arms and standing up straight.

"What he means to say," The taller boy amended, "Is that what was labeled as a D-rank mission was in actuality an A-rank mission. An A-rank mission would have been…beyond our skill set and experience level." He explained, dipping his head as if he were perhaps ashamed of this.

The Raikage nodded, sending a silent prayer toward the Gods that at least one of the Genin before him had common sense. "And when you found this out, you immediately returned here?" The Raikage questioned, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, of course." The shorter boy scoffed. "And I would have left her with a few choice words too, if-"

"Don't pollute the Raikage's ears with your nonsense." The tall boy hissed, his eyes narrowing dangerously before his expression relaxed and he turned to face the greying Raikage before him. "Sorry, Raikage-gong."

Kisame was having a blast. He watched as the shorter boy – Itachi – turned to face him, his eyes squinted as he made a face at Kisame. Kisame stared back at him, trying his best not to smirk lest he break his cover. Itachi was better at this than he ever would have guessed, playing this kid who possessed a personality that was the utter and complete opposite of Itachi's own. It had been just happenstance that Kisame ended up playing the more respectful of the two because the boy's height was a better suit to Kisame compared to the shorter petite boy that Itachi was playing, but Kisame had to wonder if this was perhaps divine intervention because nothing could honestly be better. He almost smiled at the idea but caught himself, schooling his face into a rigid, monotone expression.

Kisame cleared his throat. "If I may suggest, Raikage-gong. Perhaps you should send a Jounin squad to finish the mission. Then the village may still get its intended pay."

Itachi send a covert glance back toward Kisame, questioning his motive. Surely Kisame realized that if the Raikage accepted his suggestion, it would be found that they were lying…

As the Raikage briefly closed his eyes and massaged his temples once more, Kisame answered Itachi's stare by giving him a quick smirk, something Itachi answered with his signature scowl before turning to face forward again. He had no doubt Kisame would be an insufferable bastard during their stint here in Kumo.

"That won't be necessary." The Raikage finally answered. "The citizens need to realize that lying to get a cheaper price is simply unacceptable. We will do well to make a lesson out of this."

"Of course, Raikage-gong." Said Kisame, bowing his head. Itachi blew out an internal sigh of relief. He made a note of questioning Kisame's motives later.

"Write up a report for me." The Raikage instructed. "Make sure you include all the details, leave nothing out. You are both dismissed."

Kisame bowed while Itachi gave a lazy salute, causing the Raikage to frown before they both left the room. As soon as they were out of earshot of the Raikage's office, the lazy expression rolled off of Itachi's face like water and settled into Itachi's usual mask of controlled expression. Kisame had to stifle his laugh. On Itachi, the expression was normal. On this kid however, one who had been only known to run his mouth, it was almost comical to see him with such a serious expression.

"What do you think, Kisame?" Itachi asked, his voice low as they walked through the halls.

"Won't be too difficult." Said Kisame shrugging. "Two ANBU patrolling down the hallways, one stationed outside the door. The window is the best bet."

Itachi nodded, recalling the large window right behind the Raikage's desk. It seemed like poor design to Itachi, but he supposed the architect hadn't planned on the security of the village, let alone the Raikage tower being breeched.

"Let's spend another day doing recon." Itachi finally decided. "We can make our move tomorrow night."

Glossary:
Nao can – Chinese slang for idiot


Feng Kankuro sat on an ornate couch, one leg crossed over the other and his arms slung over the back. His composure was loose and carefree, but his eyes were slightly narrowed in consternation as he studied his younger brother's back.

"You're serious aren't you? About this whole Governor thing…" Kankuro trailed off, his voice uncertain, but his brown eyes remained on his fair headed brother.

Gaara stood, his back rigid and erect, facing away from his older brother. "If I wasn't serious, then I wouldn't have callously mentioned it for all to hear, including Tsunade-furen." Replied Gaara, his voice cool and biting.

Kankuro drummed his fingers along the back edge of the couch, immune to Gaara's tone of voice. He and his brother had never had a close relationship and he suspected that his brother thought him lazy and good for nothing, intent on playing with puppets instead of doing work in the real world. That was all fine with Kankuro, considering it wasn't that far off from the truth. And while his brother's tone did bother him sometimes, he had learned to respect his younger sibling.

"It's well within your rights as heir to become Governor. It's what ba was training you for." There was no bitterness in Kankuro's voice as he stated this to Gaara. "But wouldn't it have been better if you waited a bit before you claimed ba's position? With ba's death…there are a lot of…uncertainties."

Gaara turned to face his brother, his green eyes set in a cold stare although the smallest hint of a smile was tugging at his lips. The black was still smudged around his eyes, but it was done in clean broad strokes. It didn't seem to disconcert Kankuro. "Are you worried about me, Kankuro?"

Kankuro met Gaara's gaze unflinchingly before sighing. "This isn't for revenge is it?" He probed once more, pushing Gaara's jest aside. "You don't have any suspicions that perhaps Shimura had anything to do with it, do you?"

Despite his beliefs about his brother's priorities and work ethic, Gaara had no doubts about his brother's loyalties and intelligence. Even when Gaara's behavior toward Kankuro had been less than forgiving when they were younger, Kankuro had taken it in stride and had shown Gaara that he was someone he could depend on and furthermore, trust. There weren't many Gaara could say that about.

"No, I don't think Shimura did it." Gaara finally replied. "He isn't nearly crafty enough."

"Yeah, but he is desperate enough." Muttered Kankuro.

"Perhaps," Allowed Gaara. "But I did this because Shimura Owashi is a leech who doesn't deserve to be Emperor. I did this because ba would have wanted me to."

Kankuro's response was cut off by a maid who quickly scurried into the room, her head ducked down. "Governor Feng, Feng-gong." She bowed her head formally. "The Konoha shinobi Zhong Hu requests an audience with you." She said, her voice muted.

Kankuro looked to his brother, eyebrow raised almost comically. Gaara glanced at his brother before looking toward the maid. "Send him in, tell him he only has a few minutes." He replied curtly.

The maid spared a glance at Gaara; it was clear she wasn't immune to Gaara's unnaturally dark eyes before she remembered her place and bowed before hurrying off. Gaara cleared his throat and turned away from the spot where she once stood, almost as if he were wounded by her reaction him. She quickly returned, the masked blond haired shinobi in tow. His head quirked in small movements as he entered, as if he were surveying the room before he finally settled on Kankuro and Gaara.

"Feng-gong, Feng-hou." Said Naruto, bowing to each brother politely in turn.

"Zhong Hu-xianggong." Greeted Kankuro respectably, amused at his ignorance at their changed titles. "Please, have a seat." He said, gesturing to the chair across from him.

"Thanks." Said Naruto stiffly, quickly seating himself in the seat offered and folding his hands in front of him. He looked at Kankuro, who had his arms lazily draped over the seat of the couch he was sitting on, his posture rather loose and comfortable. His brown hair was in disarray and his expression looked almost bored. "I came to discuss a matter with Gaara-gong."

"Hm." Said Kankuro, looking almost thoughtful. "You hear that brother? He wants to speak with you about something."

Naruto turned in his seat toward the red headed heir and was surprised that when Gaara finally turned, he didn't look as he last remembered him. Gaara had looked unapproachable, just as much as his father had the last time Naruto was in their presence. Yet this time, Gaara looked almost dangerous yet obviously in control at the same time. It was an interesting combination.

Gaara looked over the blond haired shinobi, waiting for him to speak. If he was surprised or scared at his new appearance, Gaara found no indication of it in his body posture or demeanor. As he recalled, the blond shinobi had not been present during his father's funeral. Is that why he was here now? To make amends; to offer condolences? He wondered what exactly the shinobi had to say to him and wondered briefly whether or not Tsunade might have sent him, for one reason or another.

"Tsunade-furen informed me of the great tragedy that has befallen your family." Said Naruto, confirming Gaara's suspicions. "I offer my…sincerest apologies." He added awkwardly.

"It is kind of you to do so." Said Gaara, almost automatically. There was no trace of a smile on his face. "Many thanks for taking the time to come all the way out here."

When Naruto realized Gaara was going to make no attempts to further the conversation, he bit his lip nervously, deliberating on how best to proceed. He had come to discuss Governor Feng's murder but as Naruto realized, maybe that was too insensitive? Would Gaara even be willing to discuss such a private matter with him?

Kankuro seemed to pick up on Naruto's indecisiveness for he raised his eyebrow as he gave him a sly yet curious look. "Is there something else you wished to say, Zhong Hu-xianggong?"

"Yes." Said Naruto finally. He reminded himself of Sakura, still in her bed, perhaps never to wake again. He wasn't doing this for himself; he was doing it for her. He found the courage to speak.

"I wanted to discuss your father's murder."

There it was, with no prelude and no sugar coating. Kankuro looked mildly surprised and there was confusion in his gaze as he looked toward Gaara. Gaara, however, ignored his brother's stare and looked Naruto straight in the eye, unperturbed that he was staring into his mask and not directly at his face. "Kankuro leave. I need to speak with Zhong Hu-xianggong alone." Said Gaara, not sparing his brother a look, even as he ordered him out of the room.

Naruto looked to Kankuro, almost surprised. But If Kankuro was surprised or offended at his brother's order, he didn't show it as he languidly rose from the couch and silently left the room, closing the door softly behind him; Naruto watching him as he left.

"You think my father was murdered." Naruto turned to face Gaara, almost surprised to hear his words.

"It seems probable." Said Naruto frowning. "It's what Tsunade-furen seems to think, I thought you would have shared her opinions." Said Naruto uncertainly. He had assumed that Gaara had thought his father murdered as well, in fact, considering that state the Governor's body was found, it seemed the only probable cause unless he happened to be mauled in the woods by an animal, which Naruto found highly unlikely. If Gaara, however, was not going to actively pursue the death of his father, then Naruto realized with dismay he had just wasted his time in coming here.

"How dare you." Said Gaara suddenly, surprising Naruto.

"If Tsunade-furen thinks that by sending you, I will discuss my father's demise – murder or not – then I am afraid she was mistaken." Said Gaara as he approached Naruto. "I am not willing to discuss these matters with anyone. Sorry for your trouble." Gaara said curtly, although to Naruto, he didn't seem sorry at all. Gaara was only standing a foot or so away from Naruto, but his presence seemed to tower over him.

"Tsunade didn't send me." Said Naruto quickly, the words tumbling from his lips. "I came here because I thought you might have some theories on who did it." He said, standing to match Gaara. They almost stood head to head, with Naruto having a slight edge in height.

"Hm." Said Gaara, smirking, as though he found the situation funny. Naruto found himself taken back by the boy's reaction and found Gaara to be a bit more intimidating than he originally thought.

"So you merely assumed that I would be willing to discuss theories with you; theories concerning my father's murder. How callous of you to come in here and assume such a thing." His words lashed out at Naruto, his tone icy and his stare unforgiving. "Please leave, the topic is not open for discussion."

In that moment, Naruto immediately understood why Gaara was favored to inherit his father's position over his older brother. But rather than defer to Gaara's will, as anyone else surely would have done, Naruto felt a spark of irritation, one that propelled him to speak out against the formidable Feng.

"I didn't come here for you." Said Naruto irritably as his eyes narrowed behind his mask.

Gaara's green eyes widened slightly as he leaned away from Naruto. "Excuse me?" He asked, astonishment coloring his voice. Naruto wondered if he was the first person to stand up to him.

"This isn't about you." Naruto continued. "This…this isn't about me. This is about my friend." He said, slowly finding the strength to speak. "She was critically injured during a fight the same day your father died and I have reason to believe the same person is responsible."

Ah. He understood now. A cool façade slipped onto Gaara's features as he backed away from Naruto and seated himself elegantly in a chair across from the blond shinobi. He should have suspected it would be something like this. Feng Gaara didn't get through eighteen years of his life as the son of a politician without people wanting something from him. Truth be told, although it was a truth Gaara would never allow himself, it hurt when he realized that he nothing more to people than some sort of means to their end. But it seemed as if that was human nature and so Gaara built walls to protect himself from it.

"And so what is it that you want, Zhong Hu-xianggong?" Gaara asked.

If Naruto detected the sarcasm in Gaara's voice, he didn't show it. Instead, his mind was somewhere else. What did he want? He thought back to Sakura, still in a coma as she lay in her bed, perhaps never to wake again. When Naruto thought about the fact that he may never see her brilliant green eyes or fight alongside her again, his hands clenched with a rage that managed to push even the sadness away.

"I want to track them down and find them." Said Naruto through gritted teeth.

"And then?"

Kill them. Rip them apart with my bare hands. Make them feel the same pain that Sakura felt. Millions of answers ran through Naruto's mind, but oddly enough Naruto remained silent. Some rational part of his mind, a rational part that Naruto didn't even know he had called out to him, to make him see reason through his anger. Why was Gaara suddenly asking him this; a voice in Naruto's head that eerily sounded like Sakura asked.

Why indeed.

As suddenly as his anger had come, it just as suddenly disappeared with Sakura's voice clearing away the fury that was fogging his brain. If Gaara heard what he intended to do when he found the murder, would he feel inclined to tell him what he knew? What if Gaara had his own plans for his father's murderer, plans that didn't involve Naruto exacting his revenge.

You know what your answer needs to be, the voice was telling him. It wasn't an answer that Naruto could be sure he could abide by when the time came, but Naruto knew that Sakura was right. He unclenched his fists.

"What do you want me to do?" Naruto asked softly.

Gaara stared at him for a beat, his gaze blank before his mouth slowly quirked into a smile that was quite unnerving to behold. "Well, it seems you and I have much to discuss, Zhong Hu-xianggong."


For the first time in her life, Yamanaka Ino wished she were ugly.

Well, despite what others thought about her, she was never vain enough to really consider herself beautiful to begin with. She wasn't like those other village girls – the ones who had married into the ninja clans from civilian families. Those girls always had an abundance of perfume and make-up on their faces and they always looked at Ino in disdain whenever she came back from an interrogation; all sweaty and her clothes mussed. Those girls irritated Ino. She could never be one of them.

That being said, it wasn't as if she didn't take a certain pride in her looks, especially her hair. There was no one with hair like hers. Her hair, long, pale and beautiful was a source of envy for many women and Ino brushed and washed it daily so it would keep its silky sheen. More than once, she had considered cutting it, because really, hair this long was only an inconvenience in the field. It was only because Chouji had protested that she finally put those thoughts to rest.

But once again, old insecurities were bubbling to the surface. It was because of the way they looked at her; their eyes burning with lust and desire, as if her pale colored hair would bring them closer to home… if for only a few moments. She couldn't stand that look, and their eyes haunted her when she passed them on the streets and at the docks. So she had taken to bundling her hair tightly under a shawl before going out and mercifully, they began to avoid her.

Ino steeled herself as she walked through the narrow roads of Canton toward her destination. Her father had promised her it wouldn't be too much longer before she could finally return home. The longer she stayed in this city, with its unwelcome occupants, the more Ino had to remind herself that she was a shinobi of Konoha and that she was here on a mission from her Emperor. She had no reason to feel frightened.

So then why did the foreigners bother her so much? Even she didn't know the answer to that question. As Ino walked, she expanded her mind and it was almost as if she could feel her father there, giving her strength.

Under the cover of night, Ino slipped through the double doors of her destination and found herself in an entirely different world.

The Peony Pavilion, as it was known locally, was filled with the sound of chatter and the heavy air of perfume. Colorful tiles decorated the floors as paper lanterns and silks of a variety of colors were draped all over. Girls dressed as brightly as their surroundings sat lounging all around the pavilion on extravagant cushions, some looking bored and others flirting with men who lounged on the cushions with them.

There was only thing that seemed off about the picture before Ino and she immediately walked toward her.

The girl could have been no older than Ino herself, but she was tall and willowy, her skin a perfect pale porcelain. Her ink black hair was coiffed into an elaborate up-do and her colorful robes would have looked more in place a century ago than they did now. Despite her make-up, Ino could see that the skin on her face was a blotchy red and her eyes were rimmed red as smudged kohl ran down her cheeks.

"Oh you came!" The girl said gratefully, grasping onto Ino's wrist as she approached. "T-Thank the Gods. S-She's t-this way…"

Ino followed behind the girl, passing a multitude of screen doors as they walked through the narrow hallways. Ino kept her gaze focused ahead of her as the occasional squeals and grunts assaulted her ears. She refused to think of whatever was going on behind those screen doors…

They reached the end of the hallway and the girl pulled open a screen door on her right before the both stepped inside and she slid it shut. The room wasn't as elaborately decorated as the entrance to the pavilion was and the air was heavy inside. The heat inside the room, coming from a charcoal brazier only served to enhance the musky smell of incense and perfume inside.

Ino quickly slid a small window open to let in some fresh air before removing her cloak and focusing on the occupants in the room. The sick girl was lying on a small cot piled high with blankets. Ino gingerly removed a few blankets as she knelt by her bedside. She might have been pretty once, but no longer. Her skin was a sickly white pallor and she seemed to be sweating from head to toe. Her dark hair was matted around her face and her lips were dry and cracked. Her eyelids fluttered, obscuring her bloodshot eyes and her lips moved although no sound came out.

Reaching under the blankets, Ino held up the girl's slender wrist to check her pulse. It was erratic.

"She's going through withdrawal." Ino announced, gritting her teeth. She had to expect as much, considering the location…

The young girl gasped from her spot near the door. "W-Withdrawal?" She asked, her voice shaky. Her eyes shifted toward the girl in bed. "But I t-thought it was j-just the f-flu. I-I didn't even know…"

"Pearl." Said the other occupant of the room sharply. The young girl immediately shut her mouth and started to wring her hands together.

Ino turned her blue eyes on the woman. The woman was middle aged although her face was smooth and as youthful as Ino's own. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face and was streaked with subtle hints of grey. She was dressed more conservatively than the other girls that Ino had seen as the woman lounged against the cushions. A long pipe was held in her slender fingers, although unlike the opium that filled most pipes in the city, Ino could smell from the smoke that there was tobacco in hers. The woman looked at Ino with dark eyes that spoke of her experience and maturity. It was her eyes alone that spoke of her age more than anything else.

"We were already well aware of that." The woman continued, taking a drag from her pipe before exhaling a cloud of smoke. "The question is whether or not you can help her."

"Madame Tigress…" Pearl murmured anxiously.

Madame Tigress waved her off with a languid wave of her hand. Madame Tigress. Ino had heard of her. She was the notorious owner of the Peony Pavilion. She had the reputation of being strict and formidable – traits a woman would need if she expected to stay in business…especially her business.

Ino, however wouldn't allow her to intimidate her. Her gaze was frosty as she spoke her next words. "I can help her." She said determinedly. She was no Haruno Sakura but Ino would do her best to save the girl.

Madame Tigress almost looked amused at her words. "I'll need to try detoxifying her body." Ino continued. "She'll need lots of fluids and rest though."

Madame Tigress sent a cursory glance toward Pearl who looked at her with wide eyes for a brief moment before finally nodding her head and scurrying off. Pearl returned moments later with towels thrown over her arm, a large bowl of water and a kettle. The girl knelt down beside Ino and Ino quickly dabbed a towel in the water and cooled the girl's forehead. The girl's eyelids fluttered again and the corners of her mouth quirked up, giving Ino an indication that she was doing something right.

She had Pearl continue dabbing the girl's forehead while she brewed a tea. Ino took a pouch out of her cloak where she had samples of dozens of herbs. It was a habit she had picked up from Sakura, who had once told her that most ailments had an herbal remedy and that if she ever was going to be serious about Medical Ninjutsu, she better start carrying some herbs on her. Ino was never one to back down from a challenge and she wanted to prove that she was serious about Medical Ninjutsu.

Ino quickly picked out a few that she knew helped detoxify the body and she threw in a few others that were well known for easing stomach pains. It wasn't long before Ino had the kettle sitting over the charcoal brazier. When Ino had Pearl busy with watching the tea and she was positive Madame Tigress wasn't watching her, Ino put her back to the older woman and covered her hands in a thin layer of chakra so she could more accurately diagnose the girl.

As Ino suspected, there weren't any drugs left in the girl's system, but her body had grown so used to them that the craving for them would literally kill her. Unfortunately, her Medical Ninjutsu knowledge in this area was limited and Ino found there was little she could do other than help the girl's body try to stabilize itself. Ino placed a soothing chakra filled hand on the girl's forehead and the girl let out a sigh, her breathing more regulated.

Soon enough, the tea finished boiling and Pearl poured some into a small cup. Pearl held the cup tentatively in her hands. "W-What if this doesn't work?" Pearl asked quietly. "Maybe it would just be easier if I found some opium…"

"No!" Said Ino, so loudly that she startled Pearl into almost dropping the cup.

Ino sighed and quickly snatched the cup from Pearl. "Don't you understand?" She asked. "If this continues, what will happen the next time she tries to quit? Or she can no longer get any? She could die." Ino said, stressing her words. "You need to stay away from opium."

Ino gave Madame Tigress a meaningful look and the look the older woman returned was somber, but she just shrugged. Ino knew what that shrug meant; that she would try to keep her girls safe from harm, but if a patron brought it in, there wasn't much she would be able to do. Ino realized with a start how difficult it must be for Madame Tigress.

Pearl looked down at her lap. "Those bastards!" She suddenly cried, her fingers clenching her skirts with surprising strength. "Look at what they have done to us! Jade Rose never would have-"

"Don't be so foolish." Said Madame Tigress sharply, exhaling a plume of smoke. Her sharp eyes looked to Ino and Pearl who looked surprised. "We were poisoning ourselves long before the gweilo came to our shores. They only took advantage of the situation."

Ino had no response for that so she instead turned her attention back to the girl – Jade Rose. After Ino and Pearl helped Jade Rose to drink the tea, Ino insisted that Pearl and Madame Tigress give the girl some space to rest. Madame Tigress rose languidly and swept out of the room without a word, but Pearl was more reluctant to leave. Ino watched Pearl whisper some soothing words to Jade Rose as she rose to leave. Ino could tell that they were close; closer than she would have imagined two girls becoming under such circumstances. She felt sorry for her.

It was already well into the night by the time Ino finished. She had finally gotten Jade Rose into a peaceful sleep where hopefully she would stay until her body had at least regained some of its pre-withdrawal stability. Ino had made sure to brew enough tea to ease Jade Rose's stomach for at least the week and made sure the rest of her body was functioning properly.

Ino had just clasped her cloak together when she heard a muffled scream shred through the thin walls of the pavilion. At first, Ino couldn't be sure if wasn't just one of the girls and her 'patrons'. But then Ino realized that the scream sounded far too devastated. Quickly, Ino ran out into the lobby. It was empty now, devoid of almost all patrons now except for two men in uniforms, deep in conversation, who were playing a game of weiqi while two girls sat beside them massaging their shoulders.

Madame Tigress was at the door, her head peeking out and her shoulders rigid.

"What-" Ino began as she reached the door. She stopped short as Madame Tigress turned toward her and opened the door wider for Ino to see.

The night had erupted into chaos.

Screams and shouts echoed down the street. Broken bottles were littered everywhere and tiny pieces of glass reflected off the red lanterns glowing in front of the Peony Pavilion. And there, rampaging down the street was a hoard of foreigners; angry, shouting and clearly all drunk. Amidst them, there was a woman crying over the body of a dead elderly man, a knife hilt protruding from his stomach. Ino gasped and covered her mouth with her hands as she looked on in horror. Clearly something terrible had gone wrong here. A few men had come outside and were yelling at the foreigners, gesturing wildly with their hands as the foreigners shouted back with unbridled anger.

Ino realized she had to do something. They were already out of control as it was and soon, they would make their way to Peony Pavilion…

Ino made to push past Madame Tigress and join the crowd outside when the older woman suddenly grasped Ino's elbow. "What on earth do you think you're doing?" She chastised.

Ino opened her mouth to respond and then closed it. Behind Madame Tigress's attitude of formidability, Ino could see there was fear lurking in the depths. What was she going to do? Ino realized with a start that she may have been a shinobi of Konoha, but here in Canton she was nothing but a pretty blond haired girl who may have some skill with medicine, but that certainly didn't mean she could charge into a crowd without exposing herself.

The thought left Ino dumbfounded.

"You need to leave." Said Madame Tigress, tightening her grip on Ino's arm as her eyes turned to steel. "This is no place for a girl like you."

For a girl like her? Never before had Ino felt so…helpless. Could she really allow herself to just run away?

"The army will be here soon." Said Madame Tigress, her words cutting through Ino's thoughts. "You need to leave before that happens." Quickly, she reached into her robes and pressed some gold coins into Ino's hand. "Go." She said sharply, releasing her hold on Ino.

Ino cast a fleeting glance at Madame Tigress before heeding her words and slipping from the door. The woman was right. She needed to leave before things got worse if she expected to keep her anonymity. She still had a mission here in Canton and she couldn't risk botching it before it was over. Those thoughts alone steeled Ino's resolve as she quickly ran down the street, away from the rioting. The roars and screams still assaulted her ears, and Ino could see the eyes of scared locals from the windows she passed.

She had just reached the end of one winding road and was turned onto another when she barreled into someone who was coming from the opposite direction. Strong arms quickly grasped her, preventing her from falling to the ground.

"Sorry." Ino quickly mumbled before looking up, any further words dying in her throat.

A lone blue eye stared down at her, the other obscured by a thick lock of hair that almost looked white in the moonlight. The man smiled and said something to her in a lilting and twisted language that sounded horrible to Ino's ears. Ino pulled away from the man just as he reached out to brush away a stand of hair that had fallen out from her bundle. His gloved fingers grazed Ino's temple and she quickly disappeared before the man could blink an eye.

Glossary:
Gweilo – literally white ghost, a derogatory name for white foreigners.
Weiqi – The game of Go


Something…no…someone was hurting her.

She could feel it in her mind, probing and poking at her, causing her pain. She wanted them to stop but they wouldn't. The foreign feeling was making squeamish, as if something foreign was crawling all over her. Why wouldn't they stop? Why couldn't they just understand she wanted to be left alone?

She tried to call out, but she realized that she didn't know how.

The feeling pulsed against her again and the feeling was repulsive. Whatever it was, she wanted it gone. Never before had her desire for something been so strong. As she realized this, she felt something awake inside her. A remembrance, perhaps, of something that she hadn't thought about in a long time.

When she felt the feeling again, it felt less strong as she expanded her senses. She felt heavier somehow; something was tying her down. She no longer felt limitless, but she felt things that she had forgotten she could feel. Warmth and comfort were surrounding her; she could feel a heat in her chest and the pull of air into her lungs. She was almost there…

She hadn't realized the last part would be so hard. The rough cotton surrounding her body, the burning charcoal in the air, the inhaling and exhaling of breath – she could feel them, sense them, but there was still something she was missing, something that she now desperately wanted. The feeling was now a comforting presence. Intrusive still, but familiar. Its familiar feeling gave her strength, a strength that she needed most desperately…

Slowly, the light poured in. It was overwhelming and the desire to sink back into nothingness had never been stronger. But she knew she couldn't do that. Her world was expanding as the light became more tolerable. Shapes took form until she was greeted by someone she had long forgotten.

"Sakura! Thank goodness you're awake!"


Jutsu:
Sennen Goroshi – One Thousand Years of Death
A technique where one's finger is poked into an opponent's butt causing intense pain

Character Corner

Name: Hoshigaki Kisame
Shinobi Name: Yu Sha Yu
Age: 35
Height: '6-5"
Specializes: Ninjutsu, Taijutsu, Kenjutsu

Kisame was born into a shinobi family in Kirigakure during Kiri's time of unrest. Albeit not as smart as his other classmates, Kisame was eventually promoted to Chunin and then later Jounin. Kirigakure, looking for an edge over the other shinobi villages, began experimenting on select shinobi who volunteered to create shinobi who could be used as an ultimate weapon. Kisame, being blood thirsty and always ready for a fight, volunteered, resulting in his appearance today. Eventually, the experiments proved to be a failure and Kirigakure instead created the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen of the Mist, an elite fighting group. Kisame was picked, choosing to wield Samehada, one of the deadliest of swords. As part of the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen of the Mist, Kisame participated in the Third Great Shinobi War where he personally slay hundreds of shinobi. It is here that he became known as the "Monster of the Hidden Mist". After Kirigakure tried to revitalize their economy under a new emperor, Kisame saw there was nothing left for him in Kiri, especially after the Swordsmen were disbanded. Kisame defected from Kiri, leaving with a huge bounty on his head.

Kisame often has a dry wit and likes to joke with anyone who is around him, much to their annoyance. However, he is also a very loyal friend and trustworthy as well. While he often picks on Itachi, he also has great respect for him and looks out for Itachi, making him one of Itachi's only friends. He has an incredible chakra reserve, even for someone who is not a Jinchuuriki. Kisame is especially keen on fighting and has a great bloodlust that has not been satisfied since the Third Great Shinobi War. His shinobi name means Monster Shark.