Book 1


Chapter 9 - Hazed Prospect

A/N: Thank you, to those of you who reviewed, for the positive response; I'm glad that you're enjoying it. However, something that I've noticed is that a lot of my 'regulars,' as far as reviewing goes, have seemingly dropped off of the map. Where're you guys at? And, to that point, what is it exactly that you guys are finding uninteresting? I've said this many times, and I'm getting tired of repeating myself: If this story is feeling too slow, or too boring... it picks. The. Hell. Up. In the grand scheme of things, an eight-chapter introduction is incredibly short; and, although it may seem or feel long to you now, looking back a few months from now, it won't. But, if it isn't the pace that's deterring people, then I have no idea what it is, so, would anyone care to enlighten me?

Next, someone's review brought this small point to mind that I thought I should state as fact before it becomes something that others adopt as common practice: There's no need to point out any typos or grammar blips that you may stumble over and upon throughout the chapter. I can promise that you will not find many (if any), and those you do find will be caught by me within the next day or so. Even to this day, I still haven't been able to commit myself to even a brief, diligent editing schedule/habit; so, although I try to ensure quality for you guys and girls, I don't do nearly as much as I think I should (sad, right?)

So, I'll do my best, but, if you ever notice anything inexcusable, please, by all means, let me know.

On a similar note, I've finally gotten a better word-processor, so...! That means, that I can finally use "em-dashes." For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about:


En: - (essentially a hyphen)

I'm sure a lot of you don't care, but I find it liberating!

Helekiller2: Originally I wasn't going to do any responses; but, when you reviewed, I felt that I had to. For anyone that wasn't clear on the subject, this is one. Continuous. Story. For a good comparator, I refer you to the Harry Potter books; much like those books, this story will simply be divided, but not 'separate,' per se. Now, you may be thinking, "Why isn't it just consolidated?" or "Why is it necessary to include books at all?" Those are good questions, but they honestly have simple answers: management, organization, and symbolism. Contrary to other epics that implement a similar strategy, these books will all flow into each other, and, if anything, merely be separated by a brief time-skip. I hope that answers any questions that you may have had.

With all of that aside, welcome to the second arc of Book 1. And, without further ado, please enjoy Chapter 9.

P.S.: Sorry about the two-month-long hiatus, everyone. It will not happen again in the foreseeable future.

Kurenai was at a loss. She simply couldn't wrap her mind around the pink-haired enigma that was her least productive student. In the past few days, she had dedicated her time, and all but disregarded her other students' progress to figure out the best way to handle the task that she'd set herself unto; but alas, she was stumped.

In time with the crescendo of the wind's whistle, Kurenai absent-mindedly called out cues to the active portion of her squad; but her mind was still stuck on Sakura. She watched the young girl pick at her locks of hair with a worn ornamental brush, and fiddle with the grass at her hind-side, presumably trying to convince herself that a better day was coming. As far as Kurenai was concerned, it was not. Nevertheless, something had to be done.

Inuzuka Kiba continued to step through the motions, but he'd long since caught on to the same hints of irregularity that his counterpart, Aburame Shino, had. Hand extended, he half-heartedly slapped at Shino's loosely-held block. "Oi, Shino," he mumbled, with a sideways glance cast at their distracted sensei.

Shino replied with a nod, already acknowledging his squad-mate's concern. He drew his feet into a relaxed stance. "Do you know anything about this?" The sunlight glinted off of his glasses.

Kiba winced slightly, but one couldn't really say with certainty if it were an expression of scrutiny, or an act to shield his eyes from the inconveniently angled glasses. "No," he let out in a low growl, "but it's really slowing down our training, and it's getting annoying! Especially without Akamaru here!" He shrugged his shoulders in irritation, only to get his arm caught in an awkward position within the sleeve. "Argh!" Twisting and turning, the struggling continued as he wriggled around within his own jacket, like an animal trapped in a plastic bag.

The Aburame looked on, curious, but not daring to be amused. He was an Aburame after all, and his counterpart was an Inuzuka: he wanted to avoid dealing with unnecessary emotion as much as possible, from himself and his teammates. But still, something in the back of his mind insisted that Kiba's struggling was amusing, and he couldn't help but crack a subtle smirk. "Hm," he barely whispered, struggling to suppress the unintentional display.

But even from within his disarrayed clothing, Kiba still managed a, "Hey!" Heaving, he finally extricated himself from the thick jacket, flinging it off his head. "Damn that thing!"

The tension in the air told Shino that it was the perfect time to realign the topic of conversation, so he proceeded, "You seem frustrated."

"What makes you say that?" Kiba challenged, with a little more edge than necessary.

Shino merely stared... again.

"Why do you always do that?!" he demanded. "You always just stare at me like it's gonna give me some kinda answer or something! Well, it's not!"

Shino knew that his life outside of his clan would require adjustment... but this seemed a bit ridiculous, even from what his clan had forewarned him about. Then again, he had the circumstances to consider. Who was he, if not someone who could adapt? After all, they all had their short-comings.

"Kiba," he started, pausing for attention, "myself and your jacket are not the issue, nor is Akamaru being left out of this preliminary training." Shino stopped, but as he saw Kiba raising a hand, he finished, "I apologize for being brief. I am not accustomed to such dynamic socialization yet; however, I will make it my mission to improve."

The Inuzuka deflated. "Well damn, man. When you say that... I guess I was overreacting a bit. It's just so frustrating, ya know?" he spoke with a sigh of resignation. Not leaving room for an answer, he nervously curled his lips into a grin, revealing prominent canines, before turning and jogging through the even waves of grass to retrieve his jacket.

Shino barely nodded; though he didn't show it, he was inwardly satisfied with the results of his initiative. "I believe we do have something of importance at hand, however," he said, only half speaking to Kiba.

Drawn from his activity, Kiba looked up from adjusting the fur-rimmed hood of his jacket, to notice Shino facing their now entirely distracted, contemplative sensei, eyeing the distant Haruno Sakura.

'It's still n-not perfect...' She pressed the brush against her scalp, before pulling back forcefully, letting the uncooperative strands of hair futilely struggle against the rubber bristles, only to end up de-rooted. 'Sasuke-kun is coming home today. He'll want to see me...' She repeated the motion, with increased force. 'I haven't spoken to Sasuke-kun in a while... he'll surely w-want to see me.' Though she could not see her hair from the eyes of her observers, she knew it to not be perfect; Sakura was disturbed by her hair's lack of interest in Sasuke's return. Why would her body not cooperate? She gritted her teeth, renewing her effort with indigestable brutality.

A hand firmly clasped Sakura's wrist, impeding the further damaging of her follicles, and drawing the girl's attention up through her disheveled bangs to the face staring directly back at her.

"Sakura, that's enough," Kurenai declared.

With a quick jerk of her wrist, Sakura managed to extricate herself, but only ended up looking more foolish, flinging the battered brush across the field in the process. "What?" she said with a sardonic tinge, evident in the pitchy rasp that her voice had been reduced to.

Kurenai hardened her stare. "I will not allow you to disrupt our progress as a team any longer!" She retracted her arm, crossing it over and under the other in an effort to reinforce her stance. "I am not just going to stand here and pretend that I don't see, and hear you mumbling to yourself, obsessing over that damned Uchiha boy!"

Sakura's expression briefly faulted, in her thinking, 'I was speaking...?' but she quickly returned to her favored look of distaste.

"You have a responsibility as a ground citizen of Konohagakure to function as a proper unit of this team, Sakura." Kurenai continued, "You cannot expect such leniency, especially if you hope to advance in rank and reputation." She began to turn, motioning Sakura to follow in step, "Now... come back, and we'll beg"

She stood up all at once, making a point in her hurry to reclaim the focus of her sensei's crimson eyes. "No!" she shouted. "You don't know what I need!"

Kurenai turned back to her, with strain evident in the creases adorning her upper brow, tugging at the frame of her face. "Sa"

"And," she hissed, stressing the word, "I don't need this!" Rapidly turning, Sakura began a defiant, shaky stomp through the field. As she went, her commonplace idiosyncracies seemed to make way for nervous twitches, and anxious dread. She had forgotten the brush entirely.

From a distance, Kiba and Shino observed the unfolding of the events from a vantage point; although they were the most well informed, they knew least of all how to react.

Shino gave a subtle glance to his newfoundas he had decidedfriend, but ultimately let his gaze settle on the discarded brush. He squeezed his hand in the pocket of his protective coat, setting ripples in the fabric as he started unto the article.

The daylight shone through cracks in the tree-cover, cleanly dividing the shadows and speckling the shaded path that bore four people, all walking in-flock, but out of step with one another, with pockets of diffused light. The light could not cleave the dense mood that hung over the group, however, and it certainly could not displace Naruto from his frustrations.

Naruto's sandals kicked against the dirt path metronomically, but with a reserved enough force so as not to stir up debris or nearby creatures, and as to not draw any more attention to himself. Maybe he wanted attention.

Naruto walked at the southern point of the rhombic formation of Team 7, pushing the loaded cart that was entrusted to his group, alone. He gnawed at his lip, trying to shave the flake of dead skin that he, typically, would not have paid any mind; everything always seemed more deliberate when you were left with no one to consider but yourself. 'Urgh,' he held the grumble in his mind, a drop of sweat falling from his brow, right before the eye that he had let drift back to Sasuke. Unsure if he was watching the droplet or the Uchiha, he turned to Hinata, who was unfortunately fascinated with her index fingers, which rubbed against each other in memorized patterns.

With an inaudible plip, the drop of sweat that had descended from Naruto's forehead fell against his lower-lip. Blinking once, slowly, coupled with a deep breath, he spoke. "Sasuke."

Again, "Sasuke," he said.

Sasuke was well aware of the call, but he disregarded it, instead making a conscious effort to angle himself away from the sound.

Hinata noticed this. "N-Naruto-kun... if"

"Sasuke, help me push this"—he paused, panting—"cart. You're not doin' anything..." Naruto finished, unaware of Hinata's brief interleavance.

Sasuke didn't reduce his pace, but instead chose to passively cast his eyes over his shoulder; from his perspective, he was still looking down on the blond-headed ninja. He squinted, but made no further motion to indicate acknowledgement.

Naruto, despite his compromising position, held the rude stare. "Well?" he prompted, sucking in another dose of oxygen.

"No," said Sasuke; he promptly rolled his head towards Hinata, "and he doesn't need your help, either." Before Naruto could protest, Sasuke went on, "Our purpose is to guard the contents of the cart while we deliver it back to the village, right?"

"So?!" Naruto demanded.

"The weakest member of the group should be in the least demanding role," Sasuke replied, narrowing his eyes, acting as if it were the most plainly obvious thing to be seen.

"What are you trying to say, huh?!" Naruto raised his voice. Taking a step back, he readjusted the cart's bar in his hands; he winced—it seemed heavier than before.

"You're the weak link."

Still holding his eyes closed, he lowered his head, gritting his teeth; in the process, he entirely ignored the silent call of his friend, Hinata, who desperately wanted to reach out. She could only berate herself once more for her weakness: as much as she wanted to help him, she was too weak, and she was too weak, because she could not help him.

Pointing the group, Kakashi walked in silence, hands pocketed. 'They need to work this out on their own...'

His steps echoed against the ground, and he couldn't help sighing in defeat, as he could feel the emptiness that he found in his hypocrisy eating at him.

And though he could, he would do nothing about it.

Konohagakure was at its daily pinnacle of commerce. The streets were full, the concoction of the many different voices and exclamations radiated positivity, energy and attentiveness, and the sun was shining brightly, enhancing the pleasant glow adorning the cheeks of merchants and consumers alike.

Set against the pleasant buzz, a virtual air of somberness cut through—albeit, less than smoothly—, bumping by, against and around the veritable crowd members; sarcastic "Excuse me?"s, and indignant "Hey!"s were thrown at the source of negativity, but they all seem to be deflected by the utter lack of attention being paid by the auto-centric, pink-haired girl.

She absent-mindedly shuffled her feet against the ground, doing her (unconscious) best to weave through the crowd. 'Why do they always have to bother me... S-Sasuke-kun wouldn't...'

She bumped particularly roughly against a man, nearly falling forward from having the same courtesy returned to her frail frame. Though she stumbled, she did not pay any attention—it was not a setback.

Her head hung, 'Why... Sasuke-kun, please. I-I'd do anything... why do you ha—lo...' She shook her head violently, leaving her unruly hair in even more disarray. The action drew attention to her, but she did not notice. 'I... It... I trained—I became a ninja.' Sakura's hand wandered to her hair. Shakily, she pulled it through, grimacing at, but dismissing the knots as she stroked it. 'I keep my hair p-pretty for you...'

Sakura's heart-beat began to increase rapidly, she could feel the palpitations, slamming against her chest cavity. The banging echoed in her ears, leaving a dull pain just beyond her reach, prodding at the inside of her fragile skull. She felt sweat stinging at her eyes—it may have been tears, but she would not have been able to distinguish. 'I... everything. What... w-what..'

Her eyes noticeably dilated, in conjunction with the visual widening indicative of realization. An image of Hinata standing over her overpowered her visual sensory. 'The spar... her...'

She stopped. The rustic door of her humble home stood before her. Even from the street, she could hear a faint screaming emanating from where she assumed to be the kitchen, but she was numb to it now. Placing her hand on the cold knob, her mind remained occupied by that singular, abhorrent association: 'Her,' she thought, as she quietly slipped into the house, her thoughts were not disturbed by the octave shatter of glass.

Several hours later, skating on the cusp of midday, Team 7 finally bordered Konoha. The mission had gone relatively smoothly, and Naruto, along with a tailing group, had deposited the valuable minerals they had been transporting at a refinery that hung on the edge of the village's defined territory.

Despite the success of the literal mission, the abstract purpose of the mission had been skirted entirely; in fact, it felt to Kakashi that they had regressed, rather than progressed as a unified squad. He knew this opinion was valid, but he couldn't hold himself to it out of guilt.

Kakashi was brought from his daze by Sasuke.

"Kakashi, can I leave? We completed the mission, and if you don't have anything else to tell us, I have more productive things to do," he informed bluntly.

This mindset disturbed Kakashi: while he was happy that Sasuke took a serious interest in his self-betterment, he seemed to have no regard for anyone else, which was incredibly unhealthy, especially at this stage of the game. He thought back to his first real encounter with the boy, as Ishika... Turning to Sasuke, he straightened his expression as he began to speak, "No," he started.

His declaration caught the attention of the rest of his team, who had been absent-mindedly observing the village from the edge of the cliff they had chosen to rest on.

"W-We're going on another mission, Kakashi-sensei?" Hinata confirmed.

He angled his head to face her, nodding. "Yes..."—he turned to Naruto, angling his body to fully face the boy—"Naruto... are you up to it?"

"Of course! Dattebayo!" Naruto half shouted. The blues of his eyes quavered, reflecting the determination of a thousand men, as the spark of a cobalt ember.

Hinata could clearly see that the interaction held more meaning than was apparent to the imprudent viewer. To be perfectly honest with herself, she felt that she had something to make up for as well; yet, while she doubted that it could be accomplished within, or by a single mission, she accepted the need to start somewhere.

Kakashi nodded, not bothering to validate Sasuke's position. "Let's go, then."

It was not long before the squad arrived at the Hokage Tower. Kakashi paused for a nigh on imperceptible glance at the glass windows that lined the Hokage's personal office. In this microcosm of time, his mind drifted to the conversation he had had the other day:

"Kakashi... are you sure that they're ready for this?"

"I can't answer that question, Hokage-sama..."

The elderly Hokage inhaled the pipe-smoke, drawing relief from it while he held it in his chest, before expelling it as a lulling cloud. "I was hoping you could decide for them Kakashi."

"With all due respect, Hokage-sama, you know that I cannot do that..."

"You will have to eventually."

"I have more faith in them than I do in myself. I'm hoping they'll surprise me," he admitted.

"This is not healthy for you, Kakashi..."

"It may not be, Hokage-sama, but it has to be done. It is the only way that I can grow—that they can grow."

"I promise," he added, "I will not fail; I will protect them."

"Very well, Kakashi." Hiruzen tugged at his beard, gently shading his eyes with his wizened lids. "Very well."


However, before he could gather himself to reconsider, the sun's rays quickly fulfilled their part in deflecting his curiosity, and interrupting his deliberation. He moved on, ushering his team into the large tower.

As they navigated the winding halls of the tower, their feet clicked out an odd metronome against the lacquer flooring. Kakashi passively thought it mildly amusing how in-tune they were, despite their characteristic discord.

When they neared the mission dispatch office—discernable by the oddly neatly scrawled '任務派遣事務所,' marking a sign hanging from the door in red—Naruto charged ahead, clearly the most excited of the group.

The group disregarded his hyperactivity as normal, until they heard a shout of "Hey!" coming from the open door of the dispatch quarters. The group, headed by Kakashi, dashed to the source of the noise to find Naruto rudely pointing at a man whom Kakashi immediately recognized as their customer.

'Just as they described him,' he thought, '...down to the type of liquor he'd be drinking...' He could scarcely feel a hesitant sweat making its way down his forehead, only covered by his overabundance of facial garnish.

A loud burp drew the silver-haired ninja's attention.

"Eyy...," slurred the man, who wore his sun-guarded, fisherman's hat at an awkward angle across his head, pointing back at Naruto with the same hand that held a (empty) bottle, with a purple label reading 'ゆず梅酒.' "Who's the midget who stole the headband?"

Kakashi merely sighed into his reserved, nod of a bow. "Good afternoon to you as well, Tazuna-san."

A/N: I apologize for the short length, everyone, but hopefully that was a stimulating chapter, regardless. I know that you guys deserve better, but I can only give so much; I promise, from here on out, the story will gain momentum with each chapter.

P.S.: Codaram, I'll get to reviewing your latest work soon, since I'm on a brief intercession now. I have read it though (yes, all three). Nice lemon, no way it's your first try, cause that style was downright impressive, even to me!

Next Time: Chapter 10 - Beneath the Haze