Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ Just Go My Way ❯ The Konoha Ninja Way ( Chapter 3 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Author's Note: This story is set ten years after the start of the series. That means all the characters are ten years older than they were when first introduced (well, with exception of the characters introduced after the Time-Skip---but you get the picture). Since the canon story is far from concluded, I'm basing this particular story on canon as it stands right now, which is about Chapter 350. From there, I've made my own conclusions and advanced the story forward. Therefore, there are likely to be some things I will mention here that Kishimoto-sensei's future chapters of the manga will render untrue, so this may turn out to be somewhat AU.

I'm also taking some artistic license and liberty with a few characters, such as Sakura and Lee's families, and Iruka's former sensei. Kishimoto-sensei never really went into any details about those people, so I made some decisions myself... including names for them that I felt were suitable. For what it's worth, I'm going on the assumption that Obito in fact died, and did not become Tobi, which is what a lot of people speculate actually happened to Obito. (And there is some evidence in chapter 364, which came out several weeks after this story was finished, that in fact supports this theory, much to my dismay)

I should add that the rating on this chapter is a little higher than the rest of the story, because of allusions to certain adult themes and situations, and for a bit coarser language. There are a few F-bombs in here.

Disclaimer: I do not own any part of "Naruto" or its characters. It all belongs to Kishimoto-sensei. I'm just playing in the sandbox of this amazing world. And what a fun sandbox it is! I should thank Kishimoto-sensei for creating it, it's even more fun than Takahashi-sensei's Sengoku Jidai!

Also, this entire story was completed before I actually read Maldoror's phenomenal slashfic "Diplomatic Relations" which deals with Rock Lee as an ambassador in Sunagakure. Any similarities you find between that fic and mine are in fact strictly coincidental. I have been known to "ship" Lee with Gaara before, and that remains my favorite slash pairing in this fandom, which is why there are allusions and hints of that flavoring mentioned in this one. My favorite "ship" is Lee with Sakura, however, hence this fic. But I want it to be clear that I did not read "Diplomatic Relations" until after I'd already finished this story.



"Just Go My Way"
Part Three: The Konoha Ninja Way


Sakura awoke when the sun finally broke through the bedroom window's blinds. Murmuring to herself, she rolled over to put her back to the window. Her vision was blurry and her thoughts were slushy, but her forehead didn't pulsate with acute pain like she'd expected.

Lee was already gone, she noted as she stirred. Not a surprise. He was supposed to meet Gai-sensei at the third training field at sunrise. And Lee was fanatical about being on time, a trait he claimed he'd had even before he'd met Gai-sensei, who likewise stressed being prompt for appointments.

Her stomach rumbled obnoxiously. 'Feed me NOW!!' it screamed at her. However, another organ also decided to make itself known. 'Empty me RIGHT NOW or you'll be sorry!!' shrilled her bladder. Which made sense. Not only had she had too much alcohol last night, but Lee had forced her to drink nearly two liters of water before bed, and had periodically throughout the night awakened her to give her another glass of water, insisting that hydration would keep her from being hung-over.

Well, it must have worked, because her head didn't hurt. It felt funny, like it wasn't quite working right, but it didn't hurt.

Once she'd finished taking care of the Call of Mother Nature, Sakura took a very quick shower, scrubbing her scalp vigorously in an attempt to scour away the fuzzy sleepiness. After toweling off, she slipped on a simple red shift, intent on just lounging around the house until her wits came back to her.

"God, I hate cooking," she muttered to herself as she went into the kitchen. As she opened the refrigerator, she saw that Lee had apparently made some riceballs, most likely for lunch, and had left some behind for her. Almost like he'd known she'd be hungry when she woke up and wouldn't want to fix anything.

Without warning, she found herself blinded by tears. Why is he so good to me? I don't understand. What on earth did I ever do to deserve him?

She shook her head violently. "Stop it, Sakura. Stop being so damned maudlin!" She grabbed two riceballs and poured herself a glass of milk, then went and sat out on the sofa, nibbling her breakfast and trying to get her brain to work right.

It was a little weird that since Lee's marriage proposal about this time yesterday they had not really had a chance to make love. Somehow, she'd figured that would be the most natural thing to follow something as momentous as an engagement. But then again, she reminded herself, they'd been pretty busy immediately afterwards, and then when they'd finally had the time, she'd been too many sheets to the wind to be in any condition for it.

Well, maybe I can lure him home around noon and pounce him, she thought to herself, an impromptu prudent blush creeping up her cheeks. After all, something like this should be consummated.

She giggled to herself as she finished the riceballs and drank the last of her milk. She wasn't a big fan of milk, but she knew that calcium was important, especially for a kunoichi, and also for a healer-nin. So she tolerated it and drank it out of necessity.

"Sakura-chan!" There was a knock at the front door. "Sakura-chan, are you going to come see Kakashi-sensei off?"

"He's leaving?" she asked as she opened the door to reveal Naruto hastily zipping up his jounin vest and straightening his hitai-ate.

"Yeah, he's going to Sunagakure with Gaara. Remember?"

Sakura pressed her hand to her forehead. "Sorry, I kind of got a little drunk last night."

"Drunk?" Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Did Geji-mayu...?" The two of them had heard from Gaara a long time ago full details of how Lee had fought against an Oto-nin named Kimimaro while roaring drunk from a mistaken bottle of sake. Gaara had been both impressed and confused by what he'd seen, saying that Lee had fought like a beast possessed of only half its wits but twice its normal capacity of rage. Gai corroborated the story, saying it had taken himself and Neji to hold Lee down once. In short, Rock Lee plus alcohol equaled Big Trouble.

"No, he talked his way out of it. My dad wanted to celebrate with a bottle of sake, and he can be pretty insistent, so as a result I had to drink enough for both myself and Lee. I got pretty hammered. I think Lee was annoyed with me. Anyway, give me five minutes to get fully dressed and I'll be there. Actually, if you'd like to come inside and wait, I'll make it as quick as I can."

"You don't look hung-over," Naruto pointed out as he stepped inside the door and waited patiently while she hunted down her sandals and uniform. "You must not have been that drunk."

"Oh, I was, but Lee apparently knows a hangover cure. I don't know how he knows, or what he did, but it worked."

Naruto chuckled; "It's probably something Gai-sensei taught him."

"Probably," Sakura tied her hitai-ate on like a hair band, as she'd always worn it out of habit. Grabbing up her kunai pouch and shuriken holster, she dropped her glass and plate into the sink in the kitchen. "Okay, I'm ready."

"Five minutes, huh?" Naruto grinned. "Shortest five minutes I've ever seen."

"Shut up, twit," she laughed, punching him in the shoulder. "Now let's go."



They just barely made it to the front gates in time to see off the Sunagakure contingent. Shikamaru and Kiba were there, as was Neji. Gaara was talking with Tsunade when Sakura and Naruto arrived.

"Heh," Sakura grinned, "I suppose it's a good thing Lee's not here."


She pointed to where Kankurou was standing, adjusting the harness straps on a big black draft horse. "That's why."

"Kankurou?" Naruto blinked slowly. "Why would Geji-mayu be afraid of Kankurou?"

"No, idiot!" Sakura swatted him on the head. "The horse. Lee's afraid of horses."

"You're kidding, right? I mean, come on, it's just a big dumb animal!"

Sakura giggled. "He's been bit and kicked by them before. He said his uncle, who raised him, bred and raised prize horses, and that when he was very young he got bit and kicked and stepped on by a horse, and he's been afraid of them ever since. He knows he shouldn't be, but his fear is irrational."

"Bizarre." Naruto shook his head bewilderedly. "Who'd expect Rock Lee to be afraid of such a harmless animal?"

"Luckily for him," Sakura grinned, "Konoha doesn't use them, so he doesn't encounter them often. But clearly Sunagakure does use them occasionally."

"Wussamatta?" Kankurou inquired, noticing that they were looking in his direction.

"I was just telling Naruto about Lee's fear of horses."

"Eh? Oh, right, I forgot about that. Silly thing to be afraid of."

"Oh, like you have room to talk!" Sanami retorted. "You're afraid of desert monkeys and weasels!"

A vein popped out on Kankurou's face, near his left eye, and his eyebrows twitched in annoyance. "Thanks for announcing it, Sami-chan!"

"Settle down," Gaara said idly, without even looking at them, as though this were an everyday event. He was in the middle of looking over a small handful of documents that Shizune had handed him.

Naruto and Sakura approached Kakashi, who was standing off to one side, looking indifferent as usual. Pakkun, his favorite ninken, was draped drowsily over his left shoulder.

"Oi, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said as they came within speaking distance of the silver-haired jounin.

"Yo," Kakashi said lazily. "Guess Tsunade-sama doesn't need me anymore. I'm being demoted to a chuunin's job."

"No you aren't," Sakura retorted. "Tsunade-sama would never do that to you! She's sending you to Sunagakure to be healed, because she can't do it herself! Don't talk about my shishou like that."

"I was, er, joking," Kakashi said, holding his hands up in a defensive submissive gesture.

"You could serve some good being away from the village again," boomed a voice of scratchy brass.

"Eh? Ero-sennin, what are you doing here?" Naruto's eyes grew huge and round as Jiraiya, the Gama-sennin and one of the three great Konoha Sannin, sauntered up. He hadn't changed hardly at all in ten years, except to put on a bit more weight around the girth, which his clothes hid fairly well.

"Partaking of the festivities, what does it look like?" Jiraiya fired back a peeved rejoinder. "Kakashi. I've been searching and gathering information, and there's a possibility that your old student might be somewhere in the vicinity of Sunagakure."

"Old student?" Pakkun groused, stretching languidly and yawning in Kakashi's ear. "What old student? I can only think of three he's had, and two of them are in front of us." The pug rolled slightly, pushing his back against Kakashi's ear. "The other is missing."

"Exactly," Jiraiya said gravely. "Someone vaguely fitting Sasuke's description has been reported just northwest of Suna's westernmost borders. Perhaps you can do some recon while you're there. Confirm or dispel the rumors as they are."

Sakura gulped in astonishment. Naruto made a strangled noise, but Jiraiya shot him a dangerous glare, forcing him to stay quiet.

"I'll try," Kakashi said, "but I don't know how much freedom they'll give me."

"I've already informed Tsunade, who will be telling the Kazekage about it in confidence. I imagine Gaara will allow you to do some reconnaissance while he does research. If you can't, well, let Tsunade know."

Naruto looked like he was going to choke on his questions, but Jiraiya's glare had silenced him. He had spent more than two years in Jiraiya's tutelage and knew better than to push the sennin's bad buttons too hard. When Jiraiya had that look in his eye, it was best to do as he said. Sakura likewise held her silence.

Gaara appeared right then, having used the sandy body-flicker technique to transport himself over to the middle of the escort party. "Kankurou, let's go. I want to be within the desert by sundown tomorrow, if possible."

"Right! Okay, you maggot-headed bakas, let's MOVE OUT!" Kankurou bellowed to the jounin some distance beyond the gate. "We got a long-ass way to go and Kazekage-sama wants to make it as short as possible."

Temari stuck a finger in her ear and grimaced. "That's Kankurou for you. All lungs and no brain."

"Shut it, Temari," Kankurou grumbled as he hefted a pack onto the horse. "Oi! Jirouko! It's your turn with the horse."

A jounin kunoichi came toward him and grabbed the reins on the horse, leading it forward. As the contingent filed through Konoha's gates, Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. "Ready, Pakkun?"

"Sure. You're the one doing the running, remember?"

Sakura spontaneously threw her arms around Kakashi, accidentally knocking Pakkun off as she did, and gave him a hug. "Good luck, Kakashi-sensei!"

"Good grief, Sakura, it's not like I'm going on an S-rank mission. This is probably a C-rank at best, if you can even call it a mission." Nevertheless, the jounin returned her hug. "But thank you, Sakura. And congratulations, again, on your engagement. I have no idea how long I'll be gone, so I may not be back in time for your wedding. Don't hold it up on my account." Pakkun resumed his post on Kakashi's shoulder, giving Sakura a dirty look as he did so.

She laughed as she let go; "Well, we haven't even discussed any plans at all, beyond my mom insisting we throw a big one. I'm sure you'll be back before then."

Gaara eyed her pointedly; "This could easily take a year or more. Or it could take a few weeks. It depends on what all is involved and how, if possible, it can be fixed. I will not know until I have had time examine the situation in much greater detail." His gaze shifted to Naruto. "But I will do what I can. I owe Konoha, and you three in particular, a great debt."

With a slight bow, Gaara body-flickered his way to the front of the line, several hundred meters away. Kakashi raised his hand in parting and followed suit. The highest ranking jounin joined their Kazekage at the head of the column and began moving forward at a decent clip of speed. Within five minutes, there was no sign that a fair-sized contingent from the Sand village had been here.

"Naruto," Jiraiya said severely. "I want you to promise me you won't go haring off after this lead in Suna."

"You mean it's legit?" the young jounin gaped. "I thought maybe you were making that up to keep Kakashi-sensei from thinking he was being banished or something!"

Jiraiya snorted. "Kakashi's far too smart for that. Yes, the lead is probably legit, but that doesn't mean that it's actually Sasuke. And even if it is, you can't go charging off after him right now. We need to confirm his whereabouts and ascertain his goals or intentions. And you aren't the one to do that; you'll be the one we send out when the time comes to close in on him--not before then. So you," the old ninja pointed a finger almost accusingly at Naruto, "are to stay here in the village and do as you're told. Don't forget, you're the one Jinchuuriki that Akatsuki never caught, and while most of the members have been accounted for, we've never managed to catch their ringleader, or figure out whatever happened to the sealing statues that they sealed the bijuu into. So it's possible that they're still around."

Naruto huffed. "I'm not afraid of any of them."

"I really don't care, Naruto. They may or may not be targeting you anymore, but that doesn't mean you can be careless. You are the Hokage's chosen successor, after all."

"And that means, you crazy little yellow-haired runt," Tsunade added, "that you need to start acting like a responsible adult, even when faced with temptation like that. Jiraiya speaks for me here, when he forbids you to follow up on that potential lead. You are needed around Konoha. Let others do the scout-work. If I find out you've disobeyed me here, and I will find out if you do, then... let's just say Sasuke will be the least of your worries." She left unsaid what unpleasant punishment awaited Naruto if he disobeyed, allowing his imagination to run wild.

"Right, Obaachan, sure," Naruto scowled -- his adult version of a pout -- and looked away. "I'm just tired of waiting around doing nothing."

"Look at it this way, Naruto-kun," Shizune said gently. "We've had hundreds of false-leads over the years, many of them more promising than this one. Rather than waste your time several days' journey away from home, let someone else do the scouting and see if there's any substance to the rumor. If there isn't, you won't have wasted time. If there is some truth to the rumors, then you can perhaps investigate further. Jiraiya-sama isn't too hopeful that this will pan out, but he wanted to check it out anyway, just in case."

"We had a wager yesterday," Tsunade said firmly, "and in acknowledgement of that wager, I gave you the week off from missions, barring any emergencies. However, being that you are still partly on-call, I expect you to be nearby in case something does come up. I will remind you that we may end up at war with Kirigakure soon, and Kumogakure has shown signs of being hostile. I need my best jounin close at hand and ready for anything. Therefore, you are not to leave this village without first gaining permission, just like my other high-level jounin. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Obaachan," Naruto relented.

Tsunade glared at him with her piercing gaze, before finally accepting his answer. She turned to Sakura. "Same goes for you. As one of my most talented healers, you need to remain near at hand for when I have to send out someone on a dangerous S-rank. With the way they've been piling up, I'm going to be forced to send Lee on an S-rank soon, and if I do, I want either you or Shizune to go with him. That's about the only way I can guarantee he'll make it back."

Sakura nodded soberly, her blood chilling slightly. She'd known this would happen someday. A shinobi's life was dangerous, violent, and often very short. Lee had been on reprieve for a long time, ever since that disastrous mission to Kirigakure that had very nearly cost him his life. For the past seven or eight months, he had been restricted to C-rank missions, due to his injuries. Then about three months ago he'd graduated to B-rank. His rehabilitation had been much slower than when he'd suffered the fractures at Gaara's hands, because many of his injuries in Kirigakure had been internal and had been near vital organs. Neji had even commented that Lee had taken a blow very near one of his Gates, which could be potentially fatal if there was damage to that Gate and Lee tried to use it without knowing about the damage.

But now that Gai-sensei had deemed him fit enough to learn the secrets behind the Sixth Gate's technique, Asa Kujaku, it was clear that Lee was healed enough to begin taking on A-rank missions, and potentially S-rank. It was inevitable. The only comfort Sakura could take from this was that the Hokage was going to make sure she sent her best healers along with him when he did get sent on something dangerous. It was unwise to send him alone on any mission above a B-rank, because of his complete lack of ninjutsu and genjutsu. Sakura had to hope that if her beloved was sent on a dangerous mission, she and Naruto both would go with him. As a team, they worked very well, with Lee's superior taijutsu, Naruto's complex array of ninjutsu tricks, and Sakura's adeptness at recognizing and dispelling even the most complex genjutsu. Even more importantly, particularly to Sakura as a healer, and Lee as one who frequently needed a healer, Naruto had a nearly endless supply of chakra, and could transform it into something transferable if needed by a healer. This meant that even though Sakura herself had only a mediocre store of chakra, as long as Naruto was available there was almost no limit on what she could do as a medic-nin; she was only limited to what was possible with ninjutsu. If she had to do something drastic, Naruto could lend her overwhelming amounts of chakra.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow at Sakura, who belatedly realized that the Hokage expected an actual answer out of her. "Understood, shishou. Besides, you haven't given me the week off, have you?"

"Smart girl. Now, Jiraiya..." the Hokage eyed her old teammate and friend. "Oh forget it. I can't control you. Just you be available if I need you."

"Sure thing, Tsunade, but I do have research to do."

"Gah, research!" Naruto threw his hands in the air. "Ero-sennin, you haven't changed at all!"

"He hasn't changed at all in the fifty years I've known him," Tsunade said. "What makes you think he'd change now?"

A great black messenger bird soared overhead, headed for the aeries and the message tower. Tsunade and Jiraiya both watched it fly, and then glanced at each other meaningfully

"I'll be back in twenty minutes," Jiraiya said, as if a thought had passed between himself and Tsunade. Then he body-flickered out of the area.

"Dammit," the Hokage grumbled. "I was hoping for some peace and quiet. What the hell does Iwagakure want now?" She turned and strode away, with Shizune following her as always.

After a few moments, Sakura and Naruto both decided they had essentially been dismissed. The others who had gathered to see of the Suna contingent were long since gone.

"So what are you planning on doing today, Sakura-chan?" he inquired as they turned away from the gate and headed toward the heart of Konoha.

You mean aside from luring my fiancé home at lunchtime and ravishing him? She thought to herself, managing to keep the blush down. Good grief, I'm hopeless. I have one thing on my mind, and being a shinobi has nothing to do with it!

"Er," she said, to stall things a bit, "I hadn't really planned on much. I'd like to see if I can get Lee to come home for lunch around noon or so; I'm going to try to fix something special for him." It just won't be food, she added mentally. "But beyond that, no, I didn't really have any plans."

"Noon, you said?" Naruto looked up at the clock tower. "Okay. It's six now. You'll probably want to be home by eleven then. That gives me a good five hours. You're mine for those five hours!"

She stared at her friend, suddenly at loss for words.

"Er, as friends. I don't intend to get in the way of your relationship with Geji-mayu. But you owe me a date for that last one that got ruined. And since you'll be getting married soon, you're running out of time to pay me back."

Sakura wanted to scream. She loved Naruto dearly, but she didn't think she'd be able to pay him the attention he deserved and demanded, not when all she could think about was the quickest way to get Lee out of his uniform and into bed. She doubted Naruto wanted to know about her sex life, and frankly that was the only thing on her mind right now.

God, I must be about to ovulate or something. Damned hormones. Geez. I can't believe how preoccupied with this I am. She scrubbed her face with her hands.

"Sakura-chan, what's wrong?"

"Naruto, can I take a raincheck on that? I'm still... I don't think I'll be very good company to you today. I'm still feeling the effects of the alcohol last night, and I'm... I'm in a weird mood. I just don't think I'll be able to give you the attention you deserve. I'm really sorry."

Naruto pouted. "Oh fine. But I'm holding you to this. You owe me a date, you know. This may be my last week off for a while. And if that bird from Iwagakure is something important, then I may not get the week off after all."

"Thanks for understanding." She hugged him. "You're such a great friend and teammate. I don't know what I'd do without you."

As she turned toward the direction her and Lee's apartment was in, Naruto spoke up, this time in a tone that was eerily serious. "You know, I'm not stupid, Sakura-chan. I'd appreciate it if you didn't treat me like I am." She froze in her steps, suddenly chilled by his voice. "I spent more than two years with the Ero-sennin. It's not like I'm ignorant. I know what goes on between a man and a woman who are in love. I'm not necessarily swift on the uptake like Shikamaru or anything, but I'm not an idiot."

Sakura slowly turned to face him, feeling a blush creep up her cheeks.


"Look, I'm not asking much, just... I'm not an idiot. I'd prefer it if you didn't lie to me. Even if it is just a white lie. Honesty, that's all I'm asking." He raised an eyebrow. "You cry too easily, Sakura-chan."

Sakura brought a hand up to dash the tears from her cheeks. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, Naruto. I didn't mean to... I just..." Her emotions, apparently pissed off at her, overwhelmed her and she nearly choked on a sob.

He stepped forward and put his arms around her, pulling her close and hugging her tightly. "I didn't mean to upset you, Sakura-chan. I just want you to realize that I'm an adult too, and I'm not an ignorant moron. I know about sex. Remember, Ero-sennin wrote those books that Kakashi-sensei's always reading."

"I didn't mean to... I'm sorry... god, I'm a wreck!"

"It's been quite a week, hasn't it? And you've always been an emotional wreck after big events." Naruto teasingly goosed her, earning a weak swat from her.

For a moment, Sakura reflected on her friend's growth through the past ten years. He'd really matured in his mannerisms. He still tended to act like an idiot when he got excited. But when he was clear-headed, he could speak very eloquently. All those years of training and drilling in diplomacy and public speaking with Jiraiya and Tsunade had paid off in spades.

"Tsk, tsk. Putting the moves on Lee's fiancée already, Naruto?" an amused voice said from nearby. "That's not very nice. You really don't want Lee angry with you. Word is that Gai-sensei has been itching for a good fight lately, ever since Kakashi-sensei stopped accepting any of his challenges. I imagine Gai would be more than happy to take you on in your sensei's stead."

"Oh, good morning, Iruka-sensei."

The chuunin stood about five meters away and had his hands on his hips, but his face was wreathed with an affectionate smile. "I'm serious, Naruto. You shouldn't go feeling up another man's fiancée."

"Eh, I'm not afraid of Geji-mayu or his goofy sensei. Besides, he knows I'm not going to get in the way."

"Naruto-kun!" Shizune came pelting down the street toward them. "Emergency! Hokage-sama needs you!"

"Damn," Naruto grumbled. "So much for the week off."

The blond jounin used the body-flicker technique to meet up with Shizune.

Sakura sighed. "I hope we're not about to go to war."

"Don't worry, Sakura," Iruka said gently, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Naruto's tougher than anyone in this village. Even without that crazy fox."

"Naruto's not the one I'm afraid for," Sakura murmured, bringing a hand to her chest.

"Not to worry, Lee won't be going anywhere for a while yet. Hokage-sama wouldn't send him out on something he can't handle. He's still recuperating from that fiasco in Kirigakure."

Sakura looked up at the man who had been her academy teacher. "You are aware that Gai-sensei is teaching Lee the Asa Kujaku now, aren't you? If Gai-sensei thinks Lee's fit enough to learn that, then he's fit enough for A-rank and S-rank missions."

Iruka's eyes widened. "Lee can't learn that technique. It requires rudimentary ninjutsu. It's a fire-attack. Yes it's primarily taijutsu, but it requires ninjutsu to ignite the flames."

Sakura shrugged. "I imagine Gai-sensei knows that better than you, Iruka-sensei, and yet he's still decided to try to teach it to Lee. But that attack requires Lee to open six Gates, which worries me."

"I think it only needs the Gates to actually execute the full attack; you can go through the motions and learn the movements without the extra chakra boost. I know something about taijutsu, after all. I've never gone further than the First Gate, but I know most of the theories. Asa Kujaku is Gai's technique, however, so obviously I don't know as much about it. But cheer up, Sakura. The more he trains with the attack, the better he'll be able to control it." The chuunin patted her shoulder. "And anyway, you can be sure Gai-sensei will take good care of Lee."

"I know. I just..." Sakura sighed. "I don't want him to learn such a dangerous technique."

"That's why you have to do your best as a healer, so that if the worst happens in a mission, you can save him," Iruka said pragmatically. "I have faith in you, Sakura. Everyone's saying you're the most precocious healer-nin anyone's seen since Tsunade-sama, and even Tsunade-sama acknowledges your talent over other healer-nins."

Sakura looked away, trying to will the tears to stay away. Iruka tilted his head slightly. "Shall I walk you home, Sakura? You look like you need to talk to someone."

Sakura nodded numbly. "But not home. I'm going to the third training field. I need to tell Lee something. But you're welcome to come with me. I could use the company, I think." The company of someone who never had romantic designs on me, at least. She thought in addition. Sorry, Naruto, but I'm not convinced you're not jealous.

Iruka smiled gently and pocketed his hands, assuming an unintimidating, slouchy posture as he strolled along beside her. "So what's on your mind?"

"Well, Lee and I have talked recently about having children, and whenever I think about getting pregnant, I get this horrible fear that Lee will end up going on an S-rank; I think of what happened to Asuma when Kurenai was pregnant. I don't know that I could bear it if he were to die like that. But if I'm pregnant, it's not like I can go along to make sure he comes back. And I can't ask him to give up missions while I'm pregnant, especially since even afterwards, someone will have to stay home with the baby."

Iruka's brow furrowed. "Sakura... are you pregnant now? Is that what you're so concerned about?"

"No, no!" She waved her hands. "I'm pretty sure I'm not. I mean, I suppose it's possible, but I'm quite certain I'm not. But, it's still a possibility in the near future. And with the threat of war with Kirigakure, I'm really getting scared. Am I over reacting, do you think?"

"Perhaps, but it's natural to over react when you're emotionally invested. Just keep your perspective. And," the teacher added, "have some faith in Hokage-sama. She'll take care of you and Lee. If you're lucky, by the time you're pregnant, Tsunade-sama will have resigned her post to Naruto, and she can take over when you're out on maternity leave. If you can't trust Lee's well-being to Tsunade-sama, who can you trust?"

She sighed; "I'm just... I don't know."

"I can understand that you're afraid, Sakura. It's very natural. He's a vulnerable shinobi because of his numerous injuries and his lack of ninjutsu. But he's also very intelligent and knows his own limits. And so do Tsunade-sama and Naruto. Naruto might act like a ditz, but he's really learned how to organize and mobilize people; he'll make a good Hokage when Tsunade-sama steps down, even if he doesn't have her knack for healing. No one wants to see Lee killed, I can guarantee you that, least of all Naruto. And those in charge of assigning Lee's missions -- both now and in the future -- aren't going to jeopardize him if they can avoid it. Besides, he's still pretty talented, you know."

The kunoichi twisted her mouth in an expression of uncertainty. "I know that. But I still... it's hard to explain."

"It's okay, Sakura. I understand. Why don't we change the subject? This one is just stressing you out, and it's too early in the day to get that stressed!" Iruka flashed her a bright smile. "Shall I regale you with tales from the Academy? I've got a class learning how to throw shuriken, and they are really clumsy, clumsier than your class was. Gah, I always did hate the first week of shuriken and kunai training." The academy teacher flushed slightly in embarrassment as he rubbed the back of his neck, his flush making the odd scar across the bridge of his nose stand out in sharp relief. "I really think I need my head checked, if I'm still teaching at the Academy after all this time. I know several of the jounin have asked me why I never bothered to put in for a promotion."

Sakura grinned and clucked her tongue. "Tsk, tsk, Iruka-sensei. You're the best teacher in the Academy and you know it."

"Am I? That's the first I've heard of it."

"Ha!" Sakura laughed. "Didn't you know that Gai-sensei won't accept any students from the Academy that you didn't work with? He says students who haven't passed through your curriculum don't have enough appreciation for taijutsu."

Iruka laughed self-consciously. "Does he now? I didn't know that. Funny thing, though, cuz he hasn't passed a single genin team since Neji, Lee and Tenten all moved on. He's more inclined to take on S-rank missions rather than be assigned to another genin team, it seems."

They passed by the first training field, which was in use by Shikamaru and his teammates. Chouji was yawning repeatedly and whining about the "ungodly" hour. Ino was warming up with some kunai throws. Hyuuga Hanabi, who had joined Team Shikamaru after her own teammates and sensei had died, was warming up her body with a series of stretches to limber up. Shikamaru, as usual, looked bored.

"Anything else on your mind, Sakura?"

"No, not really. I mean, nothing important."

Iruka chuckled. "You mean nothing you want to talk about out loud, right?"

Sting. Dead in the black. "Okay, am I really that obvious?" She demanded.

"Afraid so, my dear," the teacher laughed. "You've always been pretty obvious around people who know you."

Sakura groaned and buried her face in her hands. "I should just lock myself in my room until this phase passes, then. This is embarrassing!"

Iruka laughed and put an arm around her shoulders, giving her a quick hug; "Come on, you're young and passionately in love. Most of us have been there before. There's nothing to be ashamed of."

"Don't you dare say anything about the Springtime of Youth! You do and I'll brain you!" Sakura threatened, fighting down a giggle. "Gai-sensei drives me absolutely bonkers with that whole Springtime of Youth crap he spouts all the time! That's the one glaring downside to being with Lee -- dealing with Gai on a regular basis. Honestly, nice guy and all, but ugh. A little of him goes a long way."

Iruka halted, leaning against a tree; he was laughing so hard he could barely breathe or walk straight. For a good three minutes he gave himself over to the gut-twisting laughter until he could finally breathe again. "Oh my god, Sakura," he chuckled as he wiped laughter-tears from his eyes. "Don't let Lee hear you say that."

"Oh hell, Iruka-sensei, I tell Gai off on a regular basis. Lee knows I don't put up with Gai's bullshit."

"You've got quite a mouth on you these days, Sakura. I don't know that I've heard that kind of language out of you before."

"Eh heh," Sakura grinned sheepishly. "I've been around Tsunade-shishou too much. She gets really vulgar when she's had too much sake. Speaking of which, have you ever seen Naruto drunk?"

"Er, no. What kind of drunk is he? Silly?"

"Ha! No, he's already silly. No, he's the weepy maudlin kind. Except that it's really funny how he is. He's normally so upbeat and optimistic, but when he's had a few too many drinks, he starts whining about stupid, stupid stuff, and he says things that he'd never say sober. He even said that he hates the color orange!"

Sakura's laughter died off when she saw that Iruka had fallen completely silent, his attention wrenched from her and directed toward a spot over the trees. A bright rust-red bird was circling lazily. Iruka had gone three shades paler upon seeing it.

"What's that bird?"

"That's the bird that they use to announce emergency S-ranks, calling all available S-rank jounin to the Administrative building... Something terrible is happening."

They had just arrived at the outskirts of training field three when this happened, and just as Iruka finished speaking, Gai-sensei appeared in front of them abruptly. "What's going on?" he demanded. "That bird--"

"I don't know," Sakura said helplessly. "A messenger bird came in from Iwagakure, and Shizune-san told Naruto that it was an emergency... but..."

"Iwagakure?" the jounin repeated, his voice as hard as steel.

"Yes, that's what Tsunade-sama said."

"Bloody hell!" Gai disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"What is going on?" Lee jogged up. "Gai-sensei just flashed out on me. This is the first time he has ever interrupted our sparring without telling me why."

"A bird came in from Iwagakure right after the Kazekage's escort left," Iruka said. "And now they have the Red Alert bird in the air."

"Oh dear." Lee grimaced. "That... is bad news."

"Very bad," Iruka agreed. "Very bad indeed."

"Oi! Sakura-chan! Iruka-sensei! Geji-mayu!"

"Naruto?" Sakura turned around, astonished to hear his voice. "Weren't you just...?"

"Sakura-chan, have you seen Shikamaru? I need to find him immediately. We'll need his brain."

"Shikamaru's over at training field one. But what's going on, Naruto?" Iruka interrupted. "Gai-sensei just left here in frenzy."

Naruto gestured for them to follow him as he ran toward the first training field.

"That message from Iwagakure was a warning. They got some intelligence. Kirigakure is going to try to assassinate Gaara and make it look like Konoha's fault."

"Oh god," Sakura said. "And Kakashi-sensei is with them now, which could potentially make it even worse if he gets taken by surprise too! How could they have known he'd go with the Suna escort?"

"I doubt they knew," Iruka said. "It's probably just a boon in their hands. And it could work in reverse for them anyway."

"They do realize, do they not, that Gaara-sama is not that easy to take down?" Lee inquired. "With that sand defense he has, he is nearly impossible to take out quickly."

"Douse him with water and his sand is useless," Naruto said with gritted teeth. "That's why we need Shikamaru."

"I am not following your logic, Naruto-kun."

"Forget it, Geji-mayu."

"Oi, Naruto, where the hell are you going?" Shikamaru yelled from behind them. "Suna's the other way! You're wasting time!"


"Yeah, I know. Shino sent me a messenger bug. Now let's get moving if we're going to catch up to the Suna escort! But, uh, Lee, you and the chuunin shouldn't come. This is S-rank. You're not up to S-rank yet."

"You'll probably need a healer!" Sakura retorted.

"Already got one," Shikamaru waved it off. "Shizune's already grabbed herself a team and taken off. Naruto, are you coming or not?"

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan, we'll stop them," Naruto said as he body-flickered away, following Shikamaru.

"Well that's annoying," Iruka sighed. "I'm a little unsure of the veracity of that warning. Iwagakure hasn't be hostile for twenty years or more, but they were at war with us at one point. They haven't been hostile, but they haven't been allies either."

"Maybe not,"  a voice said from behind, "but they aren't friendly with Kirigakure either. A weakening of the Konoha-Suna alliance would serve to benefit Kiri, and would not necessarily benefit Iwa."

Tsunade stepped out of the shadows, flanked by Jiraiya and two older jounin that Sakura didn't recognize but who bore the Konoha hitai-ate.

"It goes back to geography, really," the taller of the two new jounin said. "Iwa is north of Suna and west of us. Kiri and Kumo are east of us. Iwa trades with Suna, who trades with Konoha. If the alliance between Konoha and Suna crumbles, one or both could fall into financial ruin, and Iwa would be left without trading partners. It will naturally have more allegiance to us than Kiri or Kumo."

Iruka raised an eyebrow; "Hachirou-sensei, I'm surprised to see you again."

The tall jounin, whose hair was a salt-and-pepper parti-color, snorted in surprise. "Good grief, is that you, Umino Iruka?"

"You shouldn't even ask that question, Hachirou-san," the other unrecognized jounin retorted. "I'd recognize that scar anywhere."

"Fuck off, Katsurou," Hachirou said acridly, but without real animosity. "My eyes aren't as good as they used to be, you know."

"Heh," his partner chuffed, "I've offered to help you with that, but you always refuse." He tossed his head slightly, shifting his gaze to Iruka. His hair was a bright coppery red, and his face was checked with scars and stubble. "Nice to see you again, Iruka-kun."

"Katsurou-sensei," Iruka greeted, offering both a polite bow.

"You know these two?" Sakura asked.

"Hachirou-sensei was my jounin sensei when I was a young genin," Iruka said with a small smile.

"You haven't advanced beyond chuunin, eh, Iruka-kun? Pity. Your teammates both became jounin."

"That's enough reminiscing," Jiraiya said. "We've got a potential war on our hands. We need to be ready at the signal."

"Pray the signal doesn't come," Tsunade said. "That's why I sent Naruto. If anyone can find and catch up to Gaara before the Mist-nin attack, it's him."



Kakashi shifted his pack to adjust where its weight hit him as he vaulted through the canopy of the forest. These Sand-nin were adept at moving through trees, considering they lived in a desert. Even their ninja-horse was able to move through the forest canopy in ways that no horse should. Of course, the fact that the horse had a hitai-ate attached to its bridle rather identified it as more than just a regular horse; it was someone's summon.

Pakkun perched on Kakashi's head, shifting his weight effortlessly with each leap so as to minimize his interference. He kept his nose up in the air, scenting for trouble. Since Kakashi had to keep his eyes open for trouble around and below, he needed Pakkun's abilities to scent unfriendly presences around from further away. Pakkun's sense of smell was much more capable of adjusting to differences in speed. He could use it for more than just tracking, though that was primarily what he used it for.

Kakashi just knew that something was going to happen. He couldn't say how he knew, only that he knew something would occur. He was just waiting for the axe to fall.

As they moved through a particularly dense portion of the forest, Pakkun's claws spasmed, digging into Kakashi's scalp. The pug growled. That was all the Konoha jounin needed to hear.

"Sanami-dono," he spoke up to the nearby kunoichi. "Something's wrong."

"Huh?" the woman turned and glanced at him. "What's wrong?"

"Something's coming at us," Pakkun said. "I can't say who they are, I don't recognize them, but they're ninja. And they're hostile. Best be prepared for an attack. They're coming at us with a lot of force."

The Kazekage apparently heard this, because he halted on the next branch landing. Temari and Kankurou both nearly collided with him. Kankurou muttered something unsavory as he nearly fell off the branch, belatedly using his chakra to root himself to the tree.

"We'll wait here for whatever approaches us," Gaara said coldly, folding his arms across his chest in his most recognizable gesture. His pet raccoon huddled down under the cowl of his robes, but the sand pouring from her fur came spiraling out and around the Kazekage like a protective arm. Kankurou summoned his two favorite puppets, Karasu and Kuroari, and Temari readied her battle fan; the two of them bracketed Gaara protectively. Sanami took up a stance behind her husband, backing up against him, readying a handful of shuriken in her left hand, and four kunai in her right. Even without his sand barrier, Gaara was protected by three of his most trusted jounin standing less than half a meter from him.

The nin-uma, named Kurosuna ("Black Sand" was actually an appropriate name for this animal, Kakashi reasoned) landed next to the Leaf jounin. Kakashi tried not to look at the horse's feet, because frankly a horse shouldn't be able to stand like that! The Copy-nin had seen any number of things in his day, but he wasn't very familiar with horses, since Konoha didn't use them. In his experience, horses just didn't travel that far above the ground, and they certainly didn't stand like that!

"Sanami," the horse spoke, identifying its master. "Shall I take the Kazekage and run for Suna?"

"Absolutely not," Gaara snarled, his lip curling in disdain. "I will not run. Whatever it is that comes this way, I will not run from it."

"With all due respect, Kazekage-sama," the horse said. "You are the lifeblood of our village. We cannot bear to lose you now. I can convey you--"

"I said no, and I meant no, and if you say one more word in argument, I'll kill you," the Kazekage hissed furiously, a hint of his old madness coming back. The horse snapped its mouth shut, but its ears pinned back in supreme annoyance.

"Bloody pest," the horse grumbled. "Doesn't know what's best for his own good."

A tendril of sand peeled itself off the helix hovering around Gaara, and it hurled itself at Kurosuna, who intercepted it by turning sideways and letting the sand barrage disperse against his torso. The horse was tough, but he was no match for Gaara if the Kazekage got even remotely serious. This had just been Gaara expressing his annoyance.

Gaara scroll-summoned his gourd, just to be ready. The chakra-heavy sand erupted from its container, sending the cork flying. and spiraled both up and down, forming a double-helix column around its master.

"They're close, very close," Pakkun muttered in Kakashi's ear. "I can also smell someone coming from directly behind us. It smells like Konoha ninja... though with all this chakra-sand around, I can't be sure exactly who it is."

Temari nipped her thumb and drew blood, then dragged the blood across her fan. "Where are they coming from?" She asked firmly of Pakkun, her dark aqua eyes hard and cold. The pug pointed with his paw in a direction leading roughly toward Tsuchi no Kuni.

Temari swung her fan; "Kuchiyose, Kirikiri Mai!" A large weasel appeared in the air, holding a sickle, and began whirling at high speed, producing a pseudo-whirlwind that moved in the direction Pakkun had indicated. Branches and tree trunks started splitting apart and flying in all directions. It cut a substantial swath out of the forest for almost a kilometer.

A flare of chakra from behind, in the direction of Konoha, indicated that someone was very close. Gaara reacted first by sending a barrage of sand in that direction. However, Kakashi heard a distinctly familiar voice, and he recognized the aural signature on that chakra a split second before Gaara's sand struck.

"RASENGAN!" A spear of chakra-light lanced through the sand, revealing itself to be Naruto with his signature move, the spiraling sphere of pure blue chakra called Rasengan.

The orange-clad jounin just barely had time to register who he was attacking before his momentum carried him right into Gaara, knocking the Kazekage off the branch. Gaara had the presence of mind, however, to use his chakra-sand to catch him before he fell very far. And Naruto, utilizing the survival instincts borne of so many S-rank missions, mechanically grabbed onto Gaara's sleeves. There was a sharp ripping sound as the cloth tore, but Gaara reached down and locked his hands around Naruto's wrists.

"What the hell?" Both of them said at the same time.

"Naruto, you jackass, use your fucking head for once!" a voice yelled from behind. It was Shikamaru. "God, I hate babysitting you and your spastic ways. How the hell do you accomplish S-ranks on your own with this kind of impulsiveness!"

"Easy there, Shikamaru," Gai said, landing on a branch a few feet above Kakashi. "I thought they were in trouble too. I was just now trying to figure out the best way to pull off Asa Kujaku without any one of us getting hurt."

"Holy shit, what the hell?" Kiba and Akamaru landed on a particularly sturdy portion of the branch that held Kakashi and Kurosuna. Kiba was staring at the swath cut by Temari's summon.

"Meh, I recognize that," Shikamaru said. "Did you get them, overbearing woman?"

"You know I did, Nakimushi-kun," Temari said, closing up her fan with an ominous crack. "I even heard them screaming. Good work, Kamatari!"

"So, wait, we're not needed here? That's just lame!" Kiba protested. "All that frenzy for nothing! What the bloody hell?"

"There is a problem," Shino said, landing beside Kiba. "One that could cause drastic recourse."

"What?" Kiba looked expectantly over at his teammate.

Shino extended his hand from his over-long sleeve, revealing six Konoha hitai-ate in his palm. "These are genuine. They came from the bodies of the ones killed by the treefall. The ones we suspect were trying to assassinate the Kazekage."

"The Mist-nin, you mean," Naruto said logically as he climbed onto the branch he'd knocked Gaara off of. Gaara remained levitating on his sand suspension.

"Only, they are not Mist-nin. These are genuine Konoha hitai-ate. They are not counterfeit."

"So what? So they stole some from Konoha ninjas."

"How?" Shino lifted his sunglasses and fixed Naruto with a piercing black gaze. "Every single hitai-ate is accounted for, except for those lost in action during the great wars, twenty years and more ago. Even when a ninja dies in the field, his hitai-ate is returned to Konoha, to be properly put to rest beneath the cenotaph." The bug user lowered his sunglasses again, and smirked ever so slightly. "If you'd paid attention to what your teachers and the Hokage were teaching you, you'd know this already, Naruto."

He tossed the bundled hitai-ate through the air to the orange-clad jounin. "So how do you think they got their hands on those? They are authentic and not brand new, so not stolen from the forgers. They have been in use for a long time."

Kakashi scowled as he leaped to the branch where Naruto stood. He snatched the bundle from Naruto's hands; his hands trembled slightly as he came across one that he recognized the fabric of.

"This was Obito's. Obito was lost in a cavern inside Iwagakure's boundaries. He's one of the few carved on the cenotaph whose hitai-ate was never accounted for."

"We can only assume that each of those headbands was taken from a shinobi who died in the line of duty and whose hitai-ate was never recovered," Shino replied.

Naruto scrutinized his sensei as Kakashi bowed his head in heavy grief. There was a shift in Kakashi's chakra, and Naruto felt the Kyuubi grouse within him. Oh no... not again! He couldn't lose afford to lose control over Kyuubi. In his frantic state, he fixed on the nearest person who would understand.

"Gaara," the blond jounin said nervously, reaching out and grabbing onto Gaara's cloak to get the Kazekage's attention. "Uh, Gaara..."


Kakashi brought his hand to his forehead, and as he lifted his head, his Sharingan was visible. The tomoe were moving.

The Kyuubi exploded within Naruto's gut, slamming against its bonds and screaming in fury. It was all Naruto could do to keep from exploding into his Four-Tailed Form. As it was, he was coated in the Nine-Tails' red chakra, and he could feel himself starting to lose control.

A branch arched out of the tree they stood in, wrapping around Naruto and pinning him motionless. A hand appeared in front of his face, with a sealing mark inscribed on the palm. The Kyuubi screamed in annoyance, but backed down, as it had no choice.

"Good work, Yamato," Gai said calmly, landing beside them. "Kakashi--" He eyed his rival, and let loose with a blistering left-cross that sent Kakashi into the trunk of the tree. "That's for being an asshole again, you damned idiot. Get a grip on yourself!"

Naruto fought down a wave of nausea as he watched Kakashi fail to react at all to being punched. That just wasn't his sensei. And it was so frustrating that Naruto couldn't do a damned thing because of this damned fox beast.

Gaara stepped off his sand cloud and moved deliberately over next to the Copy-nin, who slumped dazedly against the tree, still caught in whatever trance he suffered from. The Kazekage leaned in close, his eyes fixed on the rapidly spinning Sharingan. With slow, deliberate movements, Gaara raised his left hand in a one-handed sign, similar to the one he used to activate the chakra-sand in a body-flicker, while with his right hand, he snapped his fingers loudly directly in front of the red eye.

Kakashi blinked in astonishment. "Er, hello, Kazekage-sama." The jounin looked discomfited at having Gaara so close in proximity.

"Very intriguing," Gaara said. "It's almost as though your eye is trying to reject you now. Transplants have a tendency to reject over time. It looks to me like it was trying to cast a genjutsu in two directions, but failed, and doubled both genjutsu in on the user. That will be a challenge to unravel." The red-haired Kazekage stepped back, a hand at his chin in contemplation. "Kankurou, Temari, we should get moving. We've lost some time. Appoint some jounin to stay behind and sort through this mess, and have them catch us up as they can. Meanwhile, I want to be within Suna's jurisdiction by nightfall tomorrow. Come along, Leaf." He tapped Kakashi's forehead almost irritably. "That means you too."



Back at the gate to Konoha, several people waited anxiously for a signal of some sort. Tsunade and Jiraiya stood silently like a pair of sentries at the very gate itself. Jiraiya had a kunai in one hand, poised to draw a small spot of blood for a summoning if necessary. Several ANBU were perched on the gate's hinges or along the great fence-wall. Lee commented that he was pretty sure he knew which one was Tenten, but Sakura really didn't care. She was far more concerned about what would happen if things got bad very quickly -- such as if one of Gaara's jounin was assassinated. She couldn't see any assassin actually succeeding in killing the Kazekage himself, but if one of his siblings was killed, it would be nearly as bad as killing the Kazekage himself.

She stuck close to Lee, practically attached to him, afraid that if she let him out of her sight, he'd slip off after Naruto and the others to try and help. The threat of war, and knowing her fiancé's vulnerability, made her especially frightened.

"Sakura-san," Hyuuga Hanabi said gently, placing a hand on Sakura's shoulder. "I see Naruto-san and Shizune-san coming back."

"Do you?" Neji landed beside Lee, activating his Byakugan as he did. "I don't see them. They  must be out of my range."

Hanabi's Byakugan range was half again as far as Neji's, and she could extend it a little further with a lot of effort. She had focused most of her chakra into her eyes, making her capable of seeing twice as far as her sister and father, and half again as far as her cousin. She made an ideal addition to Shikamaru's team, since she could see trouble coming a literal mile away. Her abilities gave Shikamaru time to formulate a plan, which was why he had fought so hard to procure her when she'd become available after her teammates and sensei had died on an A-rank mission.

"Do you see anyone else? What manner is their movement?"

"They seem to be hurrying back. Naruto-san looks upset. Shizune-san looks..." Hanabi pursed her lips. "Well, not upset, but not happy. Neji-oniisan, you should be able to see them by now with the speed they're traveling at."

"Nope. Can't see 'em. Oh wait. I see movement. Aha, there they are... oh my god!"

"What is it?" Lee demanded.

"I... I don't think I've seen Naruto so agitated like that before."

"Bloody hell," Tsunade said, rubbing her forehead, and raising her arm to signal the ANBU. "They didn't make it in time, I guess. Where are the rest? I sent a good half-dozen jounin out after those two."

"I can see Yamato-san and Kiba-kun with Akamaru. I don't see Shikamaru or Gai-sensei though," Hanabi reported. "Shino's going the long way around, I can just barely see him. I think he's heading toward his home. Maybe he's going to get more bugs?"

"Doubt it," her sister said. "Shino-kun carries all the bugs he needs with him. He's probably gone home to report to his father."

"Hokage-sama, wait," Neji said when Tsunade made to send the ANBU out. "I don't think this is an emergency. From Naruto's chakra, it's the Kyuubi that has him so upset right now. It seems like he's fighting with it."

"There, I see Shikamaru and Gai-sensei now," Hanabi said. "Shikamaru looks angry. Gai-sensei looks serious."

"What about Anko?" One of the ANBU asked. "She was dispatched too."

"Don't see her."

Sakura noticed that Tsunade was beckoning her over, and reluctantly disentangled herself from Lee to answer the summons. "Yes, Tsunade-shishou?"

"I want you nearby me when Naruto comes in. I think seeing you will help calm him. You're still hugely important to him, and you're all he has left of his original team right now."

Sakura nodded in mute agreement, her heart plunging in guilt that she could never find romantic feelings for Naruto. He would have made a good match for her, after all, since he was Tsunade's chosen successor. But he was like a brother to her. She still couldn't figure out, however, if he'd ever gotten over his crush on her; she wasn't sure if he was deep down jealous or envious that she'd moved on with Lee.

A few minutes later, and the trees shifted, belching forth an orange-jacketed jounin, followed by a kunoichi in dark blue and gray.

"Naruto," Jiraiya spoke first. "What happened?"

"We weren't needed," the young blond jounin gritted his teeth. "Kakashi-sensei sensed the attack coming and warned Gaara in time. Temari took care of it."

"But the problem is that this was likely a concerted effort; I don't see any way Kirigakure could have pulled this off on their own," Shizune continued. "They had genuine hitai-ate, and it's been more than forty years since one of our ninjas died in Kirigakure's territory without their hitai-ate being recovered. These aren't brand new, but they're not that old." She handed the bundled hitai-ate over to the Hokage. "This wasn't just Kirigakure doing this. I think Iwagakure is up to their collective waist in this."

"They're certainly ass-deep," Naruto growled. "If one of those belonged to Kakashi-sensei's teammate who died in Iwa, then you can bet that Iwa's up to their balls in this one."

Sakura reached out and brushed some tree debris off Naruto's jacket. "You look upset, Naruto. What happened?"

"This damned stinkin' fox went apeshit on me again. I about lost control of it. All because I was too dumb to look away when Kakashi-sensei's Sharingan changed."

"Don't beat yourself up about it, kid," Gai-sensei said as he leaped down from a tree. "That Sharingan of Kakashi's has always been a little wild. Why else do you think I developed a method for fighting against it?" The taijutsu-specialist jounin looked over at where Lee and Neji were standing. "Lee!"

Lee presented himself posthaste in front of his sensei.

"I'm afraid that our sparring match will have to wait until later, my lad. Looks like this mess is going to be a while in sorting out. Plus," he leaned in slightly, lowering his voice, "I think you should spend some time with your lovely fiancee. You two are in the Springtime of Youth -- celebrate and enjoy it!"

Lee turned slightly red. "Er, Gai-sensei..."

The jounin looked at his student, and his carefree facade fell away; "Don't be a fool, Lee. You are a very lucky young man to have her. My only advice to you at this point is: don't fuck it up."

Lee's eyes became huge discs of disbelief. He opened and closed his mouth like a fish several times, astonished.

"A woman is a precious thing, Lee. Don't squander her affections on your ninja training. You've already proven to the world that you are a splendid ninja; you don't need to keep proving it right now. She needs you." The teacher gave his student's shoulder a gentle shove. "You don't want to end up like me, my boy. Now go take your beloved home and give her some attention. I've got work to do anyway."

Lee blinked owlishly, then nodded. "I suppose I can see your point."

Gai body-flickered away. Lee approached where Naruto and Sakura were talking with the Hokage and the Gama-sennin. As he got within ear-shot, his heart skipped a beat when he heard Naruto speak.

"Kankurou confirmed the rumors of someone fitting Sasuke's description in the vicinity of Suna's northern borders. He couldn't say for certain if it was in fact Sasuke, but he said the rumors have some validity -- there's someone fitting that description that's been sighted multiple times there."

"Good," Tsunade said. "If it turns out to be him, and you can manage to bring him home, I think we can start to seriously prepare you to become Hokage. I'm getting really tired of this game. I'm ready to kick back and let someone else take over the reins for once. I can be like Sarutobi-sensei when he promoted the Yondaime."

Jiraiya chuckled. "You know, when I first saw this scrawny dork, I couldn't believe he actually believed he'd be Hokage. But look at him now. He looks so much like my last pupil, it's scary." He reached out and ruffled Naruto's hair affectionately. "Time will tell if you're as good a Hokage as him, though, kid."

"I won't be as good," Naruto retorted. "I'll be better! I've already told all of you, I'll be the greatest Hokage ever. Even greater than Obaachan, who is a great Hokage herself, considering she didn't want the job."

"Hey, runt, knock it off," Tsunade pointed a finger at the blond jounin in mock threat. "Don't forget, I can still kick your ass with just one finger!"

"Lee," Sakura turned around to greet him, holding her hand out to him, but hesitated when she saw the look on his face. "What's the matter?"

"Eh? Oh, nothing. I am just... a little overwhelmed."

Sasuke-kun has been sighted? was all he could think about. Yesterday he had been completely confident in Sakura's devotion and affections toward him, but he'd had some disturbing dreams overnight that left him a bit flummoxed. And now the possibility that Sasuke might come back to Konoha soon... it frightened Lee more than it should have.

Sakura narrowed her eyes at him, but said nothing as she reached for him. Gai-sensei's warning came back in a flash, and he stepped forward quickly, engulfing her in his arms. I will not let Sasuke-kun take her from me, without a fight. I need her.

"Why don't we go home, Lee?" Sakura said softly. "You seem out of sorts today."

"I think I am, yes."

She slipped her arms around his waist. "Let's go home."



Lee was unusually quiet and almost broody all morning, often seeming lost in thought. Sakura, in the process of doing laundry, just watched his movements and tried to formulate an idea of what the problem was, since this was definitely not normal behavior for him. She had a pretty good idea what it was, but she was confused as to why it was bothering him now. He'd seemed so confident yesterday.

She was folding clean and freshly dry clothing when he looked up meaningfully at her. "Sakura... If you are unsure about this, you do not have to go through with it."

"Unsure about what?"

"About agreeing to marry me."

"If I was unsure about it, I wouldn't have said yes."

He wasn't convinced, that was obvious. She sighed.

"I'm getting kind of tired of justifying myself to everyone. I rather didn't expect you to start doubting me too. You seemed to have no problems yesterday. Why the sudden lack of faith?"

"I rather was not expecting Sasuke-kun to ever return to the village," Lee admitted.

"He hasn't, not yet."

"No, but the possibility is still out there."

"It has always been out there. Naruto hasn't once given up on bringing him back. He's gone for long periods without solid leads, but he's never once given up on Sasuke."

Lee looked away. "But now he has a lead. Now more than ever Sasuke-kun may finally be coming back."

"So what?"

Lee didn't answer, merely stood up and began to pace. In a way, it hurt to see him so confused, but it also hurt to know he still didn't trust her like he said he did.

"I told you before, Lee, I love you. Sasuke is an old childhood crush. I didn't know any better."

Lee was far too polite a person to turn to her and demand that she prove it, but his posture as he paced restlessly to the window said it for him.

"I grew up mostly alone, Sakura," he said finally, after a long pause. "I would not dream of saying my childhood was as hard as Naruto-kun's, Sasuke-kun's or Gaara-sama's were. But my parents were killed by the rampaging Kyuubi, like many others in this village. I grew up with an uncle who was at best standoffish. I suppose you could say I got used to being by myself. I think Gai-sensei was the first real friend I had."

Sakura knew all this; none of this was new to her. Still, she kept her silence, figuring he was going somewhere with it. Lee didn't talk about his past very often; she sensed to some degree he was ashamed of how painful it had seemed to him, when others around him had suffered far worse tragedies and maintained stiff upper lips about it. Naruto and Gaara had gotten the standard Jinchuuriki treatment of scorn and hatred; Sasuke had witnessed his entire clan slaughtered before his very eyes by his own brother; Neji had gone for years blaming the Main Household of the Hyuuga clan for his father's death, when it had been Hyuuga Hizashi's choice in the end, as an act of mercy to save his twin brother. By contrast, Lee's childhood of aloofness and cool indifference was mild, but no less painful. He hadn't been thoroughly ignored like Naruto had, nor treated like a violent weapon with a hair-pin trigger like Gaara had, but neither had he had the loving upbringing that Sakura herself or many of their friends had had. Lee probably felt like a weakling being emotionally scarred by it, when he hadn't had it as bad as the others.

"Why am I going on about this?" He said abruptly, shaking his head. "I really am out of sorts today. Look, Sakura, I just want you to know that I do not intend to tie you down. I do not regret anything I have ever done, and I do not want you to do something that you will later regret."

Anger boiled up in Sakura rather abruptly, and she throttled it down as she stood up and strode up to him meaningfully. She spun him around and grabbed handfuls of his shirt. "Now you listen to me. I've been a nervous wreck all morning, thinking about what could happen if you overexert yourself on an S-rank, if you get killed  and leave me alone."

"But you would not be alone, Sakura. You have your parents, and Naruto-kun, and if he comes back, Sasuke-kun."

"Sasuke doesn't give a damn about me, dammit! Ever since he left the village, the few times I've encountered him, he's been nothing but cruel to me. And Naruto is nothing more than a brother to me. Believe me, I tried to fall in love with him. It just isn't there. It's you, damn you, you are the one I want, the one I love. Why can't people accept that I made a mistake, and that I was slow to realize my mistake?"

If Naruto were here, he'd tell me I cry too easily, yet again, she thought as she shook tears from her eyes. This time, however, her tears were of rage and frustration. She wanted to shake this stupid idiot until the sense returned to that shiny-haired head of his.

"I want to be with you, Lee. I don't care what Sasuke does. He can come back, throw himself at my mercy, proclaim to have always loved me, and I still don't need him. For one thing, that wouldn't be Uchiha Sasuke. And for another, the one I fell in love with is you. So don't you dare cheapen my love for you with this talk like I'm going to drop you like yesterday's newspaper if Sasuke comes back. Don't you know me at all? You think I haven't already agonized enough over that moron? Don't insult me like that!"

"Sakura--I--" He seemed at a loss for words. "I am so sorry, Sakura. I did not mean to upset you." He put his arms around her and held her tightly, murmuring his apologies into her hair. "I was being stupid. Please forgive me."

"You're such an idiot, Lee," she muttered, leaning against him. "You just don't understand how I can love you like this, do you?"

"I just do not want to let my hopes get too high," he replied, squeezing her. "It is hard for me to understand that you can give up on Sasuke-kun after so long. And how you can actually prefer me over him. He is everything I am not."

"Right, and he's everything you're not: rude, aloof, arrogant and self-absorbed. Conversely, you're everything he isn't: gentle, tender, honest, affectionate, open-hearted and in love with life. Lee, I never understood what it means to be alive until you showed me. I feel so alive and safe and loved when I'm with you. You make me happy. Happy to be alive, and happy to be with you. I cannot say that Sasuke ever made me happy, and I'm not sure he has the capacity to make a woman happy."

He responded by kissing her, tenderly but urgently. She melted under the force of his emotions transmitting through his lips. This was what really turned her on, this raw, unbridled passion. She loosened her grip on his clothing and instead wrapped her arms around his waist, delighting in the feel of his taut muscles. Despite the scars and blemishes that adorned his entire body in various locations, she found him irresistable; he was so finely sculpted physically, a work of art of the human body. His muscles were all finely tuned and properly developed, without being grossly overdeveloped. He wasn't skinny, he wasn't even necessarily slim anymore, but he didn't have much extra bodyfat anywhere. He was a picture of what the human body should look like, properly trained.

"I'll forgive you," she murmured through the kiss, "but you owe me, and I intend to collect on it right now."

"Huh?" He broke the kiss to stare at her uncomprehendingly. She very deliberately gestured toward the bedroom.

"You owe me." She repeated, gesturing one more time for good measure. Comprehension lit his eyes.

"Very well. A gentleman does not deny a lady's request, not when he is in her debt." He adroitly scooped her up in his arms and carried her into the bedroom.

Outside, a lazy wind danced through the blossoms of the nearby cherry tree, waltzing through the daffodils in their flowerbeds, and spinning the lotus blooms in their paddies in the pond.



Coming soon: "The Flower in Adversity" - a sequel (a separate story) wherein things between Iwa, Kiri, Kumo, Suna and Konoha heat up to boiling point.

END NOTES: Terminology, for those who are a bit rusty:
"Geji-mayu" is what Naruto calls Rock Lee. It translates as "fuzzy eyebrows" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Bushy Brow" and is Naruto's nickname for Lee. He doesn't mean anything rude by it, and Lee doesn't seem to mind.
"Ero-sennin" is what Naruto calls Jiraiya. It means "perverted hermit" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Pervy Sage" and is Naruto's nickname for Jiraiya. Jiraiya doesn't particularly like the nickname, but he seems to get used to it.
"Gama-sennin" is what Jiraiya is often called. It means "toad hermit" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Toad Sage"
"Nakimushi-kun" means "Mr. Crybaby" and is what Temari calls Shikamaru, much to his chagrin.
A tanuki isn't a raccoon -- it's actually a relative of the dog, fox and wolf, called a "raccoon dog." For more information, go to Wikipedia and search for "tanuki" -- that'll give you all the information you could want.
Hitai-ate are the "forehead protectors" (headbands) worn by all shinobi with symbols of their home village. Because they can be worn anywhere, or not worn at all, I have chosen to use the untranslated word rather than the term "forehead protector" or "headband"
Doujutsu is performing a jutsu with the eyes, such as with the Sharingan or Byakugan, though there appears to be other forms of doujutsu that aren't kekkei genkai.
The word "Sabaku" in Gaara's name, written as it is with the kanji that it is, actually means Sand Waterfall, though there is a homonym (using different kanji/kana) that means desert -- hence the standard translation of "Sabaku no Gaara" as "Gaara of the Desert"
A kunoichi is a female ninja. It is often used in the series as a synonym for ninja or shinobi, when talking about a female. Thus it's used here sporadically much as it is in the series.
A kekkei genkai is, basically, a "bloodline limit" -- refering to a talent or trait that is passed down genetically. The Sharingan and the Byakugan are the two most well-known kekkei genkai in this series.
A Jinchuuriki is a human host of one of the nine different tailed demons (called "bijuu"). Gaara was the Jinchuuriki for Shukaku, the Ichibi (One-Tailed) and Naruto is the Jinchuuriki for the Kyuubi (Nine-Tailed)
Kakashi's ninken are eight ninja-dogs. Pakkun is the smallest but smartest of them.

Hidden Villages:
Konohagakure: "The Hidden Village of Leaves" is the principle village of the Land of Fire (Hi no Kuni), and is headed by the Godaime Hokage, Tsunade.
Sunagakure: "The Hidden Village of Sand" is the principle village of the Land of Wind (Kaze no Kuni), and is headed by the Godaime Kazekage, Gaara.
Kirigakure: "The Hidden Village of Mist" is the principle village of the Land of Water (Mizu no Kuni), and is headed by the Mizukage.
Iwagakure: "The Hidden Village of Rocks" is the principle village of the Land of Earth (Tsuchi no Kuni), and is headed by the Tsuchikage.
Kumogakure: "The Hidden Village of Clouds" is the principle village of the Land of Lightning (Rai no Kuni), and is headed by the Raikage.
Otogakure: "The Hidden Village of Sound" is Orochimaru's creation. It has no kage.
Kusagakure: "The Hidden Village of Grass"
Amegakure: "The Hidden Village of Rain"

Attack names:
Asa Kujaku means "Morning Peacock" and has not yet been officially translated into English
Chidori means "One Thousand Birds" but is largely left untranslated in the dub, beyond the intial translation
Omote Renge means "Front Lotus" or "Initial Lotus" though the English dub calls it the "Primary Lotus"
Raikiri literally means "thunder cut" or "lightning edge" but is called "Lightning Blade" in the dub
Rasengan literally means "spiraling sphere" but seems to be left largely untranslated in the English dub.
Ura Renge means "Reverse Lotus" though the English dub calls it the "Hidden Lotus"

Honorific suffixes, for those who are rusty:
-chan is used mostly towards females, and indicates a long-term, close friendship. Generally one only uses it for someone one has known since childhood. From the outset in the story, Naruto has always referred to Sakura as Sakura-chan.
-dono is an antiquated suffix that is less formal than -sama but more formal than -san. It is often used to express either submission (when used in place of -san) or equality (when used in place of -sama). In this story, Tsunade uses -dono toward Gaara to indicate their equality in ranks.
-kun is used mostly towards males that are younger. It is a more informal, if you will, form of -san, but less intimate than -chan. It can be used towards girls, but is not usually. Rock Lee is well known for using -kun and -san for nearly everyone he meets, though I have him referring to Gaara with the -sama suffix out of respect for Gaara's office as Kazekage.
-obaachan is used to address someone who is much older. In this context, "baa" essentially means "Honorable old woman." It's sometimes translated as "granny" but is actually very respectful, as long as the addressee doesn't mind being referred to as an old woman. The male equivalent is "-ojiichan"
-oneesan is used to address a woman who is older than you and with whom you have a relatively close, familial bond, though blood relations aren't necessary. The word "nee" means older sister, "san" is a respectful suffix, and "o" is a modifier that adds respect to the word. Thus, saying "Temari-oneesan" is like saying "Big Sister Temari-san." The male equivalent is "-oniisan." Sanami uses -oneesan to express that she is a member -- by way of marriage -- of Temari's family and that she views Temari as a sister.
-sama is used to express great respect and humility. It's often translated as "Lord" or "Lady" though royalty or nobility have nothing to do with it.
-san is the most generic and safest suffix to use.
-sempai is used to address a superior within an organization. Rather like "brothers" or "sisters" within a cult or coven. This is the "big brother/big sister" term. Its counterpart is "-kohai" but isn't used nearly as much, because calling someone "-kohai" can be taken as offensive or demeaning if you're not careful.
-sensei is used to address a teacher, instructor, or an expert in a particular art. Also, -sensei is used to address doctors.
-shishou is used to address one's master in a particular art, such as martial arts, or in the case of Sakura, in the healing arts.
(paraphrased and interpreted from source: Wikipedia's entry on "Japanese Titles"