Subject: [FFML] [Fanfic][Naruto] Suiren, Chapter 7: Contact...
From: "Eimii" <eimii@bresnan.net>
Date: 11/18/2006, 3:28 PM
To:

Disclaimer: Hey, I don't make the characters, i'm just your standard, 
after-market parts vendor ^_^;. Remember, none of these stories are 
covered under the manufacturer's original warranty, all are furnished 
as-is, and your mileage may vary... 
(cough)Kishimotoownsitallreallypleasedon'tsueme.

Spoiler and/or Continuity Warning: Coming soon- the Third Exam! Exactly 
like last time, in fact!

Non-Yaoi Warning: Okay, okay, there _are_ actually a significant number 
of males in this chapter, but none of them are bishounen and the few 
that express any sort of preference at all tend to think naughty 
thoughts about the girls ^_^;...

Gratuitous Warning: ^_^; Er... you'll see...

Aaaaaarg! I can't believe i forgot to keep doing revised chapters! I've 
been stuck on the next new chapter of Suiren for over a month >_<;. At 
any rate, this chapter has just gotten a light touch of paint and some 
new rims; i could swear i was planning on dropping it down, chopping the 
end and maybe adding some lights or something, but right now, i just 
can't remember what i was going for -_-;.

But anyway, some feedback on how this chapter grabs you would be great, 
so please tell me what you think! I'm still feeling painfully 
uninspired, so i might have another revised chapter or two out before 
the next new chapter, so please bear with me a little longer...

~Eimii





CONTACT...



Watching the two fair-haired kunoichi size up each other across the 
broad dirt road that separated them, Akamichi Choji wore a perplexed 
expression. "So... why are they fighting again?" he asked the dog-toting 
boy beside him, reaching for another handful of potato chips.

Kiba took a moment to consider this before answering. "I think it's so 
Sakura can prove that she's been trainin', and not just havin' non-stop 
sex with Mitarashi Anko."

Choji's eyes bulged. "SEX?! With Mitarashi- you mean the second 
examiner?!"

"She's with Sakura, ain't she?" Kiba pointed out. The special jounin was 
indeed standing in Sakura's 'corner,' under a tree near the edge of the 
clearing in front of the village gates, though the pink-haired girl 
didn't appear particularly pleased with her presence.

Still, the hefty boy was skeptical. "But they're both girls, and 
everyone knows Sakura's after Sasuke."

"What- y'mean Ino 'n Shikamaru didn't tell ya? They saw-"

"-Something that's none of our business," a familiar, cantankerous voice 
cut in. Deciding he'd heard enough, Shikamaru stepped out of the shadow 
of the gate and inclined his head toward his teammate. "Even if it was, 
I still wouldn't be convinced. Plus, Sakura _does_ look like she's been 
training; look at her."

The other two boys turned to examine the shinobi in question; for 
reasons that the slick-haired boy couldn't guess at, Sakura was once 
again clad in just a light mesh undershirt, running shorts and a bra, 
rather than the short dress she normally wore.

Predictably, it was Kiba who spoke first. "...I dunno, maybe Mitarashi's 
just really rough in bed."

"Not the bruises," Shikamaru corrected impatiently, "look at the muscles 
on her calves and upper arms; they're more defined than they were 
before."

Choji nodded in agreement. "Shikamaru's right. They were dead even in 
the exam, but I'll bet Sakura's stronger than Ino, now."

"Eeh...?" Looking again, the fanged boy frowned and crossed his arms. 
"Yeah, I guess she does got more meat on 'er." A faint leer spread 
across Kiba's face, but it didn't seem to be directed at the object of 
their scrutiny. "Heh... I wonder if Hinata would wanna do some 'strength 
trainin''..."

"...I think I would like that, Kiba-kun," came a quiet, hopeful voice 
from behind the boys. "Could you help me?"

"AaaAAH!" Going so red that it looked like he might burst, Kiba jumped 
and spun around to face his teammate, Hyuuga Hinata.

The shy girl was smiling faintly, her white eyes fixed directly on 
Kiba's face rather than downcast. He and Shino had apparently managed to 
break her of that habit, at least, and her mood had generally seemed 
brighter and more confident since the second exam.

Hinata's newfound confidence seemed to have the opposite effect on the 
dog-boy's composure, however. "Hinata! Y-yeah- sure! No problem!" Kiba 
blustered, speaking far louder than normal, even for him.

*Huh... whipped by the shyest girl in school, and _neither_ of them know 
it,* Shikamaru observed drolly, before coming to his fellow male's 
rescue. "Hello, Hinata. I see you came prepared." He nodded down at the 
large first aid kit that the Hyuuga girl had clutched in her arms.

"Ah- yes. When I heard there was going to be a fight..." Hinata replied, 
turning to Shikamaru and breaking the spell that was keeping Kiba puffed 
up like a rooster. Then she leaned to the side and looked between them, 
her eyes widening. "Is... Is it really true that Sakura-chan and 
Mitarashi-san are... are...?"

"We don't know; it's all just rumors, so far," the shadow-user answered 
quickly, trying to keep the conversation from becoming too troublesome.

Sadly, this noble sentiment was doomed from the moment Kiba had arrived. 
"No, they're definitely doin' it," the tattooed boy cut in. "Ino saw the 
crazy woman sneakin' in Sakura's window this mornin', so she came ta my 
house and we-"

It was lucky that Kiba couldn't possibly have gotten redder than he 
already was, as Hinata's inquisitive gaze fell upon him once more. "Uh- 
_she_ watched em' gettin' busy in Sakura's room. I tried ta stop 'er- I 
mean, Sakura's my neighbor, and I'd _never_ look through 'er window like 
that -but'cha know how pushy Ino can be, right?" Desperately, he turned 
to Shikamaru for support.

*Well, at least that explains why Haruno looks like she could chew 
rocks, but why is Ino getting all bent out of shape over this?* 
Shikamaru wondered agitatedly, ignoring Kiba's pleading eyes for the 
moment. *Even if it's true, it's not _that_ big a deal. Ino's not petty, 
and Sakura's been her friend for a while... though maybe that's it. 
Maybe she's just upset that Sakura didn't tell her; dammit, why do girls 
have to be insane?*

Sighing in exasperation, Shikamaru grimaced and pointed at the field. 
"Yeah, whatever- it looks like she's about to say something," he noted, 
successfully distracting Hinata away from the flustered dog-boy.

Indeed, Ino had taken a step onto the road, and was getting Sakura's 
attention. The blonde looked like she was in a slightly more reasonable 
frame of mind than she'd been in earlier. She didn't look angry anymore, 
and while she was definitely unhappy, she was trying very hard to hide 
it.

"Sakura, we don't have to do this!" Ino began, speaking low enough that 
only the people in the front row of their slowly growing audience could 
hear.

She glanced around self-consciously at the crowd of friends, townsfolk 
and curious foreigners that had gathered in the gate and along the 
village wall, before continuing. "I don't hold it against you or 
anything, really! I was just... surprised, and upset that you didn't 
trust me enough to tell me about... this, and... you." Looking 
distinctly uncomfortable for a moment, Ino waved a hand at Mitarashi 
Anko. "And I'm worried about you! I mean, she's so- so- _old_!"

"_OLD_?! Why, you-" Anko sputtered, the suspiciously adoring look on her 
face transforming instantly into a mask of rage. "Don't let her talk 
about me like that, Sakura-chan! Kick 'er ass!"

"_SHUT UP_!" Sakura roared, making even the gate guards jump as she spun 
around to give the jounin a terrifying glare of slow, painful death. 
While Kiba dashed off after a whimpering Akamaru and everybody else was 
busy stuffing their hearts back down their throats, Sakura closed her 
eyes and started muttering under her breath.

Eventually, the white-knuckled fists that she held stiffly at her sides 
relaxed, and she opened her eyes to cast Ino a steady, determined gaze. 
"This is all just... a big _misunderstanding_, but we can talk about it 
later. Right now, all I want to do is settle _our_ fight, nothing else."

Not waiting for her rival's reply, Sakura dropped into an empty-handed 
taijutsu stance. "I'm sick and tired of being left behind, but I can't 
move on without getting past _you_, so unless you'd like to admit defeat 
in front of everyone here, and get out of my way..." She trailed off, an 
uncharacteristically cocky, dangerous grin spreading across her face.

By now, Ino had recovered enough to gape in disbelief at the pink-haired 
girl. "You- but- admit defeat to _you_?! Like Hell I will!" she 
bellowed, the pressure of a hundred eyes bearing down on her until she 
had no choice but to collapse or explode.

"I don't have a clue what's going on behind that _huge_ forehead of 
yours, Sakura, but if you seriously think that you've got a chance in 
Hell of beating me just because of that freakish fluke at the exam, 
you've got another thing coming!" Her anger resurrected mightier than 
before, Ino took her own fighting stance, glaring daggers at her 
grinning opponent. "Bring it on!"

*Well, I'll give this to Sakura: she really knows how to push Ino's 
buttons,* Shikamaru grumbled internally, wondering if Sakura had planned 
on their being such a large number of witnesses. More than being pushy, 
vain, and delusional when it came to Sasuke, Ino's biggest weakness was 
her pride.

A lot of it was well-deserved, as she was one of the best female ninja 
in her generation, and she'd made great progress in mastering her 
family's powerful body control techniques. At the same time, however, if 
you have too much confidence in your own abilities, the most dangerous 
enemy is often the one that you think you know the best, and Shikamaru 
had a sneaking suspicion that Sakura had done more than just put on a 
little extra muscle since the last time the two girls had fought.

"Hmph, this should be pathetic. So much for seeing something 
interesting..."

Glancing up at the snide, mocking words, Shikamaru quirked an eyebrow at 
the black-clad Sand nin. As usual, Kankuro's face was hidden behind a 
mask of makeup, and his puppet was wrapped and ready at his side. Now 
_here_ was a guy that had a problem with overconfidence, but it was 
neither Shikamaru's duty nor pleasure to drag the kugutsu-user down to 
earth, so he put the older boy out of his mind.

Despite Kankuro's vocal disappointment at the match-up, he didn't make 
any move to depart, and he wasn't the only foreign nin waiting with 
interest for the fight to begin. Indeed, the vast majority of forehead 
protectors that Shikamaru could pick out didn't bear the Konoha leaf.

It was enough that a few extra guards had shown up at the gate, and the 
short boy could pick out at least one impassive ANBU mask on the walls 
above. He almost thought they might order the crowd to disperse, but 
then the two kunoichi at the center of it all started circling each 
other, and everyone unconsciously pressed closer, knowing that the 
battle had been joined.

Showing no lack of initiative, Sakura took the offensive immediately. 
Dropping her stance until she was almost horizontal, Sakura darted into 
engagement range so quickly that it was all Ino could do to jump out of 
the way before she was overrun.

Sakura's dash turned into a lunging somersault as her opponent evaded. 
Reaching out to grab Ino's trailing foot, Sakura twisted her body around 
and uncoiled into rising kick that crashed against the blond kunoichi's 
hastily crossed arms, sending Ino tumbling backward as Sakura let go and 
flipped away.

Ino regained control just in time to keep from falling in to the crowd, 
clutching one badly bruised forearm. By this time, Sakura had hopped 
back up and resumed her original stance.

*Hmm... well, that'd definitely new.* If Shikamaru had any doubt that 
Sakura had been training, it was thoroughly dispelled by her first 
attack. That move definitely wasn't in the academy taijutsu textbook, 
but it was still strangely familiar.

In terms of speed, Ino and Sakura were about even, but Sakura's 
ground-hugging advance had allowed her to enter striking range faster 
than Ino had anticipated. The tactic left Sakura's back dangerously 
exposed, and had Ino been expecting it, it could have failed 
spectacularly. Sakura had counted on Ino being unprepared for a headlong 
charge, and used the element of surprise to set Ino up for a variation 
on the Leaf Spinning Wind that used a grapple rather than a sweep, using 
leverage to compensate for Ino's upward momentum.

Judging from the way Ino was subtly testing her injured arm, Choji's 
estimate of Sakura's striking power was spot on. The slight difference 
in their taijutsu levels would now be exacerbated by the fact that Ino 
had taken the brunt of the damage on her dominant right hand, but Ino's 
best attacks weren't taijutsu, so unless Sakura had something else up 
her sleeve, the pink-haired girl had yet to gain a definitive advantage.

Meanwhile, Ino had apparently decided that she wasn't going to wait to 
see what else Sakura might spring on her. Forming a familiar set of 
seals, she created three bunshin, using them as a momentarily blind 
while she moved into hand-to-hand range.

*Stupid! Didn't that kick tell you anything? She was fast enough to 
force you to block half of her attacks _before_; she'll just pound your 
defenses 'till you're black and blue if you get in close.* 
Unfortunately, Ino was probably still angry over Sakura's opening taunt, 
and not considering things clearly. *Another point for Sakura.*

As he'd predicted, the pink haired girl didn't shrink from Ino's 
advance, instead stepping right into close combat range. Weaving around 
Ino's first punch, she caught the second, slower attack and brought a 
leg down to sweep the blonde's feet, which Ino jumped over, allowing 
Sakura to toss her to the ground with the grip she still had on Ino's 
injured wrist.

Turning to soften her landing, Ino attempted a counter sweep, which 
Sakura hopped over as well. Ino used the opportunity to twist out of 
Sakura's grasp, rolling to the side as the other girl's free hand 
pounded the earth where she'd been lying a moment before. Now on the 
defensive, Ino was forced back by a rapid series of sweeping and rising 
kicks, all of them launched from a half-crawling crouched stance that 
Sakura had adopted.

Beside him, Kankuro snorted disdainfully. "What are they, monkeys? This 
blows."

Though denigrating, his comment made Shikamaru realize where he'd seen 
attacks like that before. *It's an animal style! Dog or monkey, 
probably...* Only Gai taught animal style taijutsu; it was a foreign 
form, from outside the great ninja countries, and didn't take advantage 
of most regular ninja tools or tactics.

Sakura's style was incomplete, however. Her attacks and defenses were an 
eclectic mix of regular Konoha ninja taijutsu and moves from many 
different martial arts that Shikamaru had seen Gai use in 
demonstrations, executed to varying degrees of success.

As she pressed after Ino, keeping her opponent in range, the wild 
irregularity of it meant that were both girls taking a lot more hits 
than normal, but while Sakura was looking only slightly battered, the 
blows that the blonde girl had received were telling. Both of Ino's 
forearms and shins were bloodied now, and she was dodging less and less 
often, her stiff motions indicating that Sakura had landed a few good 
hits to her ribs.

*Another surprising tactic.* The possibility of Sakura losing was slim 
if she kept this up, as her attacks were much more punishing than Ino's, 
but there was still a chance for either of them to end the fight with 
one good, well-placed strike; it wasn't a risk-free strategy.

This was proven a moment later, as Ino wised up and reached for a kunai, 
finally forcing Sakura to give her a bit of breathing room. "Alright, 
Sakura, no more playing around! Time to get serious!" she shouted 
confidently, though Shikamaru could tell that she was getting nervous. 
By wielding a weapon, she reduced Sakura's defensive options. Sakura 
would have to arm herself as well to compensate, and since the 
hand-to-hand style she was using favored unarmed strikes, her movements 
would become more predictable.

The pink-haired girl seemed to realize this as well. Her green eyes 
lingered for a moment on the blade in Ino's hands before she started 
backing away. She stopped once she'd regained their original range, then 
lowered her arms to her sides. "Alright, Ino... let's get _serious_," 
she intoned gravely, though a there was an undercurrent of sadistic 
anticipation in her voice that made a shiver run down Shikamaru's spine.

*She's been holding something back.* Of those near him, only the Sand 
nin seemed to sense it as well, as Kankuro leaned forward a bit, 
watching Sakura closely. Returning his eyes to the action, Shikamaru did 
the same.

Bringing her hands together, Sakura quickly formed a set of seals known 
to any academy student. Bunshin was one of the few real ninjutsu that 
most trainee ninja were taught, though its usefulness was generally 
limited to fights with non-ninja.

Against someone who knew what to look for, it only provided a moment or 
two of cover or misdirection. In Shikamaru's experience, Sakura and Ino 
usually used it to change their range with an opponent, and his astute 
observation seemed borne out when four Sakura copies burst from of the 
cloud of smoke that the technique produced.

Three of them bolted toward Ino in erratic trajectories, while the 
fourth 'clone' shadowed the third. The pair approached from the right, 
the odd fourth Sakura keeping the third between herself and Ino, 
hopefully to avoid the blonde's notice until the last moment. That would 
be the real Sakura; Shikamaru could tell by the way the smoke cloud had 
moved when that pair exited.

>From the look in her eyes, Ino had noticed as well. She'd used the exact 
same tactic when she'd closed on Sakura earlier, after all. Playing the 
confused fool, she looked back and forth between the fake Sakuras, all 
the while positioning her feet so she could strike through the blind 
before Sakura could.

*That's unexpectedly sloppy,* Shikamaru worried. It didn't make any 
sense for Sakura to switch to such a conventional tactic after 
displaying so much ingenuity before, and it appeared that Sakura hadn't 
noticed Ino's ploy. Right as Sakura would have started her real attack, 
the blonde struck, dispelling the first clone with a springing punch and 
continuing on toward her true target, who didn't even have a moment to 
react. *Something is wro-*

The air was fairly split by the retort of flesh and bone being struck 
with brutal force, and Ino choked out a scream as she was lifted bodily 
from the ground. Tumbling uncontrolled through the air, the blonde girl 
cleared the battlefield completely before crashing into the wall beside 
the gate and sliding to the crowd. Skidding to a halt, the real Sakura 
rocked back on her heels, turning her upper body and retracting her arm 
from the final motions of a vicious left hook.

*What the hell just happened!?* There was no way Sakura should have been 
able to pull that off. It wasn't even a matter of telegraphing; one 
moment, she was practically setting herself up for Ino's sucker punch, 
and the next, she was _finishing_ her own attack. *Can she  really have 
gotten that fast?*

Looking around him, Shikamaru noticed that the others seemed shaken as 
well. Hinata was staring worriedly in the direction that Ino had flown, 
while Kiba and Choji were gaping openly at Sakura. Even Kankuro wore a 
deep frown that had nothing to do with being bored. Suddenly, the 
pink-haired girl danced to the side as a clutch of needles impacted the 
ground where she'd been standing.

Landing back in the clearing a moment later, Ino was looking much the 
worse for wear after her short trip. There was a large dark spot over 
her left shoulder now, and that arm hung limp at her side. Shikamaru 
guessed that she could still use it, but probably not without 
difficulty. Challenge and determination still burned in her eyes as she 
glared at her rival, but those fires were banked by a great deal of 
pain.

Sakura's reaction was disconcerting, to say the least. With a chuckle, 
the ferally grinning kunoichi performed the bunshin once more, this time 
producing over a dozen copies of herself. Rather than rushing Ino all at 
once, however, they began circling the blonde like a pack of wolves, 
moving just fast enough that Ino, in her weakened state, was forced to 
stay in the center of a wide, but slowly shrinking ring of stalkers.

Seeing the hungry, predatory look reflected in that forest of emerald 
green eyes, Shikamaru actually stared worrying for his teammate's 
safety. *This isn't like Sakura...* Despite his doubts about the extent 
of her involvement in this, he cast a glance at Mitarashi Anko. The 
jounin didn't appear pleased either- in fact, she looked almost ready to 
intervene. *Not a good sign.*

Back on the battlefield, Ino was starting to get a little tense. 
Growling, she tossed few needles at random into the ring of Sakuras, 
probably hoping to at least thin them out a bit. One needle missed, and 
another pierced one of the copies, dissipating it with a puff of smoke.

The third Sakura, however, dodged and countered with a needle of her 
own. Shuffling to the side, Ino managed to escape with just a scratch on 
the arm, but while she was lining up a counter attack a different clone 
dashed in from the opposite direction, sweeping her legs out from under 
her before jumping back out of range.

With a snarl, the blonde hopped back to her feet, but immediately had to 
dodge needles from two directions at once. Despite her best efforts, 
_both_ of them managed to graze her lightly. Blood welling from fresh 
cuts on her thigh and cheek, Ino swept her gaze around the circle of 
kunoichi, looking for the attack that she knew would follow.

They came both high and low this time, and Ino was forced to raise her 
wounded left arm to try to parry a jab, even as she steadied her right 
leg against the other Sakura's snap kick. The punch landed on her jaw, 
knocking her off-balance, but she still managed to counterattack, 
cross-punching with her injured arm even as she stabbed the shoulder of 
her second attacker with a kunai. A look of shock bloomed on her face 
when both of them vanished in puffs of smoke.

*Kagebunshin!* Shikamaru's eyes widened. *No, she used the regular 
bunshin seals.* Scanning the mob of Sakuras confirmed that they weren't 
stirring up the road dirt, so they couldn't be physical. *But then how 
can she be attacking from so many directions at once?*

Frowning, Shikamaru looked again, and his brows furrowed. *No needles 
except for the ones Ino threw.* Glancing over to Hinata, who was 
following the fight with the rapt attention of someone watching a 
slasher movie, Shikamaru sidled up behind the white-eyed girl. "Hinata," 
he whispered, so no-one else would hear. "Could you use your Byakugan 
and tell me which Sakura is the real one?"

Flinching like she'd been stung, Hinata put a hand to her chest and 
looked over her shoulder at him. "Oh! Shikamaru-kun..." She blurted, 
lowering her voice as she said his name. After a moment, she nodded. 
Putting down the first aid kit, the Hyuuga heiress formed a focusing 
seal. Hinata's reaction was immediate as she scanned back and forth 
across the battlefield, frowning to herself. "...none of them are real," 
she muttered uncertainly.

"Genjutsu?"

"No... they're bunshin, not illusions, but none of them is the real 
Sakura. I don't see her at all. The only physical body I see is Ino." 
Even as she said this, Hinata let out a gasp as a raking run-by attack 
from one of the 'fake' Sakuras opened up a long, shallow gash in the 
blonde girl's side.

*She _is_ using genjutsu.* Shikamaru was sure of it now. A genjutsu mind 
trick to make the entire crowd see a gaggle of pink-haired kunoichi 
would have been an impressive feat, but it was probably much safer to 
make it so that nobody could see the one, real Sakura. The bunshin were 
only there to trick the eyes and brain into assuming that Sakura was 
visible, so Ino wouldn't realize that she faced an invisible opponent 
who could strike from any angle, undetected.

This was how she'd landed that punch earlier, Shikamaru realized; Sakura 
probably ran alongside the second decoy, readying her attack, and then 
took the bunshin's place afterward. *But with the way she's making it 
seem like she's attacking from multiple directions at once, Sakura's 
gotta be practically on top of Ino...*

No sooner had he thought this than the circle finally closed, and Ino 
was assaulted from all sides by the remaining Sakura clones. Some of 
them charged right onto the kunai she was flailing in her less injured 
hand, while others struck her directly, but the effect was the same. A 
swirling cloud engulfed the blonde kunoichi as the clones exploded, 
obscuring her from view for all but Hinata.

The white-eyed girl let out another tiny gasp as, presumably, Sakura 
revealed herself, for when the smoke cleared Sakura stood behind her 
rival, her arms and legs twisted around Ino's battered limbs in a rather 
bizarre and painful looking submission hold. Tipping forward, the pair 
hit the ground with a dull thud, most of their weight landing on Ino's 
injured shoulder, and Shikamaru reflexively flinched away from his 
teammate's agonized scream.

For this reason, he nearly missed seeing the second examiner rushing out 
onto the field and tearing the pink-haired kunoichi off of her bleeding, 
motionless rival. With a cry of, "You, over there! Check this girl- she 
may need a medic!" Anko heaved the dazed-looking Sakura onto her 
shoulder and leapt over the crowd to flee through the village gates.

Shikamaru didn't remember running to Ino's side, but he, Kiba, Hinata, 
and Choji arrived a few moments before the ANBU that he's seen on the 
walls. "Hinata-sama, please allow me," the monkey-masked man intoned 
formally, but he made no move to disengage Hinata from her careful 
inspection of Ino's wounds. Instead, he simply stood over her silently, 
watching.

"...Don't worry, man- Hinata's good," Kiba assured Shikamaru suddenly, 
clapping a hand down on the slick-haired boy's shoulder, and Shikamaru 
realized that he'd been staring. Appearing a bit uncomfortable in the 
role of comforter, the scion of the Inuzuka looked away, instead staring 
in the direction that Sakura and Anko had departed. "Damn, tho, that was 
nuts. Didn't expect ta see lover-girl jump in ta pull _Ino's_ butt outta 
the fire."

"Hmm..." Shikamaru nodded absently, then turned back to Ino and Hinata. 
Whatever Anko's connection was to Sakura, it was still too early to 
conclude that the second examiner had anything to do with Sakura's 
strange behavior.

"She's going to be fine, she just blacked out from the pain," the white 
eyed-girl declared finally. "But her left collarbone and shoulder blade 
are fractured, and her shoulder is dislocated. I don't think I should 
try to put it back in here, since that might aggravate the breaks. We 
should to take her to the medical center." Everyone breathed a small 
sigh of relief, and the ANBU motioned for one of the gate guards to 
bring a stretcher.

When the shinobi were about to move Ino, Shikamaru waved them off. "We 
can get it. We're her teammates," he explained, jerking a thumb over his 
shoulder at Choji. Blinking, the large boy nodded without complaint, and 
the two men backed away. The chuunin guard joined his fellows in shooing 
away the remains of the crowd, while the ANBU lingered a moment longer 
to bow to Hinata before departing as well.

The boys were silent as they gently transferred their teammate onto the 
stretcher, but right as they were about to go Choji spoke up. "...She's 
gonna be loud when she wakes up," he predicted, his voice flat as he 
raised his end of the stretcher.

"Probably," Shikamaru agreed solemnly, lifting own his end. Then, with 
Kiba and Akamaru leading the way and Hinata walking alongside, the small 
procession of genin started making their way to the nearby medical 
center.





S . U . I . R . E . N





"...well this is just great; what the hell's wrong with you _now_?"

Feeling the ground under her feet and the rough grain of stone against 
her back, Sakura reflexively flailed a steadying arm as she dazedly 
looked left and right, trying to shake off a sudden drowsiness that had 
settled over her. She felt strong fingers intertwining with her own as 
someone caught her outstretched hand, and a firm pressure on her chin 
and cheek, forcing her to face forward.

The incongruously serious face of Mitarashi Anko swam into view. Sharp 
brown eyes locked onto her own unfocussed green ones for a few moments 
before drifting away, roaming over the rest of her body critically.

"Anko?" Sakura mumbled confusedly, finally managing to find her tongue. 
"What are you- where's Ino?" Massaging her eyes with her right hand, the 
pink-haired girl tried to free her left, but it was held fast by the 
examiner. "Hey, let go," she demanded weakly, but the look on Anko's 
face said the jounin wasn't ready to release her just yet.

"Well, considering that she wasn't dead when I pulled you off her, she's 
probably on her way to the medical center to be patched up," the 
brunette quipped sarcastically. Apparently unable to find anything wrong 
with Sakura, Anko leaned away, but still didn't release her hand. "You 
can ask when we get there; we're getting that messed-up head of yours 
looked at _now_."

The jounin's expression brooked no complaint, but Sakura wasn't 
satisfied. "Not dead?" She wondered, her voice growing stronger as the 
last vestiges of confusion lifted from her mind. "What do you mean? Of 
course she's not- I don't want to kill Ino, she's my friend. I just 
wanted to prove I could beat her. And let go of my hand!"

"Are you sane now?" Anko demanded, returning Sakura's testy frown with a 
suspicious one of her own before loosening her grip. Once the younger 
girl had unlaced their fingers, the brunette pulled a handkerchief out 
of her pocket and started wiping her hands. "Well, you beat her, but if 
that's how you normally treat your friends, I'd be surprised if you've 
got many of them."

"I don't expect you to understand," Sakura retorted defensively, glaring 
at the older woman. "Why did you have to interfere, anyway? This was a 
serious fight between me and Ino."

Anko cut loose a mocking laugh. "Ha, right- I'd barely call it a fight 
at all, after you smacked her into the wall. It looked to me like you 
were playing with her, just to watch her bleed." The jounin leered 
suggestively at Sakura's hands.

Looking down automatically, the pink-haired girl gasped in shock at the 
liberal smears of red that coated not just her knuckles, but her fingers 
and palms as well, caked under her fingernails as if she'd been clawing 
at a bloody side of meat. *What- how-?*

With a worried frown, Sakura tried to recall what she'd done that could 
have caused this- and immediately wished she hadn't, as a torrent of 
brutal, disgusting cruelty poured from the chalice of her perfect 
memory. *Oh, gods... Ino...* Stumbling forward to lean against the 
opposite wall of the narrow alley that Anko had taken refuge in, Sakura 
bowed her head, sick to her stomach.

"...I don't think you hurt her _too_ bad," Anko murmured quietly over 
her shoulder, seeming to read her mind. "You got a bit... carried away, 
I guess, but-" The older woman paused, obviously struggling with her 
inexperience at consoling people. "Like I said, we can check when we get 
there. You ready to go?"

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, the pink-haired girl pushed herself 
off of the wall. Scrubbing a mostly clean forearm across cheeks, she 
turned a watery pair of red-rimmed eyes on the examiner. "I'm ready," 
she affirmed, her voice smothered in shame and regret.

Nodding, Anko stuffed her hands in her coat pockets and began walking. 
"There's a restaurant or two on the way that you might be able to clean 
up at," she explained, as Sakura haltingly fell into step behind her. 
"...Try not to beat yourself up about it. It doesn't help..." The taller 
woman added after a moment, not looking back.

*That's easy for _you_ to say...* Sakura thought bitterly. Still, the 
lines around the corners of her eyes relaxed a tiny bit as she raised 
her head to stare at the examiner's back. Nodding, even though Anko 
couldn't see it, she lifted her gaze to look ahead of them. The medical 
center wasn't far, but suddenly the other woman wasn't moving fast 
enough.

*I have to apologize,* she decided, though already she could feel fear 
and shame gnawing away at the root of her resolve. Frowning, she sped up 
so that she was keeping pace with the jounin. "I... I can wash my hands 
there. Let's just go."

Glancing over at her, Anko simply nodded, and they walked on in silence.

"By the way," the taller woman broke in after a minute, startling 
Sakura, "what the heck was with all that punching, kicking garbage back 
there? I thought you were 'training.'" Anko's voice dripped with sarcasm 
as she glanced over to give Sakura an incredulous look.

Despite herself, Sakura couldn't keep the flush of embarrassment from 
her cheeks. "Er... well, I'm really only doing strength and stamina 
training. Most of those moves I just copied from sparring with 
Gai-sensei."

"Eh...? What are you, stupid?" The examiner continued on in a lecturing 
voice, ignoring the steam now rising off of the pink-haired kunoichi's 
head. "It never pays to just ape moves without practicing them. It may 
have fooled that girl, who was _expecting_ you to fight like you did 
before, but she still got in almost as many hits as you. The only reason 
you were doing so well was 'cause she didn't think it was gonna come 
down to brute strength."

Her next question was delivered with a more confused and less 
condescending tone. "If you knew she couldn't catch you, why didn't you 
just sneak up on her and clock her on the back of the head right from 
the get-go?"

It felt like the most reasonable suggestion in the world, now, but it 
hadn't seemed so simple before. "Well, all of my genjutsu are 
self-taught; I'm trying to find a counter to the Shintenshin. I just 
made up that cloaking technique to practice my control. I hadn't really 
considered using it an actual fight," Sakura admitted sheepishly.

"...Self-taught?" Anko wondered, sounding a bit stunned.

"Un," Sakura affirmed with a nod.

"All of it?" the brunette pressed, the shock in her voice clearly 
evident. "Even that possession thing you used on me?" Almost shaking 
with some unreadable emotion, Anko was glaring at her now, as if 
_daring_ her to say that it was so.

*Uh-oh...*





*DAMMIT, WHERE IS SHE!?* Slashing through another insubstantial decoy, 
Ino turned in search of her attacker. Every motion sent a fresh stab of 
pain shooting through her left shoulder, but she grit her teeth and 
blinked the tears from her eyes as she squinted into the thickening 
haze. Sakura had to be in there, somewhere.

"Looking for someone, Ino-chan?" Sakura's voice purred mockingly.

Gasping as she suddenly felt a presence behind her, Ino was unable to 
twist away in time to escape. Bending with an eerie, almost boneless 
suppleness, arms slithered out of the smoke to twine around her battered 
limbs in a greedy, crushing embrace. Then, as the soft curves of another 
body pressed with deadly intimacy against her back, her legs were taken 
out from under her.

Unable to control the fall, it was all Ino could do to keep from biting 
her tongue when she hit the ground shoulder first. She swore she could 
feel every single individual nerve in her arm and back light up in agony 
as a sick, liquid popping sound filled her ears, but when she opened her 
mouth to scream, a hand found her chin, forcing it to the side.

A surge of atavistic fear joined the pain, like ice and fire flowing in 
her veins, as Sakura's hungry gaze caught her. "Tsk, so wasteful," the 
pink-haired demon lamented, as she craned her neck forward and, with 
rapturous delicacy, began licking the blood from Ino's face, even as the 
blonde cried out in anguish.

An electric charge seemed to crawl across Ino's skin as the other girl's 
tongue traced a burning line around the curve of her jaw and up her 
cheek, but the waves of darkness lapping around the edges of her 
consciousness finally claimed her, and she felt no more.





Eyes fluttering open, Ino sat up with a startled gasp. Much of her body, 
most especially her left shoulder, vehemently protested this sudden 
change in state, and the blonde kunoichi spent a moment cringing and 
groaning as she took an involuntary trip down memory lane, revisiting 
every attack that Sakura had landed on her.

It was an embarrassingly long and somewhat disturbing list. "Uugh... 
when did forehead girl start hitting so hard? _She's_ the one that 
deserves to be called pig- a wild boar is more like it."

"That's not a very nice thing to say, Ino-chan," Sakura whined, a hurt 
look on her face as she leaned over Ino's back. Resting her chin on the 
injured girl's good shoulder, she loosely draped her arms around Ino's 
stomach. When blonde froze, blue eyes wide with shock, Sakura's pouty 
expression turned mischievous, and she turned her head to give her rival 
a playful lick on the cheek.

"Aaaaah! Get away from me!" Twisting out of Sakura's arms, Ino sprang to 
her feet and leapt away, glaring at the pink-hared girl and painfully 
assuming a defensive stance at the foot of her bed. *Bed? Where-?*

"Ino, what are you doing!?" Turning reflexively at the sound of 
Shikamaru's voice, Ino found her teammate standing in the doorway, 
looking surprised and a bit upset. "You're injured, you shouldn't be 
moving around like that. What's wrong?"

"It's Sakura, she's-" Sakura! Whipping around to face the bed again, Ino 
was dismayed to find her rival conspicuously absent. A quick survey of 
the room- a hospital room, from the look of the spartan 
furnishings -revealed no evidence of the pink-haired girl, and no 
indication of how she'd escaped. The windows were shut, and Shikamaru 
was standing in front of the only other exit.

"She was here, just now. Didn't you see her when you came in?" Ino 
demanded, crouching to peer under the bed.

"The only one I saw was you," the short boy assured her, though a mildly 
worried frown was forming on his face. "Are you sure you were awake when 
you saw her? What did she do?"

"She-" The blonde stopped abruptly, grimacing. "She was acting really 
strange... I dunno, maybe it was just a dream," Ino mused uncertainly. 
The bloodlust in Sakura's eyes when they'd fought would be enough to 
give anybody nightmares- not that she was scared of Sakura, but it still 
wasn't a pleasant memory.

That was when it dawned on her. *...I lost.* Sagging a bit, Ino looked 
away from Shikamaru, staring down at the floor in confusion. She 
couldn't put a name on what she was feeling.

Even though they were rivals, Ino had been proud when Sakura had finally 
caught up to her. Seeing Sakura come out of her shell and stand on her 
own made her happy. That's what she had wanted from the start. And yet 
now... being surpassed by Sakura didn't feel the same; it was like she 
was being left behind.

On top of that, she'd just discovered that Sakura liked women- and after 
all this time! Sakura should have told her! If not for Sasuke, then why 
were they even competing? Why had Sakura even said she liked him? The 
more Ino thought about it, the more she felt like she didn't know Sakura 
very well at all anymore. It was an empty, hurtful feeling.

Seeming to sense her mood, Shikamaru chose this moment to speak up. 
Clearing his throat, he glanced out into the hall. "Look, Sakura _has_ 
been acting strange. She didn't seem like herself at all during that 
fight. Since a jounin is involved, I'm going to find Asuma-sensei and 
see if he knows anything about it. Just wait here."

At the blonde's absent nod, Shikamaru turned to go, but stopped when she 
moved to follow. "Hey, what are you doing? The doctors said you need to 
rest some more."

"I have to go to the bathroom," Ino snapped testily, coming back to 
herself.

"Oh," Shikamaru replied, his expression going flat. "At least wear the 
sling. It's on the table by your bed. You've got fractured bones and you 
had a dislocated shoulder. You shouldn't be using that arm."

Rolling her eyes, Ino moved to comply, "Yes, mother..." Once Shikamaru 
was gone, she almost considered ignoring his advice, but just the weight 
of her arm hanging at her side was starting to make her shoulder burn 
something fierce.

A peek under the hospital gown revealed that her shoulder was heavily 
taped, though similar could be said about the rest of her body. She was 
almost afraid to see what she looked like in the mirror, but Nature 
simply wouldn't be denied any longer. Tying on the sling, she found a 
pair of slippers under her bed and began trudging down the quiet 
hospital hallway.

The bathroom was unoccupied when Ino arrived, and the first thing she 
did was give herself a once-over in the wall-length mirror above the 
sinks. Thankfully, her face didn't look _too_ bad. She had a black eye, 
some bruises and several bandages covering small cuts, but least she 
wasn't swollen up like a chipmunk.

No matter how you looked at it though, you could tell that she'd been in 
a fight, and you could probably guess the outcome. *Dammit...* Growling 
to herself, Ino stomped over and selected a stall.

"...you're not still mad, are you, Ino-chan?" asked the worried voice of 
the first and last person that Ino wanted to speak to at the moment.

...A strangely un-muffled, worried voice. Unable to stand, Ino cast 
around frantically for a second, searching for the source. When she 
looked up the blonde's eyes widened in complete disbelief they locked 
gazes with a pair of watery green orbs peering down at her, framed by a 
large forehead, a wild shock of pink hair, and eight fingers gripping 
the top edge of the stall door.

"Wh- WHAT ARE YOU DOING!" Grabbing the nearest throwable object, Ino 
hurled the toilet paper roll at the pervert lesbian girl's head, but at 
the last moment Sakura let go of the door and ducked out of view.

Suddenly, Ino realized her error. A desperate glance around her small 
cell revealed no spare and, unfortunately, since all of the toilets but 
the one on the end were floor-level squatting affairs, the walls were 
low enough to prevent her from reaching into the next stall to grab one. 
"DAMMIT, SAKURA, GIVE THAT BACK!"

After no reply came for almost a minute the trapped Kunoichi carefully 
cracked the door. Absolute relief filled Ino when she found that the 
roll had bounced off of the far wall and had come to rest close enough 
to reach.

It was still several seconds longer before a flushing sound was heard 
and a blazing red-faced demon nearly slammed the door off its hinges, 
gnashing her teeth and glaring around hard enough to scorch the neutral 
green paint from the walls. Ino hadn't heard any doors open but, 
predictably, Sakura was nowhere in sight.

Calming slightly, she elected to wash her hands before searching the 
other stalls, but when Ino looked in the mirror, the pink-haired girl 
had returned, this time standing right behind her. Sakura's reflection 
grinned mischievously, but the battered kunoichi managed to hold on to 
her composure enough to keep from turning around.

Instead, Ino started washing her hands, trying her best to look like she 
was ignoring her tormentor. As she'd half expected, this brought a 
childish, petulant frown to Sakura's lips.

"Ne, Ino-chan, please don't be mad, okay?" Sakura prodded. When this 
provoked no response, she got a little closer. "Ino-chAAA!" Sputtering, 
Sakura danced away, but not in time to avoid a good dousing as Ino 
pressed her palm under the running tap in front of her.

Spinning, the blonde was only mildly surprised when she found that 
Sakura had vanished once more, but this time she was prepared. Looking 
down, she spotted a trail of wet footprints leading to the bathroom 
door. She had neither heard nor seen it open, but that was probably part 
of whatever illusion Sakura was using to hide from her.

Barging out into the hallway, Ino startled a pair of passing nurses as 
she glared left and right, quickly finding the trail. It was leading 
back on her room, which was convenient; perhaps Shikamaru had returned 
so he could help her corner the infuriating forehead girl.

Ino had only followed the trail a few steps, however, before the 
footprints abruptly stopped in the middle of the hall, nowhere near any 
doors, windows or any other places to hide. "Dammit!" Pounding the wall 
with her good hand, Ino squinted and began peering around, trying to 
pierce the illusion by sheer will alone.

"Ah- Ino-chan! What's wrong?"

Ino nearly screamed at the sound of the shy, quiet voice calling her 
name, but calmed herself when she saw Hinata approaching, with Kiba and 
Akamaru in tow. *Perfect!* Smiling grimly, the blonde waved around her. 
"Hinata, use your Byakugan and look around for Sakura- Kiba, can you 
smell her? She should be somewhere nearby."

The pair peered at her strangely, but Hinata's expression suddenly 
registered understanding, and she began looking around. Kiba, on the 
other hand, was a bit slower on the uptake. "What are ya talkin' about? 
Why would Sakura be here?" he demanded skeptically.

"Don't ask me! All I know is she's been stalking me since I woke up, 
using some sort of genjutsu, so I can't find her," Ino explained 
impatiently. "The pervert followed me right into the bathroom, so I 
sprayed her and followed the trail out here, but it just stopped all of 
a sudden. She can't be far."

"...you _sprayed_ her?" Kiba wondered, his thin eyebrows shooting right 
to the top of his head.

"Yes, I- _NOT LIKE THAT,_ you freak! With _water_!" Ino snapped 
indignantly, once she realized what he was implying.

Still, Kiba didn't look convinced. "But I don't see any-"

"Can you smell her or can't you!" the blonde girl broke in impatiently.

Frowning, Kiba issued an annoyed growl and started walking around, 
sniffing the air as he spoke in low tones to Akamaru. A few moments 
later, they stopped, and turned back to Ino. "The only place we smell 
Sakura around here is on you- her scent's all over ya, from the fight."

"I don't see her either," Hinata added. "But... I couldn't see her 
during the fight, once she started attacking you with bunshin," the 
white-eyed girl admitted, looking down to her feet. "She must have good 
genjutsu..."

"She was using it then too? Hmm..." Frowning as the pieces finally fell 
into place, Ino lowered her head in contemplation. *Still, if Hinata 
can't see her, and Kiba can't smell her, I don't know how-* Suddenly, 
she reddened with embarrassment stared at Kiba. "Aaaah! Don't smell 
_me_, you pervert dog-boy!"

The skepticism on Kiba's face deepened considerably. "...ya say that, 
but it's not like I can just-"

"Hand over your nose, now!"





"...So you mean you can't find _anything_?"

With a sigh, the medical nin shook her head. "Nothing out of the 
ordinary. Unfortunately, such is often the case with injuries caused by 
genjutsu. It's very difficult to externally diagnose the psychological 
harm that some genjutsu techniques can do." Flipping to another page, a 
frown creased her lips. "I _am_ somewhat puzzled by why we can't find 
any evidence of chakra pathway damage, given the combination of seals 
Haruno-san claims to have used-"

"Those are the exact ones I used, and I'm sure there weren't any 'empty' 
seals in the technique," the pink-haired girl protested tiredly as she 
finished putting her clothes back on.

Turning from Anko to Sakura, the graying shinobi gave her a mildly 
scolding look. "If that is the case, Haruno-san, then you should 
consider yourself very fortunate that both you and Mitarashi-san are 
still alive. Genjutsu, especially invasive genjutsu, are not to be used 
by the untrained."

Once Sakura looked sufficiently abashed, the medical nin's expression 
softened. "With regard to the mental contamination, for now, the best I 
can do is recommend a therapist. Are you her commander, Mitarashi-san?" 
she asked, turning to Anko.

"Eh?" Blinking, the brunette shook her head. "Nuh-uh; No way this brat's 
_mine_. She belongs to Kakashi," Anko denied hastily.

"Like they'd trust _you_ with students," the fair-haired girl snipped.

Her brows creasing, the middle-aged kunoichi interrupted before the pair 
could start arguing again. "Regardless, Mitarashi-san, could you please 
give this to Haruno-san's parents?" She selected a business card from a 
drawer and handed it to Anko.

As she read the name on the card, Anko's eyes widened slightly. "Dr. Une 
is a colleague of mine in ANBU," the doctor explained. "He usually 
handles cases of psychological trauma resulting from torture, but he 
does occasionally-"

"I know him," Anko interrupted flatly.

"Ah..." Nodding, the medical nin's expression was puzzled for a moment, 
but cleared quickly. "Well, then I suppose Haruno-san is in good hands."

Turning once more to Sakura, the woman gave her a stern look. "I don't 
think I should need to say this to you again, but I would advise against 
any more experimenting with genjutsu without chuunin or jounin 
supervision. Using techniques that you don't understand can be very 
dangerous to your health."

"I understand," Sakura assured her, standing to go. Fortunately, Anko 
seemed almost as anxious to leave as she was, so they made their 
good-byes to the doctor and filed out of the office without further 
discussion. *You'd think I'd committed a crime or something, and they 
were letting me off with a warning- but just this once! Of _course_ I 
know better than to...*

Blinking, the pink-haired girl looked over in confusion as her 'escort' 
proceeded to tear up the business card the doctor had given her and 
deposit the pieces in the first wastebasket they passed. "What are you 
doing?" Sakura asked, glancing back at the garbage can but not stopping- 
she'd been a little uneasy herself, about going to her parents with 
this.

"Like I said, I know him. He's an ANBU deprogrammer- nasty stuff, so 
unless you wanna find out what it feels like to be brainwashed, I think 
you're better off _not_ knowing him," Anko explained simply, though 
Sakura could detect a trace of bitterness in her voice.

*I wonder what that's all about...* Sakura wasn't sure whether to be 
relieved, or more worried. "Why would she send me to someone like that?" 
she pressed.

"Probably because you made it sound like you were dangerous or 
something," the examiner quipped lightly, giving Sakura an incredulous 
look. "All that junk about, 'sudden, violent urges.'"

"_Shouldn't_ I be scared of that?" Sakura asked angrily.

"Only if you've got no self-control," Anko countered. "Stuff like that 
only becomes dangerous if you let it get outta hand."

"Oh, like _you're_ one to talk-"

"There you are, Sakura!"

Facing forward, the two kunoichi found a relieved-looking Kiba running 
towards them. Anko reacted first, crossing her arms and giving him a wry 
smirk. "Well, if it ain't the peeping puppy. You want us to pose this 
time, so you can take pictures?"

"Anko, shut it!" Sakura snapped, eliciting a quirked eyebrow from the 
taller woman, but she was already walking ahead to meet the fang-toothed 
boy. "Kiba, what's wrong?"

Slowing, Kiba looked to the tall brunette for a moment, then back to 
Sakura. "...first, ya haven't been stalkin' Ino, have ya?"

"Stalking her?" Blinking, Sakura frowned. "Of course not; I asked about 
her when we got here, but I haven't seen her since the fight."

"That's what I thought." Kiba nodded knowingly.

"Is Ino okay?" the pink-haired girl pressed, her worries returning with 
reinforcements.

To her dismay, Kiba shook his head in the negative. "She's been actin' 
crazy ever since we found 'er. She keeps sayin' that you're followin'er 
around, but me 'n Hinata can never find anythin' when she starts 
freakin' out. I think maybe ya hit 'er on the head too hard, or 
somethin'."

"The Self-Taught Genjutsu Master strikes again," Anko quipped 
sarcastically.

"Eh?"

"Grrrrrr..." Glaring at the Jounin, Sakura growled out of the corner of 
her mouth to the perplexed dog-boy. "Just ignore her, Kiba. Show me 
where Ino is."

Nodding, the Inuzuka heir dashed off with Sakura following close behind. 
*Gods, I _hope_ it's not my fault this time,* Sakura mused, a worried 
frown returning to her face. *Why is this happening to me?*





Yamanaka Ino was not amused. She was, in fact, extremely annoyed. If 
Sakura wanted to tease her about losing the fight, that was one thing, 
but she could at least have the guts to do it openly, instead of 
sneaking around and making it look Ino was out of her mind- and she 
didn't have to be so childish about it!

Honestly- she couldn't remember Sakura ever being _this_ much of a brat, 
even when they were kids! This business of popping up when nobody else 
was looking, whispering something inane in her ear, poking her, ticking 
her, making weird faces, or sometimes just giggling and then vanishing 
into thin air- it all just seemed weird and pointless, until Ino figured 
out that Sakura was taunting her. That _had_ to be what she was doing.

Well, she wasn't going to put up with it any longer: Ino was going home! 
Her dad was a jounin. He'd be able to keep Sakura from tormenting her 
until she sorted out how she wanted to deal with her ex-rival; they 
couldn't be rivals anymore, since Sakura had chosen that woman over 
Sasuke.

That Sakura wasn't after Sasuke anymore, taken all by itself, was 
actually a bit heartening, but added to everything else it just made the 
entire mess more confusing. So Ino would go home, and think about it, 
and then talk to Sakura when she was good and ready.

Or, at least that was the plan, as she stood at the front reception 
desk, trying to sign herself out with a worried Hinata hovering over her 
shoulder. Unfortunately, the plan ran into a slight snag when Kiba came 
barreling around the corner, a serious-looking Sakura right behind him.

>From the way he glanced back at the pink-haired girl, Ino could tell 
that he could see Sakura too, this time. *Hmph... I guess I can at least 
tell her to leave me alone now, and not look like a fool.* Scowling, Ino 
began striding purposefully toward her childhood friend, trying to think 
of the best words to say.

"Waaah! No!" Appearing out of nowhere, _another_ Sakura slid to a stop 
in front of Ino, grabbing her feet. The new Sakura stared up at the 
blonde with huge, teary, beseeching green eyes. "Don't fight!" she 
pleaded, hugging Ino's legs tighter.

"SAKURA! H-Hey! Stop that!" More than a little surprised, and unable to 
correct her balance properly with one arm in a sling, Ino began tipping 
forward. "WhoaaOOf-" Looking up to see who had caught her, Ino felt a 
strange, pleasant tingling sensation radiating from her arm, her chest, 
her shoulders and back- wherever the pink-haired girl was touching her. 
It lasted for only a moment, but it felt... nice...

With a worried frown, Sakura straightened so that that Ino could get her 
feet back under her. "Are you alright, Ino?" she asked, still gently 
holding her friend upright.

It took a moment for the stunned blond girl to come to her senses. "Huh? 
...Aaah! What are you doing? Let go of me!" glowing like a brand, Ino 
frantically twisted out of Sakura's grasp and stumbled over to the 
reception counter.

"You tripped; I caught you," Sakura explained, now looking both confused 
and worried.

*Well, at least that makes two of us!* Glancing down, Ino wasn't the 
least bit surprised to see that the other Sakura had vanished again, 
though she'd be shocked if anyone else had seen the little troublemaker. 
"You- you tripped me, you crazy pervert forehead girl!" Ino protested 
hotly, already realizing how stupid she sounded.

"_I_ tripped you?" Sakura wondered aloud, her face mirroring the 
incredulity of everyone around them. "I was standing three feet away. 
How does that even work?"

"You did!" the blonde protested. Staring around, she noticed Anko 
walking up behind Sakura, and her eyes widened. "Ah! I know what you're 
doing! Stay away from me- I'm not like that!"

Just as Sakura was probably about to protest her innocence, the taller 
woman leaned down and placed a hand on Sakura's shoulder. "Ooooh, I 
think she's jealous!" Anko commented in a scandalized tone.

"I- wha-" Everyone was staring at Ino now. As she backed into the 
counter and looked to Hinata, even the reserved Hyuuga seemed to be 
thinking about it. *I've gotta get out of here!* Making a break for the 
door, Ino brushed past a startled-looking Shikamaru and Asuma on the way 
out, but she didn't even think of stopping. *Dammit, Sakura, what did I 
ever do to you to deserve this!?*

"...Anko, I'd heard some rumors, but... what did you just do to my 
student?"

"Asuma, I'm hurt! Don't look at me; it's all _her_ fault."

"Like hell it is! Let go! I have to see if she's alright!"

"I don't think she wants to see you right now, Sakura-chan. Let's just 
go home- I think I know something that will make you feel better..."

"Aaargh! &#()&!"

"SAKURA-CHAN! What did you just say!?"

"...A-ah- hello, Mother."





To be continued... 


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