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Human or Beast

Chapter Text

For them it was only the beginning of the story, but where every story begins another must end.

And so nothing ever truly ends nor does it truly begin. Fate is set and it spins on and on for eternity...

They were on a mission, just like any other mission. At least that's what he thought. They were to transport somebody from this backwater little village to Konoha. A normal, mundane, everyday mission. C-rank, but only because they had to leave the village. They were just walking into the bar that was supposed to be the pick up point.

Normally he, or anyone his age for that matter, wouldn't be allowed anywhere close to that place. But the headband him and his teammates wore gave them access to almost anywhere, as long as they were on a mission.

"Alright, the client is supposed to be in there," spoke up their teacher, lazily contemplating the faded sign hanging from the roof, "Make sure to behave yourselves- especially you Naruto. No goofing off, they won't hesitate to kick you out." Kakashi muttered the warning almost perfunctorily, no real admonishment in his voice.

"What!? Why me? What did I do?" Naruto shouted, flailing one arm in protest.

"Because you're always goofing off, Naruto. At least try to act professional for a while." Scolded the pink haired kunoichi to his left with a sigh.

"Aw, don't say that Sakura-chan!" he whined.

"Tch, moron," scoffed Sasuke under his breath. The dark haired boy had been groggy since they broke camp that morning and Naruto was becoming rather adept at pretending he didn't hear his poisonous jabs.

"Alright, alright, let's get going." said Kakashi, breaking the building argument before it occurred. They all walked into the dim establishment following his lead, subdued and bitter.

Kakashi had learned to hate missions like these since he took on these genin. Long spans of constant movement with no reprieve from each others company was enough to make his already hot-headed team a restless and tense powder keg of irritation and hormones.

He didn't miss his youth so much, when he thought about it.

The first thing they noticed when they made it inside was that the bar was barely lit and smelled heavily of smoke and alcohol. Nothing too out of the ordinary for a dingy bar, in a dingy town. If anything the place was painfully cliche. Shadows clung to the corners and any ninja worth their kunai would have been easily concealed in moments.

Slowly Naruto's eyes adjusted and he looked around curiously, after all he'd never been in a bar. Well, not in a situation where he had the luxury to stand around and snoop, at least. Unsurprisingly he saw several patrons heavily inebriated, to the point where it was a miracle they were standing. But to his surprise a large majority of the patrons were actually quite lucid and looked unassuming and non-threatening. He pouted a little, disappointed.

It looked like the mission would stay boring for a little longer.

"This way," said Kakashi, lowly so as to not draw too much attention to them. Not that Naruto thought a cloaked man and three children would pass for innocuous. They made their way over to the bar counter slowly, staying near to the edges of the room.

"Excuse me, is the owner here?" asked Kakashi pleasantly, flashing his headband to the bartender as he adjusted his hood. The bartender grunted in acknowledgment, nodded, and disappeared to the back. Not too long after, a large middle age woman, who looked like she could win in a wrestling match with a grizzly bear, walked out from the back.

"You the ninja?" she asked, with a voice that rumbled with age and no doubt years of smoke inhalation. She looked over Kakashi approvingly before flicking her gaze to the genin with obvious doubt.

"Yes, we are." Replied Kakshi, with fake cheer. She looked them over with one last sweeping gaze, and Naruto felt like he was going to snap like a twig just from her gaze. "So they let kids like them be Ninja now?" she asked, gruffly.

Naruto felt Sakura fidget uncomfortably to his left and Sasuke tense in what was no doubt offense. His pride never did care for gruff laymen throwing around assumptions.

"These brats couldn't scare a fly, let alone kill it." She declared, with a gruff chuckle that sounded like a morbid mockery of amusement. Kakshi shifted minutely on his feet and Naruto thought that he would sigh if they weren't conducting business.

"I assure you these are fully trained Shinobi," he let the false cheer in his voice harden in surety, "Even though they're young they're more than qualified for the job." He said with confidence.

"Is that so?" The owner said, looking him in the eye challengingly. An intense stare down ensued and lasted for a few tension filled seconds as the two seemed to have a battle of wills. Most civilians had the sense not to challenge a Jounin to a staring contest, but this woman had likely never seen a hidden village in her life. She couldn't be blamed for her ignorance. Finally the woman cracked a smile and started to laugh.

"Alright, I guess you'll do." She said, with a harsh nod as she leaned more fully on the counter. She threw a roguish smile to the three children in what Naruto assumed was supposed to be a reassuring manner. He was anything but reassured.

"Thank you; now you wouldn't happen to be the person we're protecting, would you?" he asked good naturedly. The smile abruptly slipped from her face and a guarded look passed over her, that even Sasuke would be impressed with.

"No, that I'm not." She replied shortly. Just then something in the air changed, the room seemed much less inviting. "Over there." She grunted, nodding her head toward a small stage on the other end of the bar. Obviously set up for the odd local performance and bar room pianist. It was completely dark. Kakashi had had them training their five basic senses since leaving Konoha, prohibiting chakra sensing while it would be safe enough to train with a handicap. They would have to lift the ban as soon as they started they're mission properly.

"I can't see anything," murmured Sakura, in that self-conscious tone of hers, "What about you, Sasuke?" she asked, her voice getting high and overbearing when she reached the name. Naruto forced himself not to roll his eyes.

"Nothing." Replied Sasuke shortly. Even without his sharingan his eye sight was almost perfect- typical of him as far as Naruto was concerned. If even his 20/20 vision- and Naruto suspected the only reason it wasn't better was because even the Uchiha genes had some respect for hassled optometrists- couldn't see anything, then they would normally assume there was nothing to see. Naruto looked intently at the stage himself and he was surprised that he could barely make out something moving in the darkness. He strained his sight and could make out the silhouette of a person moving around.

"There's someone up there!" He exclaimed; equally as surprised at the fact as he was of his certainty. His teammates made small questioning sounds in response as Kakashi just looked at him curiously. He looked closer, and could barely make out that the shape was feminine.

"A girl, I think," He said, surprised he could make out that much, "Or a real elegant guy." He knew by now that appearances could be deceiving in that regard and would rather not be wrong in front of his teammates. He ignored the suspicion in the back of his mind that his keen eyes had more dubious origins than good genes.

"Wow, you're pretty good kid." Praised the owner, with an approving nod.

"Thanks." he replied sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head, embarrassed.

"So is 'she' the one we're supposed to protect?" asked Sakura.

"Yeah, that's her. She sings here every night," replied the owner, a hint of bitterness in her smirk, "She's actually about to come on; you should sit and watch, she's good." There was both sadness and pride in her eyes when she said it.

Kakashi looked at the owner in a way that would seem blank to anyone who didn't know him, but Naruto could tell he was searching for something in her mannerisms to give him information. Jounin, and any good shinobi Naruto had found, were naturally hungry for information. The smallest missing piece of intelligence could send a mission straight to hell, and so they learned to weasel out secrets as easily as breathing. The only problem, Naruto had been told by Iruka once, was knowing when to stop looking for answers.

A good ninja craved information, a wise ninja knew when to be satisfied. Discretion was always key. Or something. He looked at the owner then back at his teacher. He had no idea why she seemed so sad and happy at the same time. It confused him, but he decided to give up on trying to figure it out. After all, he never was any good at all the deep thinking people swore up and down he'd have to do.

"Alright, we will." Kakashi agreed to her offer. He herded the genin toward a table near the bar and they all sat and waited for the show to start. The owner brought over four glasses of water, smirking at them and muttering a 'no drinking on the job' before ruffling Naruto's hair and walking away. He was about to protest loudly when the lights on the stage turned on.

Sitting on a stool, leaning gently over some stringed instrument Naruto vaguely recognized, was a girl who looked to be about their age. Naruto blinked dumbly at her, surprised at being a bodyguard for a kid no older than himself. He looked around the table at his teammates and they seemed just as surprised, if only mildly. He turned to his teacher questioningly but the man just shrugged and turned back to the stage. He was still confused but turned to the stage as well. He didn't know what lead a civilian girl from some back water one horse town to hire legitimate shinobi for protection but he figured that there were stranger things in the world. After all, if a twelve year old needing a bodyguard was strange then so was a twelve year old being one.

He looked the girl over to see if he could find any hint as to why she would be in danger. A child heiress, or priestess, or some kind of public figure- a musician, maybe? - would perhaps justify hiring elite bodyguards. Certainly some random village girl wouldn't need, much less be able to afford, to hire a Konoha squad even if they were only genin.

She was skinny, and average height, maybe a little over five foot tall. She had long dark blond hair that was braided over her shoulder meticulously. She was wearing blue pants, wrapped at the ankles shinobi style, that seemed to be well-worn, and a light worn shirt secured loosely around her neck in a holster style. Average dress for a girl in any village, no red flags or clan symbols to hint toward her plight.

Her face was round and her skin pale, pretty but unremarkable. Still, there was something off about her, he couldn't say why but something just felt wrong. He watched for a little longer as she tuned her instrument. It was her eyes, he decided.

Her eyes shifted between a dark blue and storm cloud gray, familiar in a way he couldn't place. They were the kind of eyes people wrote poems about, he thought. Filled with sadness, longing, pain. So much that it almost hurt to look into them, a thought he almost snorted at in amusement.

Pain filled eyes were common fair in his experience. Crystal blue in the mirror. Inky black in another.

But he couldn't help but feel like there was something else just under the surface. A kindred mischief, he felt all to strongly. She seemed to hide secrets in that mischief; as if she knew a truth that no one else would ever know.

Her expression was one of emptiness, no emotion anywhere but her eyes. An Uchiha quality mask, he thought, flicking his gaze over to his dark companion with a smirk. Altogether she was actually quite beautiful, but she was missing the spark that any living person has. No joy or happiness, but not hate or anger either, not the slightest trace. Just sadness.

It was almost sickening to see. Something about her made you want to run, or at least avoid her, but it also drew you in enough to stare. The sadness, he thought, made her seem dead. A specter of grief walking simply to plague the living and remind them of things they'd rather forget. He glanced at his teammates and they all looked as unnerved as him, even Kakashi looked bemused. He was trying to figure out why, when he noticed it. They were trying to hide it, but in their eyes he could see it. The same way he had grown to learn to see the hate behind hastily built masks he could see the disquiet behind theirs. She made them uncomfortable. A task not easily accomplished where shinobi were concerned.

"You too, huh?" Said the owner; scoffing. "That girl has always been like that," she huffed derisively as she lit a cigarette, and leaned on their table, "She's always been cold. Practically a living statue, she doesn't even react to pain properly. And if that wasn't enough for her to be disliked, she scares them." Her voice was grating, frustration tinging her words with violence.

"Them?" asked Sasuke, mildly curious. The villagers. Naruto thought unbidden.

"Everyone." The burly woman spat, suddenly looking around her domain with disgust, as if for miles all she could see was trash. "From the kindest of people to the worst of scum. Figures, all these back woods losers wouldn't know a good thing when it hit them." Her gaze swiveled back to them, and she could see the way their eyes all but rolled at the prejudice of intolerant small villages.

"Even warriors who've seen things that'd make most die of fear, are threatened by that one child." She said, with a shake of her head, a glare assuring them that city slickers and worldly foreigners alike were no different. They pointedly ignored the silent accusation.

"You know, even the priests at the local shrine say she's a cursed child." She said, with a laugh full of spite, "Self-righteous pricks."

"Well, why aren't you scared of her?" asked Sakura shakily, ignoring the near sacrilege of the angry woman.

"Yeah, I mean if she scares everyone you should be scared too, right?" Naruto piped up curiously, leaning farther across the table top to meet her eyes.

She was silent for a moment, gazing at them as she seemed to think over her response. "Sometimes, she can be damn near unsettling, but..." She stopped and looked at them like she was deciding something. "It ain't like she don't know why they act the way they do. She tries her best to seem more," she paused, struggling for words, "human or whatever the damn hell they want from her." She looked up at the girl as she adjusted her seat meticulously.

"She don't mean no harm. Never gotten into a fight at school, never hurt a person - at least on purpose anyway. She's always bringing home injured animals and helping them heal. A damn good kid." She said with a bitter smile. "It ain't right they blame her for bringing out whatever issues they carry on them, she's just a kid."

Naruto looked back at the girl and wondered if she felt alone.

"Ah, look she's starting!" said the owner, all previous bitterness receding in favor of uncharacteristic excitement. They all looked up at her in trepidation. He looked around and noticed that the only ones in the room that could bring them selves to look her in the eye, were his team and the owner. He heard the strings being plucked and turned back to the stage.

As the first chords from hit his ears he suddenly felt as if he knew the song. From where or when he couldn't say. He was focusing so intently on the sting of nostalgia at the back of his mind that he only faintly registered that she had started to sing. He just couldn't seem to retrieve the almost memory from the recesses of his unconsciousness. Resigning himself to this fact he returned his attention to the girl bathed in the light from the stage.

Her song spoke of loneliness and pain. The despair of knowing that no one knows the agony of such a tortured soul. The coldness and anger that came with such knowledge. The feeling of losing something which you never really had. The most heart wrenching part of the scene was the unchanging face of the girl delivering those melodic, woeful, words.

He knew then that she was alone.

Sad, angry, and in pain. Just like he used to be.

He knew then that he would do everything he could for her.

He wouldn't leave her alone.

Chapter Text

After the girl had finished, the crowd clapped politely as she bowed and made her way off stage. The bar owner waved to catch her attention and motioned for her to join them at their secluded table. She nodded in acknowledgement and edged her away around the room carefully. When she finally made it to the table she stood next to the owner and cast an uninterested glance over the group of shiobi presented to her.

"These are the Ninja that are gonna take ya to the Leaf." Explained the burly woman, putting a hand roughly on the girl's thin shoulder. The girl looked at them curiously before turning to the bar owner and nodding in understanding.

The woman smiled broadly at the girl before roughly ruffling her head in something that might have been praise.

"This here is my daughter," she huffed proudly, pushing the girl in front of her and puffing her chest up the way a craftsman would show off his prized work, "introduce ya'self, it's only polite." She added, an afterthought.

The girl stumbled to catch herself from the shove her mother gave her, before slowly bowing to them with surprising grace.
"I am Yue Musume, it is a pleasure to meet you."

Her voice was surprisingly smooth and low for a young teen. Kakashi found himself mildly impressed with her poise in the face of what must have been her first encounter with trained killers. This far from any hidden village it was unlikely she had ever encountered a shinobi. Certainly none would have reason to go out of their way to a small barely there village on the path to nowhere. Ninja populations were tightly clustered around their hidden villages and centers of commerce, they followed the flow of the people. After all where there were people there was a fight to be fought and money to be made.

"Hello, I'm Kakashi, the team leader." He said warmly, a smile fighting it's way to be seen through his mask. The first part of any escort mission was to get your charge to trust you. Civilians were easy to manipulate if they had complete faith in both your abilities and your interest in their welfare. There were certainly shinobi that were too caught up in the rugged image they were trying to embody to be polite to their charges but they never made it past chunin.

A good ninja was versatile.

Casting a glance at his students he was pleased to see welcoming smiles all around. Well, all except the broody Uchiha- but two for three was a good start.

"Hello, I'm Sakura Haruno." Sakura spoke, the first genuine smile she'd shown in days on her face as she bowed gently to the other girl, "It'll be so nice to have female company for once!" She tossed her head cutely and sighed with drama. Kakashi could understand, Sasuke and Naruto's petty rivalry grated on ones nerves after so long with no company but the four of them.

"Sasuke Uchiha." Sasuke said shortly, a short bob of his head a remnant of the manners Kakashi was sure he had buried somewhere.

"Hey, my name's Naruto! Naruto Uzumaki, nice to meet you!" Naruto almost shouted, thrusting his hand suddenly at the girl. She startled a half step back at the sudden gesture and blinked at his offered hand blankly for a moment.

"Keep your voice down!" Chided Sakura with undue urgency.

"Oh, eh- sorry." Said Naruto, a bit deflated.

Sasuke all but sighed in annoyance.

"Well, you seem like a lively bunch!" Chuckled the owner good naturedly. She nodded to herself, pleased with them it seemed.

"I'm sure you'll want to be heading out as quick as ya can, I know how restless you shinobi can get," She turned to her daughter then, hard look returning to her eyes. "Yue, did you finish packing?" She asked.

"Yes," replied the girl quietly, making to move toward the door behind the bar slowly, "I will get my bag." She said, turning and meticulously unlatching the door and closing it behind her. They all watched as she walked out of sight. Everything she did was slow and methodical, as if she was recalling the actions to be completed in the order she did them. Some kind of conscious reassurance that she was doing it correctly.

"Well, she seems friendly." said Kakashi, not without cheer.

"Yeah," sighed the woman tiredly, "sorry 'bout that, she isn't much of a social bird, ya know?" She muttered, rubbing her neck in what might have been embarrassment or frustration. The glare in her eyes made it hard to tell.

"It's alright," Kakashi assured her, "I have a bit of a wall flower myself." He chuckled with a not so subtle tilt of his head in Sasuke's direction.

The dark haired boy huffed in reply, turning away and clenching his jaw to avoid sneering in front of the client.

Naruto just hoped that Yue wouldn't be half as aloof and holier-than-thou as Sasuke was. He didn't think he could deal with that much smugness on the trip back.

They were now standing outside the bar, the cold air nipping at their extremities.

Not for the first time Naruto contemplated the futility of sandals. Why were they standard issue? Did the benefits of closed toed shoes violate some sacred shinobi law he didn't know about?

The bar was closing up since most people had jobs to get to in a couple of hours and they were ready to leave, the only thing left to do was say goodbye.

"Ya got ta take care of yourself, alright?" Muttered the bear like owner of the bar, fiddling with her daughter's own weather resistant cloak. It looked newly purchased, strangely feminine in a way Naruto wasn't used to girls dressing back home. In Konoha you either wore shinobi grade stealth colors or, if you felt like being expressive, you flaunted bright colors and intense patterns. Orange jumpsuits, and bright red dresses, and fur lined hoods, with huge clan symbols and swirling vibrant flowers.

Maybe civilians up in the north were more subdued? Faint flower patterns flowed around the garment, barely noticeable from the base color itself, hardly a shade in difference. Unnecessary and superfluous but barely noticeable. Somehow he got the suspicion Yue hadn't chosen the cloak for herself. Her mother carefully smoothed down the collar and Naruto suddenly knew it had been a gift. Surprisingly sentimental coming from the burly woman.

But maybe that's how mother's were.

"I know how absentminded ya are," She continued, pulling the girl's braid from inside her collar absently, "Make sure that ya eat properly and dress for the weather. I don't want to hear that ya died of the flu or somthin' like that." She snapped harshly, the perfect script of a worried mother, delivered with the harshness of a Jounin running drills.

"I will." Replied Yue shortly, stoically bearing the heavy hands patting down her clothing without even a blink. Her mother sobered minutely, half smirk fading completely from her harsh features.

"Ya know even though ya were notihn' but trouble, I'm gonna miss ya." She said, half-joking, watery smile creeping back to her face weakly. Yue shifted her weight slightly, something like realization crossing her eyes but leaving no other trace of anything close to an emotion. Her weight shifted slightly, not quite leaning forward but the suggestion of the intent to do so.

"I will miss you greatly as well. Goodbye," she looked up at the woman, vapid expression belying searching eyes, "Mother." She seemed to hesitate before saying the last word.

The owner's eyes widened slightly as if surprised to hear the word and, to the surprise of the waiting shinobi, she began to cry. Small streams of tears tracked down her rough face, and in that instant she looked truly grieved. She moved forward and embraced Yue in a crushing embrace, strong hands delicately clutching thin shoulders and hair.

"Be careful, ya stupid girl." She said quietly, voice wavering but resolutely allowing no sobs to break through. Yue stood still and unmoving for a few seconds, but slowly she raised her arms and returned the embrace, as if unsure if she was supposed to do so.

"Take care, and thank you," she muttered, voice empty even as her thin arms tightened around the woman in her embrace, "for everything." The owner stepped back and put her hands on the girl's shoulders solidly.

"Come back and visit someday, 'kay? Don't forget to write." Her voice had recovered from the weariness of a moment before and her chiding held all the power of her gruff personality once again. Yue simply nodded in reply. The Mother turned to the group of shinobi, sharp eyes expectant.

"Ya better make sure she gets there safe, ya hear?" She said, voice brooking no argument or wavering. Naruto straightened his spine instinctively. Showing weakness in front of a beast lead to a struggle without fail.

"We will, Ma'am." Replied Kakashi, certainty hard in his voice. She stared at them a moment longer, hands flexing unbidden on her daughter's shoulders before she sighed tightly, tension leaving her broad shoulders.

"Well then ya better get going. See ya." she spoke, pushing Yue roughly in their direction without hesitation or warning.

Sakura moved forward slightly as if to steady the girl, but Yue caught herself before she could fall. She righted herself slowly and blinked at Sakura's outstretched hands curiously. Gaze flicking to the other girl's jade eyes for a moment she turned slowly around to face her mother again.

She bowed deeply to the woman, even as her mother turned her back to the group of them, strong back trembling almost imperceptibly. Kakashi took this as their cue and bowed to the woman as well, the three genin following his lead.

"We'll be off then." He spoke, finality in his voice, almost daring the woman to call off the entire trip before it was too late to take her child back.

She said nothing.

Yue straightened and turned around, beginning to walk the only main road in the entire village. Kakashi sighed and followed his new charge, his students scrambling to follow. The girl stared vacantly ahead, pace smooth and unhurried.

When the village was almost out of sight, a mere spot of clustered buildings in the distance, Yue stopped and turned to look vacantly at it. The place she called home was disappearing from view and she did nothing but blink blankly at it, head tilted almost curiously as the dawn broke over the dismal little hamlet. She slowly raised her hand and waved, hesitantly as if the action was foreign to her.

The shinobi stopped to watch her, standing a polite distance away. Naruto shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He supposed that this was supposed to be one of those sad 'leaving it all behind' moments, but he couldn't feel any melancholy in the air. It was like watching her try to play out what she thought a girl leaving home ought to do.

It was enough to make him nervous.

Kakashi walked slowly to stand by the girl's side, lone eye appraising her stiff farewell.

He gently let a hand fall on top of her golden head, a faux smile on his covered face as she turned to look at him.

"Let's go."

"I think this a good place to stop and make camp for the night." Spoke Kakashi, hours and several miles later.

Around them the sun was gently dipping behind softly rolling mountains in the distance as frosty winds blew in. The air was dry and crisp, a drastic shift from the humid breezes they were used to in the Land of Fire. Still, he thought as he appraised his obviously uncomfortable students, this was mild weather for this region of the Land of Frost. If they were to become proper ninja he would have to sort out some kind of adaptability training. There was no way to guarantee all of their missions would take place in familiar climates and being distracted by it could prove detrimental in the future.

It was a shame the chunnin exams would never be held in the Village Hidden in the Frost, as small as it was. It was further north than this little trip just past the border of the Land of Frost and The Land of Hot Water would take them, and significantly more brutally cold. Still, maybe he could arrange a mission further north in the future. He was sure the three small shinobi would loathe it. The Hokage would surely indulge him.

"Alright!" shouted Naruto gleefully, shedding his pack and falling dramatically on the road in relief. Kakashi chuckled good naturedly while Sasuke snorted, head swiveling as he searched for a good spot to make camp. He intended to sleep somewhere other than the middle of the road.

After Sasuke scouted a good position just off the road and nicely hidden by scatterings of brush, which was lazily approved by Kakashi, they began to set up their tents and perimeter traps. Yue tottered after them, following Kakashi's directions to divest herself of her traveling bag and standing around watching the shinobi go about their business curiously.

"I'll start to make the fire." Announced Sakura happily, already beginning to construct an academy standard fire pit efficiently. Kakashi allowed it, after all they had no reason to worry about anyone looking for them as of yet and Naruto complaining about his cold toes was going to drive him insane.

While they had a fire he thought it would be good to get some fresh food into the group. Standard rations were all well and good but the three geniin had suffered a huge moral loss somewhere in the time they'd left the Leaf Village and made their exceedingly boring journey north. The stop they'd made in the Land of Hot Water had lifted their spirits mildly, as tourist towns were wont to do, but seeing as they'd avoided the grandeur of the larger cities Kakashi hadn't hoped for it to last long.

"Sasuke, Naruto," he spoke up, interrupting the boys who seemed to be silently fighting over who could set up their tent closest to the fire without fear of being lit aflame in the night. "Go find us a rabbit or something to eat." He said flippantly.

"What!?" Exclaimed Naruto, dropping canvas to the ground absently as he stood to face his teacher. "Why me? Can't I set up the perimeter or something?"He whined, obviously not wanting to venture away from the steadily building heat of Sakura's disturbingly tidy fire.

"Moron." Scoffed Sasuke, frowning at Kakashi but standing despite his obvious reluctance. It was almost cute how he pretended not to be as childish as Naruto, but Kakashi supposed that had something to do with Uchiha pride. A bunch of hard asses he had always thought, though he tended to try not to judge the dead all that much.

"Why would I want to go hunting with you?!" Naruto shouted, obviously offended by his dark haired counterpart's dismissal.

"Because we need food, unless you want to eat dried mystery powder again." Sasuke fired back irritably. Obviously Naruto was struggling for a come back. Suffering through sad chemical excuses for nutrition would be fine if he wasn't cold, tired, and walking on aching feet. He was never one to give up on a fight though.

"Well, you can go hunting by yourself." He said stubbornly, flopping back to the ground petulantly and pointedly wiggling his toes in front of the fire.

Sasuke stared at his back blankly, and Kakashi worried he was about to snap and tackle the blonde straight into the campfire.

"We need one more person to go with him." He spoke up tiredly, not willing to pry the two off of each other when they inevitably broke into a brawl.

"Stop being a baby and get up." Spoke up Sakura, annoyed and looking equally as tired as her teammates.

"Why should I!?" Naruto whined, hurt by the rude comment from the nicer of one of his companions. Sasuke sneered quietly behind him, and the blonde turned around sharply as if he could sense it.

It turned into a full-blown argument. About two seconds before it turned into a fist fight, Yue spoke up.

"I will go with him." She said calmly, glancing between the three young ninja watchfully. Naruto quickly let go of Sasuke's collar just as the ravenette relaxed the fist that was aiming for his gut. Sakura's fist lowered from where it was raised over Naruto's head guiltily. They blinked at her awkwardly, having forgotten about her presence as she was so quiet.

Unbecoming of shinobi really.

"What?" They asked, overlapping each other with an uncomfortable off-chorus. Taking a step back from Naruto consciously, Sasuke pointedly straightened his collar while shooting the others a glare. Sakura quickly tried to resume a more lady like stance, self conscious once again, even as Naruto huffed and crossed his arms awkwardly.

"I am volunteering to go hunting." She repeatedly slowly, as if enunciating the words more clearly would help their understanding.

"You don't have to do that," Sakura rushed to assure her, "you're the client, you shouldn't have to do heavy lifting."She said, glancing at her teammates for support.

"Y-yeah, and trust me you don't want to have to do the prep for whatever we catch," spoke up Naruto, ever helpfully, "It's really gross and a huge hassle." He finished laughing nervously.

"It would be easier if I went with Uchiha-san while Uzumaki-san stayed behind and helped, would it not?" Yue said, tilting her head to the side slightly. It seemed as though she was concerned she had understood the situation incorrectly and Kakashi was reluctant to break it to her that it wasn't a question of ease as much as his kids were just being idiots.

"Uh.. yeah, but -"

"Then I will help Uchiha-san." She interrupted Sakura smoothly, standing up, and dusting road dust off of her cloak.

"If you insist." Kakashi spoke up tiredly when he saw Sakura and Naruto both move to protest again. "In that case Naruto can set up the perimeter, Sakura will cook whatever they find, Sasuke and Yue-san will get the food, and I," he stood pointedly from where he had crouched in the dirt to watch his students bicker, "will keep watch." He promptly disappeared into a nearby tree to continue reading.

His students watched him go with no doubts that he was going to leave them to their own devices until food became apparent.

"We should begin hunting now, Uchiha-san." Yue said quietly from behind Sasuke, causing him to twitch in surprise before cutting his gaze in her direction sharply. He hadn't realized she had moved from her place next to her pack, which was now on her back solidly.

"Yeah." He said cautiously, not without hesitation. No civilian girl should be able to slip past his notice, distracted as he was or not. He resolved to keep his guard up around her. It seemed there may have been a reason for her to need protection on this journey after all. "Let's move." He said, making his way toward the forest in the distance. The terrain around here was a strange mix of fields obviously cleared for farmland but long abandoned and rolling hills, all enclosed by softly curving mountains thick with forest. There would be no shortage of game large and small to choose from.

"Good luck!" Chirped Sakura with a smile and a wave, even as she set up her tent pointedly a distance from Naruto's own dilapidated set up. She and Yue would be sharing as they were the only two females in the party and Yue hadn't brought a tent of her own. How she thought sleeping in the open in these near freezing temperatures was a good idea alluded her soon to be tent mate.

"Whatever you get make sure it's tasty!" Shouted Naruto exuberantly from where he was clumsily untangling ninja wire and chakra trigger tags. Sasuke couldn't tell if he meant to be encouraging or insufferable, and he decided it didn't matter either way. He snorted and threw a lazy wave back at the others as he continued his trek to the waiting forest.

"Thank you," replied Yue diligently, bowing slightly to them, "I will do my best." She turned to follow Sasuke easily, strides widening unhurriedly to catch up.

Sasuke would have been to the forest sooner if he didn't need to slow his pace to account for his tag-along hunting partner. He silently lamented at how much she would hold him back. He supposed that she wouldn't have volunteered to help if she didn't have any experience but judging by her lack of weapons he assumed small game caught with traps would be their haul today. Even that would likely have been accomplished faster with his shinobi's reflexes and the wider range of territory he could cover if he didn't have to stay close to her.

Still, duty demanded he stay by her side in case of danger.

He looked behind him, to ask what traps she had experience with and if she needed a kunai  or wire to make them. It wouldn't do for her to simply follow him around quietly so she would either take up some responsibility or sit quietly until he was done.

However, as he turned he was surprised to find that his blonde charge had disappeared.

He stared at where she had been, wide-eyed. He hadn't sensed her leave his side.

Since they had entered the forest, his senses had been on high alert, trying to gauge the nearest cluster of prey or seek out vantage points in the thick foliage. He had kept a portion of his attention directed backwards for any changes in chakra or movements, not intent on unfortunate accidents befalling Yue while he was preoccupied. Still, she had managed to slip away without disturbing the environment enough to draw his attention.

It was near impossible. He could sense Jounin if he tried hard enough. There was no way some back woods civilian girl slipped past him.

Taking to the trees, he cast his senses out farther, searching for the slightest shift in the air or bent twig or fallen leaf that was out of place. He encountered three sizeable stag, a wild boar, and an owl before he came to rest on the forest floor, alert and frustrated. This wasn't possible.

If she could escape his notice this easily then she simply couldn't be who she said she was.

A high profile ninja under cover, perhaps. No, if that were the case they'd have sent ANBU disguised as genin to escort her to the Leaf. A refugee shinobi? A turncoat? He cursed quietly in frustration. The most annoying thing about escort jobs was the frequency with which information was withheld or plain wrong.

Things like this got good shinobi killed.

"Is there something wrong?" Came a hollow voice behind him, accompanied by shuffling and a loud thump as something heavy impacted the ground. He quickly turned around, kunai at the ready, nerves flaring in preparation for an attack.

He was annoyed but unsurprised to be met with the blank face of Yue.

"Where did you go?" He asked, stance relaxing even as he kept his blade raised between them. She had managed to sneak up on him again. Bodyguard or not he wasn't willing to let his guard down around one of the few people who could get the drop on him.

She regarded the sharp blade almost curiously before looking him in the eye, her face unchanging. She searched his face for something, for what he didn't know, but he knew he wasn't in the mood for whatever mind games she was playing.

"Well?" He asked sharply. She tilted her head slightly, as if she had come to some conclusion she didn't find satisfying. He grit his teeth in annoyance, hackles rising. He didn't like when people tried to get into his head. It brought bad memories to the surface.

She stepped away from him slightly, a silent offer of peace, as she gestured to the ground by her feet gently.

A large stag lay on the ground, eyes glassy and head bet at an unnatural angle.

"Covering more ground between us seemed to be more efficient." She spoke quietly, assessing her catch before turning back to face him, head bowing lightly, "I apologize for worrying you."

He decided not to correct her. The stag was large, easily heavier than the two of them together. The strength necessary to wrestle a stag like that into submission, let alone to cleanly snap it's neck was impossible without years of training or chakra manipulation. Not to mention the speed and stealth necessary to catch one.

"You caught that bare handed." It wasn't a question. He knew she was unarmed, they'd asked at some point on the days journey. She shouldn't have been able too. He didn't think he could have, nor would he have wanted too. It was dangerous and more trouble than it was worth. Yet, she seemed no worse off for it.

"Yes." She agreed simply, eyes drifting to their surroundings lazily.

"We should return to the camp, now." She said, turning to look at him in what he realized was a request for permission. She was following his lead. As much as he was still wary of her, he could recognize that for the deference that it was.

"Right," he replied, guard still high but unwilling to start a one-on-one fight with an enemy he knew next to nothing about. He had his pride but he wasn't enough of any idiot to fling accusations without back up or any working theories.

He almost let his blank expression slip when she bent down and all but flung the beast over her shoulder before standing easily.

"Ah," she said quietly, adjusting the carcass on her back before turning to him, "this is unwieldy. Please help me carry it to camp, if you would." She bowed her head as best she could manage in respect as she asked.

He nodded slowly, mind still desperately throwing figures of muscle mass percentages per height and weight at him, as he moved to carefully pick up half of the carcass. It was certainly far to heavy for her to have picked up without straining herself.

Chakra reinforcement, he decided. He couldn't sense the chakra but he couldn't sense her presence either so there was nothing to disprove him.

 Walking slowly through the forest, he was disgruntled to realize that she was moving with ease despite the admittedly unwieldy body between them.

"This is taking longer than expected." She spoke up, several silent moments later, "Perhaps we should start running." She suggested, looking off into the distance. She suddenly turned to him, sending his guard up again. "I can assure you I will not fall behind." She reassured him.

Her being able able to keep up was no longer in question but he decided not to voice that to her.

"It's crowded down here," he said instead, eying the canopy above them free of the oppressive brush of the forest floor, "running through the tree tops would be quicker."

She made a small humming sound and nodded to him in acceptance. They jumped up into the trees, and started their way towards camp in tense silence. He studied her the entire time, watching for any clues as to who she could be or where she was trained. Shimogakure perhaps. It was they Hidden Village of this land, thought it was a long way north from her sleepy border town. She may have been hiding there with her mother- or what he suspected was her handler- until an escort could be arranged.

No, the Hidden Frost was a small hidden village, who's shinobi barely ever journeyed outside of the country. They were fiercely secluded in their ice and snow and only operated within their borders to keep peace. It was the entire reason their team had been permitted entry. Shimo shinobi did not often do escort mission past their borders. Further, they were in no position, politically or militarily, to refuse a request from Konoha for civil entry.

When they finally made it back to camp everyone was delighted by the catch. Rations could be avoided for days with the size of the stag they had caught.

"Look at the size of that thing! How'd you catch that! And so quick to!" Exclaimed Naruto, poking the beast that they had set on the ground. His mouth practically watered at the thought of real food.

"Wow," exclaimed Kakashi, false excitement grating to Sasuke's ears, "good job you two." Praised Kakashi, being supportive for once, though Sasuke could see the question being directed at him.

"That's my Sasuke-kun!" Squealed Sakura, starry-eyed and stomach growling.

Yue just stared at her curiously before turning to look at Sasuke as if she had just realized something. Sasuke would have corrected her but he didn't care all that much.  There were more pressing concerns.

"Actually, she caught it." Sasuke said, casually gesturing toward Yue. He didn't miss the way Kakashi narrowed his gaze in suspicion at the girl.

"What?" questioned Sakura, obviously confused. Despite being starry eyed she had the presence of mind to recognize the strangeness of the statement. Sasuke chose to keep the particular manner in which she had caught it to himself. He could tell Kakashi already had his suspicions by the way he had raised at brow at the way the stag had it's necked snapped upon their arrival.

"Oh? That's unexpected. Good work Yue-san." Kakashi complimented with a closed eyed smile.

"Thank you." She replied simply.

"Who cares who caught it, let's cook it!" Shouted Naruto, dancing around the soon to be dinner. Figures that he wouldn't notice anything amiss.

"Well, since she did all the work -" Kakashi said slowly, incling his head to the girl slightly, "Sasuke, can prep it!" He exclaimed happily, as if he was giving out prizes.

"Hah?" said boy snapped. He would be loathe to admit it but the trip back to base camp had been tiring. Even if the super solider girl hadn't broken a sweat.

"Loser!" Yelled Naruto happily, laughing mockingly at the Uchiha.

"You too Naruto." Said Kakashi, equally as cheery.

"Huh!?"The boy shouted, immediately pulled out of his laughing fit.

"It was your job in the first place." Explained their teacher scoldingly, "You didn't actually think I'd let you shove all your work on to innocent little Yue-chan, did you?" Kakashi said, taunting him.

The others wrinkled their noses in distaste at their teachers antics. He wasn't much better than them sometimes.

"You have to learn to be responsible, Naruto." He said, all the patience of a seasoned teacher in his voice.

"O-okay." Said Naruto, defeated.

"Yue-chan, you can go sit near the fire and," Kakashi paused here, head tilting in thought as appraised the girl, "well, do whatever it is you kids do." He said with a wave of his hand.

He cast a glance back at Sasuke before turning to return to his perch in the nearby tree. Sasuke suddenly understood. Kakashi didn't want her preparing the food in case she poisoned it or something. It was nice to see he wan't the only cautious one in the team.

"Hey, you can help me cook when the boys get that ready." Sakura said to the suspicious girl, ever friendly. Sasuke closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment. He could hear a tired sigh escape Kakashi from where he was hidden by foliage.

Naruto was excused because he was an idiot, but Sakura had obviously realized something about the girl was off. She needed to be more cautious or she'd get herself killed.

"Okay." Replied Yue with a nod, as she went to sit by the fire slowly. She sat down gently bringing her knees up to her chest, and staring into the flames. All the meticulous carefulness of her movement had returned once they left the forests shade.

Naruto slid over next to Sakura, conspiratorially whispering about their new addition to the traveling party.

"Is it just me is she kinda weird?" He questioned, not so subtly staring at the quiet girl across the fire.

"Really, I hadn't noticed?" Replied Sakura sarcastically. She wondered why he thought she was suddenly more socially inept than he was.

"I mean," he continued, missing her sarcasm or willfully ignoring it, "she's always just staring at nothing and she doesn't talk much. She doesn't ever look happy or sad or even annoyed!" He said waving his hands dramatically. Not for the first time, she wondered where he go all of his energy. She was exhausted after their near constant traveling.

"I know." Sakura agreed, with a sigh. "And she doesn't seem to care how we refer to her." Sakura said, exasperated. Kakashi's switch up of honorifics didn't seem to register to the girl in the slightest.

"Maybe she just doesn't care?" Suggested Sasuke irritably, as he worked deftly at separating meat from the stag. Sakura did not envy him, though she admired his skill.

"Maybe." Hummed Sakura, gazing at her as if she was a puzzle that needed to be solved.

Silence reigned as the two boys worked at their task and Sakura contemplated their charge.

"I'm gonna try to make friends with her!" Declared Naruto,determination in his bright blue eyes and butchering forgotten beside him.

The other two blinked at him blankly for a moment before Sasuke snorted derisively and went back to his task. Naruto wanted to make friends with everyone. It was the way he was and no one should be surprised.

"You don't need to do that." He said anyway.  It wouldn't do for the idiot to get a kunai in his throat for his troubles.

"Well why not?" The blonde said, frowning at him in insulted confusion, "She looks lonely. There's no reason we can't make friends with her, we'll be stuck together for awhile, anyway."

"You know you might be right." Sakura mumbled, looking at Yue pitiably.  Sitting there alone gazing into the flames she did look lonely, in her own cold imposing way.

"Go for it." Sakura encouraged, warm smile directed to the blonde boy.

"Alright!" He chirped, walking over and sitting next to her clumsily.

Sasuke wasn't the slightest bit surprised. His teammates let their emotions cloud their judgement far too often. He forcefully severed a sizeable piece of flesh in irritation. He'd just have to be doubly cautious to ensure he didn't end this mission down one hyperactive orange eyesore.

Yue hadn't reacted to Naruto's spontaneous arrival nor his decision to flop obtrusively to the ground next to her.

It had him on unsteady footing. Normally by now people reacted in annoyance or surprise, or in less favorable cases outright disgust to his familiarity. Especially people as uptight as Yue seemed to be. Sasuke himself still sent halfhearted glares his way whenever he sat too close. Though, he mused, it seemed perfunctory now as compared to when their team had first formed.

"Do I seem lonely?" Yue questioned evenly, a bolt from the blue jarring Naruto from his thoughts.

"Huh?" asked Naruto, dumbly. He hadn't been expecting her to speak first, or at all if he was being honest. He had come fully prepared to talk himself through a one-sided conversation until she politely asked him to shut up or got up and walked away. Initiating a conversation was a feat of which she had proven incapable here to now.

"Do I seem lonely, to you?" She continued, turning to face him, head tilted in question even as her face remained impassive.

He was stuck for an answer. The way she asked the question was the same way she said anything else, with no emotion in her voice nor her face.

Her churning eyes were another matter entirely.

The fire light reflected in them strangely, sharp flickers of red peeking between the crest of ocean waves and mirth hidden next to weariness. He felt as though she was teasing him with the question even as it caused her pain, and with startling guilt he realized she'd heard his conversation with the others.

"Do I seem lonely?" She asked again, pale hair swaying in the night breeze as she shifted to face him entirely. "Do I appear strange, to you?" She questioned him, and still there was no emotion in her voice nor on her face.

Never had he been one to read people's emotions well, especially not through their eyes. Eye contact wasn't something he grew up accustomed too, hate and fear tearing eyes away from his own before he could get a hint as to why. In recent days soft jade and guarded inky gazes had come to hold his own and he liked to think he was becoming used to it, even if he sometimes thought the weight of them too heavy.

But in her eyes he found he could easily find a communication she guarded with her tight manners and frosty demeanor. A familiarity of a gaze he was sure he didn't know. Impressions of feeling and intent he had never felt as keenly in the others, as desperately as he tried.

And now he thought she was teasing him and weighing her opinion of him heavily by his answer despite it.

He didn't know what to tell her. An honest reply could insult her, destroying whatever burgeoning connection they were forming before it truly began. A dishonest one, he somehow knew would never be believed, and end in the same result.

"Yes." He replied, voice surprisingly solid to his own ears. He was not unused to rejection or malformed social interactions but some part of him always desperately craved acceptance. Companionship and validation were things he was not accustomed to but found a deep craving for somewhere in his chest.

Perhaps that was why the scathing remarks and taunts from his teammates rolled off his back as easily as they did. How could he focus on that which he was used too when the novel occurrence of surprised gasps of intrigue spilled from Sakura whenever he pulled off something she had clearly thought him incapable of? When Sasuke smirked at him in poorly hidden pride when he did something impressive, seemingly saying 'maybe you are worthy to be my teammate after all' with each carefully hidden appraising gaze. When Kakashi's eye crinkled in exasperated amusement at some ignorant question everyone but him knew the answer too.

He was beginning to learn not to let rejection through his defenses in favor of coveting those rare glimpses of fondness he was gifted. Somehow he knew that if this girl, so guarded but offering him this metaphorical olive branch with nothing but a glance, were to throw a wall up between their gazes and rebuff his friendship he wouldn't be able to take it in stride. Not the way he did with every other stranger who threw his kindness back at him in disgust.

There was too much of him in her eyes to allow it.

Honesty was his answer in all things he believed worthy of doing and so an affirmative was the answer he gave her. Lies were too akin to secrets and he thought he had quite enough of those to last him a lifetime. Maybe several.

The strangest thing happened in response to his answer.

She seemed to consider it, eyes roaming his face for hidden deceit or withheld truth. And then, her face changed.

For the first time since he had laid eyes on her the marble carving of her features cracked into something varying from neutral apathy.

He wished he could say he was pleased to see it.

The stony blankness of her face cracked across the mouth, teeth pointing out of stretched pink lips and eyelids slitting dramatically in mirth.

It was a smile he was sure. Though it seemed rusty and unused, smooth and sharp- a breath away from slicing flesh.

Her eyes sparked ethereal in the firelight and a satisfied hum left her lowly.

Feral. He didn't know why he thought it but he was sure that was the right word for her grin.

It was gone as fast as it appeared, he blinked in surprise and she was back to the way she had always been. Cold and distant, unobtrusive in every way, quietly blending into the shadows of the dancing fire in the natural way of a wallflower.

Hackles raised in alarm he shifted away from her slightly, blue eyes tracing her form for the easy predatory glimmer he thought he had seen. He found nothing to be alarmed about in the slightest. Gaze jumping back to meet hers he blinked at her in bewilderment for a moment before she spoke.

"I have not had a friend in a very long while," she spoke calmly, measured and without inflection even as her eyes sparkled at him in a show of blatant amusement he would not have thought her capable of until this moment, "therefore I cannot promise to be an adequate companion, but I would very much like to accept your offer of friendship."

He nodded at her slowly in acceptance. Frightening grin aside, he had achieved his goal in approaching her. And with one word no less. A shaky smile spread over his face at the realization.

"Well," he began, awkwardly glancing away in uncharacteristic nerves, "as my first bit of friendly advice I'm gonna be honest with you and suggest you practice in the mirror before you try smiling at anyone again."

She blinked at him blankly, head tilting to the side in question as he laughed at his own teasing remark nervously.

"I mean," he continued louder than necessary, trying to make up for the impending awkwardness of it all, "they might think you're gonna eat them, or something!" He smiled at her in a way he hoped communicated good natured teasing with only the slightest hint of truth. A good smile could go a long way he'd learned and if he was perfectly honest, that... was not it.

If he had been any less of a heroic shinobi than he was he might have been genuinely scared for a moment. Just a moment. Really.

She nodded slowly at him before gazing at the fire again absently. "As I said, it... has been a very long while," she spoke slowly and he wondered if her voice was as unused in conversation as her smile evidently was, "since I have had occasion to practice a smile."

He felt rather bad, pointing it out to her. Sakura surely would have hit him had she been able to hear them. She was always telling him that he needed to be more sensitive and considerate or whatever.

"But," Yue said, once again interrupting his rambling thoughts, "I thank you for giving me the occasion to do so again." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and he could almost see a smile in there. A metaphorical one much less threatening than whatever had cracked through her face before.

"No big deal," He chuckled embarrassed, rubbing his neck, "What are friends for?" She nodded gently in what he assumed was agreement to the statement. They stayed in companionable silence for a while before she spoke, once again pleasantly surprising him.

"Since we are now friends, may I call you by name?" She asked, gilded gaze tracing shapes of flame he couldn't focus on for more than an instant at a time.

"Yeah, sure!" He agreed eagerly, giving up trying to match her flame watching- some hobbies he would never understand, "And I'll call you Yue!" He replied, grin splitting his face happily.

He hadn't really expected to got this far. Certainly he'd intended to bring her around to the idea of friendship with him, and the others, but he had thought it would take slow grinding down of her barriers over the long journey ahead. He didn't quiet know what to do with the rapid pace of her acceptance. Not that he was complaining.

He was ripped from the companionable bubble around them just as he was about to start up some inane chatter by an annoyed voice calling out, "Hey, idiot."

Sasuke glared at him from where he had stood on the other side of the camp, dark gaze curious even as he disregarded any interest in the going's on of this side of the camp. "This is your job too." He gestured to the dismembered animal at his feet. The creature had been neatly dismembered, piles of meat separated cleanly from what they would need to discard and not a drop of the entire mess on Sasuke's white shorts.

Pretentious white shorts. That's what Shikamaru had said once and after he'd explained it, Naruto had agreed. Pretentious indeed.

Naruto sighed dramatically and decided to go over and help instead of arguing only because it seemed Sakura had generously picked up his slack. Likely just to cozy up to Sasuke, but Naruto appreciated it nonetheless. Especially with how much he knew she loathed the sight and smell of viscera. Even now she was all but frantically washing her hands. He wondered absently if she'd ever get over it. She'd have to if she intended to be the kunoichi he knew she could be.

A deer was nothing compared to a man.

Just then his stomach decided it was well past time for a meal and made itself known.

"I guess I'm hungrier than I thought." He said, laughing in delight at the thought of fire roasted venison. It had been weeks since he'd had proper food.

"Moron." Grumbled Sasuke, irritated that the idiot was not only shirking responsibility but putting himself in danger as an added surprise. He always made Sasuke's job harder than it had to be.

"If you are hungry you should hurry with completing the preparations, so me and Haruno-san can prepare the meal." Said Yue, voice blank though Sasuke chose to interpret it as a scolding tone anyway. If only because it would make sense and not because projecting his own annoyance onto others helped him to cope with the frustration of insufferable fools.

"Alright, alright. I'm going." Replied Naruto, getting up and walking over to the mess, with Sasuke trailing behind him. He proceeded to help Sakura clean up, but not before cracking a few jokes at her expense and getting punched for his efforts. Sasuke huffed before moving the remains away from camp for the time being. They'd have to dispose of them properly after dinner to avoid attracting predators. Though he'd enjoy watching Naruto try to fight a bear.

"So how'd it go?" Asked Sakura curiously, after they had settled down.

"Oh yeah! Mission 'Be Yue's Friend' was a success!" Naruto said with his trademark grin and a thumbs up. Sasuke ignored the childishness as best he could as Sakura winced at the absurdity of the conversation already.

"I'm surprised," Sakura mused, "I figured she'd just blow you off." She really didn't have much faith in Naruto's people skills. His way of befriending people seemed to be to pretend they were already friends until he wore them down enough to give in. His unfailing loyalty did the rest of the work from there. It was hard to hate someone who'd cut off his right arm for you if you really needed him too.

"Strange, wanting to be friends with a loser like you." Commented Sasuke absently as he cleaned his blade with care. Maybe he'd pick up a new whet stone when they passed through the Land of Hot Water again.

"Why you-" Started Naruto, leaning into Sasuke's space threateningly before Sakura grabbed him roughly by the collar, pulling him to sit down again.

"So," she began, eyeing him chidingly, "tell us all how you managed to pull it off this time." She figured that getting him invested in telling his no doubt exaggerated tale would distract him well enough.

His face immediately brightened at the invitation and he leaned forward excitedly.
"Okay, well, I went over there and sat down real stoic-like and we had this real intense moment of silence- very heavy," he said nodding to himself as if in approval of his own story, "and then she asks me if I thought she looked lonely, which- yeah, obvious answer." He laughs at his own statement before he continues abruptly as if just remembering something, "But then I realize, oops, she can hear us! Man, did I feel like a jerk!"

Sasuke, who had been stoically ignoring Naruto's rambling, turned to face him so suddenly that Sakura worried for his neck.

"It's humanly impossible for someone to hear us from this distance." He said coldly, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Still, it didn't sound like he was doubting Naruto's statement. Sakura herself found it hard to believe Naruto's obviously exaggerated claim, though she was becoming slightly more concerned at her teammate's reaction.

Sasuke had proven to be rather adept at sorting out the useful information from the drastic hyperbole of Naruto's rambling, a skill Sakura marveled at considering that he never actually seemed to be paying attention to the blonde boy until he said something that inevitably led to some major breakthrough. Sasuke had once mentioned in passing that Naruto was in fact very observant- more so than anyone gave him credit for. The only problem, he'd said, was that the guy was too much of an idiot to put the pieces together himself.

Sakura wasn't sure that someone who regularly drank spoiled milk by accident could be accused of any skills of observation, but she'd take Sasuke's word for it. She'd take Sasuke's word for anything if she were being honest- he was almost always right even if it seemed impossible. And in Naruto's case it really was quite a stretch.

"Woah!" Exclaimed the blonde boy, eyes shining with impressed wonder, "Hey, did you hear that Yue?!" He chirped as he turned toward the girl across camp, even as his teammates moved to shut him up in alarm. What kind of idiot ratted himself out like that to the person he was gossiping about? Naruto, apparently. Although, Sasuke thought irritated, if she could hear them they weren't gossiping very well.

"You have super human hearing!" Naruto continued excitedly, once the girl had looked up at him in acknowledgement. He spoke at a normal volume, pushing away Sakura's frantic shushing movements, as if proving the point.

Sakura still distinctly doubted he would receive anything but a confused tilt of her head for his troubles. Still though, Sasuke was watching the girl intently, so maybe she was being to dismissive.

"I thank you for the compliment, Naruto." Replied Yue, voice raised lightly in order to carry across the space so he could hear her.

Sakura stared at the girl in bewilderment for a moment. She wasn't unused to people with exceptional senses; the Inuzuka clan had their superhuman powers of smell just as the Uchiha and Hyuga had their ocular prowess. She'd heard mention of certain clans possessing impressive control of chakra and others being able to identify the composition and origin of a blade simply by the sound it made when slashed through the air. Still, all those talents were inherited and then meticulously honed through years of rigorous time-tested training. This girl should never have had anything close to proper training in her life.

"No problem," Naruto said, once again in a normal volume, smiling in glee at her before he leaned forward with a gasp of joy, "Hey! Do ya think ya could teach me?! That'd be so cool!" He made a little whining sound of delight as he began to rock side to side in anticipation.

Yue for her part blinked at him blankly before seeming to consider the question with care. Her eyes raked over his form appraisingly before she began to nod, slowly as if to herself.

"If it is one such as yourself," she said, slowly and carefully, just loud enough to be heard across the distance, "I may be able too, in time." Naruto made a sound of triumph as he fist pumped the air in victory. Sakura didn't know what for, nothing about that answer struck her as well boding. The ominous wording made a shiver race up her spine even as Naruto beamed at the girl in delight.

"No way." Sakura breathed quietly, unable to find anything else to say. The girl was slowly beginning to set Sakura's nerves on edge. Something was off about her, and it wasn't just that her abilities didn't match up with her supposed life story.

Sasuke grit his teeth in irritation. This girl just kept proving to be a more dangerous enigma the more he learned about her. The way Naruto seemed to not have even the faintest glimmer of self preservation around her was making him uncharacteristically on edge.

Naruto was a good judge of character.

Sasuke would never admit it, especially not to the boy himself, but the fact remained true. Naruto easily became friends with people who turned out to be harmless- even beneficial on occasion. He became surly and uncooperative around people who inevitably turned out to be trouble. It was just the way it was, and Sasuke had unknowingly come to gauge his own perception of people by Naruto's reaction to them. Not to say he shunned people just because Naruto didn't like them. Even rats could be manipulated into being useful as long as he kept his guard up and played them right.

Still, for once in all the time they'd known each other Naruto's inherent sense for ill-will seemed to be failing him. There was no doubt in his mind that this girl was trouble. Even without the blatant fact that she was not who she said she was tipping him off, she just exuded a bad aura. All of Sasuke's instincts were flaring, nagging at him to distance himself from her as much possible. To leave her here and book it back home as fast as his legs would carry him. Every time Naruto smiled at her in that bright, dopey way of his a voice in the back of his mind screamed at him that Naruto was going to get killed for it.

Some base instinct told him that eventually Naruto would give her some excuse to reach out and rip his throat out with her bare hands.

He wasn't sure why he felt that way, but he had no doubt that she was capable of it. He had learned to trust his instincts to keep him alive, and right now they were flaring danger signs.

"Told ya so." Naruto taunted him with a smug grin and Sasuke wanted to smack him. Couldn't he feel her killing intent? No, Sasuke thought, it wasn't that. It was too uncaring for that. The feeling of watching an apex predator lazily allowing prey to wander around without paying them any mind. The absence of intent but an assurance of capability.

Couldn't Naruto feel it?

Couldn't he hear the way she'd answered him? Sasuke had abruptly been reminded of a fairy tale his mother had read him ages ago. A wolf. A child with a heart too big.

All the better to eat you with, my dear.

Panic had shot through him, quick and sharp. His instinct had screamed warnings at him, fight or flight kicking his heart rate up at the mere tone of her words.


He forced himself to take a deep breath, clearing his racing thoughts. He had no use for useless memories and quasi-formed fears without proof. He was Sasuke Uchiha, last of his people, and a shinobi of the Hidden Leaf. He would always choose to fight. And he would complete his mission.

He would escort his charge to their destination, even if she was not who she said she was. Even is she proved to be a danger. She hadn't done anything to provoke them, and he would return the favor, ominous words and aura or not.

He was broken from his musings by Sakura's insistent hand tugging at his sleeve. Turning to face her he scowled at the questioning gaze she was sending him. Tilting her head in Yue's direction, she furrowed her brows in confusion and Sasuke was surprised to realize she was asking for his opinion on the blatant inconsistency of her honed senses. Here he was afraid she was hoping for some form of comfort from him, as obviously spooked as she was.

He shook his head, hoping to convey the sense of later. She nodded reluctantly and abruptly let go of his sleeve, face flaming pink as she realized she had been clutching it. He repressed the urge to roll his eyes.

He nudged his head toward the fire and the little cluster of cooking utensils she had laid out next to it in order to refocus her attention. She smiled nervously and nodded, shifting over to begin sorting out what meat to cook and hat to preserve.

"Yue-san," she called cautiously, turning to face the girl across the fire, "would you mind giving me a hand?" Her friendly smile was severely lacking and Sasuke noted that she'd have to work on her acting skills in the future.

"Certainly, Haruno-san." Came the reply and Sasuke watched the girl carefully meander her away around the camp to their side.

This mission was turning out to be more nerve wracking than he had anticipated.

Chapter Text

"Sasuke," Sakura breathed, head pressed into his shoulder tightly, "I love you."

She felt Sasuke tense in her arms before he grabbed hold of her shoulders, pushing back to meet her gaze. This was where he rejected her. This was where he always pushed her away.

"Sakura," He murmured, a soft look in his eyes she'd never seen before. His hands loosened on her arms, thumbs absently smoothing her chilled skin. She missed his warmth. "Are you sure?" He asked.

She blinked at him. He wasn't pushing her away. What did he mean if she was sure? Of course she was, why else would she have said it?

She told him as much. He smiled.

She couldn't recall him ever smiling like that. Her heart clenched in her chest at the sight of it. He wrapped his arms around her tightly.

"I'm glad," He whispered, face buried securely in her long pink hair. She thought she would melt. She smiled into his shoulder, embracing him back fiercely. So this is what it felt like to have Sasuke in her arms. To have his affection.

All of the sudden there was a commotion behind them. She turned her head to see Kakashi-sensei, Naruto, and Ino standing there. All of their friends mingled behind them casually, laughter filling the air.

She smiled and started to turn toward them. She couldn't wait to tell them the good news.

Just as she loosened her arms from around Sasuke a rough wind blew in, almost knocking her off of her feet. She regained her bearings only to realize that the gentle light they'd been in had faded. The sounds of companionable chatter had cut out abruptly. It was only her and everyone else in complete darkness.

She looked at the others and was startled to find fear plain on their faces. Except, she realized, she couldn't clearly see any of their faces. It was like a fog had slowly rolled in between them with the coming of the fierce wind that still blew around her.

"What's going on?'" she shouted at them, but no sound came. No matter how hard she tried she couldn't get any sound out. When she struggled hard enough she could feel her throat scrape raw she was relieved to feel the reverberations of her own voice at last. All too soon though, the fierce winds blew it away before even she could hear what she had said.

Out of the corner of her eyes she could see something moving in the shadows. She couldn't see a shape but she knew movement when she felt it and it was there, writhing around the edges of her vision, slowly encroaching , pushing the blackness forward, toward the others.

She tried desperately to reach them but they only got dimmer, hazier. It was like ink being spilled over a photograph. But it wasn't a photo. They were living, breathing- she could see Naruto reaching back toward her, orange blur sluggish behind dripping black. And then they were gone.

Terrified, she took a step back, only to hit something firm and warm. Flesh. Sasuke. She still had Sasuke.

She breathed in a sigh of relief; she wasn't alone. His dark eyes were narrowed with urgency as he steadied her with pale hands on her shoulders.

Before he could speak, white ribbons shot out of the darkness and wrapped around him, pulling him into the shadows. A strangled shout spilled from the abyss, even as a pale hand dissipated into the all encroaching ink.

'No!' She thought, but still no sound came. She reached for his hand, brushing finger tips, but still not able to reach him. He was gone.

Alone and terrified she fell to the ground; tears silently flowing onto her shaking hands.

This wasn't supposed to happen. She had just gotten everything she'd ever wanted.

She heard a whisper in the dark. At first she thought she was imagining it, grief circling around her mind with nowhere to go, nothing to see but the deep dark.

 But then it came again only louder, a whisper faint in the dark, but a voice she was sure.

Desperate for someone to be there, for the silence to end, to see something besides darkness, she stood. She began to walk. She couldn't find where the voice had come from, she couldn't remember it's tone, it's direction, it's purpose.

But she walked, and she walked, and she walked, and-

The darkness moved.

In front of her, like a mirage it wavered and shook, barely perceptible, hardly real.

There. A flash of white.

Another one. More of them. No they were all one white thing in the dark. The black itself, fluttering faintly like shreds of a curtain in front of something massive and stark.

It moved, it's lazy shifting creating a breeze by which the fabric of it's abyss curtain shifted and allowed her to catch glimpses.

She was terrified.

It was huge. Awesome, in the literal sense.

She felt inexplicably small, there, in front of such a thing, surrounded by darkness it lay behind.

She stepped backward, every part of her screaming to leave, to retreat, escape, flee, live.

She tripped. She fell. She gasped.

It stilled.

The breeze that had moved the dark settled and the shreds of curtain fell back together, one seamless, invariable eternity of darkness again.

She couldn't see it, that thing. That huge, powerful, terrible thing. She couldn't see it.

A breeze blew across her neck. Moist and warm.

A breath.

Oh god, it was a breath.

A sliver of inky curtain blew past her cheek, landed gently upon her shoulder, dragging back to it's proper place against her skin.

It looked like a hole in her flesh.


It spoke, it was speaking, it knew how to, it could, it was-

"where are they?"

Sakura jolted awake, sweating and panting, utterly terrified.

It was there, in the dark, in the corner of her tent, she could feel it.

Her stomach lurched and she scrambled out of the tent, bile making it's way to the ground before she had even collapsed onto her knees.

"Haruno-san." Came a voice from the darkness. She jerked back slightly in surprise, kunai  swiftly in hand even as she broke out into a cold sweat.

The voice, that voice in the dark, it was in the dark, behind the dark-

Yue cautiously stepped out of the tent, cloak clutched carefully around pajama clad shoulders.

Cold blue eyes blinked at her without concern. Watching. Curious.

"Are you unwell?" She asked, gaze sliding to the mess in front of the kneeling kunoichi.

It was just Yue. Yue who she had cooked dinner with the night before. Yue who she had cautioned to wake her if she needed anything. The Yue with the cold face and the crystal eyes.

Yue who was not some monster in the dark.

Yue who she was supposed to protect.

She breathed deeply to center herself, reciting the shinobi code of conduct to herself. Weakness like this was unbecoming of her station.

"No, I'm fine." She replied with a weak, and very fake smile.

Yue looked her up and down, as if appraising her worth, and then turned to leave abruptly. Apparently she was not going to ask after Sakura anymore.

She made her way slowly toward the area they had set aside for food preparation, still clad in pajamas without any shoes on. Sakura wondered why she hadn't grabbed them before she left the tent, after all she'd had the presence of mind to grab her cloak. Yue stopped in front of the extinguished fire pit and cast her blank gaze across the two boys sleeping on the other side before nodding to herself lightly.

"I will prepare breakfast today," She announced, head turning back over her shoulder to eye Sakura, "I will make you something easy on the stomach."

Sakura just blinked at her in bewilderment. She was confused as to the other girls actions.

Why had she offered to take the time to prepare Sakura something special but not to ask what had happened? It didn't make sense.

Unless of course she hadn't needed to ask. Dream manipulation was a skill not too far from the mind manipulation employed by the Yamanka clan.

Although, Sakura hurried to correct herself, that kind of skill was beyond even a well trained shinobi their age. It was likely the girl was aware that night terrors were not uncommon in the shinobi population. It wasn't a secret- the life of  a shinobi was difficult and could wear one down mentally. It was every ninja's duty to carefully monitor their mental state, she knew this. It wouldn't be a leap to assume that a civilian would know these things.

Especially a civilian who was likely not a civilian at all.

"Haruno-san, are you not going to dress?" Asked Yue, without interest, as she carefully inspected their food stores. Jolted out of her thoughts, Sakura hurried to answer her.

"Ah, yes, thank you, I'll be back." She said, looking down at her pajamas and grimacing at the splatter of filth that had landed on the cloth. She stood with effort and bowed slightly to dismiss herself, turning and shuffling into the tent. She changed and got cleaned up, glad that she had enough changes of clothes to last until they reached a town again, and mortified that Yue had seen her weakness.

She mourned for the death of any professionalism she had managed to hold on to, concerning the apathetic blonde. Continuing this train of thought, she was forced to admit that they had begun to act unprofessional as soon as they were out of Yue's home town. Arguing the way they had, and gossiping in plain view like that. What had they been thinking?

When she was finished preparing for the day she looked into the mirror she carried with her, searching out any signs of her unfortunate lack of rest. The dark circles under her eyes, and slight redness would fade with a good nights rest she hoped. As long as Naruto said nothing, it would be easy to ignore- even if she was anxious at the thought of Sasuke seeing her in such an unattractive state. Although, she supposed he's seen her in worse.

She supposed she'd have to hurry out to wake the others soon. And to make sure Yue wasn't left unattended- with their food no less.

She sighed at herself, here she was suspicious of the girl she was supposed to be protecting.

Sasuke was uncharacteristically on edge.

Naruto, even more trusting than normal.

The words from her dream lingered in her mind as she scowled at her reflection.

Where were they, indeed.

Sakura came to help Yue with breakfast, only to be told to sit and rest.

No matter how much she insisted she was fine Yue refused to believe her.

Eventually Sakura was forced to concede and contented herself with observing the other girl as she cooked. She had always found cooking fascinating, but had long ago given up on trying to cook anything besides the bare minimum. Sure she could cook, but nothing fancy was coming out of any pan that she touched.

She marveled at the fact that Yue seemed to know exactly what she was doing. As if she was somehow used to cooking over a campfire, as unpredictable as it could be. She somehow made cooking in the open seem elegant, if that was even possible. Sakura was almost scared to know what Yue could do with a proper kitchen.

She was snapped out of her musings when Yue silently handed her a bowl.

A bowl of what you ask? Oatmeal. In Sakura's opinion it was a food born from hell, used to torture the ridiculously young, old, or sick. She was none of the above and almost refused to look at the bowl's contents out of pure principal. Honestly it wasn't that good-looking in the first place. Yue saw the look Sakura was giving the bowl and stilled her motions to stare at the girl blankly. Sakura refused to make eye contact, eyes flitting to the side even as she resolutely avoided the spoon provided to her. Yue shook her slightly, as if scolding Sakura and took the bowl from her mixing in some sugar, cinnamon, and pieces of an apple she had found somewhere nearby.

Not only could she cook but evidently her foraging skills were also top notch. With the adjustments the Devil Food actually tasted passable. Sakura would have asked for more, but she didn't want to give Yue more work. She already felt bad enough, letting her do this much.

The girl set aside the pot of food in the coals to keep warm before she excused herself to the tent to get prepared for the day. Sakura let her go, eating her food with her attention riveted to the tent. It wouldn't do to be negligent just for privacy's sake.

Soon enough Sasuke roused from his sleep, throwing an arm over his eyes for a moment before he sat up fluidly. Gazing around himself with bleary eyes, he seemed to take stock of the situation, habit making him catalogue everyone present even when relaxed before he listed to his side and nudged Naruto into consciousness.

Naruto grumbled and batted Sasuke's hand away before rolling over in his direction and sending what Sakura assumed was a sleepy glare at him. Sasuke sent him a smirk in response. Sakura almost blushed at the sight of it. One thing she'd come to learn was that, given the right circumstances, Sasuke was slow to rise. He was always softer around the edges when he awoke, less reserved and much more compliant. So it didn't really surprise her that his smirk was soft and fond compared to his usual expressions.

Sakura coveted moments like these, when the boys were soft and almost affectionate. It made her feel a sense of family almost akin to the one she felt in her own home. One she hoped the boys were able to appreciate while they had it. They deserved at least this much.

The moment was short lived, as when Yue exited the tent, Sasuke seemed to throw his defenses up, soft look flinting in his inky gaze. Naruto all but jerked into an upright position at the sight, nerves flaring at Sasuke's reaction. Looking around frantically for a threat, Naruto blinked sleepily at Yue before snorting and throwing a glare at Sasuke.

Naruto yawned loudly, theatrically stretching his arms and almost clocking Sasuke in the head in the process. He rubbed at his eyes with a fist before aiming a sleepy smile at Yue, regardless of the venom of Sasuke's gaze on his back.

Sakura seriously wondered how the girl didn't fear for her life with such seemingly inadequate body-guards.

"'Mornin, Yue, Sakura-chan." Naruto muttered, between a yawn, scratching at his head absently. Sakura shook her head in exasperation. He was always so lax even in the presence of clients.

"Good morning, Naruto." Yue replied, coming to sit in front of the still warm pot of food and dishing out two more servings before handing him one.

"Mn," muttered Sasuke roughly, eyes narrowed in irritation. When he wasn't soft upon waking, Sasuke tended to be irritable. There was really no in-between in Sakura's experience. Sakura was at first delighted to discover that her crush wasn't much of a morning person. At the time it had been endearingly adorable. Now it was almost exasperating.

"Good morning to you, Uchiha-san." Yue said with a bow, handing him the remaining bowl. Naruto sat there for a couple of moments just staring at his bowl. Sasuke raised his brow quizzically at the food in his. Naruto made little sniffing motions at his food, curious blue eyes inspecting it as Sasuke seemed to be deciding whether or not it was poisoned.

Naruto cautiously took a bite before a happy little gasp left him and he began to eat in earnest. Sakura supposed he as just glad to have real food for breakfast rather than hard tack. Sasuke watched him for a moment before casting an appraising gaze Sakura's way. Showing her empty bowl to him sheepishly she shrugged. If they were getting poisoned it was already two for three.

Sasuke scowled but picked up his spoon and began to eat reservedly despite it.

"Normally when Sakura cooks, we have to be careful that it doesn't get off the plate and try to kill us." Naruto mock-whispered to Yue when he was more than halfway finished with his bowl, the girl's attention solely on him almost comically.

"What!?" Yelled Sakura defensively, gripping her bowl tightly to avoid chucking it at his head.

"Not bad..." Sasuke mumbled, ignoring Naruto as he contemplated the contents of his bowl.

"Not Bad!? It's awesome!" Shouted Naruto, now fully awake and sporting a face splitting grin.

"Don't you think it's a bit early for yelling?" Drawled Kakashi drowsily behind him, making his way lazily toward the group. Sasuke glanced at him, wondering why he felt the need to act like he hadn't been up for hours already.

"Sensei! You have to try Yue's cooking! It's awesome." Naruto said turning around, practically shoving the bowl in his face. Kakashi bent back fluidly to avoid getting brained by the overenthusiastic boy.

"Oh? Is it really?" Kakashi asked, sounding skeptical. He glanced at his other charges waiting for a confirmation. Unfortunately they were all aware that Naruto would sing the praises of any food that was marginally edible, a result of the dangerous malnutrition of living off of cup noodles Kakashi expected.

"It's pretty good." Mumbled Sasuke, looking away as he begrudgingly worked away at his bowl. Kakashi's eyes widened in surprise at the admission. Frankly, he was surprised the boy was eating the food at all, as paranoid as he was. Especially considering he had actual reason for paranoia now.

"Wow. If Sasuke gave it a compliment it's gotta be amazing." Said Kakashi, mystified.

Sakura was currently thinking of a few different ways she would poison Naruto's food the next time she cooked. Granted she'll admit, her cooking wasn't the best, but it was edible- who was she kidding even she didn't like her cooking.

"Thank you, very much." Replied Yue, handing Kakashi a bowl of his own.

"You're welcome. Oh, this does look good." Kakashi said, very nearly excited.

"When you're done eating, pack up. We'll head out a little after breakfast." He said absently, taking his meal with him as he leaped up into his tree. It seemed he wouldn't be helping them break camp either. Typical.

"Oh well, thanks for the food!" Said Naruto, scarfing down his breakfast, and handing the bowl back to Yue. He sent her a grateful smile, food stuck childishly to his cheek as she nodded and took the offered bowl form him. He then proceeded to stand up and dash to the underbrush, presumably to start dismantling trip wires. Sasuke followed soon after. Sakura sat there watching Yue clean up.

It was strange she thought, for them to so easily except food from someone they knew was a liar.

Though she supposed if Kakashi-sensei hadn't felt the need to warn them otherwise it was alright.

They were walking down a lonely road splitting a vast field of wild flowers, edged by forest in the distance, the sun gently shining through the few lazy clouds drifting by. It was breathtaking, fit for a picture. Unfortunately they didn't have time to appreciate it, as they had a schedule to keep. Still, Sakura thought that it would make a nice painting.

All of sudden Sasuke stopped walking in front of her, startling her into a halt. He was looking around the area, eyes narrowed in what began to look faintly like suspicion and annoyance. It wasn't long before the others noticed, and they to stopped.

"What is it Sasuke-kun?" She asked curiously. None of them seemed particularly worried about the possibility of danger and she certainly hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary as of yet.

"What's the hold up?" asked Naruto frowning at Sasuke's swiveling head, "We have a schedule to keep remember?" He asked mockingly, repeating what Sasuke had been snapping at Naruto every time he whined for a break for the last hour.

Sasuke barely paid him any mind except for the glare he slid in his direction from his periphery.

"Where's Musume?" He asked in lieu of response.

Naruto and Sakura started in surprise, before frantically looking around for said blonde.

"Oh my god," Whispered Sakura in disbelief. This could not be happening. This was seriously impossible. They had taken up a diamond formation around the girl precisely in order to keep an eye on her, how could this happen? She was right there in the middle of them all just a moment ago, how had they not noticed her wander away?

"Shit," swore Naruto from the back of the formation, staring at the empty center uncomprehendingly, "We're the worst bodyguards ever!" He yelled, despairingly.

"Idiots," Muttered Sasuke, still scanning their surroundings for their charge, who they now realized had a tendency to wander. In hindsight he should have expected this, as she seemed to have a relatively short and misplaced attention span. Not to mention her knack for evading detection.

"Calm down, all of you." Admonished Kakashi sharply. There was silence for a few tension filled seconds as they waited to be told what to do. There was no way he could have let this happen. Being the vanguard of the formation he was the only one without a direct line of sight on the girl, but still there was no doubt he would have noticed her absence long before them.

"You don't actually think I'd lose track of a client do you?" He said with a smirk. Naruto made a large show of confusion, even as Sasuke narrowed his eyes in annoyance at Kakashi's games. Sakura was just relived she hadn't failed as miserably as she'd thought.

"Really though, I'm disappointed with how long it took you all to realize. She's over there." He said nonchalantly, pointing over to the field bordering the side of the road. They followed his gesture, scanning the foliage but couldn't see anything except a slight rustling that could have been the breeze.

"I don't see anything." Said Naruto, confused.

"Neither do I." Agreed Sakura, hesitantly.

"Shouldn't we go get her?" Added Sasuke, anxious at not having a direct line of sight on the person they were responsible for.

Kakashi just smiled secretively and said, "Just watch."

He then whistled loudly and sharply, almost like he was calling a dog. Suddenly Yue's golden head popped out of the tall grass riddled with flowers, right where he had pointed. She had donned a crown of a variety of wildflowers. There were different flowers braided into her hair as it fell down her back, as well. Where she had found the time to do all that in the short time since he'd allowed her to escape their watch he didn't know. Honestly he was just surprised that she responded to the whistle.

The flowers complimented the light outfit she was wearing. A pleated white cotton dress that fell down to her knees. Impractical, but he'd admit it was a pleasant ensemble. Likely picked by her mother. When she'd caught his attention and gestured to the field at large, a question in her expression he'd nodded his assent to her wandering. He found tracking her by the sway of the grasses she moved through easy enough, and as there was no threat as of yet figured that he might as well test his students powers of observation.

Yue had proven to be very adept at hiding her presence. He might as well use it to his advantage before it became a problem. It would also serve well to gauge her abilities while he had the time.

He hadn't expected her to slip out of their formation quite as easily as she had. He'd admit to being impressed.

Stepping lightly toward their group, she seemed to be holding a white object about the size of a large cat. Slowly making her way over to the group, as she came closer they could see that whatever she was holding was furry and alive.

Sakura had to restrain the shiver that ran down her spine at the realization.

She stopped in front of them and they were surprised to see that it was a white fox, with piercing red eyes. It was rather small for a fox and upon closer inspection, one of its legs were broken. When and why she had picked up the animal was a mystery to them. She had it cradled gently in her arms, docile as if it were a baby, even as it glared at the four shinobi warily.

"Yue, you did an excellent job evading notice just then," praised Kakashi, "color me impressed." He really wasn't all that worried about losing her despite her skill, as he knew where she was at all times, and she seemed to always realize when she was getting to far away from the group and drift back on her own. Still, he had the sneaking suspicion she was giving him intermittent signals as to her whereabouts. How kind of her.

"I thank you." Was her response, a slight incline of her head accompanying the words.

Kakashi glanced down at the ball of fur that was nuzzling into her neck almost affectionately. "Where did you find him?" Asked Kakashi, reaching out his hand to pet the creature, only for it to attempt to bite him. He quickly pulled back as the fox continued to contentedly snuggle into Yue. He was a bit confused as to why the creature seemed to resent him for no reason, but had warmed up to her so easily. He had assumed by it's demeanor and coat color that it had been raised by humans. Perhaps not.

"Her," responded the girl, "She is a female. I found her in the field. She broke her leg and would have not been able to hunt." She lifted her hand to rub at the creatures chin with a gentle finger.

"She would have starved to death or have been eaten. May I take her with us?" She asked, eyes flitting up to meet his neutrally, still monotone.

He couldn't really tell how much the request meant to her, if anything. Though, he didn't see the harm in it as long as it stayed out of the way and didn't sap any of their resources.

"Well I don't see the harm in it." Said Kakashi with a shrug, "Though, you'll have to feed and care for it on your own. Your foraging skills aren't bad, I'm sure you'll have no trouble." He mused with a dismissive wave of his hand.

The fox momentarily stopped her cuddling long enough to give him what seemed like a searching gaze. He wondered if it was trying decide whether or not he was a threat.

"Is it acceptable to the three of you?" Asked Yue, staring at the gennin, her gaze once again searching for something they could only guess at.

"Yeah, sure," Chirppe Naruto, arms folded behind his head as he shifted his weight lazily, a smile aimed in her direction, "I always wanted a pet!"

Sakura very much doubted Naruto could keep a cactus alive, let alone an animal. Still, a little team mascot like Team Eight had appealed to her on a less than professional level.

"Well, she is pretty cute." Giggled Sakura, reaching out to pet her, only to get the same treatment as Kakashi. "Well then!" She huffed indignantly. Animals had never been strong suit and it looked like her luck wasn't going to change now.

"Couldn't care less." Said Sasuke disinterestedly, without even looking at Yue or the fox. He was still gazing around their surroundings, as if trying to figure out how she had managed to hide so well.

"Thank you very much," Yue replied, bowing deeply in what they all assumed was honest gratitude, "I will name her Shiro." She said gazing down at the small creature.

"That's very... literal." Said Sakura, awkwardly. Leave to the reticent girl to have no sense of naming things.

"Oh. Wait, why is she white anyways?" Naruto asked, tilting his head to the side as he loped toward the girl to view the fox better, "I mean it's the middle of summer."

Foxes didn't change their fur color until the cold weather began to roll in, and it was currently summer in this god forsaken tundra and would be for a while. Naruto did not envy Yue for growing up here.

"I don't really know," Said Sakura, contemplatively. She was getting a bad feeling about it now that he brought it up. It seemed too similar to the white hare that'd been used as a trap on their mission to the Land of Waves. She'd rather not be caught off guard like that again.

"It's probably albino." Interjected Kakashi, sending a reassuring nod toward Sakura. It bothered her how he seemed to know what she was thinking more often than not.

"Albino?" Questioned Naruto, confused.

"Albinism is a rare birth defect," Yue answered, voice detached even as she played with the small animal in her arms gently, "It effects both humans and animals. It's symptoms include a lack of pigment in the hair, skin, and eyes. In most cases the eyes take on a red hue and the skin or hair white. It also increases ones sensitivity to the sun."

Naruto nodded along to her explanation, though all parties involved realized he'd tuned her out two sentences in. Yue couldn't be blamed for not realizing it, but sounding as though she was reciting a textbook was a sure way to lose Naruto's attention.

"Most animals born with the condition die before they reach adulthood. In some cases they are abandoned by their parents and die not long after they are born. It is rare to see an adult albino animal that has not been raised by humans." Yue said, tilting her head as if she just now realized the oddity of her find.

"That's so sad," Said Sakura, "You always hear stories of animals abandoning their young but it's still hard to believe sometimes." She continued, a hand raised to her cheek in contemplation. She'd never been one for zoology or animal behavior, incompatibility with animals notwithstanding, she honestly found it hard to understand a creature driven solely by will to live. Compassion was such an inherent virtue to her way of life that she couldn't fathom any creature operating exclusively without it's guidance.

"Is it?" Asked Yue, eyes trailing up to Sakura's curiously.

"I just mean," Sakura hurried to explain herself, "even if we're talking about animals the idea is abhorrent." A scowl formed on her face at the thought. She knew she was being too sentimental but there were very few things she was allowed to be sentimental about in her line of work. She'd pick trivial matters like this over larger ones any day.

"Why? It is a common occurrence in nature," replied Yue, lifting the creature's wounded leg gently to inspect the damage, "If an offspring is too weak to survive, then would it not be better to avoid wasting unnecessary energy to try and ensure its survival?"

The three genin blinked at her in surprise for a moment. That, while not uncommon for certain sects of shinobi, was a very callous outlook on life not common among civilians. It was a view point that was carefully regulated in the Hidden Leaf. While shedding weakness was necessary and encouraged, the Konoha code strongly discouraged the sacrifice of life whenever possible.

The rhetoric she spoke too strongly resembled that of wayward shinobi they had come to know.

"Humans will abandon their children for far less." She said, almost flippantly, as she raised the creature in her arms to the air, inspecting it's underside without jostling it's injured limb.

They stared at her, grasping at something to say, but failing to find it. They couldn't refute her statement. No matter how wrong it was, it still happened, and they couldn't deny that. After a few minutes of tension filled silence, Kakashi cleared his throat, and with a casualness no one felt was real said,

"Animals do it on instinct, to weed out the weakest genes. As humans we have the ability to override that instinct."

His students nodded in agreement, grateful that he had found the words to express the sentiment in a way that didn't sound as if he was preaching to the girl. They knew from experience that trying to reason people out of their beliefs very rarely worked.

Yue gazed at him for a moment, contemplating his words. The fox started whining and licking her face, as if distressed at her lack of attention. Turning her gaze to the creature, she made a contemplative hum before rubbing the top of it's head gently.

"I see. I suppose you would be correct." She said, nodding quietly to herself, before looking at him again. "Thank you for the insight." She said, a customary bow sweeping her flower laden hair over one shoulder before she stood once more.

Kakashi nodded before gesturing down the path lazily a 'Let's move on' muttered as he wandered away. The young ninja exchanged perturbed glances before resuming their formation, herding Yue to the center once more.

Sasuke eyed her from his position suspiciously.

Blatantly displaying her shinobi conditioned thinking? Was she even trying to hide her identity?

Several hours later, the sun was at it's zenith, and they were still meandering an ocean of grass and flowers.

Yue had been given leave to roam the fields again, as Kakashi claimed it was cruel to force a civilian child to walk all day without a bit of adventure.

Never mind what he thought about shinobi children.

The journey had proven to be incredibly boring. Even for a transport mission. They usually ran into some wayward bandits or local thugs by now.

Naruto had been dozing off while watching the clouds as he walked when Yue reappeared from the tall grasses beside him. Startled, he had thrown up a hand on reflex before realizing he was about to hit her in the face. Panicked he attempted to correct himself by reeling backward before he connected, however he over compensated and ended up losing his balance and falling backwards.

Solidly planted on the ground he grumbled angrily at himself. He was sure the others had seen that, and there was no way they were going to let him forget about it. Sure enough when he looked up he found Kakashi giving him an exasperated shake of his head even as Sakura and Sasuke shared varying degrees of amusement.

Opening his mouth to say something abrasive in responsive he was distracted by Yue crouching to the ground beside him. The fox, leg set and bandaged masterfully, lay curled asleep around her neck like a scarf.

"My apologies, Naruto," she spoke, distracting him from the odd little creature, "It was not my intent to cause you alarm."

"Ah," he said dumbly, before a smile bloomed large across his face, arm coming to rub at his neck in embarrassment, "It's fine, don't worry 'bout it!"

Nodding she appraised him before holding a yellow daisy out to him gently. He frowned at it in confusion for a moment before she explained herself.

"I came across it, and it recalled your manner," she said, pushing the flower into one of the straps of his pack securely, "I had intended to show it to you. Next time I will endeavor to announce my presence."

Standing abruptly, she nodded at him before stepping into the tall grasses once more, disappearing in an instant. Naruto blinked at her abrupt departure before shrugging and pulling himself up, intent on ignoring his embarrassing blunder. And sure he didn't get what the deal was with the flower but he figured girls enjoyed those sort of things and he was just pleased that she'd given him a gift. It wasn't often that he got them, and even if it was just a plant it was nice. He was about to say as much before he noticed Sasuke, who had been watching and glaring the entire time, came toward him to glare at the flower more closely.

Naruto blinked at him in confusion which quickly grew into irritation.

"It's not gonna explode, jackass."

Dark eyes flitted to his in a glare that Naruto translate as and how are you so sure?

Christ this guy was paranoid.

"Keep walking, idiot." Sasuke snapped irritably, turning around seemingly satisfied with the harmless flower attached to the blonde's back pack.

Naruto scowled at the back of his head as he walked ahead of him. Sakura glanced between the two cautiously, knowing a brewing argument when she saw one. She didn't understand why they couldn't just get along. Obviously Sasuke was worried about Naruto's safety around Yue, and obviously Naruto didn't understand that. He was likely insulted that Sasuke was so suspicious of his knew 'friend'. Why they didn't just come out and say these things to each other was beyond her. So much time that they spent arguing could be saved if they just said what they were thinking to each other, but here they were dancing around each other and assuming that the other would understand their convoluted intentions.

For two people who had team work down to an almost instinctual art, they couldn't communicate for shit. She was going to go grey very early in life, she could feel it.

"What the hell's your problem anyway?" Naruto snapped, following behind Sasuke lazily despite the threatening narrowing of his eyes.

Sasuke sent him a warning glare over his shoulder before resolutely ignoring the question.

Naruto clicked his tongue, walking faster until he was beside the other boy. Bending over to get a look at his face obnoxiously, the blonde scowled at him, honest confusion behind the annoyance he was projecting.

"You've been acting like Yue's gonna stab you in the face since we met her," He grumbled, straightening his stance and glancing around the road as if searching for the girl, "not that I'd blame her if she decided to try it."

Sasuke glared harshly in the blonde's direction for the mutinous comment, and Sakura raised her brow at the twitch of a smirk that crossed Naruto's face at getting a reaction from him. No, she didn't really understand them at all.

"Maybe it's because she just might," Sasuke murmured angrily, keeping his voice low as though it would prevent the girl from hearing him, "In case you hadn't noticed she's not the back-woods civilian she claims to be."

Sasuke's sardonic smirk and condescending gaze would have pissed even Sakura off she would admit. If it was from anyone else at least. Were Sasuke to give her that look she might just melt. After all there was something roguishly attractive about that arrogance.

For his part Naruto just blinked at him in confusion before leaning back dramatically.

"What are you talking about?" He asked, genuinely lost in the conversation.

"I mean," Sasuke began, eyes narrowing in irritation at Naruto's genuine obliviousness, "that civilians can't keep up with trained shinobi physically."

It was in moments like these that Sasuke wondered how Naruto had passed the graduation test for the academy. Had the kid ever payed attention to a class in his life? Even if he hadn't, there were enough civilians in Konoha to know these things. Hell, they'd encountered enough useless civilians on their missions alone that Sasuke shouldn't have had to point these things out.

Naruto was getting to get himself killed one day.

"Civilians don't hone their senses to superhuman capabilities," he continued, training his eyes to the path ahead and the back of their sensei who was undoubtedly eavesdropping on the impromptu lecture, "civilians can't evade both chakra and physical detection, civilians don't exude power like they were raised in a battle field, and civilians certainly don't have such cynical world views."

He glanced over at the blonde sharply, a predatory smirk creeping across his face.

"They usually leave that to us."

Blue eyes stared at him for a moment as they walked, silence reigning. Sasuke couldn't tell what he was thinking. Naruto usually had snappy comebacks to whatever cynical monologue Sasuke spewed his way and his silence was throwing the Uchiha off.

Eventually Naruto grimaced and turned to face the road, scoffing halfheartedly.

"You've always got something cool to say, don't you," he huffed, brows low over his bright eyes, thought scrunching his face in a way Sasuke could admit he found interesting as seldom as it happened, "life ain't a movie, ya know."

Sasuke was about to tell him to stop being an idiot and admit that he was right when Naruto continued.

"Besides," Naruto sent an uncharacteristically sly gaze his way, "I don't remember her ever saying she was a civilian."

Sasuke blinked at him in startled surprise. Naruto very rarely came up with even semi plausible responses to these arguments. He was almost shocked. Still that was a stupid point if Sasuke had ever heard one.

"Dumbass, the file sai-"

"Oh come on!" Naruto sighed loudly, throwing his head back as if he was physically pained to be having this argument.

"First rule of Team Seven, Sasuke," he said, rolling his head to send Sasuke a downright mischievous smile, "the file's always wrong."

And well.

For once he wasn't wrong.

Their team always got the botched jobs; incomplete files, withheld information, rapidly devolving situations.

Team Seven had the undisputed worst luck of any of Konoha's gennin squads.

"The point is," Naruto continued when he didn't get any response other than a startled blink or two, "She hasn't been lying to us. She hasn't even been trying to hide what she can do. No liar, no danger." He shrugged nonchalantly.

As if a potentially trained killer was perfectly acceptable as long as she hadn't lied about it. He was seriously stupid. Or out of his mind. In moments like these Sasuke feared it was the latter of the two.

Sasuke was about to say something- what he didn't know, likely something equally as insulting to Naruto as embarrassing to himself- when Kakshi spoke up from in front of them.

"If that's the case," He said musingly, head tilted back at them slightly enough for them to see the glint of his single eye, "then someone must have messed with the file intentionally, yeah?"

Now all of the gennin were staring at him in surprise.

But he was right.

This wasn't a case of information being wrong by virtue of changing field conditions.

This wasn't an 'oops, I'm a cheap skate who couldn't afford to hire the proper level of protection so I fibbed a little' situation.

This wasn't a 'that one party that was barely involved has now become a major player' situation.

This was their charge, the singular solid variable of the mission, being something other than what was previously stated. Furthermore, it seemed she didn't realize she was supposed to be hiding her identity. So, naturally someone other than her had filed the mission request.

It couldn't have been her mother, or as Sasuke suspected, her handler. She would have warned the girl to lay low.

So the fault must have been on the village's end.

They had someone in the processing office tampering with information.

Sakura gasped in shock, hand covering her mouth in horror even as Naruto all but squealed in delight at the prospect.

"A spy!" he breathed, enchanted by the idea.

Sasuke pinched the bridge of his nose as he felt a headache forming.

Really this mission was turning into such a pain in the ass.

Chapter Text

Night had fallen yet again upon the Land of Frost and the group had made camp yet again.

The shinobi carefully laid their perimeter and scouted their surroundings. The night was quiet, the frost crawling over the ground proving their trip wires redundant.

For a mission that had yet to prove even marginally dangerous it all seemed a bit excessive.

But with ideas of espionage and government infiltration swirling through their minds it was hard not to be over cautious. At least for the genin. Kakashi had seen enough political subterfuge in his day to scoff in the face of a desk jockey mole.

Not to say that it wasn't a problem. Even a minor leak in a division as mundane as the Mission Processing Office could prove to be detrimental if left to fester.

Infections spread from the branches down to the roots. Best to cut out the infection while the tree remained relatively unaffected.

If it let his students rest easier he was content to let them lay a few more traps than necessary. He himself had taken his own measure of safety; a nin-hound well on it's way to the gates of the Leaf with a coded message.

Still, the night was quiet. Even for the frost bitten forests of this land it seemed picturesque. Almost uncomfortably so.

"Sensei,"came a soft voice behind him, "is there anyway that I can be of use?"

He turned around to glance at the strange girl with cold eyes, hum falling from his covered lips. She suited her homeland, really. Glacier blue eyes and tawny blonde hair. Snow and dried grasses. Stale blood in the soil.

"Well," He began, false contemplation creasing his brows innocently, "I can't think of anything menial that the kids haven't already covered."

She nodded to him faintly, gaze flitting around their surroundings, surveying the fields and forests the same as he had been.

Really, it was uncomfortably still here.

"But," he began slowly, fake smile spreading reassuringly though he knew she couldn't see it, "maybe you could tell me more about yourself? I find it's always easier to travel with someone when you know them better."

Her eyes met his again and he knew she saw through him. He wanted information and she knew it. She wouldn't deny him it and they both knew it. She hadn't hidden anything before and she wouldn't start now.

How very unlike a ninja.

She nodded in acceptance, turning on her heel gracefully before walking toward the center of camp.

There would be no fire tonight.

"It would be best to wait for the others to settle," she said, without turning back to face him, "I am certain they would agree with you."

He nodded in agreement to her back. His students were curious by nature; impertinent at best, voracious at worst. With the stakes he knew they must be conjuring in their young minds he feared it would prove to be the latter. Best to wait for a group story telling session.

Leaves rustled and crunched with frost as the boys meandered out of the brush.

Kakashi couldn't help but wonder if they'd ever learn to move with the grace of a shinobi. They always stumbled around like new fawns, playing at being killers.

Sasuke had this particular way of half sliding into a fluid movement- half shadow before he inevitably fell into a weighty arrogant step and then another.

Naruto was almost jarringly different; bumbling wayward steps, all the awkward limbs and joints of his twelve years, and the obnoxious overcompensation for the fact.

Though sometimes, out of the corner of Kakashi's eye, when Naruto thought no one was there or in a moment of action, it was different.

Sometimes, Naruto would almost move like a ninja.

He would be fluid, half shadow, half breeze, silent and quick. Unobtrusive in a way he never allowed himself to be when there was anyone to see.

Kakashi couldn't blame him. The way Naruto moved when backed into a corner wasn't the movement of a warrior or an assassin. It was the gait of a predator, the stance and bearing of a hunter after their prey. It wasn't the way little boys with dreams of leading a country were supposed to move.

Kakashi wondered if he had taught himself to be obtrusive in spite or fear.

Kakashi wondered if Yue could learn to do the same.

"We're all clear, Sensei!"Said the blonde boy, grin splitting his face in misplaced cheer. He hadn't stopped grinning and bouncing on the balls of his feet since they had discovered the possible infiltration.

"The perimeter is as secure as it's going to get." Sasuke informed him, and Kakashi didn't miss the frustration in his tone. He knew the Uchiha boy would build a veritable fort around their little campsite if he thought it was practical. Luckily it wasn't and he was forced to restrain himself to a plethora of traps and warning signals.

"Well then," Kakashi replied, turning to walk toward camp and the girls sitting there, "if Sakura's done sorting the rations we can eat." He felt a little bad for the girl, making her stay at base camp all the time, but if he was being perfectly honest sending Naruto and Sasuke out of immediate hearing range saved everyone a few headaches a day. Sakura likely didn't mind the chance to rest her feet either.

"I'm all done over here." She replied as he neared her, neat stacks of food sorted in front of her. The time for hot meals had passed but dried meat tasted better than dried mystery rations any day.

Getting three rambunctious ninja-in-the-making to quietly eat a meal would prove difficult on any occasion so Kakashi couldn't help but be inappropriately grateful for the nervous silence that settled over them. Still, silence wouldn't help them understand their situation any better.

"Yue-chan," he began, "why don't you tell us about yourself? How about starting with your home town?" Getting the girl to open up wouldn't be terribly difficult. From what they'd seen she was perfectly willing to divulge information even if she didn't volunteer it.

"If you would like," she agreed quietly, even as four pairs of keen eyes settled on her intently, "Haru Village is a small village just past the border of the Land of Hot Water."

She coaxed the fox lounging on her shoulders gently, herding it to settle into her lap without protest. She began to feed it bits of food from her pile of rations and berries she had found along their path.

Kakashi felt a small bit of amusement for the village founders who had the sense of humor to name a settlement leading to a tundra after the season of birth and hope. How quaint.

"It was established during the Second Great Shinobi War as a border outpost for the Daimyo's army." She spoke of it with little interest and equally scarce reverence. Usually when one spoke of one of the bloodiest wars ever to be fought it was weighed with more solemn remembrance, but she spoke as if it were a scuffle she'd once seen in the street.

"It was a minor outpost, meant for supply distribution and to forewarn the capital of impending invasion," she tilted her to the side in thought, as if remembering something, "the soldiers stationed there were woefully unprepared for an assault by shinobi forces. A 'vacation post' they called it, I believe. The civilians flocked there to trade under the safety of standing guards. They never truly anticipated that the southern skirmishes would ripple this far northward."

A fact that Kakashi couldn't blame them for. The Village Hidden in the Frost was insignificant compared to the Five Great Nations that were battling it out to the south at the time. There would be no reason for the shinobi to invade. Small nations were on alert after Amegakure became the unwilling battleground for the other villages but Shimogakure? It was far enough north to be a drain on resources. He'd never heard of any excursions to the nation during the war, and he couldn't think of a reason why there would have been one.

"It was a trade town. Small but lively. People came from all over the continent to trade in the Land of Frost as it was so uniquely unaffected by the Great War," she tore chunks of meat meticulously, feeding them to her pet without much care, eyes flitting between her audience members occasionally, "traders from the Southern Seas came once. They made the journey around the battlefields, weeks more than it would have been otherwise. People do such strange things for a taste of the exotic."

Her story seemed strangely personal, as if she was recalling all the bright clothes of a southern caravan fighting through the frost of her home, desperate to avoid the war that no doubt terrified all who saw it's effects.

Whoever told her the story must have made quite the impression.

"Naturally, when shinobi did arrive the soldiers had become too complacent to be effective," she furrowed her brow slightly here, the most emotion she'd shown yet, "the village was razed to the ground."

Her hands stopped their methodical movements of tearing dried flesh, staring sightless at the creature in her lap. It stared back at her curiously. Her hands settled gently over it's head, caressing it affectionately.

"They all died."

A trade village on the border between the most peaceful and the most reticent of all of the nations, turned to ash in a night. What on earth for? Why would any of the Great Nations, so devoted to their blood shed, spare the resources for it? And all those people. What reason was there for butchering a town full of lazy guards and humble civilian traders? There had been no invasion into the Land of Frost. Not in the official reports and not brought to light later in declassified files.

The killing stopped in the village named for the spring and left snow stained red. And what for?

"After the shinobi retreated the ruins remained standing," she continued, a deep breath shaking her out of her thoughts, "refugees flowed into the Land of Frost like water to escape from the war. Some settled in the ruins of Haru Village. Most thought it to close to the border for comfort and moved deeper into the Frost."

That explained the misplaced feeling of the town. It hardly seemed like a place where people lived. It was a stop on the road to the heart of the Land of Frost, a pit stop to rest and resupply, not meant to foster life and support families. A bar and a general store and a few ramshackle houses falling apart at the foundations. Vines and shadows and a sign leading to a real place beyond the road, saying 'don't linger, there's nothing here but rot'.

"So the Haru Village we met you in wasn't really Haru Village?" Naruto asked, perplexed. Sakura shot him a warning glare at the insensitivity of the comment. Yue hadn't shown much emotion during her story, but it was the most reaction she'd shown the team as a whole from the start. It obviously meant something to her.

Naruto blinked at Sakura in confusion.

"I suppose not," Yue agreed softly, as though it hadn't occurred to her before, "it was built upon the bones of the true village of spring, after all."

She made a humming sound of contemplation and began to feed Shiro once more. She seemed to dismiss the thought and the heavy weight of the past as she scratched the creatures fur gently.

"Alright," Sakura said carefully, eager to escape the tragedy of the past, "what about your Mother? Tell us about her." She suggested eagerly, bending forward with a friendly smile, eager for gossip. Yue's mother was a gruff and frankly terrifying woman and Sakura wouldn't deny her curiosity at what life would be like under her care.

"Ah," Yue blinked at Sakura in what might have been surprise, "Rei Tsuyoi-san."

She straightened her posture slightly, something like a faint imitation of sincerity attempting to be conveyed through her posture.

"I owe her a great debt," she said sincerely.

The others blinked at her in surprise at the statement. What a strange way to phrase one's gratitude to their parent.

"Ah well," Started Sakura, confused but attempting to carry on despite it, "yes I suppose we all owe our mothers, in a way, don't we?"

"Oh," spoke Yue, blinking at Sakura for a moment before she relaxed her posture again, "you must not have been aware. My apologies for not informing you but Tsuyoi-san is not my birth Mother. I have only ever referred to her as such on that one occasion. I thought it would please her, and in truth she has filled the role of Mother since I came into her care more adequately than I deserved."

Wrong footed and horribly ashamed at the assumption, Sakura felt herself flushing scarlet. The faux-pas was something she'd have expected from Naruto. To bring up such a sensitive topic- she couldn't believe she'd gone and offended her when she was had been so willing to share her personal information. What if she closed off now? What if she never talked to Sakura again? What if she'd ruined their chances to understand where they stood?

"Oh?" Spoke Naruto, interrupting Sakura as she was about to stutter apologies. "What about your actual mom?"

Faux-pas. Big, huge, glaring faux-pas. An insensitive mistake of mammoth proportions. What was wrong with him? Why would he ask that? You don't ask people that. He himself was an orphan, why would he ask her that?

"My Mother," began Yue casually, despite Sakura's gaping wide eyed stare, "was forced to leave the Land of Frost long ago. It was quite sudden. We have lost contact but I am quite certain that she will return as soon as she is able." She spoke with certainty, no concern in her voice, no hint to betrayal or abandonment or some tragic cause for her Mother's departure.

"Why did she have to leave the Land of Frost?" Spoke up Sasuke, finally breaking his silence. If his suspicions were true, her Mother could very likely be a Shimo Shinobi in exile. It was likely she had trained her daughter as her heir before her exile and left her with a comrade in a border town to retrieve when she found a safe place to lay low. It is what he would have done.

Yue would be at risk if the Village Hidden in the Frost caught wind of her identity, protection would be necessary. Konoha would never send protection for an enemy of an allied state and it would be foolish to risk coming to get her daughter herself. So naturally she had been forced to falsify a mission request.

It all added up.

It all proved even more likely, when a kunai lodged itself where Yue had been sitting a moment before.

Yue stood, relaxed, a step to the right of where she had been sitting, Shiro held in her arms carefully as she stared at the blade without alarm.

Her bodyguards quickly surrounded her, blades drawn and stances tight.

It was uncomfortably still, where they stood glaring into the night.

Nothing moved and nothing breathed but for the five of them and a fox.

"Well," spoke Kakashi, cheerful in defiance of their position, "that concludes story time I guess."

His students gripped their kunai tighter in response. Their questions would have to wait until later. For now they had a job to do.

"Now," Kakashi said, stepping forward, "what's the point of ruining our team bonding if you're not even going to invite yourselves into the conversation?"

A wind blew through the forest, and frost crackled on the leaves.

"We have no business with Konoha." Came a voice from the dark, quiet and unhurried.

"Hand the girl over and be on your way." It was a smooth voice, practiced and casual. As if the speaker wasn't lying in wait to kill them.

The Leaf ninja offered no response. Kakashi blinked blankly into the dark, an uncomprehending tilt of his brow the only answer.

"Um," he started, casual and unconcerned, "the thing is, the girl is our business. I'm sure you see the problem with your little arrangement."

Silence answered his light hearted response. Sakura could not understand how he was acting like he had just bumped into a stranger on the street and not like he was being threatened by an enemy ninja. His flippant reactions to danger always threw her off kilter.

The grass crunched under five pairs of sandals as black clad shinobi appeared around the group.

They wore no forehead protectors to identify themselves, only unmarked ANBU style masks. They were indiscernible from each other, no village symbols to be seen.

Covert operations then. Excessive for one child and a group of genin but he was almost touched by the attention.

Behind him his students were in a defensive position around their charge, young eyes flitting from masked enemy to enemy.  The most difficult part of teaching, he had found, was fighting with the intent to teach others rather than to lead others. Genin could not fight beside a Jounin and yet he would be derelict in his duties to have them stay out of harms way.

Options, options, options.

"Although I do respect your conviction, we have a mission to complete as well." Came the same voice from the enemy directly in front of Kakashi.

"Well then, we've come to an impasse, haven't we?" Kakashi replied amicably. "I always hate it when negotiations break down."

The shinobi tilted his head in amusement, a chuckle leaving him.

"You and me both, friend."

The frost crackled like lightning as they moved.

A kunai  flashed in the enemies hand, aimed straight toward Kakashi's throat.

Kakashi swiftly pulled out a blade of his own, blocking the cold steel in a violent clash.

The other enemy ninja fell back, blocking all obvious escape routes available to the young ninja.

Naruto jerked in their direction, like a cornered animal snapping it's jaws even as Sasuke's inky eyes flitted around for an exit, hawk flapping it's wings toward a hole in the net. Sakura clutched a hand around Yue's wrist, grounding her or herself or the blade in her hand or the mewling fox in her's. Three hearts racing, racing, racing in sync, a tempo for a dance they'd been anticipating for weeks. Weeks of walking and waiting and here it was finally, the fight they'd been anticipating.

And Yue in the center of them, blinking curiously at the shadowy figures come to steal her away.

"Before I kill you I would like to know your name." Spoke the enemy with the blade ever inching toward Kakashi's neck.

"Oh?" Asked kakashi, curiously, "Why would you need to know that?" His blade scrapped against the other man's as they shifted, releasing their battle before slamming together in a spark of metal on metal again.

"I like you," said the other man, jovially, "it would be rude of me to pray for you as 'that man with one eye', don't you think so?"

Kakashi blinked at him before a smirk slipped over his masked face.

"I guess you have a point," he allowed, chuckle tinging his words as his blade scraped uncomfortably against the other man's, "but isn't it rude to ask for someone's name without introducing yourself?"

 "Ah, you've got me there," the masked man chuckled good naturedly, shifting his weight forward, bringing the blade to bear against Kakashi's, "My name is Gokoro Musei. Under better circumstances I would say it's a pleasure to meet you."

"Well in that case, my name's Kakashi Hatake. Same to you."

The man clicked his tongue in what might have been annoyance.

"The Copy Ninja," he shook his head slightly in a 'what-can-you-do' gesture, "No matter. Goodbye, Hatake-san."

A clone appeared behind Kakashi, plunging a blade deep into his back.

Blood fell on the frost, miles down the only road out of the village named for spring.

Chapter Text

"Sensei!" Came a shout, so muddled in the chaos of moving bodies that none of the genin were sure which one of them had said it.

The enemy shinobi made their move at the same moment as their leader, rushing at the huddle of children from all sides, blades poised to strike.

"Naruto!" Shouted Sasuke in warning, an enemie's kunai slicing the tips of blonde hair as the boy ducked, Sasuke sending a kunai at their assailant's mask over his head.

The ninja pulled back quickly, surprised at the swiftness of the retaliation. Their mask cracked down the side where Sasuke's blade had struck true.

"Well," came an amused voice, from which of their attackers they couldn't tell, "the rumors of the Leaf growing weak were unfounded, it seems."

A huff from another masked ninja.

"Kid's aren't half bad, are they?"

"Too bad, too bad, what a shame."

"We get it, don't go easy on them, can we get this over with?"

A laugh, a huff, and someone lurched forward.

Naruto crouched low, hands flying to the signs for a shadow clone even as Sasuke warded off the masked ninja with a shower of kunai over his head. Sakura dragged Yue down to crouch behind them, the girl between her and Sasuke's backs as she covered their rear.

The enemy team stopped in a strange oblong circle feet away from them, just short of being skewered by the oncoming barrage of blades.

They visibly startled as they were surrounded by a veritable army of orange clad clones.

"What the f-"

The enemy was cut off by a battle cry as a Naruto charged the shinobi, taking a blade to the eye and dispelling in a poof of smoke, but not before another managed to catch the enemy shinobi's throat with a blade from behind.

"Shit," Came an aborted curse as the masked ninja watched their comrade fall, small garishly bright child whirling toward the nearest breathing target. Jumping back a fair distance the targeted ninja almost tripped over a brigade of Naruto's, growling and snickering at the undignified curses that they let out.

"Who the hell are these brats!?" Said one of the shinobi, handily dispelling clone after clone with more skill than their teammates had shown in their surprise.

Sasuke smirked sharply in reply as Sakura tossed a shuriken into a nearby tree, making the hand sign for chakra activation. Several covertly placed chakra tags erupted into flame, encircling the skirmishing group, four teenagers the epicenter of the chaos.

"You have got to be kidding me." Muttered one of their assailants, flipping and kicking in graceful arcs at the swarm of clones after them.

"Any shinobi worth their hitai-ate knows better than to attack a group without identifying them." Sasuke chided haughtily, sniping the graceful ninja in the Achilles tendon with a kunai. They let out a choked off shout before they were lost in a see of orange and knives.

Sasuke blinked at the sight. Piranhas. Bright orange piranhas.

He smirked down at Naruto, sweating in exertion but dutifully managing more than a dozen split assaults, and muttered the jibe at him. All he received was a glare and a huff in reply before Naruto was forced to concentrate on the jutsu again.

Better get this over with before he got impatient.

"We're the Seventh Genin Squad of the Leaf Village," he called out to the struggling shinobi threateningly, "now who the hell are you!?"

One of the two remaining shinobi cleanly sliced a Naruto across his bright blue eyes and Sasuke stomped down on the flinch he felt crawl up his spine. He kind of hated that this was Naruto's favorite move.

"Did you miss the unmarked masks, kiddo?" They asked, patronizingly curious as they turned the tide of the fight, easily sending a clone out of existence every couple of heartbeats.

Sasuke grit his teeth in response even as he felt Sakura slip diversionary smoke tags into his hand. Naruto shifted in aggression in front of him, blue eyes narrowed angrily at the ninja slaughtering his look-alikes.

"Jerk." He muttered childishly under his breath, hand slipping down to his kunai pouch to arm himself as the enemy butchered their way closer to the group. The distant sounds of the other enemy shinobi cursing their way through the rest of the clones assured them they were too far off to be trouble yet.

"Tell you what, sweetheart," the approaching ninja chirped, hand snapping back the arm of a clone with a sickening crack before they turned his neck sharply in a death blow, "defeat me and I'll tell you before I die."

He wasn't stupid enough to buy that.

Naruto, however, was.

"You're on!" He snarled, launching himself forward. Sasuke would bet money they had slipped into a satisfied smile underneath their mask.

Sakura let out a surprised gasp of Naruto's name as Sasuke snarled a curse.

He flicked two razor sharp blades into his hands - he had been reteaching Naruto how to properly sharpen these very knives just last night because the idiot could never learn to take care of his belongings and he was going to get himself killed - and lurched forward after him, all defensive instinct through offensive action.

He was stopped short as the masked figure that had impaled their teacher cut off Naruto's straight shot to a quick death.

Naruto stumbled into a halt, eyes wide in surprise as he stared at the ninja before jumping back a safe distance to Sasuke's side.

The newly arrived figure had seen better days.

His black clothing was slashed open in multiple spots and darker in places that Sasuke could only assume were blood stained. His mask was cracked down the side, revealing one blazing brown eye and a sliver of a grimace.

His left arm hung useless at his side and he favored his opposite leg.

His eye glanced over the feral looking children and, impossibly, a smile spread across the quarter of what they could see of his face.

"Terrifying. You take after him, don't you?" He- and they really could see it was a he, middle aged and battle weary- asked them with a disconcerting fondness.

"I'm glad you think so." Replied a voice from behind their hastily built wall of flames.

Kakashi's voice.

Sasuke snorted in annoyance even as Naruto cheered boisterously and Sakura let out a quiet sigh of relief.

Of course he hadn't actually let himself get taken down so easily.

"Sir?" asked the ninja that had been happily goading Naruto into an early grave.

"We're falling back." Replied the wounded man, a long suffering sigh escaping him as he turned to find his remaining subordinate angrily flailing as several Naruto's jumped him, scrabbling to stab them ineffectually.

"Thank fuck!" They shouted, yelping as a Naruto bit into their shoulder angrily.

"I must commend your protégés on their skill," the leader spoke over the ensuing shouting and grunting, "not many are capable of catching my men off guard- let alone managing to kill them. Truly remarkable for children."

Naruto all but growled at the man.

His chakra reserves were obviously running low, even as he visibly yearned to have at their attackers with his own hands. Sasuke always did wonder if fighting via clones felt the same as hand-to-hand combat in person. He didn't doubt that Naruto would pull the energy for such a fight out of no where just in time. He always did.

It was just one of the many impossible things that made him Naruto.

The leader blinked at Naruto in surprise at the bestial action before his eyes flit over to Yue in curiosity. He looked between the two in what Sasuke could just barely recognize as alarm.

"Boy," he muttered, gaze landing solidly on Naruto, eyes sharp and hateful the way they hadn't managed to be before, "what are you?"

Naruto balked at the question. His face grew pale and his blue eyes widened in a fear Sasuke hadn't ever seen there before.

"He's a shinobi," spoke Kakashi, sharp and without room for question, lone eye steel against the man's, "one of Konoha's burgeoning youth." He flicked his gaze to Naruto in- reassurance? Assessment?

"More importantly," he said, lazy tone filtering back into his speech, "he's none of your business."

The enemy ninja stood there in silence, staring Kakashi down, a strange reassessment of the man passing over his partially masked face.

Sasuke felt the panic edged frustration of missing a vital component of this battle.

"I beg to differ," the man answered, amicable and almost regretful, "if that boy has anything to do with our target, there- well."

The shinobi behind him tilted their head in confusion or wonder or intrigue. It was difficult to tell through expressionless masks like theirs.

"That means we have two targets, sir?" They asked, delight tinging their words.

He sighed in agreement, and his subordinate clapped their hands in delight.

A Naruto clone flew into a tree with a crack as the other ninja roared in frustration.

"It doesn't matter, I suppose," he said resignedly, "if you don't abandon the girl you will die. It only means that we'll endeavor to keep that one alive as well as the target."

He sighed as if he'd rather not deal with that option.

"As it is," he said louder, tossing his head to the side dramatically, "we've confirmed what we needed to. We'll be taking our leave for now."

An explosion resounded from the last cluster of Naruto clones as their hassled target let out a roguish whoop of relief. Naruto made a sound of outrage as all of his clones dissipated in a blaze of chakra induced flame.

"You spend all these resources and lose all these men, just to hunt down one village girl?" Sasuke spoke up, desperate to get answers from someone who could give them. He wouldn't trust the enemy but mining Musume for information seemed just as credible to him.

"I suppose it doesn't really make much sense does it?" The man answered, seemingly more to himself than to Sasuke. He smiled sadly at the group of children, eyes distant in a way that set Sasuke's nerves on edge.

This man wasn't on some mission handed to him in a file over a desk. This man had a stake here. A personal mission.

A vendetta.

He seemed to sober, shaking himself out of whatever sentimentality he had slipped into and in a bitter voice said, "Sense hasn't had a role in this from the start, but I will do what I must to protect those that I can."

The remaining masked shinobi skirted around the group, careful to remain nonthreatening as they stood to their leader's side.

"That's our ninja way." They said, meaning in their words that Sasuke wasn't sure he was supposed to understand. Naruto blinked at them in surprise, confusion and something begrudgingly sympathetic passing over his face.

"It's been a pleasure," their leader spoke with a pained bow to Kakashi, hand gripping his kunai tight in a reassurance of threat, "I look forward to our next battle."

"See ya later, Team Seven!" Chirped the delighted ninja behind him even as their companion seemed affronted by the very idea.

They retreated into the shadows as easily and fully as they had appeared from them.

Sasuke let out a sigh of relief, Naruto scowling beside him.

Dark eyes absently sought out the pulse of the vein in Naruto's neck, stressed from exertion and excitement, and he counted the beats there methodically.

The tension bled from his muscles slowly this way, as he mentally counted the kunai, shuriken, and chakra tags he'd lost in the fight.

Catalog. Count. Decompress.

This was Sasuke's method to recovery.

"Well," Kakashi spoke up blandly, jarring him from his mechanical thoughts, "that was exciting."

Sasuke scowled at him.


"Who in the hell were they!?" Naruto griped loudly, hand clutched firmly in Sakura's as she inspected the faint tears in skin from where he'd gripped his kunai too tightly.

His self control was always lacking and minor injuries like these went unnoticed as often as they happened. Sakura had taken to carrying common adhesive plasters to manage the cuts and scrapes he always somehow gathered. Not that he needed them. If there was one thing she'd admire Naruto for- and only this one thing- it was his healing rate. She didn't know how he did it. But she supposed it was why he never learned to take care of his body.

"Covert operations," replied Kakashi, voice distracted as he stared into the distance thoughtfully, "or an independent group posing as them."

"Why would someone pretend to be ANBU?" Asked Sasuke, eyes trained on the girl in their protection as she inspected a fallen kunai the enemy had left behind.

That and the corpses that had erupted into flame as soon as their comrades had fled. They were charred beyond recognition, every trace of information gone with the putrid smoke.

She crouched in front of the charred remains, carefully distanced from the recovering ninja, as she twirled their blade absently. Humming softly to herself in thought, her eyes never straying from the ashy skulls.

"Intimidation?" Sakura proposed, equally curious. Impersonating Black-Ops was treason of the highest level. In every country. It would be crazy to try it.

Special Assassination and Tactical Squad Units were the pinnacle of the shinobi hierarchy. The closest one could get to standing at the top without becoming a Kage. They were a direct extension of the Kage's will, taking on missions too dangerous or too dirty for the average ninja and reporting directly to the Kage themselves.

To impersonate one of them... it was spitting directly in the face of every Kage on the continent.

A bold move. The only people she'd ever met with the gall to try it were dead.

"No," Kakshi answered, "they'd have tried to play more mind games with us if that was it. There must be something else."

"They didn't attack with the intent to kill us outright," Sasuke offered, "they went down too easily. They didn't expect us to be capable. And they said they'd 'confirmed what they needed too'."

"Information gathering was their goal, yes, but what information?" Agreed Kakashi.

"If they wanted to gauge our strength they could have just waited until we ran into some trouble with bandits or staged an encounter with mercenaries," Sakura said, glaring up at Naruto as he whined in pain at her probing fingers, "They wouldn't have to personally attack us, it was a pretty big risk."

One that they had payed for.

She resolutely did not look at the ashes. Sasuke wouldn't stop looking at them. Or maybe, at Yue looking at them. Why was she looking at them? Just let them rest, already.

"So it's gotta be somethin' else, right?" Asked Naruto, curious, even as Sakura chided him for leaning away from her to face Kakashi better.

"Something about Yue, then." Answered Sasuke, eyes finally leaving the girl to meet those of his teacher.

Sakura agreed. They were after Yue, obviously enough, and if they thought her bodyguards were incompetent there was no reason they wouldn't have spirited her away by now.

Unless they weren't sure that she was their target. But how had they managed to confirm that when they'd barely gotten a good look at her?

"They must have seen something that we didn't." She realized audibly.

Silence rang in the air for a moment as the statement resounded. It was true, how else had they confirmed who she was?

And so the next question was who was she?

What had they seen?

"Well, let's see what the lady herself has to say before we draw any conclusions." Answered Kakashi amicably.

The three genin turned to face the pale girl, varying shades of curiosity and wariness painted on their faces.

She stopped her fidgeting and remained for a moment staring at the charred corpses, their hands still grasping at knives they'd long since lost.

Their fingers curled, charred black and dark red underneath, stink radiating off of the smoke still faintly rising from embers.

She blinked at them a moment, before standing slowly and brushing the dust off of her skirt methodically.

Always so careful. Always so composed, even when people had been killed for her sake. Methodical and calculating and so very, very, cold.

In that moment Sakura almost hated her.

She hated her perfect porcelain skin, untainted by blood or sweat, the way theirs was.

She hated her cleanly pleated dress, unruffled and unfazed as the haunting crystal eyes that bore more emotion than she ever bothered to show.

She hated her tawny blonde hair and the confused tilt of her head and the warm almost smile in her eyes when she looked at Naruto.

She hated her because she could make breakfast for a sick girl and pick flowers for a boy she had barely befriended but she couldn't be bothered to spare a shred of remorse for people dead because of her.

Or the ones who had been forced to kill them.

"They were here to confirm my identity and nothing more, I presume." Yue spoke, turning to face them and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

Shiro curled around her leg, red eyes watching the shinobi carefully. On alert for a threat. Sakura wondered if she could still smell the death on them.

"Although, it is certain that they will return in earnest once prepared," she continued, unhurried and contemplative, "They are not likely to permit my escape."

"And why is that?" Snapped Sasuke, eyes sharp in reaction to a threat.

Sakura wondered if he hated Yue too. If he was just as angry. Just as scared of the perfect poised girl humming to burned corpses.

"Yes, why are such dangerous ninja after you? I assume it has something to do with your reason for traveling to the Leaf." Intervened Kakashi, hand coming to rest on Sasuke's shoulder placatingly.

It wouldn't do to attack their charge.

"Indirectly, yes," She replied, "It is not necessarily my reason for leaving that has them up in arms, as much as the fact of my leaving in itself."

Kakashi stared blankly at the girl, unreadable and aloof, the perfect portrait of shinobi poise.

"Why would they be so desperate to keep you here?" He asked at last.

She blinked at him in reply, head tilting to the side, before her eyes seemed to focus on the right side of his face, covered by both mask and headband.

"It would be terribly unwise to lose a weapon of sizeable strength, Sensei,"she answered, calm as the gentle breeze blowing around them, "and to a nation already so superior to their own. Regardless of whether or not that nation were aware of the gift."

"A weapon?" Asked Naruto, blue eyes confused as they watched the girl bend to pick up her vulpine companion.

"Indeed." She replied.

"Why refer to yourself as a weapon- you're just a child!" Bit out Sakura, temper rising at the cryptic responses and persistent composure of the other girl.

Yue stared at her for a moment, nearly surprised at her acidity, before she seemed to seriously consider the question.

"Perhaps," she replied after a moment, blue eyes slowly meting Sakura's in a considering manner, "but power and age are not necessarily dependent upon one another. Regardless, anything can be utilized as a weapon with the proper skill."

"If you were a weapon, why did they let you live so far from the Hidden Village?" Asked Sasuke caustically, "If it were me, I'd keep my best blades close at hand."

"What benefit is there in gripping tightly to a blade which you have not the skill to use?" She said, dull voice light like bells in the wind that blew ash high into the air.

"If they couldn't utilize you, what makes them think that we could?" Kakashi asked, narrowed eyes flashing to his students in warning too keep their tempers at bay.

"That is simple, Sensei," and when had she started calling him that, when had he ever taught her anything, "it is because you already have."

The four ninja stared at her blankly in response.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Asked Naruto, voice placating in the tense air between them all.

"I am no stranger to the Land of Fire, nor the Village Hidden in the Leaves," Yue replied, blue eyes glinting mischief in the twilight, "and last I was there it was an occasion to be remembered, though it seems your people have forgot."

The three gennin balked at the information, so incongruent with the mental story of Yue they had slowly built. Village girl from a forgotten war-era ghost town, left behind by her ex-patriot mother, meticulous and calculating, useful but terribly formal. She lacked the social grace of a well worn traveler and yet she had claimed to see the great forests of Konoha.

What had she seen in her time there?

What had she done?

"When I left your land I had left behind something dear to me," she continued, heedless of their mental recalibrations, "and now I have endeavored to return it to me. Or I to it."

"What was it that you left behind, then?" Asked Kakashi, running through notable events in the Land of Fire in the lest decade or so, trying to pinpoint the meaning behind the girl's cryptic responses.

The fox in Yue's arms began to chuff in small, heaving fits, disturbingly similar to a human laughing, it's sharp teeth bared in mock-mirth.

"Ah, something I'm sure you will appreciate the value of, being such as you are," she replied, nodding her head in pleased agreement with herself, "the Will of Fire was always stoked by fierce bonds, I recall."

The shinobi weren't given time to react to the familiar words tossed at them so casually by an outsider before she continued easily, monotone and unweighted.

"Regrettably, I have lost my sibling."

Chapter Text

"This is getting out of hand." Kakashi sighed, slate eye closing in exasperation.

His students shuffled awkwardly to his side, ill equipped to deal with such emotional situations as they ever were. For as often as personal tragedy struck everyone in their way of life, the academy had yet to formally teach its students how to cope.

That was to be learned in the field. Sink or swim. Cope or die.

That is the way of the shinobi.

It wouldn't help them now, navigating the minefield of an unknown ally.

And Kakashi was nearly certain she was an ally.

At the very least she owed no allegiance to the land of Frost or its people. She seemed eager to get to Konoha and he doubted she would antagonize them before she got there.

Still the lack of information only grew to be more frustrating with every innocuous fact she handed to them.

The girl hid nothing and yet she was built from secrets. He supposed all he had to do was ask the right questions.

"You said that you've been to the Leaf village before, right?" He asked, more for the sake of giving her a way out of the hole she was digging for herself were she lying. "If that's the case, there will be a record of you coming and going."

Snow began to float down from the sky, gentle and unnoticed by the group below. Shiro nipped lightly at the flakes, halfheartedly chasing them in Yue's arms as the girl nodded in response.

"I expect so," She said, unbothered by the tension in her companions or the confusion in their eyes, "you all are very fond of your records."

Sasuke scoffed at the words, offended for the sake of offense itself. This girl was too distant from the situation.

Here she stood surrounded by ninja, telling them that the she was fully aware of the threat to them.

That she had fully expected their lives to be in danger. She had expected them to be ambushed by elite forces and hadn't bothered to say anything. She had led them into the fire and stood there, soft in the moonlight and the faint falling snow as if they weren't armed, weren't dangerous, weren't betrayed.

She was cold and calm, and somehow he knew that she was right.

She was safe.

She stood there, pale arms and pale clothes, frigid eyes staring at them in amusement.

Her face was cold and her eyes burned against the snow.

They wouldn't touch her.

She knew it.

He hated it.

"Alright," Naruto said, voice placating in the frosty air even as fury and fear burned in Sasuke's gut, "Okay, let's all talk this out, alright? We shouldn't fight, no one here is the enemy."

And that just wasn't true.

It wasn't and Sasuke still couldn't understand how Naruto was so blind because there she was.

Right there, a painting against the snow, the frigid breeze moving through her instead of around, and she knew things she shouldn't, and every time she looked at him, she saw the truth of him- the pain and rage and fear, and she shouldn't be able to, shouldn't be allowed too, but she wasn't even cold there in her summer dress in the frost because she was the frost, and-

And she had led them into that trap and Naruto had almost gotten himself killed.

Couldn't he see that?

How couldn't he see that?

"We're all on the same side," Naruto continued, heedless of the thoughts racing through Sasuke's head, "we're all friends, right?"

And that... that was it, wasn't it?

She was Naruto's friend.

A useless, ephemeral, ambiguous, title that meant all of nothing in their world of blood and death. But Naruto made it sound like 'comrade', and 'partner', and 'family', and 'hope' all at once and Sasuke thought that yes, if it was a word like that- from Naruto- then maybe he too could be blind.

And when ice eyes snapped to watch blonde hair in the breeze, even as Naruto stared at Sasuke- when she stepped backwards, one step, loud in the frost bitten forest, Sasuke couldn't deny that he was right.

Because that was deference. That was her backing down. That was acknowledgement and respect and almost an apology and all because her and Naruto were friends.

And that meant everything even when all logic said it should mean nothing at all.

And wasn't that just like Naruto?

Sasuke didn't trust her. She was still an enigma, still a variable in a world where variables came with poisoned knives. But she was Naruto's friend, that deference an admission as much as any declaration, and she would stand down if he asked her to.

Sasuke may not trust her but he could trust in Naruto.

And that would have to do, for now.

"Fine." He snapped, stoic in the face of his shaken thoughts. He thought too much, he always had. He'd learned how to mask frantic thoughts and winding trains of thought behind placid boredom ages ago and it had served him well.

Only now, he couldn't shake the feeling that this girl could see every lightning thought and notion slip by him better than even he could.

He hated it. The sooner they could complete this mission and be rid of her the better.

"Let's talk." He prompted, irritable.

Naruto smiled at him in a mixture of annoyed exasperation and relieved pride and Sasuke hated that too.

"Alright," spoke Kakashi, eyes still trained on the young Uchiha, "the mission file was wrong. So we need to operate under the assumption that all the information we were given is corrupt. Yue, you'll have to give us a description of the details from your point of view. Assume that we don't know anything about why we're here with you, because in all likelihood we don't."

"Are we just going to operate on her word, Sensei?" Cautioned Sakura, jade eyes flashing in alarm.

"Not a chance," Kakashi reassured, eye closing in a smile as he looked between the  girls, "I hope you understand our caution, Yue-chan, but we'll be fact checking you with Leaf Intelligence, if you don't mind."

"Of course." She accepted with a graceful nod.

So they sat and Yue joined them, speaking with the living rather than the dead.

"From the start, if you would." Prompted Kakashi, startlingly kind despite his students animosity.

Yue nodded, releasing Shiro to rest near her feet, careful of her injured leg even as she nipped at the heels of Yue's sandals.

"I received word from my sibling, entreating me to join them in your Village Hidden in the Leaves," she said, tawny hair blowing in the icy breeze. Naruto frowned at her for a moment, but decided this would be a bad time to interrupt in order to gather her cloak.

"When was this, exactly?" Kakashi asked, and Naruto just realized that he had been taking notes on a scroll since they began.

"A few moon cycles past," Yue said, and Naruto winced at her archaic word choice. They would have to break her of that if she was going to make more friends in the Leaf.

"It was decided that my sibling would see to the arrangements for my journey," she continued, when his pen stopped moving, "I should have foreseen the problems that would cause, in hindsight."

She shook her head mildly there, a stiff imitation of an exasperated sister.

"Why's that?" Naruto asked curiously.

Her eyes turned to focus on him, and they softened markedly as she replied.

"My sibling has always proved to be mischievous at the least, you see," She told him, sparkle in her blue eyes that hadn't been there before, "Causing trouble for others is something they find rather enjoyable. It was unwise of me to not account for the excitement of our reunion encouraging their mischievous tendencies."

"So what you're saying is your sibling filed the false mission request?" Sakura asked, bewildered. Even if that was the case the preliminary investigation would have put a halt to the request on basis of uncertain claims right then.

"Yes, though I suspect their meddling was more thorough than that," Yue replied, before bowing her head deeply, "I apologize for the trouble we have caused you. It was not our intention to be malicious, I assure you."

If what she was saying was true than this mysterious Musume family member had not only falsified a mission request, but had infiltrated the Mission Processing Office and gotten it verified before sending them all to their death.

This was not going to be solved by an apology.

"Yue," Kakashi began, "you realize that this is a serious offense, don't you? Your sibling could very well be charged with treason." He chose to leave out the very real threat of her being dragged down with them. She hadn't known they would go this far, it seemed, but it had been for her sake the crime was enacted.

Her eyes sparkled at the words, a tilt of her head in the dark, and a demure huff the only warning they had before a razor smile spread across her face.

Sakura very nearly leaped away from the girl right there. That was not, in any stretch of the imagination, a normal smile. It was sharp, and predatory, and terribly, terribly cold.

It cut like a knife across her high cheekbones and pale skin, delicate eyebrows arching in mirth over blazing crystal eyes, fragmented and disjointed and dangerous.

Sakura was abruptly reminded of the times she'd visited her grandmother, way out in the forests of Konoha, as a child.

She'd always left a candle flickering in the window and closed the shutters tightly, paranoid of every latch and lock.

"Don't go into the woods past dark, child." She'd always say, "There are things not for us to understand out there, in the trees." Her old eyes would always stare out at the silent woods with frightful wonder and Sakura would always roll her eyes at the superstition of it all.

Now staring at this frightful girl in her pale dress, lines of her form blurring softly with the ever increasing snow and wind, Sakura wondered if she was right.

Yue wasn't there. Not the confused, curious, girl they'd met in the bar and not the helpful, pleasant, enigma they'd guarded on the road.

There were only blazing crystal eyes and a wicked sharp grin in the snow.

"Be that as it may," she said, pale lips curved and biting, and teeth so very sharp in her mouth, "I doubt your Leaders will pursue their retribution."

It was gone as soon as it came but the damage had been done. Sasuke was tenser than he'd been since that half built bridge in the Land of Waves, and even Kakashi was alert at Sakura's side.

They stared at Yue then, too paralyzed to move as she regained her composure, delicate hand seemingly solid once more as it came to cover her mouth, blazing eyes blinking closed.

Sakura breathed in a panicked gasp at the action, mind whirring to life through it's startled stagnation. She couldn't see it anymore- the smile, the burning ice of those eyes, the wicked, terrible curve of that blade- she couldn't see it, she couldn't see it.

All at once her terrible dream came back at her in a rush and she recognized this feeling, this fear and awe mixed and poisoning her lungs.

It was there in the dark, and she just couldn't see it.

The thing opened its eyes again and Yue was there and the creature was gone, behind the dark.

But she knew it was still there. She knew.

Her hand shakily made for her kunai pouch on reflex.

"Yue,"Came Naruto's voice, light and warm in the dark icy nip of the forest, heavy with exasperation, and Sakura panicked because he couldn't see it either , "I told you that smile freaks people out. You gotta be softer, you know? Like this, see!"

And he smiled at her, bright and warm and blazing in the frost.

He smiled at Yue and in the light of it her eyes softened so completely that Sakura couldn't grasp her blade.

It was not the cutting shards of crystal they'd seen or the neutral tone of ice sheets she'd maintained throughout their journey.

It was warmth reflected through frosted windows and the first tinge of winter air in your lungs.

Sakura felt the ice retreat from her limbs and the shame pool in her gut.

This girl, staring at Naruto in such unabashed fondness, couldn't be a thing lurking in the dark. She wasn't whatever nightmare Sakura's post-adrenaline mind had tried to force her to be.

She was Yue from Haru Village, raised by a surly bar owner and on her way to reunite with family. She was a girl who helped injured animals and picked flowers for her friends. She was barely more than a decade old and was walking her road with shinobi trained to kill. She had just seen people cut down in front of her, likely for the first time in her life.

Sakura was ashamed of herself, almost willing to harm a girl like that out of fear.

Yue was kind. She was cold, and formal, true. But she was also curious, and considerate, and she adored the woman who raised her. She looked at Naruto like he was the first glimpse of spring, and her eyes sparkled like sapphire when she talked about her family.

To fear a girl like that, and because she didn't know how to smile- how could Sakura not feel ashamed?

She had hated Yue for her stoic composure. She saw now that this girl, feared and alone, had never been allowed to be anything else. Had she any friends in Haru village? From the way the bar owner spoke, Sakura doubted it. The way this girl acted around Naruto, open fondness and an instant willingness to listen to his every wayward babble, made Sakura think that Yue had more to give than ice and wicked sharp grins.

She hummed to burned skeletons, dead in her name. But maybe she didn't know any other way to grieve them.

Sakura breathed in deeply, scolding herself for her cowardice.

Yue did not deserve her hate. She deserved her protection. She deserved to see her family again.

Sakura would help her do just that.

"Alright," Sakura said, voice grabbing the attention of Kakashi and Sasuke, still sitting stiffly at her side, "okay. We- you-," she took another deep breath, sending a shaky smile to her two alert teammates, "We do need to work on that smile or yours, Yue-san."

She aimed her shaky grin at the girl, even as to pairs of blue eyes blinked at her in response.

Naruto broke into a grin after a moment, pride shining in his eyes, and Sakura had the strange half-frantic thought that he knew. He knew she'd hated Yue. He had known and he hadn't said anything and he hadn't asked why because he knew that too.

"Right?" He chirped, excited and giggly like he hadn't caught the killing intent of Sakura's hand a moment prior, like he hadn't seen his teammate almost attack a civilian child. "I keep telling her to practice, but she says she didn't bring a mirror to practice in. Hey, you should let her borrow yours!"

"Right." Sakura agreed, half detached from the conversation as she grew sick with shame all over again.

Naruto crowed in victory and threw a hand out at Yue for a high-five. She jerked back in surprise at him, before carefully tapping his hand with hers when he prompted her too. He smiled at her again, and Sakura noted the pleased glint in Yue's eyes as she watched him continue to cheer.

Yue was strange and fundamentally off-putting. But Yue was Naruto's friend.

Maybe, with time, she could be Sakura's too.

Maybe then, Sakura could make up for the bitterness towards the girl that she evidently hadn't hidden well enough.

"Alright," spoke Kakashi, composure perfectly intact despite the odd occurrence, "if you're aware of the situation, let's move on. Who were those people after you? Frost Village ANBU?"

Yue shook her head, blonde hair falling from behind her ears, pale even in the biting cold.

"A private sect of shinobi," She said, "they are not loyal to Shimogakure though many have served the village previously. They are required to resign from service before joining with the group in order to avoid conflicts of allegiance, as far as I understand."

Kakashi raised a brow curiously at that.

Shinobi rarely retired early, especially skilled ones. Those that did were carefully monitored by the government to ensure that they didn't cause trouble. For so many to retire and form their own offensive team was unheard of.

"And the Frost Village just let that happen?" Sasuke asked, breaking his uneasy silence.

Yue blinked at him in surprise before shaking her head in the negative.

"They did not allow it to occur as much as they ensured that it occurred," she said resolutely, "the Eihei are independent of the government of either the Land of Frost or its Hidden Village however their existence is beneficial to both. It is in their interest to ensure that the sect continues to prosper."

"So what," Sasuke replied, tense even as he searched for information, "they let a radical group of ninja leave their jurisdiction to- what, form a cult? Terrorize rouge assets in the form of teenage girls?"

"Not entirely," She replied, brows tilted slightly in what they read as confusion, "their purpose is- as their name suggests- to guard. To do so properly they needed to be distanced from the control and temptation of politics and power inherent in the government as it is. Thus they are an independent entity. They answer to no one but their own code of honor and operate in the interest of no one but the people of the Land of Frost."

"So they're... guarding the Land of Frost?" Asked Naruto confused, "Isn't that what the Hidden Village is for?"

Yue shook her head at him as she gathered Shiro into her arms.

"It is not the people or the country itself that they protect, but a singular asset. One they fear being misused." She answered him, cool eyes trained on the purring creature in her arms as she stroked its white fur.

Kakashi did not like the sound of this... group. He was reluctant to label them a squad as he has the suspicion that their numbers were larger than they had seen. The sheer expenditure of resources these people would create just by existing was baffling without purpose.

Furthermore, he didn't like the way this conversation was proving to raise more questions than it answered.

Because it was glaringly obvious that Yue was in some way connected to this asset.

"They rely on it as much as they detest it," she said, voice soft on the frigid wind, uncharacteristically pensive, "The Land of Frost claims to depend on the very thing it so terribly fears. A weapon they cannot bring themselves to use."

"But one they think we can." Kakashi spoke, recalling their previous conversation.

A weapon that should not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Land of Fire.

"Yes." She agreed, solemn in the winter night.

"So the question here is," Sasuke spoke, standing and leveling a challenging glare at the girl, "just how does that involve you, Musume?"

Yue blinked at him in consideration for a moment before replying, and he clenched his hands in fist as she did. They way she always seemed to be evaluating him, studying him- it pissed him off.

"The power they guard so fiercely, " She answered after a moment, "is my own."

"Huh?' Asked Naruto, who had been watching Sasuke with concern before she spoke.

"I am that asset which they covet. They will not let me leave so easily. They likely sent our assailants as a scouting party to decipher my intent."

The wind picked up, blowing frigid snow into the cluster of bodies.

"I see," said Kakashi, deep sigh leaving him as he turned to face his students, "In that case we should be prepared for a full assault."

His students sent him startled looks of confusion.

"If that was a scouting party it means there are more of them," He continued, "and I doubt they'll be taken down by shadow clones, this time."

"Shit." Muttered Sasuke, frustration creasing his brows even as Naruto grinned at the challenge.

Sakura scowled in worry  when Yue nodded in confirmation of his statement.

 Word would have to be sent to the Leaf of the situation.

A fraudulent mission assignment was a problem in and of itself but this-

Seizing a human weapon from a shinobi force backed by the Shimogakure government was damn near an act of war.

Still, this was their mission.

Fraudulent or not, they had a duty here. Until contrary orders came from the village they'd have to carry it through.

They would continue their path to the border, even if they had to carve their way out through an army.

He'd just have to send his his fastest nin-ken to the village as soon as possible.

And hope he got a reply before they started a war.

He snorted at the thought.

Team Seven would be the genin team to kick off a war wouldn't they?

Two state wards with enough issues for the whole village and a girl who didn't know her own strength put in the care of the deadliest walking-psych-condition still in the Leaf's service?

What did they expect, really?

Chapter Text

"I wonder what her 'power' is." Mused Sakura as she wrote out chakra tags in the dark of the cave they settled in.

"Likely a kekkai-genkai," Sasuke responded, cataloging and sorting blades carefully on the other side, "it was probably what forced her mother to leave."

"So you think she was fleeing the Eihei?" Sakura asked in response, large jade eyes curious over her pen.

He made a curt humming sound in answer as Naruto entered the cave, noisily shaking snow from blonde locks.

"Crap it's cold," he whined, dropping down next to Sasuke and rifling through his carefully sorted piles of supplies to find hand warmers, "who the hell decides to live in a place like this!?"

"People who don't complain all the time, idiot." Sasuke muttered, glaring at his ruined work in annoyance.

Naruto shook out his prize in delight before clutching them tightly with a pleased sigh.

"So what's the gossip?" Naruto asked, ignoring him in favor of smiling brightly at Sakura. "I heard ya talking from outside- surprising coming from this guy."

Sasuke swiped at him absently with an easily dodged fist before turning back to his task.

"We were saying that Yue's probably being monitored because of a kekkai-genkai," Sakura replied with an amused huff at the pout Naruto sent at Sasuke," and that it's why her mom left."

"Yeah?" He answered, turning to face her as he breathed warm air on to his hands, "then what about her sibling?"

Sakura wrinkled her nose at the question. He was right, why escape with one child and not the other? Or had they escaped on their own later? Maybe while Yue had been on that trip to Konoha? Then why hadn't Yue stayed with them? And why had the Eihei let her go there in the first place?

"If they escaped with the Mother it was probably easier to leave with one kid than two," Sasuke said, inspecting a chipped kunai's blade with a scowl, "or they used her as a diversion."

Sakura balked at the thought of such a callous action.

"That's stupid," Naruto argued with a frown, "Why would she risk her kid like that?"

Sasuke snorted derisively at the question, glancing at Naruto briefly before returning to his knives.

"You heard the way she talked about people abandoning their kids," Sasuke said, thinking back to the field where she found her pet with a scowl, "where do you think she got that kind of attitude from? I doubt it was the bar owner."

Naruto frowned deeper, anger creeping across his face but Sakura spoke before he could.

"But she seemed so certain that her mother would come back for her." She argued hopefully.

Sasuke snorted again, not even sparing her a glance this time.

"Sure she did," he said, "how else do you think you'd get a kid to agree to staying behind?"

Sakura's answering silence was enough of an agreement for him.

Not so much for Naruto it seemed.

"How can you say that for sure," He argued, voice echoing gratingly in the cave, "maybe her mom really was planning on coming back for her."

Sasuke finally tore his attention from his weapon repairs to glare at Naruto condescendingly. The idiot was so intent on defending a woman he'd never even met. So sure in the inherent goodness in people that he refused to see any other option but honesty unless it was thrown directly in his face. It pissed Sasuke off. It was going to get Naruto killed some day.

"Then why is she making her way to the Leaf alone?" Sasuke asked acidly, "Why was it her sibling that arranged this disaster, and why hasn't there been any mention of her mother in the whole damn mess?" His voice echoed off the cave walls, disconcertingly measured in the aftershocks of Naruto's outrage.

The blonde stared at him wordlessly, not able to form a reply. Sasuke would have preened in the victory if not for the way defiant anger still shown in Naruto's eyes, whiskered jaw clenched in opposition. He may not have an argument but he hadn't conceded.

Sasuke clenched his teeth. This idiot.

"That doesn't matter right now," Came Kakashi's voice before Sasuke could spit something venomous, "Focus on preparing for the next battle. And I'd appreciate it if you shut up before Yue-chan wakes up."

He tilted his head toward the girl bundled in the recesses of the cave. She had been forced into sleeping by an unnervingly pleasant Kakashi who politely refuted all assurances that she wasn't tired. After a full day of travel and a surprise battle even the ninja were beginning to feel weary.

Dangerous state ward or not, she must have been feeling it too.

"But sensei," argued Sakura, "shouldn't we know everything about this situation before we fight these people? I mean, what if we're in the wrong, here?"

"Hah!?" Shouted Naruto in outrage, "How can helping a girl find her family be wrong?"

He just didn't understand why everyone was so against helping Yue.

Sure, she was weird and smiled like she was going to kill someone but she was nice. She was good. She liked flowers and animals, and she made good food. She spent the last couple of hours before sleeping practicing how to smile in Sakura's mirror and she seemed genuinely concerned that they weren't going to sleep also.

So, her family was weird and filed a false report but so what? They probably wouldn't have sent someone to help her if they hadn't. The village was stingy when it came to helping people out sometimes- he would know.

So what if the Frost village wanted her to stay? She just wanted to live with her family, what was wrong with that?

He didn't get it. He didn't get why Kakashi-sensei was so obviously hassled by the whole thing, other than that he was lazy. He didn't get why Sakura teetered between being determined to help Yue and resolutely hating her. He didn't get why Sasuke practically snarled whenever Yue even looked at him.

So she wasn't normal, but what did that matter?

Neither was he.

She was awkward, and distant, detached in an inhuman sort of way. She seemed like someone practicing at being normal- something pretending to be human. She was something other, something not. But what did that matter?

She was Yue. She liked flowers and animals. She cooked good food. She listened to him complain about Sasuke's pretentious white shorts and she told him that Sakura's hair made her think of strawberry jam.

She liked to sing and she wasn't used to talking to people. Or having friends.

She was a lonely kid and she just wanted to see her family again.

How could that be wrong?

"Shimogakure must be keeping her here for a reason, dumbass," Sasuke said, annoyance clear in his voice, "and keep it down, you'll wake her."

"Who the hell cares?" He snapped back quietly, "What reason is good enough to let them trap a kid in a half-dead village away from her family!?"

"I said shut up." Snapped Kakashi, threat clear in his voice.

They fell silent, eyes rapt on their teachers stony face.

"Naruto, you need to relax. We're not just going to abandon her, we still have a duty to carry out our mission. We'll bring her to the village unless otherwise instructed." He said, voice smooth and calming despite his sharp reprimand a moment ago.

Naruto relaxed at the reassurance and smiled gratefully at his teacher before Sasuke frowned and opened his mouth to protest.

"Sensei, how do you-"

"We're not going into this blind, Sasuke," he interrupted, "she hasn't actively hidden anything yet and we can just ask her for whatever information we need. I doubt she'll deny us."

He paused to see if they understood before continuing.

"Further, I'm sending a report to the village. They'll verify her intel and make a decision on the right course of action," He assured them. He could see some of the uncertainty fade from Sakura's eyes. Sasuke, however, remained unconvinced.

With a sigh he shook his head. The boy was paranoid by nature, a trait that would serve him well in the field but prove disastrous in his personal life. Kakashi could attest to that.

"Keep in mind that if we are ordered to retreat we will," he warned, eye finding Naruto' s solemnly, "They might even order us to return her to the Eihei."

The blonde scowled, outraged eyes widening as he opened his mouth to argue.

"Orders are absolute, Naruto. You know that." Kakashi said before he could protest.

He purposely didn't say that insubordination would likely prove more disastrous for Naruto than for the rest of them.

The boy was lucky the elders had allowed him to become a shinobi in the first place.

They considered him untrustworthy already, best not to give them a valid reason to do so.

Kakashi thought that Naruto must have known that on some level, considering how silent he became in response, face carefully blank and eyes dull.

Kakashi hated that look. He hated to have caused it. But it's the way things were and he had a duty to protect these kids.

Especially Naruto.

Sasuke blinked in confusion, looking between the two of them, aware that he was missing something yet again.

"Whatever." Naruto replied eventually, looking off to the side as he clenched his fists in his lap.

He shoved himself against the wall harshly, closing his eyes and crossing his arms.

"I finished laying the perimeter, so unless ya got something else for me to do besides talk I'm sleeping," he muttered, lone blue eye cracking open to stare at Sasuke with startling coldness, "someone else take first watch."

Sasuke nodded dumbly in reply.

Naruto grunted and closed his eye, making himself comfortable. Kakashi sighed tiredly.

Sasuke turned a questioning look toward him only to be answered with a shake of the man's head.

Kakashi continued to write his report in lieu of an answer.

Silence rang for a few more moments before Sakura cleared her throat awkwardly.

"Well," she said with a nervous smile, "I'm all finished here so I'll sleep too. That is if you don't mind taking first watch, Sasuke-kun."

He frowned at the saccharine sweetness with which she asked but nodded in agreement anyway.

She smiled prettily before pulling out her blanket and making herself more comfortable.

Sasuke wondered if he should get Naruto's blanket for him. It was cold here, even shielded from the wind as they were. They hadn't built a fire to avoid being found and Sasuke doubted that the boy could sleep comfortably.

He scowled at the thought before casting his gaze over the other scathingly. If the idiot was cold it was own his fault. He was frowning in his sleep, which was unusual, and Sasuke wondered if he had even remembered they had blankets. Idiot.

Still, Naruto had backed down too easily in the face of Kakshi's admonishment. It wasn't characteristic.

Sasuke had felt that he was missing something lately. Something important that passed between Naruto and their superiors, unbeknownst to their peers.

It was the way the ninja manning the mission desk would skim over their file before glancing at Naruto with a frown. The way other shinobi passing them in the Hokage' s tower would double take at the sight of them or give them a wide berth to avoid contact.

It wasn't derision like the village at large had piled on the boy since their formative years. It wasn't disgust or hate, per say.

It was disbelief. Wariness. Confusion. Like they weren't certain he was supposed to be there. Like they were waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the announcement that his graduation notice had been a mistake.

Sasuke didn't understand it.

He didn't understand the hate either, really.

Naruto was annoying, yes. He was stupid and troublesome and disruptive. He was the worst in class, true. But the village had treated him like a criminal from the start.

It was the way things always had been, and Sasuke knew if he was any less astute he likely wouldn't question it. He knew Sakura didn't. Most of their peers didn't.

But it was the blatant confusion, the 'how did he get here?' looks and the way Kakashi always shifted between them and Naruto defensively that made him wonder.

Did Kakashi think that they would actually do something to some random kid? Did he have good reason too?

Why was he so cautious around other shinobi when it came to Naruto? Why was that Musei guy so interested in the blonde?

What was Sasuke missing that everyone else knew? What was Kakashi really saying to Naruto?

Why did Naruto always get that dull look in his eye when that something passed between them?

Why did it bother him so much?

He clamped down on that thought as soon as he had it. He knew the answer and he refused to think about it.

These questions were useless. They were pointless and distracting. He should be thinking about the upcoming fight and Musume, not whatever stupid secret Naruto was keeping.

It was probably something benign anyway.

It was cold here.

He wasn't used to it , but he thought maybe he could grow to like it in time. It was calming. Quiet. Uncomplicated and noiseless the way the chattering forests of his homeland never were.

The rolling hills were covered in frost and he gazed absently over the marching masses heading southward.

All of this and because of him.

"What will you do, now?" Came a voice from behind him.

He knew that voice. Somehow he knew that. But he couldn't recall who it was. He wasn't alarmed though. He felt a strange assurance that they wouldn't harm him.

That they could have, but that they wouldn't.

Still, who was tha t ?

"I will fight." He said but he didn't know why he said it. It meant something, something important and heavy but he didn't know what. Still, it must be true.

He would always fight. He didn't know what else to do.

"Even if that man stands against you?" Came the voice from beside him. A shape moved in the corner of his eye, the shifting of packed snow as it settled beside him telling him it was large. Man sized .

And yet he knew it wasn't a man. It was white, blending in to the snow and he had the fleeting thought that if he turned to face his companion they would disappear before he could see them.


"Especially if he stands against me." He answered, surprising himself with the emotion in his voice. Who were they talking about? Why was he important?

Why did he feel so sad?

Silence answered him but he knew his companion was still there, watching armies march in his name.

Watching them was strange. It didn't feel like an accomplishment.  He had armies at his beck and call, a war to win, vengeance to be had. Why wasn't he happy?

" You will die." Came that voice and he wanted to be angry, to be offended at the doubt in his abilities.

He was almost sickened by how much hope he felt instead.

"If that's what it takes." He answered but his body was humming in anticipation. Longing.

Foreign thoughts filled his head and he didn't understand them. Thoughts of 'please' and 'finally' and 'only after I'm done' and 'If it's him' and 'together' and the sting of betrayal years old and a bone deep weariness.

He was dizzy with them even as the part of him that didn't fit quite right wondered who in the hell 'he' was?

His companion laughed. He thinks. Probably. It sounded too animalistic to be a true laugh.

Like a fox chuffing in delight. That thought felt right. Felt true. A smile creeped across his lips in response.

"Are you laughing at my plight?" He asked and he couldn't bring up the will to be offended. Where had his pride gone?

"Perhaps," came the answer, "It is amusing how much I wish that we were capable of such things as you two."

A laugh erupted from him and he was startled by it. What was so funny? Why was he laughing? What did that even mean?

"Oh, so you two want to die together, now?" He asked and he could not fathom why he would voice that. Why he would admit in any form to the world outside himself that he wanted to die.

Why did he want to die? Why did he want to die with this someone he was supposed to fight?

"No," came the response and the thing moved slightly, just into his line of vision and he saw one deadly crystal blue eye, "but we do long for rest. I envy your ability to find it."

He smiled without humor at the thing, so like him, so close, so familiar, and so painfully the same.

He hated it.

"You lie, friend."

The creature shifted in the snow, standing and moving away, back to whatever forest it had woken from.

"You know as well as I that death isn't the end for me and him."

He hated that too.

Sasuke opened his eyes, waking all at once to the sight of frigid stone.

He was tired.

Voices murmured to his left and he shifted his gaze to the source, feigning sleep otherwise.

Golden hair and orange cloth. The rising sun made Naruto's hair shine in a way. Sasuke wondered if had ever thought of dying it in order to stand out less.

Probably not. He liked the attention, Sasuke knew.

Naruto was talking to Yue in hushed whispers, manic grin splitting his face as his hands moved wildly in the air.

Judging by the way his hands moved he was telling her about the bell test Kakashi had forced them into. He always made that exact series of motions when talking about it.

The girl was watching him impassively, blue eyes rapt to his dynamic motions. Sasuke almost snorted at how earnest she seemed despite the frosty set of her face.

Naruto made a large motion, throwing his arms out in a show of astonishment and she nodded along demurely.

Her crystal eyes slid lazily to lock onto Sasuke's and he stiffened at being caught.

She blinked at him slowly, appraising him disinterestedly as she always did.

You will die.

He summoned up the anger he hadn't managed to in his dream and glared at her hatefully from where he leaned against the cave wall.

She didn't even twitch. On the contrary she seemed almost amused, humor sparkling in her eyes. She nodded minutely at him before turning back to Naruto as if nothing had occurred.

Naruto hadn't even noticed, continuing to chatter quietly as they had their exchange.

Sasuke scoffed and made to stand at last, spine clicking in discomfort he refused to vocalize or show on his face.

Naruto stopped suddenly, head swiveling quickly to face him.

Sasuke was fully expecting to get the silent treatment after their argument last night and the awkward silence afterwards.

"Hey, 'morning Sasuke!" Naruto chirped, grinning at him brightly. His eyes were closed in that way they did when he smiled with his entire face. It looked exhausting.

Right. This was Naruto. Of course he'd all but forgotten about the animosity between them overnight. He forgave too easily.

He'd probably forgive Sasuke even if he tore off his right arm.

He really was an idiot.

"Good morning." He replied.

He didn't hate that about him, though.

Chapter Text

Breaking camp was Sakura's least favorite part of traveling.

They could spend hours scouting the perfect spot, laying their most intricate traps, and making the most comfortable base camp they wanted and it would all just mean more work in the morning.

It was inefficient.

The part of her devoted to being the perfect kunoichi wanted to just rough it out with the bare minimum of comforts simply to forgo the wasted effort.

The sane part of her hated bugs. And dirt. And the cold. And Naruto snoring right up next to her ear. So no. She would spend effort making camp even if she had to break it down come daylight anyway.

Luckily sleeping in a cave meant that they hadn't set up the tent. With the cave itself protecting them from the elements it would be redundant.

While Naruto was dismantling the labyrinth of traps he'd put up last night- likely sloppily she knew- Sasuke was redistributing their carefully sorted weapons.

They'd taken to having a team pool as well as their own personal weapons to ensure that no one ran out.

Sasuke preferred a large variety of blades that Naruto couldn't even name; the strange exotic cut of metal seemed to bring him some kind of comfort. Sakura regretfully admitted that though she knew the names of most of his preferred pieces, she had about as much idea of how to use them as Naruto. She leaned more toward using intricate chakra tags and ninja tricks herself. There was something satisfying in the strategic application of a smoke screen or pitfall.

Naruto... well they hadn't really found what Naruto preferred. He generally just threw anything in the vicinity- including himself- at their enemies. It was undignified true, but somehow it almost seemed to work. Somehow. She tried not to think about it too much for her own sake.

While the boys were busy she had been gathering their survival gear and covering any trace of them being there. Yue, ever considerate and equally confused, had asked Sakura if she would like some help.

Sakura had reluctantly agreed. The girl still made her uncomfortable but she had resolved to be friends with her. Or at the least friendly to her.

Besides, Yue had this way of looking slightly lost when everyone around her was active but she herself had nothing to do. It was almost endearing in a way that detracted from her aloof demeanor.

When Sakura gave her an order she would either snap to attention or meander in the direction she was sent, tottering along absently. Sakura was quickly learning that the girl was either disconcertingly intent or dazedly unconcerned.

She was an airhead, Sakura realized with an amused snort.

Deadly kekkai-genkai or not she was still just a girl after all.

"Haruno-san, I am done with this section." Yue called from the far side of the cave where she had been scuffing out as many of their tracks as she could.

Sakura nodded at her, beckoning her to come closer with a smile.

Yue stared at her blankly for a moment, head tilting to the side, before she trotted over to her side.

Sakura handed her the few packs of gear they'd brought with them.

"Okay, can you start carrying these out to the entrance for me?" Sakura asked, pointing to the mouth of cave where faint flurries of snow drifted inside, "I'll cover up our tracks since we're the last ones out."

Yue nodded at her in acceptance but didn't move. Sakura felt her smile falter at the intense stare the girl was pinning her with.

"Yue-san?" She asked nervously, irrational fears beginning to creep up her spine again.

"I apologize, Haruno-san," she said, taking a step back respectfully, "I had just thought that you have a very nice smile."

Sakura blinked at the girl in startled surprise before a flattered flush spread across her cheeks. It wasn't often that she was complimented so sincerely.

"Ah, well, thank you." She said awkwardly, confused at the suddenness of the comment but pleased regardless.

Yue continued to stare.

"Haruno-san," she said slowly, almost carefully, "I know it is terribly rude of me to impose upon you but I would like to make a request."

"What-," Sakura began, startled, "what would that be?"

She was trying very hard not to think of all the possibilities. Maybe Yue was going to ask her to help her escape from the group? Would she ask her to go for a walk and then kill her in the woods? Was she going to ask for tips to get Sasuke's affection?

It wouldn't be the first time someone tried that.

"Would you teach me how to smile like that?" Yue asked, instead.

Sakura stared at her in surprise for a moment before Yue continued.

"Naruto has been very kind in his concern that my... short comings in facial expression will make it difficult for me to form bonds with others," she said, crystal blue eyes unbothered, "I myself do not particularly care for forming other bonds. However, it seems of great concern to him and therefore I have endeavored to improve."

Yue's gaze flicked around the cavern absently, disinterested in her own explanation. Sakura had noticed that even though she seemed to carefully construct everything she said, Yue was almost bored by her own speech. It was like the very act of verbal communication bored her beyond words. Despite this, when someone else was speaking she was uncomfortably focused on them, as if she needed to be certain that she caught every word.

Holding a conversation with Yue was awkward to say the least. Sakura could never tell if the girl was paying attention or not.

"So," Sakura began slowly, trying to make sure that she understood Yue properly, "You want me to teach you how to smile because Naruto thinks you need friends?"

Yue nodded in affirmation. Sakura was still very confused.

"Why not ask Naruto?" She muttered.

If Naruto was the one pestering Yue to learn how to smile why wasn't he the one teaching her?

He smiled enough for all of them put together.

"Ah well," Yue said, looking away slightly, the faintest sign of discomfort, "he has been trying to teach me."

Sakura was still very confused. If he was already teaching her then why was she asking Sakura?

Yue's lips pulled down at the edges slightly, the closest thing to a frown that Sakura had ever seen from her.

"A smile like his," she said quietly, gaze pensive in the distance, "is not a feat that I am capable of."

Sakura- well, she might have begun to understand.

Naruto smiled often and without limits.

He was bright and unreserved in his joy. His eyes shone with a love for life and the world that Sakura hadn't seen in anyone else. She didn't think even she could replicate it properly. He was an idiot but... he was inspiring in an abstract, amusing, way.

And Yue- well, Yue wasn't like that.

Sakura tried to imagine it, Yue smiling that way, but her brain vetoed the idea. She could barely imagine the girl smiling at all in any way but the terrible feral grin she had worn before.

She was reluctant to, but she had to agree with Yue.

She didn't think the girl capable of that kind of light.

"Alright," she agreed solemnly, "but why ask me?"

Yue turned to face her again, head tilted once more.

"I have already said," she replied indifferently, "You have a pleasant smile, Haruno-san." She seemed to think she was repeating herself, speaking slowly as if to allow Sakura to catch up.

"It is," she paused here, another moment of careful deliberation that was so common from her, "suitable. I may be able to replicate it acceptably enough to please him."

Sakura didn't know if that was a compliment or not. It was, as much of what the other girl said was, ominous. She felt as if there was a double meaning in Yue's every word, a warning there that she just couldn't see.

Still, she had told herself that she wouldn't let baseless fears guide her reactions to Yue. She would stand by that decision.

"Alright," she said, uncertain but determined, "I'll do the best I can, Yue-san."

Yue nodded at her, pleased. Her posture shifted back slightly, a bodily show of contentedness that wasn't reflected on her face in the slightest. Like an animal puffing itself up smugly.

"I will endeavor to be a worthy student." She said, bowing at an impressive angle before righting herself and taking off to the entrance of the cave without a backward glance.

Sakura giggled quietly before she could help herself. Yue was strangely earnest at the most random times.

Maybe this little agreement could serve to forge a closer bond between them.

Yue was strange and ominous. She had a way of interacting with others that made her every word sound like a test or a prophecy. But she also did ridiculous things like ask someone to teach her to smile and practice it in a mirror just because one stupid boy said that she should try.

It was- interesting? Maybe that was accurate. Once Sakura got past her screaming instinct to be afraid, Yue was almost endearing with all her strange quirks. A puzzle to be pondered, she was unlike anyone Sakura had met before.

"What are you doing?" Sasuke asked, interrupting her thoughts.

He stood just inside the entrance of the cave that Yue had passed through a moment before, staring at Sakura suspiciously. His dark eyes slid around her form, searching for some disturbance, something out of place that Sakura couldn't fathom existing. He frowned minutely when he discovered nothing before shifting his gaze to her own.

Sakura blushed both at the attention and at being caught zoning out.

"Ah, um," she stuttered, shrinking in on herself and pushing her hair behind her ear demurely, "I was just finishing up in here. What are you doing? Is there something I can help you with, Sasuke-kun?" She intentionally made her voice lighter and less obtrusive than earlier, looking at him shyly from under her lashes.

Her stared at her impassively for a moment before clicking his tongue and moving toward her.

She straightened in surprise at his increasing nearness, delight flushing her cheeks prettily.

He stopped a good foot in front of her, arms crossed in an action that was disappointingly closed off.

He studied her for a moment before his permanent frown deepened in disapproval.

"You can't let your guard down around her," he said, quietly but firmly, eyes searching hers for understanding, "You should know that."

She did know that. She really did. But... well, what was she supposed to do?

If she stayed on guard around Yue at all times she wouldn't have any attention left to spare on the Eihei. She had to pick her battles, and Yue seemed the less imminent threat.

Even if the girl would turn against them eventually she was united with them against the people keeping her captive. The enemy of my enemy, as they say.

Besides, she didn't want to live through this ordeal in constant fear. If she could somehow find an easy companionship in the girl the same way Naruto had, wouldn't that be beneficial in the end?

But she didn't tell him any of that. She didn't know if he would agree and she didn't want him to think her naive or foolish.

"I know," she said instead, nervous smile covering the lie of her easy compliance, "you're right, Sasuke-kun. You don't need to worry, I'm not as naive as Naruto."

She forced a giggle out, and hoped that she could convince herself.

Sasuke was a better ninja than her. He was a prodigy. In skill and tactics and strategy he outpaced her tenfold.

How could she possibly know better than him?

He stared at her a moment longer in silence before sighing and turning away.

"Right," He muttered, "hurry up, the others are waiting."

She smiled at him brightly, hurrying to cover their remaining tracks before chasing after him.


Kakashi took a mental role call, counting one, two, three, four tiny terrors lined up in front of him. And one unnerving fox.

He couldn't forget the fox. Yue would be terribly upset.

Or mildly disappointed. Maybe a little miffed. Slightly inconvenienced.

She would notice at the very least, he was sure.

It limped along the ground around Naruto's feet, curiously sniffing at grasses and rocks. The thing turned and snuffed in his direction derisively.

He got the distinct impression that it didn't like him. Not that he particularly cared, but it was disconcerting to have an animal staring at you with obvious hate all hours of the day.

Speaking of hate, the morale of his team had taken a nose dive since yesterday's ambush.

Sasuke most notably. The boy had always been standoffish, especially in stressful situations, but the animosity he had been throwing at Yue was uncharacteristic. Kakashi could understand distrust- the girl was an unknown variable, pushed into their care through dishonest means- but Sasuke seemed to downright loathe the girl.

It was jarring when compared with Naruto's nearly instant fondness for her.

Kakashi had always know Naruto to be friendly, eager to make friends and revel in attention, but the swiftness of their friendship was alarming even for him.

Kakashi had no sooner had the thought that they would likely get along before they had been gossiping to each other on the long road out of the Land of Frost.

Curious, he'd done some strategic reconnaissance, only to hear the most inane babble of food comparisons and terribly told training stories.

The two had known each for a little more than a day and had already been snickering over the other children's clothes and hair.

It was odd.

Sakura too had been acting strange. Swinging between friendly and uncomfortable every other conversation, she just couldn't seem to pin down how she felt about the girl. She was caught between Naruto's instant fondness and Sasuke's suspicious hate.

He would have laughed about it were the situation less serious.

As it was, Sasuke was too busy watching for her eventual move for Naruto's throat to properly prepare for the imminent attack coming for them. The boy was single-mindedly geared for combat, a trait that had proved advantageous in the past, but now his instincts were honed on the wrong threat.

Sakura was equally distracted trying to be friendly enough to Yue to satisfy her own moral dilemma while still staying distant enough to please Sasuke. The girl had an excellent sense for tactics and prioritizing except in any case where the Uchiha was involved. Which, unfortunately, was every case.

At this rate Naruto would be the only one of them prepared for a fight.

And that was a very concerning thought.

Not just because relying on Naruto's skill was a less than desirable bottom line.

It was obvious that the Eihei leader Musei had his eye set on the boy.

Whether or not he knew the secret of the Kyubi, it would be disastrous if they should capture Naruto.

It would be a detriment to the village and the Land of Fire as a whole.

Losing a jinchuriki could ruin the delicate political and military balance of the Five Nations.

And Kakashi could begrudgingly admit to himself that losing Naruto would be a huge personal loss to him.

He didn't allow himself to dwell on it too often but he was self aware enough to admit that the loss of another team could very well be the last straw for him. He may be young for a civilian, but at this age most shinobi were expected to be on their decline, preparing for cushy office jobs or retired life.

Most didn't even make it this far.

And he had lived a bloodier life than most, and started from an age much too young, even he could see that now. He had seen and done and lost enough to know how these things went.

So the fact that it was his team that landed life and death missions one after the other like a cosmic curse didn't surprise him all that much. Life was just one constant string of battles interspersed with good moments.

He was having a rather persistent good moment. He was loathe to let it go.

To keep hold of it he would have to ensure this mission ended satisfactorily.

Which meant getting his students to focus on the real threat looming over them.

It would be foolish for them to remain so focused on the beast sleeping in front of them that they lost sight of the one growling at their backs.

"Alright," he began, orders and explanation spilling from is mouth as easily as they ever did, "we'll be breaking camp and making a straight shot for the border."

The children focused on him, attention rapt and young eyes more serious than he'd seen them yet. He had the fleeting thought that someday they might not be so bright.

"We'll avoid the main road in order to make it harder to track us," he continued, turning to Yue absently, "I trust you'll be able to keep up, Yue-chan."

"Certainly." She answered, spine straight and nod sharp. Determined.

He smiled slightly at the earnestness of it all. She hardly seemed a threat in moments like these, but he knew better than to be fooled by sweet faces covering vicious truths. Naruto was  proof of that, too.

Maybe that was why they got along so nicely.

Birds of a feather and all that.

"I'll send word to the village ahead of us now, as well as some decoys," he said, turning away from them to pull out a summoning scroll, "if they do manage to track us, it'll hopefully make the job harder on them."

He swiftly formed the proper hand signs, tossing his scroll high into the air before breaking blood on his thumb and streaking it across the parchment on it's downward descent.

Mist erupted around them as several more heartbeats appeared in the clearing.

In the fading mist there stood six of his best ninja hounds, panting in excitement for the mission they knew was coming.

He righted his stance, gathering his scroll before it rolled to the ground completely.

Turning to the group of children he was about to explain the plan when he stopped in surprise.

Where there had been four teenagers and one docile vulpine there now stood only three children and one snarling ball of white anger.

Naruto was knocked over, face twisted up in surprise from his seat on the ground, staring at the place where Yue had once been even as Shiro snarled viciously right in front of him.

Sasuke's eyes were wide, head swiveling in search of the girl even as his hand stayed hovering over his shuriken pouch.

Sakura had rushed over to Naruto's side at the commotion, careful hands checking for injuries even as she stared at Kakashi questioningly.

"Uh," he muttered in confusion before gathering himself, "Yue-chan?"

Silence reigned for a moment, unbroken except for the crackle of frost bitten leaves in the breeze and the snarling of the missing girl's pet at their feet.

"My apologies," came her blank voice, faint from what must have been several meters into the forests surrounding them, "but I do not care for dogs."

He blinked into the trees, unimpressed. He couldn't tell where she was, an impressive feat even for well trained ninja, but one he had long suspected her capable of. Her voice rang through the air and echoed off of trees in a way that made it impossible to pinpoint. It seemed she had reacted quite violently to the appearance of the canines.

"I think that's a bit of an understatement." Came Sakura's dumbfounded comment from where she was leaving Naruto's side, assured that he wasn't suffering a concussion.

Yue must have knocked him over in her scramble for cover. How undignified.

"You're tellin' me," the boy muttered, getting to his feet grumpily, "give a guy some warning next time, eh?" He tossed an annoyed pout somewhere into the treeline pointedly. Kakashi was very certain that he had no idea where the girl was either, but he'd give him credit for the dramatics of it all.

"Are you going to come back or what?" Asked Sasuke in agitation, still trying to locate her in the unruffled foliage surrounding them.

"I think not," came her voice, graceful and disembodied as before, "feel free to continue with your plan, I will return once you are rid of those creatures."

"Are you kidding me?" Growled the Uchiha angrily. Kakashi could understand the annoyance but he knew they would waste more time trying to get her back than if they just hurried up with their preparations.

"Alright," Kakashi said, earning a disbelieving glare from Sasuke, "I'll need something from each of you to send with the decoys to lay chakra and scent trails."

"Hah?" Asked Naruto crudely, head tilting in an obnoxious imitation of Yue's habit.

"The dog's are going to lay decoy trails with our scents to confuse the enemy, dumbass." Sasuke muttered, tossing a handkerchief at Kakashi reluctantly.

"Well excuse me," Naruto sneered back at him, "I don't think about the way I smell all the time like some pansy I know."

"Neither do I," Sasuke shot back, feigning indifference, "because I actually take showers unlike some heathen I know."

Naruto snarled at him angrily and Sasuke smirked condescendingly in response.

"You all smell like shit," interrupted a gravelly voice from the group of dogs, "so shut up and hand your crap over."

The boys stared at the speaking dog in surprise for a moment before Sakura pranced up to one of the smaller dogs.

"Here you go!" She chirped sweetly, wrapping one of her spare hair ribbons in a bow around the dogs collar. "Oh, don't you look cute!"

The small ninja hound wagged it's tail in excitement at the praise, nuzzling at Sakura's cheek in response as she giggled.

Kakashi tucked Sasuke's handkerchief securely in another dogs collar, before turning to look at Naruto expectantly. The boy grumbled before rifling through his pockets.

His frustration only seemed to grow as all his searching proved fruitless; ramen coupons and snack wrappers falling to the ground haphazardly as he looked for something useful.

"Crap," he muttered, "hold on, give me a minute." He crouched to the ground, slinging off his travel pack and rifling through it frantically.

Of course he didn't carry any actual belongings on him, why would Kakashi have expected anything else?

"Wallet, coupon, shuriken, more kunai, garbage, come on-" He muttered to himself, going through his bag almost in a panic at this point.

"Just give me your jacket, Naruto," sighed Kakashi tiredly.

"Huh?" Asked the boy, startled, "But I'll be cold, sensei."

Kakashi's only reply was a decidedly unimpressed stare. Naruto sent a pleading look to both of his teammates, blue eyes wide in despair. They both ignored him.

Whining, he slipped off the jacket of his tracksuit, orange giving way to a plain black t-shirt. Immediately, the boy shivered as the cold air hit him.

He had no idea how Yue walked around in dresses and sleeveless tops in this weather.

Throwing the jacket begrudgingly to his teacher he made quick work of securing his traveling cloak around his shoulders tightly. He could not wait to get his hands on a nice warm bowl of ramen.

"Alright then," Kakashi said, fastening the orange jacket around one of the larger dogs like a cape, "I'll need something from you too, Yueichan."

He was answered with silence. The genin looked around at the surrounding forest warily, unnerved by the lack of response.

They were startled by an object being tossed into the clearing. There was no accompanying rustling to indicate that it had been thrown. There was only an empty space, and then a spontaneous roll of fabric rolling into it, seemingly on it's own.

"Will that suffice, Sensei?"Spoke Yue, her voice very clearly not originating from anywhere near her offering. She had relocated, then. She must have been very afraid of dogs indeed.

Kakashi walked over to the roll and picked it up curiously. Unrolling the tightly packed cloth he found that it was the flower patterned traveling cloak she had worn out of Haru Village.

"Yes, this will work just fine." He nodded, turning to secure it to a hound much the same way as he had Naruto's jacket.

He stood and surveyed his pack carefully before contemplatively walking to the largest one. Reaching into one of the pockets of his flak jacket to retrieve a spare pair of gloves, he tied them around the dog's collar. While he did he whispered careful directions to the beast, making sure to keep his voice low enough to be inaudible even as close as his students were.

It was best that only he knew the path the dog's would take in the event of an eavesdropping spy or, worse, a kidnapped teammate. Not that he thought any of his student's would turn traitor, but well- they were just kids. Interrogation wasn't something they were trained to deal with.

Besides, Naruto had a habit of gloating about things he should really keep to himself when under pressure.

"Okay then," he said, straightening up and nodding to himself, "this will do. Off with you." He waved his hands at the dogs in a 'shooing' motion as he turned to address his students.

"Let's move." He told them, taking off into the canopy of frost bitten trees. His students followed him, not without grumbling form Naruto.

"Yue-chan." He called, pleased to see her trailing behind the three small ninja dutifully.

Naruto startled at her appearance near him, almost slipping off of the branch he had just landed on.

"Holy shit," he said, righting himself frantically, "you really need to stop doing that!" He chided Yue loudly.

The girl stared at him impassively for a moment before nodding and murmuring a noncommittal, "Yes."

Naruto huffed to himself, turning to face ahead again.

"Gonna get you or bell or somethin', I swear." He said, joking lilt behind his annoyance.

"Perhaps you should," she agreed passively, "I would prefer a silver one if you do not mind."

"Hey, who said I have that kind of cash?" He said, smile steady on his face as they traveled.

"Ah, yes, I had forgotten that," she said, disinterested as she ever was, "then perhaps it is I who should buy you a bell."

He looked at her in confusion for a moment before laughing at her musing expression.

"Why would I need a bell when you're the one always sneakin' up on people?" He asked.

"True," she agreed easily, "then I will purchase my own bell. Perhaps I will find a matching item for Shiro." Her eyes sparkled at the thought despite the remaining stoniness of her face.

He laughed raucously at her, the thought of her and her pet buying matching accessories ridiculously amusing to him.

"You'd have to wait until we made it to the village," chimed in Sakura from where she ran in front of them, "It'd be bad to make it easier for the enemy to find you." She said, smile friendly from where she looked over her shoulder.

"Yeah, that's true," agreed Naruto happily.

"I think it'd be a good idea, though" Sakura continued, turning to face Yue more fully, "I can show around to some nice jewellery shops when we get there, if you'd like." She smiled nervously at the other girl as she waited for her reply.

"I would like that, Haruno-san." Yue replied easily, nodding in thanks towards Sakura.

Sakura didn't get a chance to revel in her delight at the girl's acceptance.

"You'll have to get there first, kiddos." Came a voice from above them as a dark figure blocked their path, separating the three of them from Sasuke and Kakashi.

Coming to a sudden halt, they saw that it was one of the Eihei. Judging by the voice, one of the ones they had fought before.

"Personally, I'm doubtful you will." They said, tossing shuriken absently at the approaching figure of Sasuke behind them. He stopped in his tracks right before where they landed, embedded in the bark of a tree.

"Sorry, 'bout this." They said, hands flying as they performed a jutsu.

A dome of ice erupted out of the ground, reaching up to ensnare the three children in front of the shinobi.

The clink of steel resounded through the silent forest as Kakashi's kunai slammed into the wall of ice a moment too late.

Chapter Text

They were trapped on all sides. The wall of ice circled around them jaggedly, stretching high into the sky like a glacial fort.

The sharp clang of shuriken against the outside walls reverberated through the air, heavy in the tense silence.

The Eihei ninja stood casually in front of the three children, hands lazily on their hips and gaze traveling across their own ice walls.

"Not bad. I'm surprised I got it so big." They said, laughing in good humor, as if they weren't imprisoning terrified children.

"Anyhow," they chirped, turning to face the three, "I'm not gonna make the whole 'hand the girl over and no one gets hurt' spiel. We all know you're not going to cooperate with me, so let's get down to it."

Sakura shifted in front of Yue protectively, kunai drawn and poised in front of her as she cast a nervous glance between the enemy and Naruto. He stood slightly apart from the two girls, tense and coiled, ready for a fight.

He smirked at the shinobi, blue eyes glinting in challenge.

"Bring it on." He said, dropping into a taijutsu stance that Sakura knew was three centimeters too wide to be proper.

The enemy snorted in amusement, a smirk unseen behind their mask. Shaking their head in what might have been disbelief, they dropped down into a stance of their own.

Naruto wasn't prepared for the speed with which they launched themselves at him.

Eyes wide, he ducked below their strike only to be faced with an armored knee coming toward his face rapidly. Throwing up his arms to block the blow hastily, the knee connected with his forearms with a solid crack forcing him to back peddle with frantic steps.

They didn't give him a chance to recover, twisting to try to catch him in the temple with an elbow that just barely grazed his forehead as he flipped out of the way.

Naruto skidded across the ground, using his momentum to put distance between them. His startled blue eyes glared at the other ninja with awe tinged frustration.

"How the hell are you so fast?" He bit out, crouched in the dirt and hands flying to his trademark jutsu.

"Lot's of weight training, kid," they said, dodging three separate fists from three separate Narutos, "I'd give you tips but you wont live long enough to use them."

"Don't bet on it." Spoke up Sakura from where she crouched low in front of Yue, devilish smirk and stressed gaze. She formed a chakra activation sign and a chasm opened up beneath the masked ninja, swallowing them with a startled yelp.

Immediately, the three attacking clones let out a raucous whoop and followed their enemy down.

"Holy crap," blinked Naruto, the real one, gaze shifting to Sakura in startled awe, "that was so cool."

Sakura rolled her eyes at the dopey grin he shot at her even as she smiled slightly to herself. That was pretty cool.

"We need to find a way out of here before your clones get wiped out." She said, turning to face Yue, "Are you alright?"

Civilians generally never fared well in this kind of high tension ambush but Yue simply blinked at her from her position crouched behind Sakura. She didn't seem tense in the slightest.

"Nevermind," Sakura sighed, more to herself than anyone else before turning back to Naruto, "see if you can break through the ice, I'll watch the trap."

"Roger!" Naruto said, smile excited as he turned and huddled toward a wall with several of his clones.

"Let's just shatter it with kunai." One Naruto suggested, already reaching into his pouch to grab a handful.

"No way, that didn't work on the outside, remember?" Said another.

"Well we don't know if it's weaker on the inside." Said the first, annoyed.

"Why don't we just dig underneath it?" Suggested a different clone.

"Why would they leave that option? It's super obvious." Said the first one.

"Well I was just saying-"

"Okay, but what if it's weaker at the top of the dome?" Interrupted another.

"How are we supposed to get that high?" Questioned one of the others.

They all scowled at each other, voices raising as they suggested and rejected ideas between them. Only Naruto could get into a fight with his own clones. They always seemed to have more autonomy than any one else's- or maybe it was just that he was never focused on the task at hand and summoned them whenever possible. Their shouting was interrupted by a loud explosion just to the left.

Startled, they looked to find another clone standing proudly next to a crater in the wall, ice chips coating his cloak.

He tossed a small explosive bomb into the air and caught it, smirk widening as the other Narutos blinked at him in surprise.

Slowly, matching manic grins spread over their faces and they all snickered to each other as they hurried to pack explosives into the crater.

After a shout of 'fire in the hole' and more snickering, they had created a large crater with a pin sized hole straight through the wall of the ice dome.

Naruto was about to start chipping at it with a blade in order to make it wide enough to pass through when he was interrupted by Sakura's anxious voice.

"Naruto!" She shouted, voice steadily approaching him, "you're out of time!"

He turned around quickly, wide eyes searching for long pink hair.

She was running toward him, Yue's wrist clutched tightly in her  hand as the enemy climbed out of the ditch they'd been caught in, worse for wear but relatively unharmed.

It seemed that the Nauto clones hadn't managed to do much more than stall for time.

The Eihei shinobi steadied themselves and before Naruto could react, a barrage of shuriken was being thrown at Sakura's back.

Heart in his throat, he lurched forward, intent on reaching her before the fatal tip of the knives.

He didn't have to.

Before he could move more than an inch, Sakura had suddenly lurched toward the ground, surprise clear on her face.

Several of the blades sailed above her head as she impacted with the ground, snipping the ends of light pink hair as they went.

However, the blades were spread out enough that several were still set on a deadly course for Sakura's spine.

A forceful crack and the tearing of paper filled the silence as those last few deadly blades were stopped in their path, caught between the bone supports of a folding fan.

Yue held the ornament lightly above Sakura, face impassive as she opened it, allowing the shuriken to drop to the ground, harmless.

Sakura stared at her, eyes wide and confusion evident. Before anyone could say anything to break the silence the enemy cursed and launched toward them.

This time Naruto managed to react in time, intercepting the blow aimed to crush Sakura's skull into the ground.

"Back off." He growled, voice strained with the effort of holding off the full force of a grown ninja. This guy was obviously much stronger and faster than him. They'd been messing around with Naruto earlier, he could tell, but now they were genuinely trying to end the game.

Naruto was a little pleased that he'd managed to piss them off this much.

"Damn brats just won't die." Growled the ninja, pushing into Naruto with unforgiving strength.

"Move!" Snapped Sakura, scrambling to her feet and dragging Yue with her toward the breech in the wall.

Naruto could hear her slam into the wall and the ring of a blade against ice as she worked at opening it up.

The enemy could too.

"That won't break so easily, girl." They laughed cruelly to themselves even as Naruto growled at them.

They tried to disengage from their stalemate with the blonde, but quickly resumed when he tried to rush them as soon as they gave a millimeter of ground.

Sakura grit her teeth but kept chipping away with a frantic pace. She didn't have time to worry about Naruto, she'd just have to trust him to hold off their attacker long enough for her to breech the wall. She jolted to a halt when she heard equally frantic scraping from the other side of the wall.

Sasuke. Sensei.

With renewed vigor she began to chip at the ice again.

"-kura, can you hear me?" Came Kakashi's voice faintly through the widening hole.

"Sensei!" She shouted, not caring for the desperation clear in her voice.

There was muffled shouting on the other side and she was able to identify Sasuke's voice, angry and frustrated.

She breathed a sigh of relief, but didn't let up in her work. The ice was thick and hard as stone. She couldn't afford wasted time even with aid from the other side.

"I may not be strong enough to make it impenetrable, but it'll take you too long to break through. I promise you, you'll be dead before then." Sneered the enemy as they lurched toward Naruto, causing him to lose his footing slightly.

Slightly was enough.

They rushed him, kunai aimed for angry blue eyes.

"Don't bet on it." Yue said, voice flat as she stared at the incident and shoved Sakura away from the wall, one handed.

Sakura shouted in surprise and outrage, ripped away from her work, as she twisted in the air to face her charge.

Yue, for the first time Sakura had ever seen, looked tense. She twisted slightly away from the wall before lifting her leg and delivering a fluid kick directly to the breech in the wall.

The very ground shook under their feet.

A massive crack streaked up the dome from the contact point, smaller fractures spider-webbing across the entire structure. It shook violently and ice shards began to fall from overhead as the rubble cleared and a large hole was revealed where Naruto's entry point had been.

Yue slowly glided back into her original position and turned to face Sakura coldly.

"Move." She said.

Sakura was too shaken from the impact and the surprise of the event. She stared at the girl for a moment before a blonde streak in her periphery startled her out of her stupor.

"You heard the lady!" Naruto shouted, grabbing both girls by the wrists and making a mad dash out of the collapsing ice prison.

"Naruto," Sakura yelled over the thunder of shifting ice, "The Eihei!"

She could not believe that they would be allowed to escape this easily.

Naruto smiled at her in what looked like an attempt at smugness but read more like carefully controlled horror.

"I don't think they're gonna be doing much chasing anytime soon." He said, voice wavering even as he lead them out of the falling rubble.

Looking back she could barely see anything through the ice chunks and crystals filling the air. She thought she may have seen a blood stain seeping out from underneath a large slab of ice but her vision was quickly obstructed by more plummeting sheets of ice.

Her stomach lurched and she quickly turned her head away. She decided to take his word for it.

She turned back around just as they crashed through what was left of their icy prison, a deafening rumble of crashing ice behind them as frigid shards washed across their backs.

They stumbled to a halt, Sakura falling to her knees shakily as she heaved for relieved breaths. Naruto followed her, crouching by her side and murmuring half formed questions about her well being.

He hadn't let go of her or Yue's wrists yet.

Yue blinked at them curiously from his other side, crystal blue eyes considering their state.

It was almost as if she was judging their performance- deciding on a grade for them in her head.

Sakura couldn't find the energy to be outraged.

"Are you alright?" Came Kakashi's sharp voice, just as he and Sasuke came dashing out of the icy mist formed in the debris.

Sasuke came to a skidding halt inches away from his teammates, dark eyes glancing over them efficiently, the faint crease of his brow the only tell to his panic.

His poker face was legendary, a trait they'd been told he'd shared with his entire clan, though they'd never gotten to test that statement as things were.

Naruto broke out into a grin anyway.

Sakura smiled wearily, reassuring as she dared to be. She knew better than to suggest that Sasuke had been worried for their sake. He took any hint of unprofessional behavior as an insult and she was too tired to manage his pride and her shaken nerves at the same time.

"We're fine, Sensei!" Chirped Naruto proudly, "That guy wasn't anything special- we barely broke a sweat!"

Kakashi raised an eyebrow doubtfully, eyes tracking the scrapes and cuts his students had accumulated, the way that Naruto had yet to release the girls, and how Sakura's legs shook where she rested on the ground.

And how Yue had yet to take her eyes off of Naruto.

"Right," he replied easily, "where are they then?" He asked, even as he seemed to assess the civilian girl for injuries.

Naruto's grin faltered and he finally released his iron grip on his companions, blue eyes darting to Sasuke's for a moment before averting somewhere to the side.

"Under a slab somewhere back there, I think." He answered, face carefully unconcerned as he scratched at the dirt on his cheek.

"You think?" Snapped Sasuke uneasily.

Naruto looked back to him for a moment, gaze hostile before he looked away again quickly.

Sasuke didn't like the way that he wouldn't look him in the eyes.

"I'm sure." Naruto grit out, hands falling to his lap tightly.

"Are you?" Sasuke asked condescendingly.

Logically he knew that he shouldn't goad Naruto like this. Especially after he just got out of a fight like that. Especially after Sasuke was so strung out on not being a part of it. Especially since he wasn't sure he had full control over his emotions yet.

But he hated the way that Naruto just wouldn't look at him. No matter how asinine he had been or how repulsive his argument, Naruto never met him with anything less than flagrant, unapologetic, stubbornness. Sasuke loathed it- the way that he would argue even when he knew he was wrong. But now he hated the way that Naruto looked almost- almost ashamed even more.

Naruto was never ashamed. Never. He was brazen and stupid.

So Sasuke felt justified in pushing him, if only to get him out of whatever the hell mood was forcing him to keep his head down like that.

"You're sure, but you just said that you thought," He sneered, hand on his hips like he was speaking to a particularly dimwitted child, "which is it? This isn't the kind of thing we can afford to be unsure of, dumbass."

"I said that I'm sure, jackass." Naruto spat back, eyes still trained on his hands carefully.

Sasuke grit his teeth,  hands clenching and unclenching before he could think to reign in his tells.

"That's not what you just said. Damn it, we can't afford to make a mistake because you aren't sur-"

"I'm positive goddamn it!" Naruto spat back, interrupting Sasuke's admittedly petulant speech, blue eyes blazing as they met his at last, "I'm fucking sure, okay? I know for a fact that he's dead back there, crushed under some huge ass piece of ice that he made himself because he was probably an idiot!"

Naruto was rambling now, words spilling quick and angry from his mouth, as he stood and got in Sasuke's face.

"And I know he's a he because I saw his face as the damn thing fell on him and knocked his stupid mask off, and I saw that he wasn't much older than us, and goddamn he had no right looking so freaked out when he was just trying to kill us a minute ago, I mean what the hell!?" He grabbed hold of Sasuke's collar roughly, shaking it around like he would get the answers he wasn't waiting long enough to hear.

Sasuke just blinked at him in surprise, shuffling to keep his footing as Naruto jerked him around roughly. He would have pushed him away but he was busy desperately trying to process what Naruto was saying. And he was more than a little relieved that he was looking at him again.

A yelling Naruto was a familiar Naruto.

"And I'm sure as hell he's dead because I don't think I'm ever gonna get the fucking squelching sound out of my head, alright!? Is that sure enough for ya?!" Naruto shouted, throwing away his grip on Sasuke's shirt like it was burning him.

He cursed something else before looking away sharply and trudging away with a furious gait.

It occurred to Sasuke then that this was the first mission that Naruto had killed anyone on.

Before this, all of their missions had been small time protection details. There was hardly ever any combat that didn't end with an arrest or calling for backup or a stealthy retreat.

They were ninja, not samurai, they ran first and fought later.

Anytime that rule hadn't worked well enough in the past it was always Kakashi or, on the rare occasion, Sasuke himself who made the kill. Sasuke had been so inured to bloodshed that he hardly remembered the first time that he took another's life.

Or maybe that was suppression at work. The human mind was capable of wondrous things, and Sasuke didn't particularly mind.

But Naruto- well Naruto wasn't like that.

He wasn't like Sasuke or Kakashi. He'd never taken a life, he'd never seen the terrible things that they had. Sure he'd seen people die in the field and he'd been prepared for the eventuality of having to kill someone, but Sasuke knew that it wasn't in him.

Naruto wasn't like them.

He wasn't a natural born killer.

Sasuke would've felt grief for him- for the loss of whatever innocence he had held onto in this job, for that part of him that would be killed off with that nameless man under the ice- but he was too busy feeling relieved.

On some level he knew it was sick.

But with every step Naruto took toward being a shinobi he came one step closer to being like them.

Sasuke hadn't really sorted it all out, he didn't think about he felt much, about he felt about Naruto even less, but he knew that on some level he wanted that from Naruto.

Some kind of validation- proof that even Naruto could become something like a good ninja.

At the same time though, he smothered that part of him that was grieving with him. The part that wanted Naruto to never have to take a life again.

That wanted him to be as different from Sasuke as night was to day, and just as far away too.

But that wasn't how these things worked.

Sasuke liked to be logical.

Naruto wanted to be Hokage someday, and countries were built on foundations of bones.

Power was forged in blood.

Sasuke was going to become powerful, he had to.

And if Naruto was his rival than he would have to too.

"Sasuke-kun?" Came Sakura's voice, clear as day and not half as sweet as he remembered it. Looking toward where she still sat shakily on the ground next to Yue, he was surprised to see a pinched expression on her face that he'd never seen before. It was like she was trying very hard not to glare at him. He almost admired her effort, if not for how futile it was.

"Was that necessary?" She asked, saccharine sweetness deceptively curious, as if she was genuinely asking. He almost felt threatened by it.

With a sudden clarity he had the thought that maybe, with a lot of effort, Sakura could become the kunoichi that she always claimed to aspire to be some day.

He scoffed at her derisively, looking away  and not bothering to answer.

Kakashi sighed tiredly as he crouched in front of the girls.

"All right then," he said, false kindness radiating in waves, "let's see the damage. I trust you're unharmed, Yue-chan? My students are drama fueled idiots but they generally know how to do their jobs."

Sasuke shot him an offended glance even as he feigned disinterest.

"I am unharmed, sensei," Yue replied quietly, composed as when they'd seen her, "but I believe that Haruno-san has endured some injuries."

Looking over Sakura quickly, Sasuke was relieved to find that she had only sustained several cuts and scrapes, nothing that couldn't be cleared up with a little salve and an adhesive bandage or two.

He'd have to make sure she looked after Naruto's as well.

"No, no," spoke Sakura, smile tired and frustratingly kind as she assured Yue, "I'm fine. I've gotten worse from training exercises, believe me. I'm just lucky that you were there to save me. Really, thank you!"

She bowed her head demurely, honest gratitude in her face even as Sasuke could see the frustration evident in her pinched brow. For a ninja to be saved by their client- her pride must have taken a blow.

"Saved you?" He asked, curiosity outweighing any consideration he may have had for Sakura's pride.

"Ah, yes," She answered, jade eyes fluttering to his for a moment before looking away nervously, "Yue-chan managed to keep several kunai from taking me out."

She glanced back at him sharply, a mutual uneasiness passing between them. Wariness for their companion was perhaps one of the very few things that Sasuke felt reasonably sure he and Sakura had in common. Which only made it all the more frustrating that Sakura slowly but surely seemed to be relaxing around the girl.

"Did she, now?" Asked Kakashi, voice lightly curious even as Sasuke heard the suspicion just beneath the surface.

Yue nodded demurely in response, reaching behind her slowly, as if unwilling to frighten a skittish animal.

Sasuke would give her credit for her situational awareness, as selective as it seemed to be for dangerous situations alone.

She puled out a folding fan, bone supports chipped lightly by what looked to be cuts from a blade. She flicked it open gently, revealing a colorful spread of what seemed to have been a delicate painting suitable for any grand lady's fan but now was torn to shreds by what was undoubtedly  the mark of several kaunai.

"Oh," spoke Sakura softly, surprise and regret shining through her voice clear as day, "I'm so sorry, Yue-san. That looks like an antique, and it's so beautiful!" She looked truly torn up by the state of the thing and Sasuke couldn't see why. A fan was just a fan. True it was beautiful and yes it seemed ancient but it had no practical use worthy of mourning.

"If I had been more capable, you wouldn't have had to ruin it." She spoke, voice heavy with regret. That at least Sasuke could understand. He would agree that Sakura should have been able to take care of herself. To let herself be defended by a civilian, highly trained or not, was unprofessional and disgraceful.

Sakura's one strength, the one thing he would admit to appreciating about her, was that he didn't have to tell her that. She knew her mistake and he knew that the shame would push her forward instead of holding her back.

It was a trait that would serve her well as a kunoichi.

"Do not trouble yourself Haruno-san," Yue spoke, voice soft and detached and Sasuke scowled in her direction, unnerved by the ever present blankness of her voice, "it is only a trinket."

"A very expensive trinket, Yue-chan," Kakashi spoke, voice patient but serious, "may I see it?"

She nodded gently, handing the fan to him with care.

She may have dismissed it as a trinket but the care with which she handled it proved otherwise. Very few things were held as reverently as she held that fan.

Kakashi thanked her softly, as he turned the fan over with an appraising gaze, her sharp eyes tracking his movements.

"This isn't just some child's toy, Yue-chan, it's a bona fide antique," he said, brows creased in concern, "I assume it's a family heirloom?"

"Something of the kind, yes." She said, pale hands reaching for it softly. Kakashi handed it back to her carefully even as he seemed to think something over.

"When we arrive at the village I can help you file a claims form for damaged property. The village should be willing to reimburse you, after all it's obviously worth quite a lot and it was damaged for the sake of one of us." He said, all business and no false pretense for once.

Sakura looked to her hands as they sat in her lap, ashamed and guilty. A family heirloom would be precious to anyone but would be even more so to Yue, removed as she was from her family. To have damaged such a thing and for the sake of Sakura's incompetence was too much for her pride to take.

"If it is no trouble, I would decline your offer, kind as it is," Yue replied, voice untroubled even as she carefully refolded her ruined fan, "forgive me, but I would prefer to ask as little as possible of your village."

Sakura looked up quickly, alarm spiking through her expression as she leaned toward Yue urgently.

"Please don't say that," she said, desperation clear in her voice, "let us repay you somehow!"

Yue turned to her slowly and tilted her head in what might have been curiosity.

"It is not worth troubling oneself over, Haruno-san," Yue said, making to tuck her fan back into her bag, "it is just an object. Such a thing is worthless in comparison to a life."

"But, Yue-san I-"

"There is no reason to be so distressed Haruno-san," Yue interrupted Sakura's pleas, "I will not mourn for a mere object and neither should you."

"But your family!" Cried Sakura, desperate to make the other girl understand her plight.

Yue jolted as if in surprise, though her expression remained neutral. Sakura's breath caught for a moment as she realized her mistake, her hands pulling back hastily from where they were hovering near Yue's pleadingly.

"My family will not fault me," Yue replied evenly, voice somehow frostier than before, "for saving the life of another at the cost of a mere tool. There is no comparison between the two."

Sakura swallowed nervously, jade eyes flitting to Kakashi's for assurance. She didn't know what to do in this situation. Yue's family, while being the reason for this journey, had proven to be the only subject that seemed to be off limits to her. Not because she grew hostile; no it was simply because they didn't know how to broach the subject.

How to prod at the only thing that mattered to a girl who cared for nothing?

Kakashi shrugged noncommittally at her, offering no assistance nor guidance.

She was on her own here.

Taking a moment to collect herself, Sakura tried to see things from Yue's point of view.

If she had saved someone's life and all it had cost her was a trinket given to her by her parents she might be annoyed if they kept insisting that it wasn't worth the sacrifice. In that light it did seem inane to push the point.

But that wasn't really her point was it?

"I understand that Yue-san," Sakura said, calmer than she had been and more diplomatic then she knew she could sound, "but the fact is that you saved my life. In my mind I owe you a debt because of that- especially considering that it was my job to save yours."

She held her breath quietly, gaze searching Yue's face for understanding. Logically she knew that it was a moot point; Yue's face would give her no sign of her thoughts, on this matter or any other. It never had before and she was beginning to doubt that it ever would.

Eventually Yue nodded slowly, some indefinable frost melting from her shoulders as she did.

"I understand," She said amicably, "a life debt is one meant to be repaid."

"Yes, it is." Sakura smiled at her, pleased.

"Though I doubt that you are capable of repairing nor replacing this particular fan, Haruno-san," Yue continued, monotone voice not half as musing as Sakura supposed she was trying to portray, "I would be willing to except any other form of repayment that suits you well. Equal of course to the fan's worth."

Sasuke felt his hackles rise at the wording. He'd seen enough swindlers and fraud merchants to see a scam from a mile away. And this 'repay me exactly the proper worth' without providing that exact figure was the first trick in the book.

Sakura did not seem so keen to this trick though.

"Of course," she agreed, charming smile finding it's way to her face the way that it did when things went well, "what is it worth? We can sort out a payment plan or something if it's as expensive as I think it is." She said, weariness bleeding into her voice from the mere thought of the self-imposed poverty.

"Sakura." Sasuke muttered in a warning tone, drawing her gaze to him questioningly.

"It is a relic of a far gone time," Yue replied, heedless of Sasuke's interruption, "symbolic of a once held naivety and youth of spirit. To suitably repay me for it one would have to bestow upon me a gift of equal worth to themselves."

Sakura blinked at her in confusion, lack of understanding evident as she tried to gather Yue's meaning.

"I see." She said for lack of anything better to answer with.

Yue tilted her head then once more, though this time her eyes softened slightly behind their frost tipped walls. She seemed almost fond, almost chiding, almost... pitying.

"No, Sakura Haruno-san," she said, more a sigh than a sentence, "I do not think that you do. But you will. And you may repay me then. For now I will simply take your promise as payment enough."

Sakura stared at her blankly for a moment, confusion warring with disbelief.

She wanted... what? A promise? Sakura's word that she would repay her with... naivety?

"Sakura." Came Sasuke's clipped tone, warning clear in his voice as he stared Yue down coldly.

Yue ignored him, her gaze intent on Sakura alone.

"I will not force you to agree, Haruno-san," she said, whether in assurance or justification Sakura couldn't tell, "I have no preference as to whether we strike this deal or leave the topic alone. It is only your pride which I seek to appease this way."

Sakura didn't know what she meant by this deal. Yue was speaking in riddles as she ever did. Vague half answers and flowering poetry in lieu of the flat tactical descriptions of a shinobi seemed to be her way. Sakura could no sooner piece together her meaning than she could Yue's feelings about her family, her home, or the people intent on harming her.

But Sakura was certain that if she asked Yue to disregard this whole affair she would.

She was certain that if Yue, who wasted her breath on nothing but that which she felt worth speaking of in poetry, was offering these words up to Sakura and yet seemed so willing to throw them away then she must have been doing it for Sakura's sake alone.

And that, Sakura decided, was the olive branch that she had been searching to latch onto.

"I'll agree to that, Yue-san."

"Sakura!" Sasuke snapped, surprised and alarmed.

Shiro began to yip excitedly from Yue's bag where she had been hidden. Vicious snarls seeming to fend off Sasuke's disapproval.

"Have we now struck a deal, Sakura Haruno-san, kunoichi of the Village Hidden in the Leaves?" Yue asked, eyes shining in what someone who didn't know her might have thought was excitement.

Sasuke thought it looked like victory.

"Yes we have, Yue-san."

A breeze blew through the rubble strewn fields of the battlefield and it smelled of blood.

Sasuke grit his teeth, thinking it was a bad omen. If not an obvious one.

"Hey, we should start going soon, yeah?" Came Naruto's shout from the distance, his form petulant and irreverent to the heavy, ominous, air surrounding his teammates.

In light of that irreverence, Sasuke felt the heaviness of the ill-struck bargain lift slightly.

"Keep your voice down, idiot," He snapped back at Naruto, "you'll draw more attention if there are any more around."

Yue was just a girl who spoke in riddles and played her cards close to her chest.

There was nothing to fear from her but a knife in the back when they let down their guard.

And if his instincts told him that the ice in her eyes, and the fear in his heart as he felt her eyes on him when he walked away was well earned, he would push it aside.

Ninja didn't believe in monsters that went bump in the night.

Certainly not those who came in the guise of children of the Frost.