Chapter 2

Sakura's world continued to surprise me. Or maybe I should say, Ranma's way of looking at things continued to provide new insights. By and large, our culture relies on craftsmen and highly trained experts in small shops. Ranma's world did all of that with gigantic corporations and assembly lines. So, thinking about it, a TV in our world ended up costing a lot more, but we didn't have salarimen working mindless shifts at Mitsubishi. By Ranma's viewpoint, our world was a lot nicer and more personal, but he kept making the mistake of thinking that all we could produce were the goods you'd find in a small village in his world.

The Hokage's gym was like that.

We usually like to work and train outdoors, in the streets or the forest. In Ranma's world, it seemed like people had almost an allergy to being outside. Cars? What was the point of all that? Shuttling from place to place in trains and busses, never feeling the rain on your face – I was seeing a strange world. It made sense in its own way, but it was certainly twisted. They'd had so many cars that they ended up smoking out their own world, and changing the air of the entire planet.

But I'm digressing.

The fact is, we don't have a lot of indoor gyms, but you need them sometimes. The Hokage is often "stuck in the office," so for our village leader we pull out all the stops. The Hokage's gym has normal gym equipment – parallel bars, uneven bars, rings, treadmills, and plenty of mats. It also has an indoor kunai range, and a set of machines that Ranma thought of as "nautilus" machines. Although, ours were a bit more advanced, I'm pleased to say.

The trick with exercise is to work it till it burns. I wasn't in bad shape. You can't do tree-travel unless you're in top shape. That's where you leap up into the tree top, then travel by leaping from branch to branch. Ranma, though in amazingly better shape than I was, seldom used that technique, even in the forest.

I settled into the nautilus and began to work my legs.

I began to contemplate the differences between Ranma's skills and Sakura's. Tree-travel seemed to be a key issue.

The youngest shinobi in the academy learns to mold chakra. Even last-in-the-class dropout-boy Naruto could mold some chakra. You don't need seals to use chakra to boost your movement. Chakra could add power to your muscles. But it was burst movement, fast-twitch muscle activity. A leap, a block, or a kunai throw. With the unconscious help of chakra, you could leap fifty feet, or fling a shuriken like… like a bullet.

Bullets were a concept from Ranma's world. I was thankful that they didn't exist here. I decided not to mention them to anyone. Not that a real shinobi would be troubled by a handgun, but Ranma's world seemed to have refined the art of "arms race." They'd start with bullets and handguns, and keep going until they had cannons and battleships and missiles that killed people on the other side of the world.

At times, I had problems with the shinobi way, and the need to kill people. The horrible need to stare someone in the eye as his life ran out. Our first real mission, to the Country of Waves, nearly broke my heart. I'm not sure that I could have killed, even Zabuza. It was the same sort of heartbreak I'd felt killing Saffron – only under the absolute most intense provocation.

And yet … I liked this world more than Ranma's world. Better for two shinobi to meet face-to-face with killing intent. That was far better than anonymous strangers who killed from a distance, with nobody to even see the innocent dead.

The two sides of me had a lot to reconcile, and it was easy to get distracted.

I'd been thinking about tree-travel.

From a young age, in the academy, we were trained to move and throw and hit using chakra to give those critical bursts of power to our muscles. Every shinobi learned that. Everyone except for Rock Lee. Like much of the populace, Lee was never able to access his chakra – not in a useful way. It took him years longer, but under Gai's training, he could eventually move and throw like everyone else. He claimed that it was sheer muscle power and strength training, but that was absurd.

Only… as Ranma I knew that it wasn't absurd. Particularly if Lee was making unconscious use of his ki.

Part of me knew about chakra. In my own modest way, I was a master of it. Maybe I didn't know so many ninjutsu techniques, or genjutsu techniques – outside the medical realm – but I understood it perfectly, and my control was second to none. I was a chakra master.

Part of me knew about ki. In my own arrogant way, I was a master of it. Not only did it infuse every aspect of my being, but I could even pull it out of my body, using it to perform a small handful of techniques that bordered on magic. I was a ki master.

And … the two systems, charka and ki, were nothing alike! I would have expected them to be different views of the same whole, but they weren't.

Chakra was almost meant to be an external force. Sure, it gave bursts of muscle power, but the real use came when you molded and projected it. Seals and patterns and energies allowed you to create elemental forces in the palm of your hand, project mind-controlling illusions, or create energy-based clones.

Ki, conversely, was meant to be an internal force. There were some amazing techniques you could pull by using it externally, but its greatest utility was unconscious internal use. Ki bolsters the muscles, strengthening every cell and system in the body. Ryoga took the body hardening to the extreme, but even as Ranma I could take a twenty-meter fall onto concrete without taking much more than a bruise. The concrete usually shattered. And my speed and strength were like … like Rock Lee's.

I wasn't strong enough yet to do Ranma's kata – that was my goal for the next few days, to work up to the point where I could begin to perform the Anything Goes forms. Kata are like a dance – you can lose yourself in them completely, as you strive for the perfect movement, losing your mind in the beauty and power of the motion itself. Martial arts, Ranma style, is a love of movement. It is dance and combat for the sheer beauty of it.

As Ranma, I'd been told that my kata were beautiful, my movements entrancing.

I had a brief daydream of Sasuke watching me as I danced through a kata, all speed and power and grace.

"Sakura," he'd say in wonder, "you're so magnificent! So beautiful! I – I'm not worthy! Will you let me just…hold you?"

Oh, that did strange things to my psyche. Particularly as I imagined the tiniest spark of desire and lust in Sasuke-kun's eyes. Part of me fluttered in embarrassment and delight, while part of me wanted to barf.

But I couldn't even begin to build my ki until I undid my training to use chakra. I wanted to exercise Rock Lee style, where each chin-up built my muscles, and grew my ki. Right now, I'd be unconsciously using bursts of chakra to give my muscles an extra kick.

So, step one was to sit down and meditate. I needed to turn my chakra off. I'd pull it out consciously, for healing and jutsu, but no more chakra muscle boosts…

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"How are you doing?" Tsunade asked, staring at me in amazement.

She'd joined me up for dinner, and I had consumed a third of the dishes already and was still accelerating. Her eyes were bulging, just a bit.

"A good start to getting back in shape," I admitted, pausing before I sucked down the rest of the bowl of ramen in one gigantic gulp. "I managed to start some basic tai chi chuan, and managed to touch my ki for the first time, while I was doing that. If I can finally get ahold of my ki, that'll really speed things up." I finished slurping and happily set down the empty bowl.

"Er…Sakura? You don't like ramen, do you?"

I wiped my mouth with the back of my arm. "Old prejudice," I admitted. "When I was a kid, I snuck a spoonful out of mom's bowl. Which was super spicy. Ever since, I've associated ramen with being spicy. But Ranma really loved the stuff. There was this one restaurant—" I glanced at the bowl, realizing something that Ranma would never have noticed. "Oh, sorry! That was yours, wasn't it?"

She sighed. "It's no problem. I can order another." She looked in awe at the empty dishes I was leaving in my wake. "Aren't you afraid this is going to go straight to your hips?"

"No problem," I said, grabbing for a vegetable-rice dish. "Even for a halfway decent martial artist, excess food goes into ki before it gets turned to fat. Back as Ranma, my main medical issue was a chronically low body-fat index." I paused, looking down at my modest endowments. "Oh. Damn, so much for having a nice bustline." I giggled. "You wouldn't know it, but Ranma about died at that statement."

"So how are you and Ranma doing? You seem to have picked up quite a bit more than I did, when I used the technique."

"Honestly?" I thought. "There's good and bad. Maybe the best analogy I can think of is a smoker that is completely disgusted by cigarettes. Part of you hates it, but another part needs that smoke. It's not like you really have two different people inside of you, it's just conflicting urges. Whenever I think of Sasuke, my dreams of our life together, the Ranma part of me reacts like the anti-smoker."

The Hokage picked up her own bowl, eating more slowly. "So how are you coping? Your language is a lot better."

I deliberately let myself lapse into Ranma-speak. "Ya mean, better'n when I call ya an old biddy?" I grinned. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama. In my previous life I never had much schooling. It was life on the road, until I reached… about the age I am now.

I nodded, half to myself. "The old me and the present-day me… we're coming to an accommodation. Thinking about Sasuke is one of the big problems. I love him, but he's … a guy. So for now, my compromise is that both parts of me agree to track him down and drag him back, before he becomes a worse danger or Orochimaru can abuse him any more. What to do with that lovely idiot after he's back home – we'll wait and see."

I was quiet for a moment, not even eating.

"It's weird," I admitted. "Ranma completely cringes at the idea of being a girl. And at the same time… part of what I respect most about modern me is my loyalty and devotion to a single love. I can't… I can't imagine changing that, or wanting to change that. Which the older part of me cherishes and fears, simultaneously.

"And, for a guy who is so stuck on being an absolute guy (and in the stupidest ways imaginable, usually), he really wants me to get more hot dresses."

The older woman raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"

"Well, it comes from the girl curse he had. I told you about that, right? How he was magically cursed to change into a girl, whenever he was splashed with cold water? Anyway, I'm starting to think that my defining characteristic back then was my competitiveness. The thought that anyone else was better than me at anything, particularly looks or sexiness, that was too much to take."

Tsunade rubbed her temple. "So, you used to be a chauvinistic asshole who liked to wear sexy dresses so he'd look like the sluttiest girl imaginable?"

"Uh, the way I remember it, things weren't quite that … stupid. Well, I mean, I wasn't always that stupid."

"Oh, really?"

I gave a painful grin. "Well… there were extenuating circumstances…"

"Uh huh." She peered at me critically. "Do you want me to order more food, Sakura?"

"Uh… if it's not too much trouble."

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

By day two, I started on the parallel bars. At first, they were just a chore. Back in the old days, in an earlier life, parallel bars were like candy. Any excuse to get aerial was a joy. And parallel bars were just an invitation to show off, to make my own carnival ride as I slung my body around like a rocket. The only problem – most people didn't bolt their bars to the floor. The bars were braced for normal gymnasts, but the speed and momentum I could develop would tip the bars over in about five seconds.

Back when.

In my new body, I could barely do a walking handstand.

But I had felt the first few threads of ki, the merest drops of energy condensing through my body. I wasn't starting from scratch. I'd done this before, and I knew the tricks. I knew how to nurture ki, how to grow it and expand it. With ki, I could surpass human limits, and using ki would improve my body even faster, thus turning it into a better ki factory.

Chakra was energy that allowed near-miraculous projections. Ki was an energy that turned the body into perfection.

I fed trickles of power into my arms, and suddenly I had the strength I needed to sling myself the way I wanted. I hung above the bars for a moment, then I slung down through them, and around, pivoting on one arm and turning. Another great circle through the middle of the bars and I was up, in mid-air, doing a somersault just for the joy of it. For five brief minutes I danced on the parallel bars, until practically the last drop of ki was gone from my system. I misjudged that last moment, dropping hard to the side and nearly giving myself a broken arm.

I'd exhausted nearly the last trace of ki, and I suddenly felt my heart pounding in my chest, as it labored to keep me alive.

But my soul – it soared. My art – Ranma's art – was an aerial style. It took to the air because it was so unbelievably fun. There is no narcotic so addictive as the ability to fling yourself through the sky like a slingshot. As Ranma, I was an absolute total adrenaline junkie. As Sakura, I wasn't.

Not until now.

I lay on the ground, panting, near dead from pushing my body too hard and fast. My medical knowledge told me that I'd pushed myself disturbingly near the edge. I tried to promise myself to never do that again.

But with a ragged grin, I knew that any such promise would be a lie.

Using my chakra, I reached for the sort spot on my arm and healed the bruise.

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"You look a little different," Tsunade judged, at that night's dinner.

I was already stripping the meat from a drumstick with my teeth.

"Not fatter, thank goodness," she decided. "But not really any more muscular, either. Not that I'd expect you to add all that much bulk, and surely not so quickly."

"Martial artists don't bulk up so much," I admitted. "It just gets hard. Really hard." I remembered breaking chains with my hands and shattering concrete with my face.

"Tsunade-sama," I began, striving for the best phrasing, "I think I'm ready to leave your tower. Do you think that perhaps, tomorrow…?"

She had a counter-offer. "What about, instead, if I release you to return to your hospital rounds?"

"That would be okay, I guess," I reluctantly admitted. "But I'd really rather have a couple more days of training, first. Then I'd have picked up enough to continue my strength training during rounds."

She sipped a small saké and puzzled over that. "Then, why not spend tomorrow as you spent today? 'Getting in shape.' What do you need in town?"

"Are you kidding? A whole new wardrobe, for one thing!"

Tsunade gave me a half-lidded look of inquiry. "And what's wrong with the clothes you have now? That red sleeveless dress is attractive enough, and your shorts are practical, for both hospital work and shinobi missions."

"Uh huh. That's the problem completely," I admitted. "Practical! Feh. I haven't decided what I'll do with Sasuke once I drag him back here, but one thing's for sure – he's gonna know I'm hot! And this outfit just doesn't cut it. I was thinking of something more in a cheongsam, maybe a little more sheer? Or maybe the leotard-dancer look. Hmmm, that would fit with the whole leg-warmers style, and I need to pick up weights from Lee, or wherever he buys them. Anyway, I need some outfits, and I need to test 'em out, see how they play to the crowd, you know?" I cupped my modest chest. "I don't know what works with a small bust. Although I sure have plenty of hip, don't I?"

She grimaced. "I hope I haven't helped create a monster here."

"Oh, come on," I protested. "The village needs more hot girls! Who do we have that's really hot? I mean, Ino's pretty, though I'll have to kill you if you ever tell her I admitted that. Let's see, Hinata's cute. Anko's awesome if anyone really likes the top-heavy look."

Glancing over at my Hokage's sudden glower, I replayed my last few words. Oops. Saotome foot-in-mouth disease strikes again.

"Uh, I mean, Anko's … uh … so unsubtle. Like a brick to the face. Of course, how could you talk about the beautiful women of Konoha without mentioning our beautiful Hokage-sama! But, you're not exactly part of the dating scene, are you? Ha ha!"

She blinked at my rapid-fire dodges. "Hmmm. I went through something like this after I used the jutsu. Did it ever occur to you that maybe you're less impressed with the 'hot girls' because you, yourself are a girl?"

"What? No way!"

"So tell me, what 'hot guys' do we have?"

"Uh, well, not like I'd look for something like that," I prefaced, "and of course, it goes without saying that Sasuke's the absolute hottest. But Naruto's cute, in an earnest sort of way, and I'll admit that Rock Lee's body is top notch, although the eyebrows, bowl cut, and that terrifying green outfit are really a bit disturbing. Same for Gai, in a grown-up 'older man' sort of way. Neiji's got that mysterious allure, and Shikamaru had the cocky'n'confident attitude down pat. Shino's bugs are just gross, but the glasses and jacket combo is very yum. Kiba? Fierce and cuddly at the same time. And Kakashi-sensei, well, 'older guy' you know, but he is pretty much the ultimate in cool, after Sasuke."

I felt my skin go cold and clammy. "Oh, shit. I'm getting off talking about guys, aren't I?"

"Mmmm hmmm."

"Look, this whole think about looking hot, it's about me, what I want to be. Not about guys, or perverted relationships or anything."

The Hokage took another sip of her saké and gave me an indulgent smile. "I understand your desire to look good, Sakura, but with all these new memories don't forget – first and foremost, you are a shinobi. In particular, a chunin kunoichi. That's why your outfits need to be somewhat practical."

I waved a hand. "Aw, don't worry about that. Now that I'm starting to get more than a trickle of ki, that's no problem."

"No? A belt pouch doesn't exactly go with a cheongsam, or some leotard outfit. And without that, you're going to have trouble carrying so much as a kunai, much less a full medical kit. And those more decorative, less practical outfits are generally not resistant to the sort of wear and tear that a shinobi puts on their gear."

I finished shoveling a bowl of rice into my mouth. "Like I said, now that I've got some ki, I can do hidden weapons again." I manipulated my fingers in a magician's move, withdrawing a kunai from the air. "See? And it's better for the whole kunoichi thing if I don't look like a ninja, right? The more I look like just some innocent girl, the better, right?"

"Uh…" she stared at the knife. "Where did that come from?"

I flipped the knife around and stashed it again, once more in mid-air, nowhere near a sleeve or pocket. "And with the dresses and stuff, if I know what's coming I'll use 'iron cloth'. That'll make 'em plenty tough."

As demonstration, I shook out my linen napkin, stiffening it up with a touch of the old 'iron cloth' technique. I obviously needed practice, since it only got about as stiff as a piece of cardboard. Still, I tapped it on the table. I handed it over to the Hokage, who looked at the stiff square in befuddlement, until my ki faded and it folded up again like normal cloth.

"I think you picked up a few more techniques than I was able to."

I smirked. "Well, I was the best. And I'm going to be that way again. But first you need to authorize me for movement out into the village."

"Hmmm. Alright, I'll do it. But no showing off, not until you clear it with me. Still, I'd like to see where you can go with all of this."

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

My genin salary wasn't that large, but I could afford a few things. I did most of my shopping at Petals and Leaves. They're really a very nice store; I don't shop there just because of my name.

"What can I help you with?" The salesgirl's nametag labeled her as "Misty."

"Well, Misty, I need at least three full outfits. One that's good for exercise and casual wear, another for fun around town, and maybe something a little nicer, for dates and stuff."

Not that I was planning to go on dates, it was just easier to explain it that way.

"Sure. But I've seen you around – aren't you a shinobi? Do you want to see our shinobi outfits, instead?"

"Nope! I'm tired of that stuff! I want something a little more appealing, if you catch my drift."

"Ooooh! A boy!"

"Something like that," I grumbled.

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

Two things I really liked about my body these days: my hair, and my eyes. I know, pink hair sounds silly, but for some reason I really like it. I was proud of it. And my eyes were this cool green, partway between a darker jade and a lighter emerald. That was likely to change a little, I thought. With extended ki use, you could see it a bit in the eyes. In my previous life, my eyes had started at a normal blue, but deepened until they were an almost clear sapphire color. It caused me no end of problems as a guy, but to conquer Sasuke, I'd use any weapon I could get.

I tightened the old reliable black ribbon in my hair, and in the mirror, I saw the old familiar Sakura. Perhaps a touch more confident, a trifle more aggressive. Nothing that showed up too much. For example, it wasn't obvious that I was actually wearing twenty hair ribbons. It was a trick borrowed from Ryoga. They could serve as anything from impromptu shuriken to handcuffs, to rope. And topping it all, my genin head band.

My top was a hot pink spandex leotard. The color of my hair, only turned up about a thousand degrees. It was a sleeveless crop-top, and with that on I sure didn't need a bra for support. Not with my small chest. I maybe showed too much contour, but nothing indecent I thought.

I also had leotard bottoms, like a hot-pink set of panty-hose. Over that, I had a black mini-skirt and a little black half-vest (which helped my modesty a little, up top). It was a very teen-aged-girl outfit, particularly with all that midriff showing, but I was a teenage girl. Surely it didn't hurt to remind people of that.

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"Lee-san!" I called, waving my arm.

"Who?" He turned to look my way. "Who?"

"An opening!" Gai shouted.

It was a move that I thought to be practically telegraphed, but Gai had already been descending in his leap. Now he whipped his legs around in a crashing circle kick.

"What?"

Lee looked back in time to twist, putting his arms up to block. Still, the kick caught him across the arms and stomach. He shot toward the ground like a missile, cratering the ground and producing a huge cloud at the impact site.

Gai used the extra momentum to gain some height in his leap, hopping toward me.

"Miss, you really shouldn't interrupt our practice like that. If we weren't all skilled shinobi – Sakura?!"

Lee suddenly popped up out of his crater. "Sakura-san?"

Tenten flicked her wrist to roll up and sheath a weapons scroll. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Hmph," I answered in kind. "Like a girl can't put on a casual outfit once in a while?"

"Yes," Neji agreed, staring at me. "There is something different about her. But what? It's subtle…"

I don't care how influential the Hyuga clan is. Those eyes are creepy when they're all bugged out like that.

"One minute, please." I waved a finger at the rest of the team. "Neji?"

I put my arm around him in an overly-familiar fashion as we moved a short distance away.

"Neji," I said quietly and confidentially, "I heard this rumor. Does the byakugan see through clothes?"

"It would be inappropriate for me to even hint at clan secrets."

"Neji, if you want to avoid crippling damage, from virtually every woman in the village, you'll listen to me right now."

"Y-yes?" He almost sounded intimidated.

"Never, never have anything to do with Jiraiya when he comes back! Understand me?"

He gulped. "Understood."

I hopped up and down, waving my arm in victory. "I win! I win! I just saved Konoha!"

"Are you sure you're feeling okay?" Tenten asked suspiciously.

"Oh, sorry." I'd have to remember to tone down my famous "free eats" jutsu. "Lee, are you okay?"

"Sakura-san!"

He instantly appeared in front of me, as if teleported. He even saluted. But his eyes (a martial artist always watches the eyes) his eyes played up and down my body. It was actually kind of nice.

"Sakura-san—" Tears began to leak from his eyes. "You're … so … beautiful!"

Ah, success! The outfit I'd label "Sasuke Trap #1" had passed its first field test. Unfortunately, when it came to testing hot outfits, Lee was a D-rank mission. Sasuke, unfortunately, was A-rank. Maybe worse.

I clutched my hands together, gathering them winsomely under my chin. "Lee-san, I have a teensy favor to ask you…"

"Anything for you, Sakura-san! Anything!"

"Lee!" Gai commanded, "Do not forget the commitments we have to our missions, and to the defense of this village! Although, surely some leeway could be allowed, to indulge in that brief sweet season in which burns the beautiful flame of youth!" He, also, began to cry. "Go, Lee! Go and pursue your dreams! I will cover for you!"

"Uh, that's okay, Sir." Jeez, that guy (that Gai?) is really hard to interrupt! "It's just a quick favor. I just want to find out where Lee gets those great ankle weights."

Gai's eyes opened wide. "Ah! Kakashi's former student now seeks the advantage gained by strength and endurance training! I knew it! I knew that someday, my inherent superiority would be recognized!"

I ignored the totally predictable rant, while I focused on Lee's words.

"Sakura-san, my current weights might be too heavy for you, but I'd be … pleased …" He began to almost quiver. "…more than pleased, if you would wear some of my older weights."

"You kept them?" I asked, surprised.

"Well, I hoped that someday they might make a romantic … I mean, a gift… that someone could use them."

Using all my accumulated maturity and strength of will, I refrained from rolling my eyes. This dude really needed to work on his romantic technique.

"That would be so sweet, Lee! Thank you." As with any martial arts move, follow-through is crucial. Whether punching, or exercising scam-fu. "So, how much weight are you carrying right now? Although you're right, it would probably be too much for me to start with."

"Five hundred kilos," he admitted. "On each leg."

"Wow!" I said. "That's incredible! How do you get that so compact?"

"I don't know. They're made in Sand Country. Little pellets, like lead shot, but a lot heavier."

"Yeah, I'll have to work up to that. But if you have anything smaller…" He grinned like an idiot. "And I'll need a second set, a little lighter, for my arms."

"That would make me…so happy!" he admitted, manfully trying to hold back the tears which were even now brimming in his eyes.

I linked my arm in his. "Then lead the way!"

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"Jeez, Forehead," Ino griped at me, "decided you couldn't compete with me? You needed a bunch of smutwear?"

"I love you too, Ino," I told her. "And this outfit is no worse than that purple thing you usually wear these days! It's just… things are fine for you girls that are top-heavy. The rest of us need to be a bit more creative."

"Sasuke's not even here, you know," she said, flat on her back in bed. "You don't need the weapons of mass distraction yet."

"It's called training. So I know what works and what doesn't when I finally catch up with him."

She turned her head to the wall. It was just as well. We both knew that I couldn't compete with her in looks. That's always been one of the sore spots in our friendship. Ino has always been popular and beautiful. She beat me in every category – her face, her hair, her figure – it just gets discouraging. So I have to try twice as hard, and I have to make sure I've got a cuter personality. That's tough sometimes, particularly when I just want to clout some idiot on the skull. Hmmm, why was I suddenly thinking of a blond with whisker marks?

I decided it was time to rebuild a few bridges with my best friend. Maybe, as Sakura, I'd forgotten a little of what my friends meant to me. As Ranma, I certainly had a new appreciation for how precious a true friend can be.

I pulled out a chair and sat down to visit.

"So I wore this outfit when I headed over to Team 10's practice…"

She turned to face me. "You didn't!"

"I did! And you know those rumors about Hyuga eyes? So Neji sees me and says, 'There's something different about her. But what?'"

"You're kidding!"

So we chatted for a while, becoming familiar with one another again.

"Know what?" she asked. "Soon as I'm discharged, let's hit the bars. We'll drag some other girls along – someone like Hinata! That'd be great!"

"Ino!" I was scandalized. "None of us are old enough to drink!"

"What do you think jutsus are for? A little transformation henge, and we're in! If we can't even sneak into a bar, neither one of us deserves our chunin rank!"

"Well…" I decided to change the subject. "Hey, Ino, are you still interested in apprenticing as a medic-nin?"

"Afraid of the competition?"

I snorted. I had no lack of confidence in my abilities there!

"Well, I mentioned it a little to Tsunade-hime, and she was interested in taking on an apprentice – if I'd recommend her."

Ino's eyes went wide and she suddenly sat up. "Shit, girl, are you serious? Tsunade? Wait, 'if you recommend me'? What's the catch?"

"Well, she'll probably want you to consider it for a few weeks, to make sure you're really serious." Then I got smug. "But the big thing is, you'd be second to me!"

Ino flopped back down. "Forehead, why do you do these things to me?"

I reached out for her hand. "Ino, are you serious about this? Because there's no better teacher than the Hokage. I've been around the hospital for coming up on two years now. She's the best."

"Yeah, and I get to spend the whole time as your number two girl? I know how that'll turn out. I'll get to be your go-fer all the time."

"I certainly do enough of that for the Hokage," I admitted.

"Which is a hell of a lot better than doing it for you!"

"So… you interested?"

Ino blew through the bangs that draped over the right side of her face. "It's not like I did that great on our last mission. Shikamaru and Temari did all the work. I just fluffed the entire thing. But it's not like my skills are any good in combat, you know? I mean, I'm awesome on reconnaissance, or information gathering. But combat? No way. Which is what got me thinking that if I became a medic-nin, I'd have a two-fer. Medic-nins don't usually fight, do they? So I'd be perfect before, and perfect afterward, and during the combat, I'd be as good as I ever was."

I nodded. "During my training, the Hokage once told me, 'The medical ninja should never be hit by the enemy's attack. When you face an opponent, evasion is your first priority.' Of course, she used that as an excuse to hit me with everything she had. 'Now you're going to learn to evade!' she yelled, while doing her best to cave my skull in."

Ino was quiet. "It just seems to make so much sense. It matches my style. And longer-term, if I got hurt, I'd still have a job."

"Oh, yeah," I agreed. "The doctors here are great, but they don't have the chakra control of a real medic-nin. So there would always be a place for you."

"And later," Ino continued, "when I start a family … what better preparation could I have? Those little scrapes and bruises, all that worry about poisons and strange food."

I was blushing pretty violently at that point. "Yeah," I agreed. "It's hard not to think about that, isn't it?"

"So… yes. Hell, yes! I'm grabbing the opportunity even if I have to be your second! Because, you know what? I'm just so fantastic that soon enough the Hokage will recognize my fine qualities and promote me, and then I'll be chief apprentice and you can be my second! Ha ha ha ha!"

"You sure, Ino? You've got time to think it over. Tsunade-sama wants you to take another mission with your team first, so you'll have a chance to consider it and even talk about it with them, if you need to."

"Won't matter," the blonde insisted. "You aren't going to talk me out of this one!"

I squeezed her hand and smiled. "Good. Because you won't actually be my second – I'm asking for a transfer to field duty."

"You … you set me up? And you call me a pig! Why you! You're just afraid of the competition, aren't you?"

I smiled at my best friend, knowing that everything would be alright. "Oh, I was going to be first apprentice. Believe me, I spent many pleasant hours contemplating that. But for … personal reasons … I've decided to get back into field work."

Ino smiled up at me, doubly happy now that her choice was solid, and the path ahead was clear. "You know what this means, don't you?"

"What?"

"Now I have to take you for a drink. We can talk about new assignments, and missions and whether you've finally lost your virginity!"

"Ino!"

"Don't think I missed your comment yesterday. 'Healing is the second best thing I ever felt.' I'll drag it out of you!"

"I didn't mean that! I'm… waiting."

"Right, just like Hinata, huh?"

"What was I thinking?" I asked myself.

"Maybe if Temari is in town, she can join us. She can be a bit harsh, but underneath she's pretty okay."

I dropped my face into my hands, trying to imagine a worse situation, and failing.

END OF CHAPTER 2

Next chapter: Sakura's home life, discoveries about how her skills and powers are changing, and the girls go drinking. The topic of discussion? Konoha's number one love interest, Uzumaki Nartuto!