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 Alex contemplates the tumbler before him. He doesn't drink as a general rule. A glass of wine at family dinners perhaps, or the occasional champagne on a holiday. Part is pride, alcohol destroys the body and he has worked hard to create a body worthy of the family name! The other part is... aversion. Too often he has seen the bottle become a crutch. He refuses to *escape* reality, he is an Armstrong, he will *face* the enemy and persevere!

If Olivier were here, she'd give him one of those scornful looks and tell him he was a fool and a coward for allowing himself to be a fool. Some days he misses his sisters like severed limbs. Olivier's decisive bedrock surety, Amue's warm hugs, Strongine's solid advice and Catherine's *cheer*... They would never let him sit here and *brood*. 

The golden liquid mocks him. No, his own mind mocks him, the whiskey is just a tool he's using to mock himself. He doesn't want to drink, and he won't, because if he does he'll be forced to admit that what he really *wants* is to find whoever twisted Zhu up as a child, and *kill* them. No fair battle, no arrest, no warning for a chance to explain or escape, just one broken bone after another.

It wasn't the war, he watched helpless as his friends went in full of optimism and pride and came out hollowed, broken people. Hawkeye's smiles gone, Roy's eye's forever watchful and flinty, Hughes's words now a shifting code. Zhu came out of Ishvar as she went in though; fierce, proud and passively suicidal. The war changed nothing except who she followed out of it. Barely a teenager then and a prodigy, any family would have shown her off as a jewel...

They should have been proud of her, whoever they were. 

Someone should have protected her, loved her, shown her how amazing she was so she would understand, would love *herself* even just a little. 

"Ah, *whiskey*." 

He slides the tumbler to her and watches as she tosses back the drink with obvious relish. Whiskey is her prefrance, though he's never seen her turn anything down. Despite being a doctor and knowing the cost, she finds her way back to the bottle time and again, chasing away her troubles. Dying slow. 

"Alex? You okay?"

He gathers up a smile, rueful and fond, and tucks the worry back down behind his breastbone. There was nothing to be done for the past after all. Now is what matters. "I was contemplating a drinking challenge, but I'm afraid you have an unfair advantage of experience against me!"

"Ehh!? Are you calling me alcoholic Alex? I can beat you in *anything*!"







Ibiki bows and folds his hands behind his back. The Hokage has a frown on her face, one of their 'guest's' elixer offerings on her desk. "Ibiki." She says, and the tone is both a question and an order. 

"Armstrong is broken. If he were shinobi I'd put him to pasture teaching, he's mentally unfit for active service. The raw potential for ANBU without a scrap of psychological conditioning. If he hasn't disobeyed orders to 'show mercy' it's only because they were smart enough not to trust him that far." He reported dutifully. He wasn't judgmental, the man was a spy and a defender but not a shinobi, he couldn't *be* judged on the same scale. 

"Diplomacy isn't exactly the safest position in a military government, but it does take him out of the front line." She nodded. "If everyone was ANBU, we'd have a very different and sad world to live in."

This was true. 

"And the woman?"

Ibiki frowned. "I have not been able to get as close to her as your ladyship. From observation and dealing with Armstrong, she is reckless, possibly suicidal, a genius level medic and tactician. I believe she is also far more capable of direct combat than she projects, but chooses not to engage."

Tsunade-sama tapped the small glass vial holding what to Ibiki's senses was an inert green fluid. "Suicidal I can confirm. *Devious* as well. That woman is holding back in many ways, many things..." She tapped the vial again, giving him a hard look over he wasn't sure what to do with. "How fond are you of your scars?"

He blinked. "I'm a shinobi." He replied. "They are no imparment to my duties." Truthfully they helped a bit in the initial breaking of soft targets at times, but that wasn't what she was asking. 

"Good, because until I need you under deep cover, I'm not bothering to mess with them. This 'gift', it might as well be a challenge. Tell me, what would you do if an unknown quantity came to the gates, offering peace and intel, and a direct line to their chakra paths?"

He arched a brow, causing the scars in question to twist. "Assume it's a trap."




Sasuke blinked, arms full of wet linens for the clothes lines. "Sakura?"

She gave him a small smile, looking even more awkward than usual. He's gotten resigned to the fact that even *she* has surpassed him in training. Working directly under one of the Sannin? She and Naruto will be the new legends of their generation. He's just lucky *not* to have fallen in with the crazy snake bastard, like his *brother*. 

"Sasuke... I uh.. I was hoping for your help." Her voice is pitched not to carry, and he looks around, world layers of grays and blacks as he identifies the ANBU hiding in the shadows *there* and *there*. They've taken to following her a lot lately. 

"Let me hang these up for Mrs. Habi." He stalls, watching the world and taking in the routes for kunai, wire, teleport jutsu... the linens are a favor for the old lady who grows Priest-san's ginger. She's one of the most amazing gossips for being near ninety and deaf as a post. 

"Oh, uh, here, I'll help!" Sakura volunteers, more practiced than he is at getting all the folds out before pinning the sopping sheets. It's a bright day, they'll be dry by late afternoon when he'll return to take them down, collect a basket of ginger and the news of the day. Between the two of them the laundry is up only a few minutes. 

"What's wrong?"

"Can we talk back at the shop?"

Priest-san's shop, with its air tight wards and cunning seals where even the top Junin would have to shed quite a it of blood just to eavesdrop. "Sensei is in." he warns. Sasuke had cracked seven ribs in their last spar, failing to pull the strike at the last minute. It's not the first time he's injured the man who took him in and offered to teach him. Those first months they were mutual wrecks of abuse. Now though, Sasuke has to re-learn his own limits, which seem to be changing every day, and he has nightmares of killing the man on *accident*. Running errands and doing chores is nothing to repay the lessons and pain that just being his student seems to accrue the man. 

"Oh, good." 

That's not the response he's expecting and he finds it more difficult to turn the Sharingan *off* in the face of her discomfort. 

The civilian sector is clearly divided from the rest of Konoha, the achitecture not as friendly for sandles and window entrances. Priest-san's apothicary is a two story shop near the wall, with living quarters above and a humble affair below, counter, outdoor awning and walls of cabinets with tiny drawers all carefully labeled and locked with preservation seals. The man himself is at his out-door table, bandages hidden under worn white robes. Sasuke watches him move carefully, a cup of pale tea, probably willow bark, near his elbow. 

"Ah, Sasuke-kun, and Sakura-san, a pleasure to see you again." 

Sasuke catches just the slightest slurring, the fainest haze to the man's eyes. Grabbing the cup he manages to swipe a finger through the dregs and taste it before either stop him. "Lotus root."

His teacher glares and coughs deliberately. "Why yes, Sasuke-kun, I am self medicating a bit, there is *wor* to be done and *I* am the one making the medicines."

Sakura looks back and forth between them a moment then jostles forward, fingers touching lightly over pulse and chakra points. Sasuke snorts and stops trying to turn *off* his eyes, his nerves are just too tight. 

"Priest-san, I can help if you like, I've mastered basic osteo-regeneration which help your discomfort quite a bit..." She says, offering up a smile. "I... need to borrow Sasuke and I was hoping for your insight as well..."

The man gives them both a long measuring stare, but gives in easily enough. He's a soft touch for 'children' no matter that they're both Genin with double digit body counts. Sasuke makes a point to find where the ANBU have settled themselves now, while Sakura's warm chakra dances over and through the messy tangle that is his teacher's pathways 

"Oh my... that is *much* better, Sakura-san you're becoming quite a master medic!"

The change in his teacher's voice is enough that Sasuke feels another twinge of guilt. "What do want from us?" He asks harshly, fingers twitching for a kunai but settling on cleaning up the powders and grindstone on the table. He has no target, he can at least be *useful* until one presents itself.

"Ah..."

"How about some cookies and tea? Inside?" Priest-san pats his shoulder and Sasuke knows that's his cue to set up the 'OUT' placard and secure the travel chest beneath the table with a quick blood seal. Inside is cramped and smelly, but he's gotten used to the odors and the open windows shimmer to his Sharingan with a rainbow of wards. Closing the front door seals them within a cocoon of seals that ought to be claustrophobic but instead feel like *safety* and something Sasuke refuses to call 'home'.  A blink and his world is filled with colors again, the simple facade of reality with all it's strange edges.

Priest-san sets out cookies and tea, plain jasmine tea this time, and Sakura pulls *something* from her pocket. 

"I know what this is, but... I need to know how it's *made*, and if there is a counter agent." She says, all seriousness, the awkward girl swept away by the compitent kunoichi.

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